The Warning Signs of Financial Abuse

The Warning Signs of Financial Abuse

[Editor’s Note: The following piece contains descriptions of graphic violence.]

One hot summer afternoon, 15-year-old Nancy Salamone was hanging out on the boardwalk at Orchard Beach, in her hometown of the Bronx, which is how she spent most of her lazy summer breaks. But though it started out like any other, this particular day would end up changing the course of her life.

She caught sight of a handsome older guy strolling by, and to her surprise, he approached her and started flirting. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, he’s talking to me!’” she remembers. “I was captivated.”

Despite their age difference — he was a college student and budding chef — they soon began dating exclusively. Salamone didn’t notice the red flags that shot up during their relationship because she was so smitten: She thought it was romantic that he wanted to spend all his time with her, rather than recognizing it as a subtle strategy to isolate her from friends and family. He got angry if she wore clothes that showed too much skin. And he’d ask to borrow money (she worked part-time in a dentist’s office).

financial abuse
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He proposed right after she graduated high school, and they were married a short time later in a traditional Catholic ceremony. The day they returned from their honeymoon in Montreal, Salamone’s “Prince Charming” beat her, sodomized her, and left her bleeding on the bathroom floor.

Thus began a nightmarish 18-year marriage in which she was abused not only physically and emotionally, but also financially. Salamone’s husband forced her to hand over her paycheck to him, controlled all the money, forged her signature on financial documents, and put her career in jeopardy.

Sadly, Salamone’s experience is not rare. The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) reports that 98 percent of women who are physically abused also experience financial abuse, which prevents victims from acquiring, using, or maintaining monetary resources. “It’s one of the tactics batterers use to enforce their control and keep women in the relationship,” says Kim Pentico, senior economic justice specialist at the NNEDV. She also says that some women are financially abused without being harmed physically.

According to Purple Purse, a public awareness and fundraising campaign aimed at creating long-term safety and security for survivors through financial empowerment, “domestic violence victims frequently cite income, employment, and financial stability as the strongest, most immediate deterrents to leaving abusive situations.” Without access to money, and with their credit scores often in shambles, women’s options for everything from housing to job opportunities are severely limited. And having kids adds another layer of complication. Without adequate funds to support a family, there’s the risk that their children could be taken away from them if they flee.

It’s a terrifying predicament to be in, so the sooner women can realize they’re in a dangerous situation and get out, the better. Here are the early warning signs of financial abuse, and what to do if you recognize them.

Red Flag #1: He Takes Charge of the Money
Not long into their marriage, Salamone’s husband told her he would take care of all the finances. He instructed her to hand over her paycheck (she made a decent income working in financial services), and in return gave her a small allowance that was barely enough to cover her train fare to and from work, plus meals. If she wanted to go shopping, she had to ask him for permission. Needless to say, he was the only one with access to their bank account. Being young and naive, and having grown up in a conservative household, Salamone assumed this was the way things were done.

“Abusers might also make women save their receipts to make sure that everything they purchase matches up to the amount spent,” adds Pentico. “And they may go to lengths to ensure that your name isn’t on anything, from savings accounts to the deed on the house.” That way, he owns it all.

Victims of financial mistreatment may not immediately understand that they’re being taken advantage of. “Abusers are crafty, so it may start small. Your husband might say, ‘Let’s put everything in a joint account and I’ll manage the money,’” says Salamone, who later wrote a book about her story called Victory Over Violence and is founder and CEO of The Business of Me, a social change organization to help domestic violence survivors regain control of their lives. Sounds innocuous enough, plus you presumably love the person and trust that he has your best interests at heart. But then things progress little by little — until, before you know quite what’s happened, you’re completely under his power.

Red Flag #2: He Files Fraudulent Documents
One night, Salamone’s husband made a jaw-dropping confession: He’d refinanced their mortgage and opened up a credit card in her name by forging her signature on the paperwork. He admitted that he was a compulsive gambler and needed the money to cover his debts.

“I think there was a part of me that always knew he was driving us into financial ruin, but like everything else, I kept it buried,” she remembers. He promised he’d stop; she took him at his word. Shortly afterward, calls from creditors started coming in. They eventually filed for bankruptcy.

