Learning the signs of financial abuse and how to safely leave a financially abusive relationship is incredibly important. When people think of abuse in a relationship, physical abuse is usually what comes to mind. However, financial abuse is a form of domestic violence that can in turn lead to intimate partner violence (IPV).
In fact, according to data from the CDC, the physical and mental trauma that IPV causes victims (affecting 1 in 3 women), an abusive relationship costs a woman around $100,000 over her lifetime.
If you’re scared of leaving an abusive relationship, help is available. The resources here can help you plan for your financial future if you’re stuck in a relationship because of money.
What is a financially abusive relationship?
Financial or economic abuse is a lesser-known type of domestic violence that affects millions of women every day.
Financial abuse refers to an abuser’s ability to use money and economic well-being to control, manipulate, and dominate their victim. Approximately 94 to 99% of domestic violence survivors also experienced financial abuse.
Partners who withhold money or other access to funds get their victims stuck in a relationship. Many women are forced to choose between leaving their abuser or their economic well-being when in financially abusive relationships. This includes access to funds, housing, and basic necessities for themselves and their children.
Financial abuse versus household money management
It’s important to recognize that financial abuse is defined by the abuser’s desire for control. In a financially dependent relationship, the abusive partner uses money (or access) to force their partner to do what they want.
Although one partner making most of the money in a relationship or being in charge of household funds is common in this situation, these characteristics can be present in non-abusive relationships as well.
For example, it’s not uncommon for one partner to work while the other stays home to take care of the children or the household. If the partners work as equals to manage the money earned by the working partner, it’s not a financially abusive relationship.
Additionally, many couples naturally let one partner handle the day-to-day management of household funds. This could include organizing documents, handling bill payments, or getting ready for tax time.
Most of the time, this is a matter of financial savvy and organizational skills. However, handling funds could become abusive if one partner starts to coerce or control the other using their knowledge of the couple’s finances.
Signs of financially abusive relationships
Knowing the signs of financial abuse can help you recognize abuse in relationships. Remember, the abuse comes from one partner manipulating or controlling the other using money.
To keep their victims in a financially dependent relationship, abusers generally use two forms of coercion:
- Limiting the victim’s access to money or making money
- Sabotaging the victim’s financial life or wellbeing
Restricting access to funds or assets
One of the easiest ways for an abuser to control their partner is by controlling access to money. At its most basic, controlling the money is as simple as limiting a partner’s physical access to funds. This could look like this:
- The abuser decides when the victim gets cash or more money deposited into their bank account.
- Forcing the victim to hand over any cash they earn or deposit paychecks into an account controlled by the abuser.
- Withholding necessities like food, water, or shelter because the abuser has access to the money.
- Demanding that all assets and accounts be in the abuser’s name only.
- Not letting the victim get a job to earn their own money.
Ruining economic wellbeing
Physically restricting a victim’s access to money is only one way abusers take control in a financially abusive relationship. They also commonly take measures to ensure their victim cannot have financial stability by sabotaging their overall financial wellness.
Some ways financial abusers control their victims through sabotage include:
- Taking out credit accounts in the victim’s name or stealing their identity to ruin their credit score.
- Interfering with their partner’s job, such as making them late to work or harassing them while they’re working, to get them fired.
- Stealing or destroying the victim’s belongings or assets.
- Demanding the victim justify any money they spend.
Impacts of financially abusive relationships
Like other forms of domestic abuse, financial abuse impacts the health and safety of the victim. Domestic abusers aim to make their partners feel insecure, unsafe, and hopeless. This gives them the power they need to control their victim.
Having to rely on the abuser for money
People who are stuck in a relationship because of money often face similar impacts on their financial health and wellness. The most obvious is their reliance on their abuser for financial support.
A victim of financial abuse usually doesn’t have access to money to purchase food or housing. This means they usually stay with their abuser to avoid poverty, starvation, or exposure to the elements. For parents, staying in a financially abusive relationship could mean the difference between their children being fed or clothed.
Damage to wellness and finances
However, the impacts of financial abuse go beyond paying for necessities. Victims of financial abuse might also experience:
- Lack of confidence to take care of themselves or their children.
- Inability to take care of themselves after leaving due to ruined credit and employment history.
- Unsustainable debt due to coercion into loans or other types of credit.
- Legal battles and costs related to their abuse, such as an abuser who tries to sue their victim for money.
5 Key actions to take in a financially abusive relationship
Are you concerned your partner is financially abusive? Do you feel stuck in a relationship because of your economic situation?
