Financial abuse: What are the warning signs and how do you get help?


Financial abuse is a mentally scarring and a destructive form of control over your life, according to money and charity experts.

It is hard to gauge the extent of the problem, but research estimating one in five women and one in seven men has had some experience of this type of abuse was cited by the Financial Conduct Authority last year.

We explain how to spot the warning signs in your relationship or that of someone close to you, what steps you can take to get free of a perpetrator, and where to turn for help. 

Financial abuse: Behaviour someone outside a relationship might see immediately is abusive can feel more reasonable to someone in it after a long, slow escalation from a fair sounding request

What is financial abuse?

‘Anyone can be at risk, because no one sets out to enter a relationship where financial abuse is the outcome,’ says Menna Cule, financial planner at wealth manager Brewin Dolphin. 

She explains the different forms it might take.

– ‘Coercive, controlling behaviour within a relationship when one person deliberately restricts access to, or solely controls all their partner’s finances leaving them with no money for basic essentials.’

This is often just one form of manipulative behaviour in a relationship, and according to Women’s Aid there is a financial abuse element in nearly a third of domestic abuse cases, says Cule.

– ‘When one partner perilously restricts or risks their partner’s or family’s ability to financially look after themselves through financially irresponsible behaviour such as reckless spending on addictions such as gambling, alcohol or shopping.’

– ‘The perpetrator is privy to someone’s private financial details and then uses it to exploit them and fraudulently gain access to their money.’ 

What are the warning signs to look out for?

Your own relationship

‘Spotting financial abuse within a relationship isn’t always easy, because abusers tend to start with small and subtle steps, and build them gradually,’ says Sarah Coles, senior personal finance analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown.

‘This may come alongside other kinds of behaviour that make it difficult to challenge, such as emotional or physical abuse. Again, this can start small and escalate.’

Coles explains this means behaviour someone outside the relationship might see immediately is abusive can feel more reasonable to someone in it after a long, slow escalation from a perfectly fair sounding request.

‘The early signs of financial abuse aren’t always enormously different from the actions of a concerned partner.

‘If you were to tell someone that you and your partner work to a tight budget, and need to talk about any additional expense before you make it, you could be describing a huge range of behaviours. The key difference is about control.’

Coles says a couple deciding on an approach together and sharing financial decisions as equal partners is very different from a situation where one partner imposes a measure and wields all the power in the discussion.

If I didn’t have enough cash to pay for what he wanted, he would give me an ultimatum – what would cost more: to buy him what he wanted or the cost of the damage he would do when he smashed everything in sight. So I got my credit card out and ended up with £3,000 worth of debt

Survivor of economic abuse, speaking to the charity SEA

She lists the following warning signs.

– Stopping you from studying or working

– By contrast, forcing you to work while they refuse to

– Insisting you hand over your salary and any benefits

– Taking control of your bank account

– Forcing you to ask for money for household expenses

– Insisting on seeing receipts for every expense

– Paying a household allowance that forces you into hardship

– Not allowing you to spend money on yourself or your children

– Paying for things and expecting something in return

– Denying access to information about the household finances

– Applying for credit in your name

– Withholding child maintenance payments.

Cule says tell-tale signs can be overt like being prevented from having your own bank cards, discouraged from having a job, forced to have a joint bank account – with little to no access to it – money being restricted and only given as if it were pocket money, and passwords to joint bank accounts being changed.

More subtle clues are post and bank statements in particular being hidden, and secretive behaviour and calls on the mobile, she adds.

The organisation Surviving Economic Abuse explains how to identify the signs of economic abuse here.

It says if a current or former partner has interfered with your money or other economic resources in some way to limit your choices, it has tools to help here.

Menna Cule: 'Anyone can be at risk, because no one sets out to enter a relationship where financial abuse is the outcome'

Menna Cule: ‘Anyone can be at risk, because no one sets out to enter a relationship where financial abuse is the outcome’

A friend or family member

If you’re worried about someone else, Coles suggests some red flags to look out below – and says if they come up it’s worth asking questions of the person at risk.

‘If you spot them, open up a conversation in a quiet and safe space. They may just be desperate for you to do so.’

– Starting to spend less, despite no change in their circumstances

– ‘Forgetting’ their wallet when they come out with you

– Stopping coming out with you altogether when money is being spent

– Asking to borrow money from you, without any noticeable change in their earnings

– Showing anxiety around anything that involves spending money

– Being unwilling to talk about money

– Changing their attitude to money in a way that stops matching their circumstances (‘We’re all tightening our belts right now, but watch out for someone who is dramatically restricting their spending,’ says Coles.)