“When your partner falsifies taxes — say he failed to report winnings at the casino and you’re hit with a big sum at tax time — the IRS has an Innocent Spousal Relief clause that won’t hold you liable for the cost,” says Pentico. “But unfortunately, we haven’t found a way to protect people in the civil realm.” For example, if he applies for a credit card using your name, you can file a police report but it’s not likely to be taken very seriously.

Demolishing your credit score is also a mechanism to keep you powerless. “We used to see women leaving with nothing but the clothes on their back; now we see them leaving with the clothes on their back and crushing debt,” says Pentico. “As credit scores play an increasingly significant role in our lives, it can impede survivors’ ability to secure housing, a credit card, a cell phone, a car, even a job.” (Some employers check applicants’ credit before making a hiring decision.)

Other shadowy strategies abusers use: hiding assets, such as major purchases like a car, or concealing debt from their significant other. “It’s smart to check your credit score via CreditKarma on a regular basis,” says Salamone. That will tip you off if anything is amiss.

Red Flag #3: He Sabotages Your Career
Maybe he harasses you at work to the extent that your employer decides to let you go. Maybe he hurts you so badly that you can’t go into the office, either because you’re in pain or have a visible bruise that would raise questions. Pentico recalls a recent example with a survivor who worked in HR. “The company had a policy that employees could not let their voicemail get full,” she says. “Her partner knew this, so after hours, he called her line over and over again in order to overload her mailbox.” When she explained the situation to her manager, he freaked out and, not wanting to get involved in a complicated domestic situation, simply terminated her.

Although Salamone never missed a day of work, her husband threatened her coworkers once she finally worked up the courage to leave him. Luckily, they were more understanding than a lot of employers would have been. “They are an old-line financial services company, and by then I had risen to the position of director of marketing,” she says. “They rallied around me to make sure that other staffers and I were kept safe.”

Red Flag #4: You Don’t Feel Safe Talking About Finances
Domestic violence in all its forms essentially boils down to intent. For instance, let’s say your partner is a compulsive over-spender who is knee-deep in debt. He may need professional help, but it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s trying to harm you. “My husband has no interest in finances, so I’m the one who manages the budget, from where we store documents to how our retirement savings are invested,” says Pentico. “He has abdicated responsibility of his own free will.” And of course, even though she oversees the money, it’s not an abusive relationship.

“On the other hand, if my partner and I are arguing about bills and he gets up and starts clenching his fist in a menacing manner, the intent is to put me in a place of fear in order quiet me, to get his way,” explains Pentico. “You should be able to discuss difficult topics — financial or otherwise — without being scared of his wrath.”

Give yourself a gut check: Do you ever feel intimidated by your partner, either emotionally or physically? Are there certain conversations that you can’t have with him because they’re “not allowed”? Is it a true partnership, where you have equal say — even if you make less? Do you negotiate about money when you have a difference of opinion, or does he make decisions without your input?

Your intuition is legitimate, even if you haven’t experienced what you’d consider outright abuse. “Investigate your feelings further by speaking to someone you trust or by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline [1-800-799-SAFE],” urges Pentico.

Breaking Free From Financial Abuse
Salamone’s turning point came two years after her husband admitted his gambling addiction. Over the Christmas holiday, she came home to find him packing a suitcase. He announced that he was going to Las Vegas. Ordinarily she would have kept quiet and acquiesced, but this time something within her compelled her to speak up. She told him, “If you go, I won’t be here when you get back.”

He continued packing, so she walked out and went to her mother’s house. The next day, she opened up a bank account at a bank different from her husband’s and arranged to have her paycheck deposited there. She got a therapist and an attorney, and began divorce proceedings. But after the paperwork was set into motion, her husband mysteriously lost his job, and she was left solely responsible for the massive debt he’d racked up.

Her finances in shambles, Salamone foreclosed on her house and began the slow process of rebuilding her life. Fortunately, she was making a good income as a vice president of marketing for a Wall Street firm, so she found a reasonably priced apartment, lived within her means, and reached out to the credit companies to explain the circumstances of her bankruptcy and foreclosure.

