Financial Abuse: One Survivor’s Story

As part of our series on financial abuse, we’re sharing a story from someone who’s survived it. For her safety and privacy, we’re publishing it anonymously. But please take the time to read it, particularly if you think you’re experiencing financial abuse. 

Ten years later, and I am pretty good about pushing back certain memories. I no longer remember the way he smelled, the first moment we met, where we had our first kiss, or the directions to his apartment.

But there are things I cannot erase no matter how hard I try. There are moments in my five-year relationship that are etched in time in a way that is hard to describe to anyone who has not been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s almost as if a movie was made incomplete and stopped at the exact climax. And no matter how many times you try to press “play” or “forward,” that movie doesn’t go on. It stays there.

That’s how I remember the physical abuse. A therapist of mine once told me that scars are scars for a reason. They are there to remind us of danger. Some scars we can see, and I have plenty of them from three years of pushes, cuts, and bruises.

There are also scars that lie deep inside of us, buried in our heads and hearts but realized in our thoughts and actions. These are the scars that make me cry out when I see his pictures in Facebook memories or how I look twice when I hear a slapping sound.

But more so, those subconscious scars are the reason why I have such a complicated relationship with money, because it is a relationship that is marred by psychological and financial abuse.

In my opinion, our first conversation about money was pretty normal. I mentioned that my mom had a gambling problem and that it had made me skittish about losing my own money. While I had worked for years and was rather self-sufficient for a nineteen-year-old, I was still nervous about the one credit card I had and the student loan debt I had accumulated my first year of college.

He smiled and said something along the lines of, “Don’t worry about that stuff. I’ll take care of it.” And, to his credit, he did. He set up my auto-pay for my car insurance, went with me to enroll for a real bank account, explained how my loan payments worked, and helped me apply for a second credit card.

Another year in and he had set a strict budget for me under the guise that it would help me get out of debt. He would take what was left over from my various paychecks and put it towards my few debts. Because of that and my blind love and devotion for him, it made sense to give him my social security number, to put him on my bank accounts, and to allow him to access my online statements.

He was just… so good at it.

As the abuse escalated, the more money became a massive part of our relationship. He was in control. I was stupid with money. I couldn’t be trusted. I would spend it on dumb things like clothes or food (he also controlled my eating). I would become like my mom and go bankrupt at casinos. We couldn’t have a future together because I was naive enough to get student loans.

The more he said it, the more I believed it. This is how financial abuse goes. It systematic and repetitive. It’s brainwashing. There’s a reason financial abuse is reported 99 percent of domestic abuse cases according to the Center for Financial Security, and it’s often because financial abuse breaks down all the survivor’s ties to the outside world.

With that “budget” he put me on, there wasn’t room to go over on my cell phone’s minutes calling for help from a friend or family member. Him having control of my debit card meant I couldn’t put gas in my car without asking him first and explaining where I needed to go. That extra money that was being put towards my debts? It was his now.

Without money or credit, I was trapped in my own nightmare. One night, after he was out drinking with his fraternity brothers, I stole $15 from an envelope he kept in a dresser for emergencies. I ran towards a bus stop that would get me to a friend’s house in the city. But the tickets were more expensive late at night, and I needed $23. I cried the entire walk home as the world shrank around me over a lifesaving $8.

Eventually, I did get out. It took me five years, but I made it to that bus stop on a morning he was sick in bed with the flu. From my friend’s, I was able to call my dad and explain everything — all the years of punching, sobbing, emotional battering. And I was lucky that he believed me and stood by me as I quickly fought back.

With the help from a contact at a bank, I was able to get a large share of my money transferred out of our shared account and into a new, personal account the same day. Next came locking down my credit, changing passwords and logins, and shutting down accounts he had opened for me.

The damage was still done — in the tune of over $12,000 of racked up credit card debt and an estimated $4,000-8,000 in cash taken and never returned. I could have gone after him in courts or through the police, but the financial abuse he carefully subjected me to was all legal. My name and signature were on every one of his actions, and the money he took was easily seen as a gift or shared property.  

The only thing I could do was move forward with my life. I had to relearn so many things, but the hardest has been how to trust myself with money. To this day, his words ring in my head about how I am doomed to become a destitute nobody, and it can be hard to enjoy purchases or celebrate financial milestones without looking over my shoulder for someone to push me back down to the ground.

I am telling my story with the hope that you find this because you may be experiencing what I experienced or that you may know (or suspect) someone close to you is going through something similar. Let me tell you that there is hope to be found.

Organizations like the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE) can help — even if the abuse is only financial or emotional. And local shelters are trained to guide you through regaining your financial independence. Trust them, and trust yourself.

You are more than what he or she says. And you can do this. You can be a survivor.

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