If so, you may want to consider your options to gain financial freedom and get away from your abuser. Like many women who experience domestic violence, you may feel scared or anxious. It might feel overwhelming to try and leave a relationship when you have no money, but it can be done.
Remember that you’re not alone and there are things you can do to get the help you need.
Below are five moves you can make to help you leave a financially abusive relationship.
1. Prepare a safety plan before leaving
If you’re in an abusive relationship, your first priority should be to keep yourself safe. As you start to think of leaving, you should make a plan to get away safely.
The first step is to consider your individual relationship. Not all abusive partners threaten physical violence. However, many turn to physical control if they feel financial control is no longer giving them the power they need over their victim.
Ask yourself if your partner has violent tendencies:
- Have they threatened you with violence before?
- Have they ever used physical force to get you to do something?
- Have you seen them use physical force or threats of violence with others to get what they want?
You can use resources like the interactive safety plan creator from the National Domestic Violence Hotline to help you create a safety plan. This helpful resource asks you a few questions about your living situation, job or school status, and location to give you local advice on staying safe in an abusive relationship.
Collect important documents
In addition to your overall safety plan, you can prepare to leave an abusive partner by securing your identifying information. Try to safely get access to your identification, birth certificate, and other important documents before leaving. A few documents you should try to collect before leaving include:
- Driver’s license, state ID, or passport (if you have one)
- Birth certificate
- Marriage license
- Social Security card
- Insurance information or cards
- Vehicle registration and title documents
- Banking and other financial account statements with account numbers
- Divorce orders, protective orders, or custody documents
- Important medications or medicines
- School or medical records
It may be impossible for you to collect all of these documents before leaving a financially abusive relationship. In many cases, abused partners can’t get access to these documents. If that’s the case, try to at least collect your identification documents like an ID.
You also may not be able to take physical copies of your documents without your partner’s knowledge. Consider just snapping a picture of the documents on your cell phone instead of trying to keep physical copies.
Be sure to upload the pictures to a secure location or send them to trusted family or friends to keep them safe. Then delete the photos from your phone (including wiping them from your recently deleted folder) in case your partner tries to go through your phone.
Find a safe place to stay
One of the hardest parts of financially abusive relationships is the inability to secure housing after leaving an abuser. Many victims of financial abuse have poor credit and inconsistent work history due to the acts of their abuser. This can make it difficult to secure housing after leaving their partner.
Try to line up a safe place to stay before you leave your relationship. This will help you feel more confident in leaving. It can also stop you from having to return to your abuser for shelter.
Staying with trustworthy friends or family members is usually a safe bet when leaving an abuser. However, try to connect with a friend or family member your abuser doesn’t know or wouldn’t think of. This can help keep you and your friends or family safe from retaliation from your partner.
For example, consider staying with a cousin instead of your parents. If you’re close with your parents, your partner may go straight to their home to look for you. They may not think to go to your cousin’s house.
Another option to consider is a women’s shelter or group home. Many cities and counties have local resources to help abuse victims get back on their feet, including offering free or low-cost temporary housing.
2. Figure out your current financial situation
In a financially abusive relationship, your partner will likely keep you in the dark when it comes to your money. This helps them limit your access to funds. After all, if you don’t know how much money is available, you can’t spend it.
Knowing your financial situation, however, helps you take back control.
If your partner has cut off access to accounts, there are ways to get it back. Requesting your account information directly with financial institutions, for example, usually only requires some form of ID.
For instance, if you have a joint account with your partner, you can go to a physical branch of your bank and request a balance receipt. This receipt shows your current balance and might show recent transactions.
Getting a credit report
Everyone has access to a free credit report once every year through the website AnnualCreditReport.com. This free resource is authorized by the federal government.
Getting a copy of your credit score is an important step toward financial freedom from your abuser. It’s common for financial abusers to use credit to devalue you, ruin your financial opportunities, and take advantage of the funds you have.
Your credit report will show you the credit accounts in your name as well as your payment history and current status. This can show you if your partner has taken out an account in your name without your knowledge. If your partner is in sole control of an account they forced you to open, your report will also show you if the balance is current or unpaid.
Sign up for credit monitoring
Your partner may try to tank your credit score after you leave. They might try to overspend on joint accounts or open a new account in your name.
You can use credit monitoring to help alert you if this happens. A credit monitoring service sends you alerts any time there’s a change to your credit report. Depending on the service, you might even be able to easily freeze your credit if something looks wrong.
3. Save up cash
When leaving a financially abusive relationship, your partner might try to suspend your access to digital finances. This could mean putting a stop on your debit card or withdrawing money from a joint bank account.
