IT’S YOUR MONEY: The Top 10 Things You Should Know About Financial Abuse

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On April 11, Gov. Chris Sununu signed an executive order establishing the Governor’s Commission on Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Stalking, reviving a group that hadn’t convened since 2013.

WHAT THIS MEANS TO YOU: Sununu says the commission will “develop, support and implement initiatives that address the needs of victims and survivors.” That means a lot of things, but since this is a column about consumer finance, let’s hope it makes an effort to recognize, and inform the public on, one aspect of domestic violence that’s often overlooked: financial control and abuse.


Domestic abuse is generally thought of as physical violence, but an even more prevalent form of domestic abuse is financial abuse. Financial abuse, sometimes called economic control, is a way to isolate and control a victim, often with devastating results. It’s little understood, even by many of its victims.

Before we delve in, there’s an important point to understand about domestic abuse in general. A study by the New York Office for Prevention of Domestic Violence found that in relationships with a pattern of domestic abuse, the large majority of abusers are men, abusing women. When women abuse, the majority of time it’s a woman reacting to abuse, the New York study and others have found. The report points out that heterosexual male abuse of female partners is grounded in inequalities in power and resources between women and men, as well as social rules for relationships. The context creates entitlement for men and makes women vulnerable. 

Most domestic abuse includes coercive control, which is exerting power over a partner in ways that aren’t necessarily physical in order to maintain control. This can include threats, humiliation, gaslighting, manipulation, intimidation and, of course, financial abuse. 

Evan Stark, who is a pioneer in the field of identifying coercive control, says that women’s “default consignment” to certain tasks and roles in a relationship and in the home (child care, housework, sexually) make it difficult to tell where the role leaves off and the abuse begins. And this is true even in the enlightened 21st century.

Why am I telling you all this? Because understanding the context of the statistics is a way to better understand what financial control is and how it works. And why it can be so devastating.

Let’s take a look at the five important things you should know about financial abuse, and then five things people who are in a financially abusive relationship can do to protect themselves.

Five things you should know about financial abuse

1. Financial abuse is when one partner controls access to money. There are many ways this can happen, but here are some of the most common. Your partner:

  • Doesn’t give you access to bank accounts or credit cards
  • Makes you ask for money for things like food for the kids or personal hygiene products
  • Doesn’t allow you to work, or sabotages job prospects or your employment (constantly makes you late, harasses you at work, etc.)
  • Doesn’t involve you in family financial decisions – from little things like opening an account to big ones, like refinancing a mortgage or getting a car loan
  • Makes you hand over, or takes without your permission, money you have earned, inherited or public benefits assigned to you (WIC, SNAP, Social Security, etc.)
  • Makes you justify spending money
  • Punishes you for spending money with physical, sexual or emotional abuse
  • Is “in charge” of the bills, but refuses to pay bills on accounts in your name, damaging your credit score
  • Forges your name on financial documents or opens accounts in your name
  • Doesn’t pay court-ordered child support or alimony.

2. Some 94-99 percent of female domestic abuse victims are victims of financial abuse.

3. Financial abuse is one of the most powerful methods of keeping a woman trapped in an abusive relationship. Victims don’t have the means to support themselves outside of the relationship because the abuser controls the money. This is compounded if there are children.

4. Financial control may not end with the relationship. The victim either has no financial means, or her finances are in tatters (bad credit scores, bills in collections, no savings). This makes it almost impossible to get a job, pay rent, get a car, get child care, or anything else that costs money.

5. Nearly three-quarters of Americans in a recent survey did not recognize financial abuse as a form of domestic abuse.

Five ways to protect yourself from financial abuse.

Some of these safeguards are things to do if you are in an abusive relationship, others are what to do if you’re preparing to leave, and some are what you should do if you do leave to protect yourself financially.

These steps just address protecting yourself financially – leaving an abusive partner can be complicated and dangerous. If your finances are being controlled, some of most of these may not be possible. For help from experts, call one of the numbers listed at the bottom of this column.

  1. Make copies of important financial and personal documents, like birth certificates, marriage certificate, documents for any accounts that you pay and that are in your name or joint accounts, and anything with your Social Security number on it. Have a friend or family member keep copies in a safe place. Keep a set for yourself, including your passport if you have one, in a safe deposit box that’s not accessible by your partner.
  2. Keep extra money and a burner phone (a disposable phone, available in many department and convenience stores) in a safe place where you can access them quickly if you have to leave.
  3. Your partner may have digital access to your email, devices and phones that you may not be aware of – don’t use them to make plans to leave or to store sensitive information on. If you are able, once you leave get a new device and create a new email account that your partner can’t access. Change all your PINS and passwords (don’t use kids’ or pets’ names), and close any accounts that are in your name that are compromised. It’s also possible to get a new Social Security number if yours has been used fraudulently by your partner. Contact the Social Security Administration if this is the case.
  4. If you have accounts in your name for bills that you pay, notify the companies once you have a new email address on a new device. If you are still getting bills by U.S. mail, let the company know your new address, but only when you’re sure that you can do it securely.
  5. Get a copy of your credit report and go through it carefully to see if there are accounts that you are unaware of. You can get reports from the three credit reporting bureaus – Transunion, Experian and Equifax – free at You can challenge errors or accounts you didn’t apply for. Work on establishing a new credit record. Your credit score is determined by on-time payments, amount of credit you are using vs. what your limit is and history of credit. It may take a long time to rebuild credit, but there are many companies now that offer credit cards with small limits — $300-500 – that can help you build credit.


About this Author

Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is a contract reporter and content producer for consumer financial agencies. She has worked for northern New England publications, including the New Hampshire Union Leader, for 25 years, and most recently at Mainebiz in Portland, Maine. She can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.