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Money is power, and when that power is used to control and manipulate someone it becomes financial abuse. Financial abuse is a subtle but insidious form of family violence that can affect anyone regardless of socio-economic background, age, gender identity, ethnicity or sexual orientation. The abuser uses money as means to control and dominate the other person often leaving them trapped in a cycle of fear, shame and isolation. Whether it’s restricting access to money, stealing assets, or sabotaging credit, financial abuse can have devastating consequences on an individual’s financial independence, mental health and overall wellbeing. So how do we identify financial abuse and break the cycle if it happens to us or someone we love
Financial abuse is an often overlooked and misunderstood form of domestic violence and it’s a silent epidemic affecting millions of Australians. According to a Community Attitude Survey commissioned by CommBank and conducted by YouGov in 2020 almost 40% of the Australian adult population have experienced or know someone who has experienced financial abuse. It involves controlling, manipulating or exploiting an individual’s finances or economic resources. It can take on many forms including:
- Preventing an individual from attending work, getting a job or studying
- Making an individual account for all spending and show receipts for purchases
- Denying an individual access to financial information or account details
- Refusing to pay child support or help with childcare costs
- Controlling all the finances in a relationship including bank accounts, credit cards, investments and limiting an individual’s access to money
- Asking an individual to perform tasks or favours in exchange for money
- Pressuring an individual to take out a loan or credit card in their name for someone else
- Ignoring a partner’s opinion in relation to major financial decisions
- Keeping secrets from an individual about family finances
- Pressuring an individual to work in a family business without pay
- Stealing or misusing an individual's money or property without their consent
What’s most alarming about financial abuse is it is one of the most powerful ways an abuser can keep their partner or family member trapped in an abusive cycle and may also impact on that person’s ability to stay safe and manage day-to-day once they leave. The abuse can leave victims with no funds to purchase essentials such as food and clothing, sometimes causing homelessness. It can also leave them without access to their own bank accounts as well as built up debts leaving them in even worse situations. The psychological impacts may also be significant, with victims often becoming very isolated from any support networks. Furthermore, some people do not realise that they have been the victim of financial abuse until they have left the relationship.
Emma’s* Story: Emma was married to her partner for over 14 years. From the outside they looked every inch the successful, happy couple - good jobs, a house in Mosman, expensive cars and fancy holidays. The abuse started when they welcomed their first child and Emma’s role was made redundant whilst on maternity leave. He controlled the accounts, the loans and the credit cards giving her a small allowance each week to cover the essentials. She might have been driving a range rover but she had no agency or access to her own money. If she ran out of money she would have to ask him for more where he would belittle her for being ‘bad with money’ and ‘frivolous’ with her spending. He discouraged her from getting a job because that meant she would be ‘neglecting her duties as a mother’. When Emma finally left the relationship, she discovered her ex-husband had drained the joint bank accounts and taken loans out in her name without her consent leaving her with a large debt, a child to raise and limited job prospects after years out of the workforce.
Financial abuse can be difficult to identify as it often happens slowly and insidiously over time, and may be intertwined with emotional or psychological abuse. The lack of visible scars or bruises can also make it harder to recognise, and the victim may not realise they are being abused until significant damage has been done. Additionally, societal attitudes about money and shame surrounding financial difficulties can make it hard for victims to seek help, and loved ones may not recognise the warning signs or may feel hesitant to intervene in what they perceive as a private matter.
You can also protect yourself from financial abuse by knowing the sign of abuse as well as taking preventative steps such as:
- staying in touch with people you trust, and not being afraid to talk about any concerns you have
- regularly checking bank and credit card statements for unauthorised transactions
- opening your own mail
- storing documents, account logins and passwords in a safe and secure place
- if you lend money to someone, putting it in writing and making a plan with them for repayment
- never signing documents you don't understand
- where possible, getting independent and confidential legal or financial advice
- asking someone you trust to check that the person who manages your money is doing it in your best interests
Financial abuse is a pervasive issue that affects people from all walks of life, and it can have devastating consequences on an individual's financial independence, mental health, and overall well-being. It is important to understand the signs of financial abuse and take steps to prevent it both for ourselves and our loved ones. By breaking the silence around financial abuse, we can help create a safer and more supportive environment for victims and survivors, and work towards building a society where everyone has the right to financial autonomy and security.
*Names have been changed
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. This is free and confidential.
For counselling, advice and support call MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978 or visit www.mensline.org.au.
In an emergency or if you’re not feeling safe, always call 000.