Having a reserve of cash can help you avoid your partner’s control of your finances. You can start saving cash before leaving so you have a fund to rely on when you leave.
There are two essential things to remember when saving cash in an abusive relationship:
- Your money needs to be in a secure location.
- Your abuser can’t know you’re saving.
Your secure savings location depends on your living situation, relationship, and relationship with others. For example, if you regularly visit friends or family, you may be able to keep your money reserves with them. Or, you may want to consider opening a safety deposit box at a bank.
Be careful when keeping your cash savings at your home with your partner. It’s important that you don’t keep it somewhere where your partner may stumble upon it.
How to save money without your abuser finding out
Which brings us to the second point: how can you save up money without your abuser knowing?
Getting cash back at the grocery store or convenience store is one way to save cash on hand. First, make sure your cash back doesn’t show up on a bank statement. Second, check that the receipt doesn’t show you withdrew cash, in case your abuser looks at your receipts.
If possible, you could also work odd jobs that pay in cash, such as pet sitting or babysitting. This may depend on your partner’s schedule if they don’t normally allow you to work.
Finally, you can try to sell your belongings to make some extra cash. Consignment shops and pawn shops are often willing to pay in cash for used goods.
Remember, however, to be careful choosing what to sell or selling a lot at once. Try to aim for small batches of items that your partner won’t notice missing.
4. Open personal accounts and change passwords
Financial abusers generally have control of their partner’s accounts. This might be controlling your passwords or using a joint account and withholding access.
As you plan to leave, consider opening new accounts in your own name. Don’t let your partner know about these accounts. You may want to have statements or opening documents sent to a family member’s house.
Having access to a bank account, credit card, or other financial accounts in your name alone gives you more power over your finances. In turn, this cuts down on the power your abuser has over you.
Additionally, plan to change the passwords, PINs, and security questions for any personal accounts you do have access to. This limits your partner’s access after you leave.
However, only change these passwords as you’re leaving or right after leaving. This prevents your partner from guessing your plans before you get out.
5. Use resources available to you
It’s not at all easy to leave an abusive relationship. You’ll likely feel anxious, hesitant, or scared as you plan to leave. And that’s okay.
The important thing to remember is that abusive partners use your anxiety, hesitation, and fear to exert control over you. You can help improve your confidence and reject the control of your partner by using the resources available to you.
Improve your financial literacy
Your partner has likely made you feel like you can’t handle your money. By keeping you in the dark regarding financial decisions, they make it harder for you to take control of your financial well-being.
One of the simplest ways to recover after being financially stuck in a relationship is by increasing your financial literacy.
Luckily, the internet is full of financial advice. It’s readily available and easy to find. Clever Girl Finance, for example, offers a wealth of free financial resources to help you learn more about money.
These resources can help you save money, make smart money moves, and increase your career options once you’re on your own.
Connect with other survivors
Leaving an abusive relationship is among the most difficult things for a victim to do, especially if you’re worried about retaliation. Not everyone understands what you’re going through.
That’s why it’s often helpful to connect with other survivors of abuse and domestic violence prevention professionals. Having a support system of others who understand your situation gives you the tools to rebuild after getting out of your financially abusive relationship.
Just as with financial literacy resources, the internet is a great place to start connecting with other survivors. Social media groups, online forums, and even social media influencers in the survivor space can help you learn how to heal and move forward after abuse.
Resources for those financially stuck in a relationship
If you’re financially stuck in your relationship, you have options. There are free resources you can use to get the help you need.
Advocates and counselors
Finding someone to be your advocate or counselor as you try to leave your abusive relationship is important. This person can become your support system to help you stay safe as you plan to leave.
Many abuse survivors turn to family and friends to be their advocates. However, your partner may have cut you off from family and friends in an attempt to gain more control.
In this case, there are still people who can give you the support and advice you need. Therapists, for example, might offer their services at low costs or free of charge through women’s shelters or domestic violence programs.
Even if you’re not religious, members of the clergy can often provide support and understanding for domestic abuse survivors. Consider contacting a local church or other religious groups to see if they offer help for victims of abuse.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s website offers an easy local resource finder for you to get help. Simply select your state and city and what resources you need.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
In addition to helpful online resources, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has a phone hotline you can call to get help. The number is:
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
You can also visit the website to chat live with a support professional or text “START” to 88788 to get started taking back your financial well-being today.
If you're in a financially abusive relationship there is help available
If you are in a bad relationship with financial abuse, there are many resources you can use to get out of your current situation.
Once you're in a safe place, you can take steps to improve your finances. You can further educate yourself about money and also work on cultivating positive relationships that help you have a better future and life.