Financial abuse is a type of domestic abuse. It’s a form of control and a violation of a person’s resources. It’s a horrible situation to understand and deal with when it’s just stealing and gaslighting (which is what happened to me) so I can’t even imagine how terrible it is for those who lose complete control of their finances.
Full disclaimer – I am not a therapist, or social worker, or anyone else who is trained to deal with these incredibly difficult situations. I’m just a normal person, like you, who got involved with the wrong man. I had a relationship with a manipulative user, and I’m lucky that what he did only scratched the surface of what financial abuse can entail.
Others aren’t so lucky. So I’m writing this post to shine light on a very real issue- a form of abuse that isn’t discussed as much because it leaves no physical scars. But the results can have long reaching implications on someone’s financial wellbeing. I’m also writing it in solidarity to others who have experienced financial abuse but who can’t speak up. Know that it isn’t your fault, and help is available.
For those of you who have never experienced financial abuse, I hope this is educational, and will help you identify any subtle signs that a loved one may be experiencing this.
What is the Meaning of Financial Abuse?
Let’s start with definitions. What does financial abuse even mean? There are so many different things at play here that it can be difficult to define. But, at its core, financial abuse is when one person regularly or purposefully takes advantage of or controls another person’s financial resources.
What are Examples of Financial Abuse?
Financial abuse can play out in thousands of different ways. Like I said above, my story is relatively mild compared to others. My ex-boyfriend would steal cash out of my wallet, and then he’d gaslight me about. Maybe I never had that twenty dollars in the first place, or maybe I spent it on something else and forgot. It’s also possible that I dropped it somewhere. Even though I’m generally good with money, and had never regularly lost cash like this before, I started questioning myself. Maybe I did lose it.
He would also use my credit card to purchase subscriptions to game services, like Xbox online. I couldn’t understand why my account was being charged every month – he always told me he canceled. He played dumb pretending that it was Xbox’s mistake. It would disappear and then turn up again a month or so later. To stop the charges, I finally had to make my bank block any charges from Xbox. He claimed he didn’t know what was happening – but looking back I know exactly what was happening. He stole my card and used it for his Xbox subscription, thinking I wouldn’t notice the ten-dollar-a-month charge. And then he played dumb and pretended he was trying to fix it so he could keep using the service.
These examples are minor compared to what others experience. Some people are denied access to any financial resources. Some work, and all of their money goes to their abuser. Still others get all of their assets stolen. It’s a complicated issue that can play out in a number of ways. The Social Care Institute for Excellence has thorough examples on different types of abuse and what they might look like.
The most severe cases of financial abuse are considered economic abuse. According to Wikipedia, in this type of abuse, one person has complete control over the other’s financial resources -bank accounts, paychecks, etc. The abuser decides whether the victim can even have money to meet their basic needs. In addition, the abuser will prevent the victim from doing things that will improve their situation by denying access to educational opportunities and preventing the victim from getting a job. Economic abuse leaves the victim completely reliant on the abuser for survival.
Who Is At Risk For Financial Abuse?
Many different groups have different risk factors for financial abuse. These groups include the elderly, intimate partners, and children. Because these relationship dynamics are so different, it’s prudent to break down the examples by relationship type.
Elder Financial Abuse
Financial abuse is an unfortunately very common form of elder abuse. The elderly are high risk of abuse by their caregivers, family members, and financial scammers.
Caregivers often abuse their patients financially by convincing them to rewrite their wills, forging the victim’s signature, and using the victim’s property without permission. Often times, the victim no longer has the mental faculties to fully understand what they are doing, and caregivers will take advantage of that.
These caregivers can be family members as well. I’ve read far too many stories on Reddit about a distant family member swooping in on the eve of a parent’s death, demanding to be included in a will, or taking items without permission. It’s so sad to see people’s true colors emerge when the possibility of an inheritance is at play, and it’s heartbreaking that so many people seem to care more about what they will get than the person they are getting it from.
There are also a plethora of scams that target older Americans for financial abuse. Often times, this will take the form of an online “partner”, who insists that the victim send them money. Although these scams aren’t only targeted at the elderly, the elderly are more vulnerability, whether due to loneliness or declining health. Check out the National Council on Aging’s thorough resource on the top scams that target elderly populations.
If you believe one of you family members is being abused financially, please contact Adult Protective Services. They can help vulnerable adults escape abusive situations.
Financial Abuse in a Relationship
Financial abuse is a form of intimate partner violence. Oftentimes, this kind of abuse goes hand in hand with emotional abuse and sometimes even physical abuse. Abusers don’t generally stick to one form – they tend to escalate.
In my case, I was specifically targeted because I was vulnerable. I had just escaped an emotionally abusive relationship which actually did escalate to physical abuse at the end, and I was open about it. Big mistake. Users see that and hone right on in.
He knew he just had to act like he cared in order to get me to pay for stuff. I was so desperate to be loved and respected for me after enduring that misery for five years that I would have done anything for someone who would be a true partner – so he pretended to be that.
It took me a year to realize it was all just pretend. He said whatever I wanted to hear while stealing from me behind my back. He’d slyly add gift cards onto the conveyor belt at the grocery store -and when I mentioned the price seemed high he’d tell me I must have miscounted while hiding the receipt. I won’t go as far as to say that he was a narcissist, as I’m not a trained psychologist, but he sure was stingy with his own money and free with mine.
Am I the Abusive One?
Sometimes, an abuser will go to great lengths to gaslight you and make you think that you are the abusive one -that you’re the financial bully. This happened regularly with my ex.
When we fought about him blowing his money on video games, he always turned the argument around. Why do I get a say in how he spends his money? He works, he should be able to treat himself. I’m being a terrible person by telling him what to do.
