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What is financial abuse and how to identify it

28 April 2021

The following article refers to issues of Domestic and Family Violence. If you need support, contact 1800RESPECT.

Call Triple Zero (000) if you are in immediate danger.

Contact your local police if there are threats to your safety or there are threats to your friends or family members

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While it’s not always the most romantic topic, money is an important issue in any relationship. Whether you’re living together, are married or have a family, sharing a life together often involves sharing finances, too. It’s vital to understand where your partner stands financially (and vice versa) and to work as a team to make important money decisions.

But what happens when your partner becomes too enmeshed in your finances, to the point where you no longer feel you have any control? Perhaps your partner has restricted your access to your bank accounts, and you fear what would happen to you and your children financially should you ever leave.

If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s possible that you or someone you know is a victim of financial abuse. The good news is, by understanding the warning signs, you can empower yourself with the knowledge to break free and be financially independent.

What is financial abuse?

Also known as economic abuse, financial abuse is defined as a form of family violence where someone monitors and restricts another’s finances, with the intention of controlling them.

“With financial abuse, financial decision making and access to income are used as a weapon by one person to exert power and control over another,” says Julie Kun, CEO of the Women’s Information and Referral Exchange (WIRE) and a former social worker.

“The person doing the financial abuse is not being respectful of the needs, skills and knowledge of their partner,” she continues.

While financial abuse can occur with parents, carers or other relatives, it most commonly happens at the hands of partner and ex-partners. Financial abuse also does not discriminate — affecting people of all different cultures, ages, economic status, ages and walks of life.  However, women are the most at risk, particularly those between the age of 40 and 49.

Data shows that approximately 16 per cent of women and 8 per cent of men — nearly two million Australians — have or will experience financial abuse over the course of their lifetime.

But despite financial abuse reaching what Julie describes as ‘epidemic proportions’, it’s a complex issue we’re only just beginning to fully understand in Australia.  This is because it is a silent form of abuse, as the signs are often so subtle that victims often don’t even realise they are experiencing it. Or, they feel that they won’t be taken seriously if they seek help.

“Victim survivors often tell us at WIRE that they feel it is harder to be believed if there are no physical signs of injury,” says Julie. However, this doesn’t make the effects of financial abuse any less devastating.

“It robs them and their children of their future financial security and limits their options in life,” says Julie.

In the long-term, this can leave victims and their children without food or shelter, leading them to move into a refuge.

In the shorter-term, financial abuse can inflict extreme mental distress on the victim “Their confidence is eroded, and they experience constant anxiety, stress and fear as their abusive partner controls and denies them the ability to know and do things that most people take for granted, like buying a coffee or knowing how much money they have in the bank,” says Julie.

Read on to learn how to identify financial abuse, so you can begin to safely take steps towards the freedom and independence you deserve.

Understanding healthy vs. unhealthy financial situations

With the signs of financial abuse often being so subtle, there can be a fine line between a normal relationship dynamic and a toxic situation. But, by understanding what a healthy financial relationship with a partner looks like, it can help you spot when something is awry.

As any couple can attest to, money can be an emotionally-charged issue — especially when it comes to things like debt, paying bills and large purchases. Arguments around money aren’t unusual, even in a healthy relationship.

“In most relationships, there will be hard and sometimes uncomfortable conversations about money and financial priorities,” says Julie. “Having these conversations is important.” However, the nature of these conversations is important. It should be collaborative and productive, and you should not feel fearful or threatened.

“In a respectful relationship, opinions and information provided by both people are respected,” says Julie. “There is genuine listening, negotiation and an ability to talk about what is important to both of you.” If you find your partner is evasive about money or refuses to have conversations with you about it, this can be a sign of financial abuse, too.

Know the signs of financial abuse

Financial abuse doesn’t always manifest solely in screaming matches about money.  Often, the signs can be more covert and insidious.

“A feeling that you are not allowed to make financial decisions or access income or a fear of what may happen to you and your children if you question household financial decisions or ask for money are all signs that you may be experiencing financial abuse,” says Julie.

Signs of financial abuse include:

  • You have limited or no access to your own or family bank accounts
  • Your partner insists that you do not work or earn income of your own
  • Or, your partner relies on you solely for income, and refuses to contribute
  • Your partner has set up loans or credit cards in your name
  • You are required to ask your partner to access money, for yourself or your children
  • Your partner makes major financial decisions without consulting you
  • You are belittled or made to feel guilty around money
  • Your partner threatens to cut you off financially if they do not get their way
  • Your partner exerts excessive control of your spending ie. demanding you explain every transaction
  • You have no financial resources of your own, making you fearful to leave your partner
  • You experience other forms of financial violence, such as emotional, physical or sexual abuse

Your next steps

If you identify with any of the warning signs of financial abuse, the good news is, there is a way out. However, it’s important to navigate the situation with caution, for your own safety and that of your children. If you intend to leave your partner or cut ties with an abusive ex-partner, it’s crucial to have a financial safety net. This will assist with helping you make a safe getaway, or to engage the services of a lawyer if required.

Thankfully, there is help available, and you don’t have to go through this alone. Julie recommends reaching out to a free service like WIRE or 1800Respect, where you will be able to talk through what you are experiencing and what your options are. “They will not force you to do anything, just provide information in a supportive way,” says Julie. “You are recognised as the expert of your situation.”

These organisations will also be able to talk you through any safety issues and what you can do to protect yourself and your family. Other services like financial counsellors or the National Debt Helpline, can also assist especially if your partner has accumulated debts in your name. Often, these services offer web chat and email, if you are concerned about the privacy of a phone call.

Finally, you can contact your bank, who may be able to assist in helping you regain access to your bank accounts or safeguarding them to restrict your partner’s access. If you suspect that someone you know is the victim of financial abuse, the best way to help them is to gently and privately direct them to these resources, and simply let them know you are here for them.

While financial abuse may be the silent weapon, you now have even more powerful weapons of your own — knowledge and support. Armed with these, you will be able to take the brave next steps to a safer and brighter future.

For more information on protecting yourself from financial abuse, check out this free eBook

© Westpac Banking Corporation ABN 33 007 457 141 AFSL and Australian credit licence 233714.


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