It took three years for her to restore her credit and get back on solid financial footing. “I was responsible for the budget at work, and it dawned on me that many of the same decisions I made for the business would benefit me too,” she says. “I actively began to take charge of my financial life.”

Financially, Salamone is one of the lucky ones because she had an income. “We have to get really creative with survivors, as their financial situation can make it extremely difficult for them to stay away from their abuser,” says Pentico. “It can take months or even years to squirrel away enough money to open a bank account without him knowing so that they have some resources to fall back on. Many shelters will take women for only a month or two, so it’s often a choice between being battered or being homeless.”

One survivor managed to get cash back during grocery store trips by turning in her clipped coupons after she’d paid for the food, so that her husband wouldn’t notice anything amiss on the receipts. Another sent herself a letter purportedly from her office saying that her insurance premium had been increased by $25 a month, then had that sum funneled to a private account.

“It’s also important to collect financial records and key documents like birth certificates, your marriage license, and Social Security cards before you leave,” adds Salamone. “And build your financial literacy so that you’ll feel empowered to take control. There is a warped sense of freedom when you think someone is taking care of you financially, but true freedom comes when you embrace responsibility and make your own choices.”

This piece originally appeared on DailyWorth in July of 2015.

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Join the Discussion

4 Responses to “The Warning Signs of Financial Abuse”

  1. BlueMuffinTop

    I think theres a lot more that can be added to this article in terms of financial abuse by way of a spouse. I’m divorced almost 2 years now(separated in 2012 and divorced in 2015) and my ex literally destroyed my finances, a few months after we got married he filed bankruptcy behind my back, would steal money from my bank accounts, open up secret credit cards, get loans from loan sharks, pay other womens bills but not pay our hom bills, I mean the list goes on and on. I always struggled with as a married couple we should share everything, but I think my biggest mistake was not really knowing who this man was before I invested 15 years of marriage in him.

  2. TX<3

    I don’t know what to do. My husband refused to give me enough to pay bills every month. I’m pregnant & on unemployment. Everything is in my name bc he’s undocumented. I worked hard in Iraq to pay my debts & fix my credit but while I was there I cheated. I let him know when I came home for Vaca that it’s possibly not his child but I truly feel it is. He wants nothing to do with the baby & has not helped during the pregnancy. He actually makes things hard for me seemingly on purpose. Since I’ve been unemployed he thinks I’m his maid so he purposely leaves a mess everywhere & won’t help w/ heavy lifting. He refuses to go counseling w/me to fix our marriage but also won’t leave. I’ve been on silent treatment since Dec. We can never discuss finances, our marriage, the baby or living conditions w/him getting frustrated or walking away. I believe he’s only still w/ me to help his immigration case but he’s not putting in any effort to fix our marriage. He claims he doesn’t see a problem w/our marriage now. I believe he’s trying to sabotage me financially bc he knows how important it is for me to pay my bills on time & keep my credit up. I feel this is my fault for making him this way but I also feel I don’t deserve this bc I’ve tried so hard to make things right w/him. He’s admitted that he’s not the same mentally & can’t feel anything emotionally. I feel guilty but don’t know how to help him & prepare to take care of my baby. I can’t find it in me to kick him out bc I know he doesn’t have anywhere to go especially w/o his papers. I’m due any day now & debating on waiting for the baby to come to see if anything changes in him but I don’t want to use my baby as a crutch. I just don’t know.

    • stephanie

      Why do you want to stay with him? Look up images for “healthy vs unhealthy relationship.”

      You made mistakes and what he’s doing is also a mistake. The fact that you cheated doesn’t mean that you have to allow yourself to be treated this way. Neither of you are bad people, but some people just don’t work together. I am in a relationship that I know I should leave, so it certainly isn’t my place to question other peoples’ decisions, but you should try to look at your relationship objectively from an outside perspective. Would you want your child, sister, mother, aunt, or friend to stay in a relationship like this? Why would you allow yourself to be treated this way if you wouldn’t want it for someone that you cared about?