And the thing is, I believed him. It wasn’t my place to tell him where to spend his money, even if that meant I had to spend even more money to pick up his slack. I made more, I could afford it. He would also bring up the fact that I splurged once on an eighty-dollar bag – if I could do it so could he, right? Why am I allowed to make a one-time purchase of something that would bring me joy, but he’s not?
The answer is because that (one time) eighty-dollar purchase did not prevent me from paying any of my bills. I didn’t expect him to subsidize any of my purchases. But, if I brought that up, I was just a horrible girlfriend who controlled his spending and didn’t let him have any fun.
Spending My Money
He pulled similar tactics when it came to spending my money. An example of this is when we would go out for dinner. I wanted to go out for a cheap dinner – I was on a budget and I had a certain price point in mind. We decided upon a restaurant, and I told him I didn’t want him to order any adult drinks, because those could easily add twenty to thirty dollars to the final bill.
Instead of being understanding, he used my previous relationship against me. He turned it into a trust issue and accused me of thinking he was an alcoholic like my ex. He made me feel horrible for even asking him to abstain, and made a huge deal of comparing himself to my ex. That horrible relationship was still fresh in my mind, so I started questioning myself. Was I only telling him to abstain for fear he would turn into my ex? Was I being unreasonable and holding my previous experiences against him? I never wanted to be that person. Of course, in the end, he ordered a few margaritas, which I paid for.
He always found a reason why it was okay to spend my money.
That’s not even the worst of it though. He knew that I struggled with codpendency due to the abuse I suffered in my previous relationship. My issues made it difficult for me to set boundaries and to say “No”. So he didn’t even feel the need to ask me to pay for things. He would just talk about them as if they were already happening, knowing full well I wouldn’t say no if he acted like I had already said yes.
An example of this was paying for him to fly to bring his daughter to Georgia for a visit. He never asked if I would pay for it, he just started talking about doing it. Researching tickets. Telling me when the best flights were. The thing is, we both knew he couldn’t afford to pay for it. He just assumed I would, and didn’t even feel the need to ask. Acting like it was a done deal was a manipulation tactic that he used to prevent me from saying no. He did this all the time.
I get that it was partly my fault for not having boundaries and not being able to say no. At first, I just blamed myself for my weakness. But, I realized that it was also his fault. He manipulated me on purpose to get what he wanted. Good people don’t do that to each other.
More Severe Examples
I was lucky, in that I could afford those things and his abuse didn’t destroy me. But financial abuse in relationships can be much more severe.
Some abusers will take out additional lines of credit in their victim’s names, force all earnings into a bank account that only they have access to, and prevent access to family resources.
The most terrifying forms of financial abuse I’ve heard of come in the form of spousal abuse. Usually, one person in the relationship decides to stay at home, while the other works. In a healthy relationship, it’s acknowledged that the partner who stays home is contributing just as much to the household as the working spouse. However, in an abusive relationship, the working spouse holds the fact that they make the money over their partner’s head. They hoard resources, make all the decisions, and make the stay-at-home partner feel bad about needing anything. This dynamic can also lead to increased isolation of the victim, as they have no money to even try to escape.
There are also severe instances of financial abuse where both partners work, but one makes more than the other yet expects equal contribution.
I remember one story I read on Reddit where a woman was questioning whether she was being unreasonable in not wanting to split the bills with her boyfriend 50/50. He made more than twice what she did, and insisted on living in a luxury apartment with all the amenities. She was struggling to afford her half, while her so-called partner was buying new cars and had a ton of money in savings. And she was the one worried that she was being unreasonable. He was living it up because he was financially abusing her -forcing her to subsidize his lifestyle. And like this guy, abusers will use any tactic at their disposal to make you think the situation is normal.
Financial Abuse of Children
Sadly, sometimes the perpetrators of abuse are the very people that are meant to protect us. Yes, I’m talking about parents financially abusing their children, and yes, it happens.
There are instances of parents using their children’s social security numbers to open lines of credit, parents forcing their children to help pay for their own expenses, and parents taking advantage of their children’s love and admiration for them. Often times the kids involved will feel horrible about involving the police or filing an actual report, because “it’s my mom”.
Financial abuse of children is a form of child abuse. It destroys a child’s credit before they can even legally access it, and it may take years for them to recoup the losses. They are also rarely even in a position to realize that it’s happening until they are old enough to apply for their own credit.
Overcoming Financial Abuse
The best way to overcome financial abuse is to get help. Talk to a therapist about your situation. Therapy helped me understand my codependency, and helped me learn how to set healthy boundaries.
It’s not always easy. I still struggle to say “no” to an intimate partner. But, I’m learning and growing every day. I also learned to recognize some red flags of manipulative behavior, and now have a partner who doesn’t do those things. It would have been incredibly easy to fall back into those old habits if I had dated someone else who had ulterior motives.
Sometimes its might be better to stay single for a while – to learn and grow and develop on your own. I can’t tell you which path is right for you, these are things that should be discussed with a therapist.
Help for Financial Abuse
If you or someone you love is being abused financially, there is help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline helps victims of all types of abuse. Call 1-800-799-7233.
It’s important to remember that abuse of any kind: financial abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, etc. is never the fault of the victim. Although we may feel shame for feeling like we allowed it, the fault lies with the perpetrator. They are the ones who purposefully hurt us, and they are the ones who made us feel guilty about it.
If you’ve experienced anything similar to what I’ve written about in this post, please get help. A therapist can help you identify the cycles of abuse that you’ve experienced, and give you tools for setting boundaries and preventing further abuse.
Melanie launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.