It was raining when I left. I remember thinking how appropriate — even poetic — it was to be standing outside, getting soaked as I waited for my taxi back to my apartment. From there, I planned to go back to my hometown for a few days to recover from my breakup. I’d call up a few friends, watch some romance movies, and eat the stereotypical pint of ice cream.
But it wasn’t meant to be. As I swiped my card on the taxi driver’s payment system, it gave that horrible “declined” beep. I tried another debit card, then an emergency credit card. Nothing.
Later that night, I would learn that my ex-boyfriend — a man who had already held me against the wall by my neck when he thought I wasn’t listening properly, and who had shattered a window throwing a baseball at me — had taken all of my money and had somehow managed to add himself as a secondary user on my credit card.
It wasn’t the first time this happened. My ex had used my money to keep me from going out with my friends or going home to see my family. There was another time he had told me that my credit score (a number that I didn’t even know existed) was so low that, “No one but me would trust you with money.”
I believed him and let this cycle continue for far too long. But this time, when I felt emotionally ready to move on, everything I'd worked for was gone. Not only had my abusive relationship left me scarred, but it had also left me with deep financial damage that I’m still wading through nearly eight years later.
The Prevalence of Financial Abuse in Relationships
According to a CentSai survey of 2,000 millennials (ages 18 to 35), 60 percent of respondents had gone through some version of financial abuse in their relationships. Someone they loved — even trusted — used money to manipulate or control them. The same number of millennials experienced financial infidelity. In other words, their partners lied to them about their spending or financial history.
This is a massive number, and going by CentSai’s data, more and more millennials are exposed to the dangers of financially unfaithful or abusive partners.
In fact, last year, a similar survey by CentSai had only 30 percent of respondents report that they experienced financial abuse in a relationship.
Melissa Hamilton, a law professor and criminologist who specializes in financial abuse, defines it as “limiting the victim’s access to, use of, and control over finances and assets.” She explains that financial abuse in relationships is evident in cases such as, “requiring the victim to hand over paychecks, refusing to allow the other in major financial decisions, and/or hiding large purchases.”
More Bad News
Those most vulnerable people to financial abuse in relationships have a higher chance of also being victims of physical violence or threat. “The National Network to End Domestic Violence states that financial abuse is found in 98 percent of domestic abuse cases,” Hamilton says. “Thus, one could say that a first sign of a financially abusive relationship is the existence of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse.”
Financial infidelity and abuse can be separated from domestic violence, especially the subtler forms that can easily spiral out of control. According to attorney, author, and advocate Alexis Moore, signs of financial abuse may include, “Controlling the banking and financial aspects of the relationship, removing your name from accounts, taking deposits that are yours and making them theirs, controlling your ability to work and be fiscally successful. It could be simply sabotaging your sleep by constantly arguing so that you are not… productive at work.”
And while it’s easy to think of victims of financial abuse as people like me (female, lower-middle-class, vulnerable), men are not immune to financial abuse in relationships, either. Forty percent of men responded to the survey saying that they had experienced financially abusive or unfaithful behaviors by a partner. These behaviors included hiding income or using financial control as a threat.
I didn't recognize the signs of my abuser’s actions early on. Nor did I think he was doing anything wrong when he insisted on holding onto my debit card or knowing my pin numbers. I thought it was just what happened in normal, trusting relationships. It wasn’t until I decided to leave that I realized how damaging it could be to love the wrong person.
Overcoming Financial Abuse in Relationships
For those who may be in the same shoes as I was, but recognize potential signs of financial abuse early on, the key is to make a plan and seek help when necessary.
Hamilton’s advice to victims? “Develop and maintain a safety plan that includes finances, plus personal safety.” She also suggests that you “start to keep copies of financial documents or asset purchases or take photos of the assets in context to show the victim has possession.”
Once everything is in order, financial abuse victims should consider seeking an attorney’s advice immediately — something that I did with the assistance of a close family member. This attorney was invaluable as she walked me through obtaining an order of protection. She helped me as I transitioned into a new home and explained my financial situation when I needed it.
If you can't afford an attorney, Hamilton suggests visiting local law schools. There, you can often find a pro-bono domestic violence clinic. These students and their professors can provide free or sliding-scale fees, giving quality legal advice and aid to those with little to no money.
Another option — especially if you experience physical threat or intimidation — is to seek out a shelter. You can input your zip code at DomesticShelters.org to find the nearest location.
If it's safe to do so, you can contact the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1−800−799−7233.
Finally, when you’re ready to get yourself back on your feet financially – whether it be recovering from a damaged credit score or building up your savings again – having a financial expert or adviser on your side can help you make the right decisions.
Final Thoughts on Financial Abuse in Relationships
In the debate over domestic violence, there is discussion on what to call people like me. Some prefer to call themselves victims to demonstrate the seriousness of what they have been through. However, I like to see myself as a survivor — the kind of person who went through hell and back and was able to retake control of her financial health after an abusive relationship.
It was a long journey, but now I’m proud to work with organizations like CentSai — places that understand the importance of financial literacy and independence through all stages of life. The damage from financial abuse in a relationship can last for years after its ended. In some cases, an abusive relationship continues due to force of circumstances. Taking steps early to understand and recognize the signs of financial infidelity or abuse can make all the difference in protecting your wallet, your heart, and your life.