  3. Throat Hurts

    I and my boyfriend have been in a relationship for eight years and I have decided to break up with him today. It is horribly difficult for me to bear with what I am facing right now and I do not feel comfortable in sharing my problems with anyone I know in real life, so I will be grateful if anybody can help me out here.
    Eight years is a long period of time and we have had endless experiences together. Before I start ranting about the problems I am facing, I would want to give a little perspective of my relationship with him. My life has been so closely wrapped around him that I can almost write a book about these eight years and the endless things that I have to say, however I will try to keep it brief and still make sense out of it.
    We both live in Delhi. I am 25 yo and he is 28. We belong to a small city and our families live there. We started dating when I was 17, studying in last year of school in my hometown. We both studied the same course in college and are now working. I have been working for a year and he, for two. I am earning more than him since I am working with a major corporate and he is doing his independent work. We have had a rollercoaster ride of a relationship with many ups and downs but we have always ended up together. I am hugely dependent on him, both emotionally and mentally. He loves me and cherishes me just as much.
    It all is a fairy tale from outside and our friends have always marvelled at us for surviving so long together in today’s times and even come to me asking for relationship advice.
    Leaving all that aside, we have had our share of problems from time to time. However, there is one problem which has really taken a toll on me. We both come from middle class families but we have exactly opposite financial sense. During college days, we were getting quite less amount of pocket money from our parents in comparison with our peers, but we managed to sail through without complaining. I am the kind of person who cannot enjoy life on borrowed money. I can live with the least of means as long as I can make it without taking any favour from any person. He, on the other hand, does not have problems with borrowing from his close friends and/or me and adds it up to pay later when he gets a big hand at anything. To shorten the point, I believe in spending within my means and saving alongside in order to eliminate the chances of ever having to live on borrowed money whereas he believes in living the day to the fullest without giving scruples about money issues.
    Even though he earns lesser than me, he earns sufficient money required to support one person in the city. Had I been earning that much, I would have survived without being ridden in debts except occasionally running out of money in case of any unpredictable circumstance. But he has never been out debt ever. There was a time in our relationship when he owed me just a 1000 bucks but now a day has come when he owes me more than a lakh rupees.
    I am not a stingy person, I am earning enough to indulge myself, lend him money and still save some at the end of the month. But he constantly taunts me about how I think about money all the time and that it is the single most important thing in my life and that his genes just don’t work that way. He never makes a budget, never notes down his expenses and is ALWAYS broke by the end of the month. Every month, in the beginning, let say he pays me back x amount of money and then ends up borrowing 2*x by the end of the month. This cycle is ever going and that’s why we have come to a situation like this.
    In the last one year, he bought himself a Royal Enfield, a television, a washing machine and a bike trip 1000s of kms away. The debts he owed me and to a close friend kept increasing meanwhile. He uses the credit card of his friend and pays him regularly but not to me. He bought the bike, TV and the washing machine without telling me and I was told only after they were once in the house. We both live alone in separate apartments. The bike was bought with the money he got from insurance money of the car that met with an accident. The car was of his brother’s and my boyfriend’s friend had completely damaged the car in the accident. So instead of paying the insurance money to his family, he bought himself a bike from it. He justified it by saying that he needed it and couldn’t do without it in his job. I had a lot of problem with it at that time but I tried to shut myself up as he had not used my money and I had no right to complain. The TV and washing machine were bought from the annual bonus money, he bought these without paying me back the money he owed me as these too were necessities. The bike trip was the dream of his life and he had to go for it and the expenses just followed.
    Every time I complained about any of these, I was told that my money is secure, it is not going anywhere, all his future money is going to be there to fulfil for this and the small amounts now did not matter. I was called stingy when at the same time I was the one paying for his groceries every month. I was told that I could not think beyond money and my income and expenses account when I was paying for every meal we had outside and even for his beer. There was no one lump sum amount that was borrowed from me, but I have regularly paid him 100/200/500/1000s of bucks every few days to keep him home running, which had until recently accumulated to more than 50k.
