Financial Abuse Is a Form of Domestic Violence

By: Rosemary Frank, MBA, CDFA, ADFA, CFE, MAFF
Last Update: November 25, 2016

Financial abuse is insidious, cloaked in false “protectiveness,” a form of bullying, and a precursor to domestic violence. It leaves no bruises, but it really, really hurts. It will erode one’s self-esteem, enslave them to the one who is supposed to love them, and destroy the victim’s spirit, sense of self-worth, the very essence of their individuality. It makes them hopeless and helpless so that they never leave.

Financial abuse is more readily recognized in the mental health community as it relates to elder abuse, rather than spousal abuse. Elder financial abuse is usually about theft. Spousal financial abuse is about control and domination. Control of the money translates to control of the relationship and the other person, in every way. Financial abuse, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, is reported to be present in 98% of all domestic violence situations. In the vast majority of situations, women are the victims of the abuse. These comments will be framed accordingly.

I often observe women whose thinking has been so strongly influenced and twisted that they are not even aware of the abuse and continue to give their power away. They fail to show up for financial-planning meetings with their husbands. When they do, they spend the entire meeting motioning for me to “talk to him,” and not even listening “because he makes all the decisions.” They sign things without even knowing what it is and don’t ask. Or, if they do ask, are told to “don’t worry about it, just sign it.” Then challenged with the all-time follow-up of “Don’t you trust me?” The ultimate put-down and shut-up retort that has only one unspoken response.

At some point she may somehow find her strength and seek separation and divorce from the abuser. That is when we usually discover the third mortgage on the house, outstanding personal loans, questionable income tax returns, business interests (and liabilities) in her name, etc., all of which she signed. We discover what may, or may not, be there in the way of savings, investments, retirement accounts, pensions, etc. All of which she now realizes she needs, but knows nothing about.

How does this happen? 

Signs of Financial Abuse in a Marriage

  • He says he will pay all the bills.
  • She is expected to turn her paycheck over to him.
  • He manages all accounts, checking, savings, retirement, investment, etc.
  • He makes all financial decisions without discussing with her.
  • She gets an allowance.
  • He checks receipts for everything she buys, even groceries.
  • She needs to explain every check or credit card charge.
  • He makes all large purchase decisions; she has no input.
  • She needs to quit her job.
  • She no longer gets an allowance, only funds for designated purchases.
  • She may no longer write checks.
  • She will not be allowed to return to work.
  • She may not open any mail, even utility bills and solicitations.
  • He threatens to leave her with nothing if she doesn’t behave.
  • She needs to wait for him to get home from work to give her money to go buy a headache remedy.

Financial abuse occurs across all social-economic, educational, ethnic, and racial groups. It doesn’t matter if she is “allowed” to buy hamburger or steak, thrift or designer clothes, fast food or country club dining. If she is financially controlled and monitored while doing it, she is financially abused. Another variation is that of a highly successful career woman, managing millions of dollars of her employer’s money, yet does not have control over a single dollar in her personal life.

Reaching a victim of financial abuse requires that she realize that she is a victim and is willing to listen and act on her own behalf, and that she is accessible, given that she is so cut off from many resources and controlled to such a degree.

Ideas for Facilitating an Escape, While Heeding Safety Concerns

  • Identify a trusted friend or relative who can assist as needed.
  • If possible, skim small amounts of money from what is accessible, hide it or have someone hold it for you.
  • Get cash back on credit card purchases at supermarket or big box stores, then lose the receipt if necessary.
  • Save any monetary gifts, return gifts for cash.
  • Ask friends and relatives for donations.
  • Sell anything you can, say you donated it if necessary.
  • Say you are volunteering and get a part-time job.
  • Offer babysitting, dog-walking, house-sitting, wait for delivery or service people, plant-watering, etc. services by word of mouth and for cash.
  • Develop a hobby and sell things: printed t-shirts, knit ware, sketches or paintings, jewelry, photography, etc.
  • Work an on-line job with flexibility.
  • Get a secured credit card, or two, in your own name, and keep with friend if necessary.
  • Research government assistance services, counseling services, shelters.
  • Have a safe place to go when you leave.

Abuse of any type, including financial abuse, is a dangerous element in a marriage. There is no acceptable level of offense. I believe that anyone who is a victim of financial abuse knows, at some basic level, that it is not right, not okay, and they deserve more. They deserve respect, and to be treated as a partner in this relationship. Anything less is not a marriage, in which case, many difficult questions need to be answered


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