Perhaps you have an image in your mind of what domestic abuse is. Many of us probably think of physical or verbal abuse, but aren’t as aware of financial or economic abuse. In fact, financial abuse goes hand in hand with physical abuse: 98 percent of people in abusive relationships experience financial abuse, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV).
Controlling someone’s money is one of the most effective ways of keeping them trapped and powerless in a relationship, because it leaves them with few resources and little agency. Escaping can be dangerous, even lethal. And rebuilding can be a nearly impossible task, especially since the abusive partner has likely stripped their victim of the building blocks to economic independence.
What Is Financial Abuse?
Financial abuse can take many forms, according to the NNEDV. In some cases, the abuser may deny their victim access to income, monitor every penny they spend, keep them ignorant to the family’s finances, or prevent them from working and earning their own income or independence.
Other forms of financial abuse include purposely ruining someone’s credit by coercing them into taking out loans or credit cards, or rendering them unemployable by showing up unannounced at their job or calling repeatedly while they’re at work, according to Joselyn Yrayta, a self-sufficiency specialist at Casa Myrna Vasquez, a domestic violence agency in Boston. These issues can be compounded when someone is an undocumented immigrant, which makes the threat of deportation and lack of access to resources a huge barrier, Yrayta says.
Financial abuse can be easy to ignore, because it doesn’t always look problematic at the beginning. But there are red flags to watch for. Someone who shows an immediate interest in your finances should be concerning, even if they make small comments like, “Wow, you put a lot of things on credit,” Yrayta says. Sometimes the person might be especially interested in your money but secretive about their own financial picture.
When someone is preparing to leave an abusive relationship, that’s often when they’re in the greatest danger. The risk of being killed increases right after leaving an abusive partner, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health. And when someone is being monitored closely and their credit has been destroyed, it can make acquiring the means to leave very hard — seemingly impossible. But there are strategies to make leaving and starting over more feasible.
As a first step to leaving, both Yrayta and Ginger Dean, the founder of Girls Just Wanna Have Funds, recommend opening a separate bank account that the abusive partner doesn’t know about, if possible.
Once someone has a separate bank account — ideally at a bank that the abuser doesn’t use, with no paper statements and any email correspondence going to a private account — or finds a safe place to store cash, they can begin to siphon small amounts of money. Since saving up, in and of itself, can trigger abuse, victims are tasked with finding ways to make and save money without the abuser finding out.
Dean suggests buying extra goods at the grocery store and returning them for cash the next week. If you have a day job with computer access, selling items you make or thrift on Etsy may be an option as well. If someone can save up enough for a storage unit, they can also begin to collect free items from Craigslist and store them there to resell. The key, says Yrayta, is to slowly start saving whatever you can afford, even if it’s pennies and quarters.
Sometimes a bank account is not an option, especially if a partner has overdrawn your previous accounts and you owe the bank money, Yrayta says. In that case, victims might try asking friends or family to help them save, if that feels comfortable or safe.
Dean emphasizes that someone’s ability to save money will depend on the degree to which their abuser exerts control over them. For someone who is being watched 24/7, the money-saving process may be much slower.
Local domestic violence agencies can be an invaluable resource when escaping any type of abusive relationship. For example, in California, a moving company called Meathead Movers — in partnership with local domestic violence shelters — offers free moving services to people leaving abusive relationships. The Allstate Foundation has partnered with the NNEDV to offer a variety of financial services for survivors of domestic violence, with a goal of “working to help survivors of domestic violence build their financial skills as a way to escape abusive relationships.”
Yrayta suggests connecting with your local domestic violence agency to see what kinds of services they offer and how they can help you plan to leave. They often have access to programs and grant money that can be helpful to people looking to leave or get back on their feet once they’ve left. A call to the National Domestic Violence Hotline — 800-799-SAFE (7233) — is a good place to start.
As with any abusive relationship, victims must consider their safety after they’ve left. “Whenever you move away to a different city or state, your name can be looked up if you sign up for utilities,” Dean says. Changing an address on a credit report is also accessible on public databases, so getting a P.O. box can be a more secure option for someone trying to keep their address confidential. Some states, like Massachusetts, have an Address Confidentiality Program, which keeps the addresses of domestic violence survivors out of public record.
Dean also recommends that people change their security prompts on all their accounts. “If you have a partner who knows all your information, they can get past the security prompts and access your accounts,” she warns. This would mean they could not only access your money, but also monitor what and where you’re spending, which could give them a way to find you.
Rebuilding After Escape
Leaving an abusive relationship is just the first step. Once someone has successfully left their abuser, there are many barriers to establishing financial independence. Unfortunately, overcoming these barriers “is not as easy as a one, two, three checklist,” Yrayta explains. Rebuilding often takes time and money, which can be tough to come by in these circumstances.
Opening a new, separate bank account is critical to establishing financial independence if a victim was not able to do it safely while in the relationship. It stops a destructive cycle: Not having a bank account can lead survivors to depend on fee-heavy check-cashing systems that end up costing them more in the long run. If a survivor can’t open an account at one bank because their abuser overdrew their account, they may be able to find a new bank to get around that debt in the short-term, until they can take formal steps to rectify the issue.
But for people who have been kept in the dark about finances for years, even opening their own checking account can seem like a daunting task — let alone managing all their finances. Many community centers offer free classes on financial literacy, as well as programs to help people who have been out of the workforce update their resumes and gain employment. These are excellent steps to empowering people who have had their financial agency taken away from them.
Another major hurdle is destroyed credit, Yrayta says. Without a good credit score, people may not be able to rent or buy a home, get hired, or take out loans. This can include the survivor’s children, too, since the abuser may have taken out credit cards in their children’s names. And victims of financial abuse frequently find themselves in debt, both consumer and otherwise. Many victims of financial abuse accrue student debt: “People often have to leave school early because of the abuse, but they still get charged for these loans,” says Yrayta.
In order to start paying back debts and rebuilding credit, a survivor of abuse will need to start bringing in an income. Dean says that someone’s ability to find work after leaving a relationship, particularly if they haven’t worked in a while, depends on their education and skill levels. This may mean turning to entry-level positions in retail or the service industry, or providing child care or cleaning homes — all jobs that have low barriers to entry.
These obstacles could be much more easily surmounted, Yrayta says, if there were better systems in place to support survivors. But presently, “there are limited avenues for survivors to rebuild credit or open bank accounts, and major financial institutions haven’t caught up to or understand complex situations survivors find themselves in,” she says.
Yrayta recommends seeking out services from local domestic violence agencies, who have advocates specializing in helping survivors of financial abuse rebuild their lives. These trained professionals know about programs that the average person may not be aware of, and they can provide the necessary support for someone who is recently out of an abusive situation.
Ending the Cycle
Stopping financial abuse is an extremely complicated task. Because each family’s financial situation and relationship is so different, it’s easy to miss red flags. But better education about warning signs at the beginning of a relationship can help people see when they might be in danger.
“More resources and allocations need to be made so survivors have a fair chance at credit repair,” Yrayta says. This could look like allowances for people who can show that their credit was damaged as a result of abuse, or government assistance for domestic violence survivors.
But perhaps the largest battle is one of recognition: Currently, financial abuse is so rarely talked about and misunderstood by people outside the domestic violence sphere that these kinds of programs and allowances don’t even seem to be on anyone’s radar, Yrayta says. Given the severity and frequency of this kind of abuse, we simply can’t afford not to talk about it anymore.
Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, feminist momma, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. In addition to writing, she is a social worker who has worked with survivors of domestic violence for the past 10 years. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.