    For the past few weeks, he had been talking about purchasing a car and giving it to his family to compensate for the car lost in accident. The first question was obviously where the money would come from. i had advised him strongly against it as he already owed money to him and his friend and is also broke by the end of every month. My advice was to clear his outstandings first, make a proper budget and then see if he can take the burden of liability of a loan.
    When he asked for my card in the morning, i presumed it would be for making minor purchases. It was not until i got the msg on my phone that i got to know it was for buying a car. Three days ago, he told me that his loan application from a bank had been rejected and he had changed his mind about taking any loan. He, however, did not inform me anything about it afterwards. After the msg, when I confronted him, he said that he didn’t tell me about it as it was obvious that I would get to know about it from the msg. I was completely appalled by his statement as he tried justifying it by saying that the loan got sanctioned today itself and that he obviously had no intentions of hiding it from me since I would get to know about it anyway. He later told me that three banks had rejected his loan applications until the fourth one finally accepted it. I am not a fool to not know that all this didn’t happen in a day. All this had been going on for weeks and he did not once care to tell me about what was going on or to consult with me or take my advice or even a suggestion from me. All this is even more hurtful as he has used my money and my card and now owes me more than a lakh rupees and still finds no fault in what he has done in buying the car without paying me back and without informing me.
    It hurt me so much that I couldn’t hold my tears while I was at work and his blatant indifference to my feelings felt like knife blows to me. He said he had bought not for his luxury but for his family and there is no reason for me to be angry about it. I do not doubt his intentions but this was just not the right time and way to do it. It angers me how he could go behind him back and take such a big decision without letting me know about it. I would be okay if he did it without informing me if I had no stake in it. But owed me more than 50k and he was shopping for similar amount on my credit card and was taking loan on top of it, I believe I rightfully deserved to be told about it. It not even the amount, but the fact that he did not give even a bit of importance to my opinion or taking any sort of suggestion from me is just heart breaking. It completely disturbed the peace of my mind.
    Without any remorse and guilt, he told me I was shouting unnecessarily and that it was not a big deal. When I told him that I felt used and betrayed and that he had broken my trust, he told me that if I want to feel used then I should go see and how it works in the outer world. He completely denied me of any right whatsoever on him. All he thinks is that I care about the small sum of money he owes me, which one day wouldn’t matter when he is established in his career. He thinks that I think and see small. But the fact is that I have grown up with my father who has showed me the value of hard work and the importance of being self-reliant without having to ask for help from any third person. This is the reason that it is against my ideals to seek pleasures beyond my means. This all has been building inside for so long and today is the day when I just can’t take it anymore. To know that he has no understanding whatsoever of my feelings and gives no heed to me is so painful that I cannot explain in words. I have had a terrible day because of all of this.
    I am writing about this without discussing any other tangent of our relationship. This, right now, is the trigger that has made me finally end this relationship.
    Despite our other problems, we have always tried to work it out between ourselves and stay together. We have different nature and different personalities and a multitude of problems between us, but I always thought that no third person or thing can ever become so important to come between us and we can overcome it all. It is embarrassing that at the end of the day, it had to be money, the reason for me to take this decision. We have tried breaking up previously because of other reasons but it makes my life hell as I am not used to live without him. Everything in my life is so intricately connected with him that it will be impossible to cut him out of my life. I am scared and have zero confidence in myself without him. This is such a difficult decision because I know he will try to make me go back in his life and make me weaker. He will try to make myself accept this as normal, forget about my hurt feelings and make false promises of how it would not happen again. The fact is that I have lost the respect in him completely. I do not trust him anymore and don’t want a future with a person where I cannot be part of the important decisions of my partner. All this when I consider us both as equals. I could have understood his behaviour if we he were richer/older/more educated/more experienced/etc. But we do not have such differences.
    I have no idea how to erase these 8 years of my life and move on to find any joy in anything else. He was my best friend and the only person I could completely and blindly trust. I have very few friends and I wouldn’t like to discuss this with any of them as this would affect both our reputations and I do not want to harm him or take vengeance in any way.
    I don’t know how to handle this situation. I think I have recurrent brief phases of depression and this is just going to affect it in the worst way. I need help!