What Is Financial Abuse? How To Recognize The Signs And Move Forward

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), financial abuse occurs in 99% of all domestic abuse cases. Financial abuse can be perpetrated by friends, family members, and partners and can be a serious and dangerous pattern of behavior. Knowing the signs of financial abuse may help you or someone you love move forward and find support. If you're experiencing a crisis, call the above hotline.

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What is financial abuse?

Financial abuse is a form of abuse through which one individual seeks control over another individual's financial resources or otherwise interferes with finances in a way that causes harm. In an interpersonal relationship where financial abuse occurs, the perpetrator may control access to the household finances, take advantage of, or steal from the other person's income, forbid the other to work and make their own money, or make financial decisions in the other person's name without their consent. 

At times, financial abuse is called economic abuse. Financial abuse is a form of intimate partner violence, and it's often used to keep someone stuck in a relationship or control the other person. However, romantic or intimate partners aren't always the culprits of a financially abusive relationship. Family and caregivers can also engage in financial abuse by withholding access to money or taking advantage of a family member’s income or credit cards. This can be a challenge for older individuals who are cared for by family and might be unable to set boundaries for themselves. 

Like many forms of abuse, financial abuse in relationships often begins slowly and covertly. It may sometimes involve feigned care for the person on the receiving end. The perpetrator could claim they're helping the person or taking care of the finances because the other individual is too busy or overwhelmed. Even if you feel you're being controlled, the individual might convince you they're acting healthily. Financial abuse could occur independently, but it can also be paired with other forms of domestic violence and abuse, including verbal and emotional abuse, physical abuse, stalking, and sexual abuse.

Signs of financial abuse in relationships

Below are several potential signs and manifestations of financial abuse to look out for in any type of relationship: 

  • Controlling household finances
  • Keeping secrets about household finances or assets that affect the other adult in the relationship
  • Forbidding someone from working, actively trying to sabotage employment opportunities, or interfering with long-term employment
  • Withholding finances or determining and providing an "allowance" to the other adult in the relationship
  • Taking money from the paychecks of the other adult in the relationship
  • Accruing debt on joint financial accounts
  • Taking money from and not providing to joint financial accounts
  • Stealing someone's identity, inheritance, or property
  • Withholding basic needs or the funds someone requires to obtain basic needs, such as food and childcare products
  • Forcing someone to write bad checks or submit fraudulent tax returns
  • Forcing the other adult to give them money from public benefits or threatening to turn the other adult in for misuse of benefits
  • Refusing to pay child support, evading child support, or drawing out a divorce process by hiding information about assets
  • Submitting false insurance claims
  • Refusing to pay bills 
  • Causing a drop in someone else's credit score
  • Forcing someone to work unpaid or for less than minimum wage
  • Guilting someone for gifts or payments made to them 

Since financial abuse might not be in the mainstream eye, not everyone identifies this form of abuse when they go through it. For this reason, awareness of abuse tactics can be beneficial. 

Financial abuse can make it difficult to leave a relationship because a survivor might not have the financial resources to leave safely. However, there are resources available to help. Many individuals find it helpful to run a credit check on themselves to find out about their financial standing and see if there's any abnormal activity. They may also save cash, freeze their credit if necessary, and create a plan for their future.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a page that can help you create a safety plan if you are currently facing abuse and a page that can help you learn about internet safety.

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Impacts of financial abuse

Financial abuse can have long-term effects. These effects may vary based on the specific details of the perpetrator's actions, and they can last after a relationship has ended. Impacts might include debt or limits to one's ability to achieve housing. 

However, survivors may be able to rebuild their financial health. One positive first step may be exiting the crisis by contacting friends, family, or a shelter. A short-term plan can help someone get back on their feet and achieve or work toward financial stability. After that, a long-term plan may be beneficial. 

Those who work with individuals who have survived or are exiting abusive situations are often aware of how a perpetrator may seek to gain control over the survivor. In addition to helping individuals exit these situations, these resources may be able to offer guidance on ways to pursue financial healing. 

How to move forward as a survivor

If you are a survivor of financial abuse, it is possible to move forward and heal. Whether the abuse was recent or in the past, you might implement several actionable strategies for healing, including the following. 

Pursue financial healing 

It can take time to heal from financial abuse emotionally. Try to be kind and compassionate toward yourself as you rebuild, and don't hesitate to seek help. You may not be able to undo every impact. For example, you might not get back the money your former partner, family, or caretaker spent. However, taking independent control of your accounts and assets might offer you confidence and self-compassion after experiencing financial abuse. 

Establish peer and social support

Strong, healthy interpersonal connections are often advantageous for those who have overcome abuse and are associated with better physical health. Consider turning to the positive people in your life who make you feel optimistic about who you are. 

Try a support group 

Support groups may be valuable for those who have experienced financial abuse, especially if you feel alone in what you're going through or don't currently have people to turn to. Support groups are often free of cost and can be found online or in face-to-face settings.

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Work with a therapist 

A trauma-informed therapist may help you work through the complexities of abuse. Intimate partner violence can affect people in many ways, potentially impacting self-esteem and interfering with friendships, future partnerships, or familial relationships. It can also contribute to developing conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

If you're living in a shelter, looking for discreet care, or currently in an unhealthy relationship, you might also benefit from online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp. Online therapy has been proven effective for several mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD. 

There are various ways to find a therapist who offers virtual sessions, including signing up for a platform. Online therapists practice a range of specialties, and some offer matching systems so you can find a therapist unique to your needs. If you don't like the first therapist you work with, you may also have the chance to change your therapist within a few minutes. Being a survivor of abuse can be challenging, and having control over the type of support you receive may help you feel more independent. In addition, online therapy is often more cost-effective than in-person options for those without insurance. You may also be able to sign up for a financial aid option. 

Takeaway

If you have been experiencing financial abuse, it may be valuable to let connections in to support you, such as a therapist. Consider contacting a licensed mental health provider online or in your area to gain insight into how they can support you as you navigate these challenges.
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