Financial Abuse: What You Need to Know and How to Help

Ninety-nine percent.

According to Purple Purse, that is the amount of domestic violence victims who also experience financial abuse. And that statistic doesn’t include elder abuse or those victims who only experience financial abuse.

Taken all together, the number of financial abuse victims is staggering. What’s worse, it’s the least discussed – and most misunderstood – form of domestic violence. It’s also the form of domestic violence that’s most difficult to recognize (since the signs are often subtle and easily hid) and one that’s extremely difficult to escape.

Because you need money to do virtually anything. And how do you escape when your partner holds the purse strings or withholds your access to any funds? And when you do escape, what do you do next? Most importantly, if you want to help someone escape, how do you do it?

It’s a big, complex issue, and one that we’ll be diving into more in the month of May for Financial Abuse Awareness Month, but for now, let’s examine what financial abuse is and four things you need before you can help a victim.

Defining financial abuse.

Before we get started, let’s talk about what exactly we mean by financial abuse.

In its most basic form, and its simplest definition, financial abuse is a tactic used by abusers to gain power and control in a relationship. Money is a driving force of power, meaning those who have it wield the power, and abusers weaponize it to manipulate, intimidate, and threaten to keep that person in a relationship (definition adapted from the National Network to End Domestic Violence).

Financial abuse is amorphous. It looks different in every situation, and there’s no one concrete indicator of the abuse. However, if you suspect someone is being financially abused, here are some red flags:

  • Restricted or no access to bank accounts, important documents like birth certificates or Social Security cards, or financial passwords
  • Being held to a strict allowance and having to report every purchase, no matter how small
  • Limited or no access to money for basic needs
  • Forbidding a victim to work, sabotaging employment or advancement opportunities
  • Hiding assets, cash, or other financial details from a victim
  • Identity theft

Every financial relationship is different, so what may look like abuse to you may not actually be abuse. But if you see warning signs, it might be worth sitting down with that person for a discussion. Here are some tips on how to approach this kind of conversation if you’re struggling getting started.

Fair warning: it’s uncomfortable to talk about this topic with someone you suspect is being abused. They may be in denial or justify why their abuser is doing it, like the victim of any kind of abuse would. But it’s important for their safety and security, and you’ll be glad you did it.

If you’re looking to understand more, Plutus Awards winner Bitches Get Riches has an outstanding primer explaining financial abuse.

Why should I care about financial abuse?

It’s a good question. One that’s hard to answer, too, because we all have different priorities and emotional bandwidth and maybe this isn’t something that you have the capacity to focus on right now.

But caring about financial abuse has some benefits:

  • It legitimizes the abuse on a larger scale, which can lead to better laws and public policies to support victims and punish abusers
  • It improves the financial health of the victim, which could potentially keep them out of poverty and debt
  • It brings attention to the issue, which decreases the stigma and allows survivors to feels less shame
  • It’s so common, it could happen to someone you love and understanding the ins and outs makes you more capable of assisting them

It’s not unreasonable to think that you might one day be in a position of helping someone looking to escape a financially abusive relationship. Which is why it makes sense, even on a superficial level, to care about this issue.

Here’s how you can help.

You might know what to do to help someone financially. However, when you’re working with someone affected by financial abuse, you’ll face different issues than say, working with a recent college graduate who just doesn’t know how to create a budget.

Financial abuse survivors are often overwhelmed at the thought of managing their whole financial life on their own, and looking at all the things is terrifying. Especially when you’ve had your financial power taken away from you and you’re told things like “you’re too dumb to do this” or “it’s just so complicated, you’ll never understand” or “you don’t need to know all of that.”

When you’re told something long enough, you believe it. Those statements are meant to put the victims in a dependent mindset, thinking that they need their abusers in order to function, financially (and otherwise). And they accomplish it, too.

And it’s incredibly difficult to undo what’s likely been years and years of negative conditioning and demoralizing. But it can be done, especially if you approach the person you’re assisting with the following four traits:

  • Empathy. Let them know that you understand. That you feel for what they’re going through, that you know it’s not their fault, and that you are there to help with whatever they need when they’re ready. It’s extremely important that you don’t put your judgment, values, and beliefs on them and their situation. This causes trust issues and to effectively help, there needs to be trust.
  • Education. Find out what financial education they need and help them find it. It could be anything from opening a bank account to finding out their credit score to creating a budget or even filling out an application for their own apartment. Retirement, investing, savings, and other higher-level financial skills might not be what they need in the moment, and it is crucial you meet them where they are.
  • Encouragement. This is where you let them know you believe that they can take charge of their own financial life. You’ve helped them find what they need, and while you can be there to assist, you need to let the victim or survivor know that you believe in them and their ability to accomplish whatever financial task has been put before them. You’re effectively their cheerleader at this point.
  • Empowerment. This is the final step, and it often goes hand-in-hand with encouragement. This is where you step back and let them do what they need to do, even if you disagree with the method or choices. You can offer advice if they ask for it but eventually, you have to let them reclaim their own financial life. It’s the hardest place to walk a financial abuse survivor to and through but it can be done.

Resources for teaching financial literacy to financial abuse survivors.

If you want to take helping survivors of financial abuse a step further, there are ways to do that. You can volunteer with an existing organization, create a video course or blog, or even better, you can run a class or workshop in your community.

While information on teaching financial literacy to financial abuse survivors is still fairly limited, two leading organizations, Purple Purse and the National Network to End Domestic Violence have an out-of-the-box curriculum you can use if you want to get involved in working with survivors of financial abuse. Both offer the same program, sponsored by the Allstate Foundation, so props to them for getting involved and working to solve this issue.

Each organization also offers additional, custom pdfs you can download, and Purple Purse even created a hidden-camera video, the Lost Purse Project, to give people a glimpse into what you might see when you find a lost purse.

You can also use our guide to starting your own financial literacy program if you want to start your own, or if you’re looking for some information how to improve one you’ve already created.

Financial abuse is a rampant, hidden problem. But by learning the signs, understanding how we can help, and working directly with them, we can combat this issue, stop the abuse cycle, and change the future for both victims and survivors.

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