– Spending appears to differ significantly from that of their partner

– Changing language around spending decisions, so they may talk about getting permission for things, or being allowed to spend on certain things

– Altering their working or studying arrangements without being able to explain why. 

What can you do if you suspect financial abuse?

‘If you’re a victim of financial abuse, it can feel too humiliating to admit to friends and family and ask for help,’ says Coles.

‘But it’s not your fault. You’re the victim of someone who used all your best and kindest instincts against you. It can be difficult for people outside the relationship to understand, but those who love you will help you get out and rebuild.

‘A long time ago I was the victim of financial abuse, and it was only when I faced up to it, and asked my family for help, that I escaped.’

Below are some steps you can take. However, their suitability depends on the nature of the situation and whether you feel in danger.

Sarah Coles: 'If you¿re a victim of financial abuse, it can feel too humiliating to admit to friends and family and ask for help'

Sarah Coles: ‘If you’re a victim of financial abuse, it can feel too humiliating to admit to friends and family and ask for help’

And Coles cautions that if you are concerned that making plans to leave will put you at risk, it’s much more important to stay safe.

‘In many cases, the abuse makes all these things impossible. But this doesn’t mean you cannot leave.’

Cultivate openness and honesty: ‘Ensure that regardless of whose responsibility various aspects of the household finances are, keep fully abreast of how much money there is and where it is, even if it means regular household meetings,’ says Menna Cule of Brewin Dolphin.

‘Educate yourself on your financial position both independently and as a family unit. There should be financial honesty in any partnership or family.

‘If you do suspect your partner of being fiscally irresponsible, invite them to speak openly to you about what’s going on rather than being confrontational, because if they are in trouble, the situation could spiral.

‘If you are too combative, they are likely to become defensive and potentially hide the problem even more.’

Ask people you trust for help: ‘Speak to someone. Once a fear is out in the open it can often feel easier to deal with,’ says Cule.

It’s important to speak to family and friends, stresses Cole. ‘The right help at the right time can help you start again.’

Save an emergency fund: ‘Because the abuser will often leave you without money, it’s a good idea to save a small emergency fund, and possibly get a family member or friend to look after it for you,’ says Coles.

‘It helps to gain a picture of your finances, any joint accounts and any debts in your name. It can also make things far less stressful if you have key financial documents.’

Cule says: ‘Aim to have access to your own money. Try to build up two to three months’ worth of savings as a safety net should you need to remove yourself from the household.’

Get outside help: Domestic abuse charities such as Women’s Aid, Refuge and the National Domestic Abuse Helpline can help, says Coles. (Find contact details below.)

‘They may also be able to find you space in a refuge, where you will get more help in finding your feet.

‘If you have the money to do so, it can be incredibly valuable to contact a solicitor. They will push to ensure your rights are upheld and can establish court orders to keep you safe.

Contact the police: It can be difficult to break away from abuse without help, says Coles.

‘Depending on the threat posed by the abuser, this may mean contacting the police: coercive or controlling behaviour within a family relationship became a criminal offence in 2015.

‘Even if you plan to leave without police intervention, you can still call on their help later. They can take legal action to force your partner to leave your home, and not come within a certain distance.’

She says that if you have been forced to flee without your belongings, the police can accompany you home to fetch essential items. 

How do you rebuild your finances after suffering abuse?

If you have left, Sarah Coles suggests the following steps.

– ‘You should freeze joint accounts, to prevent them doing more financial harm. On ‘joint’ credit cards, check if you are the primary or secondary account holder.

‘The primary account holder is responsible for all the debts, so if you are the secondary holder you can just have yourself removed. If you are the primary account holder, you should have your ex removed, but then you will need to repay the debts.

– ‘If you have moved out of the family house, contact the service providers – including phone, media, broadband, water, gas and electricity – and tell them the date you left. This will make it harder for your ex to run up big bills in your name.’

– ‘If your partner has put you into financial difficulties, someone like Citizen’s Advice Bureau can get in touch with organisations you owe money to and explain you are a vulnerable customer, and need additional support.’

‘If you are struggling to, for example, explain to lenders that loans were taken out in your name by someone else, CAB can speak to them on your behalf.

‘The charity Stepchange has debt advisers who can provide guidance and help you find solutions. They also have benefit specialists who will help you claim everything you’re entitled to.’ 

What do abuse experts say?

‘We know that economic abuse is a significant barrier to leaving an abuser,’ says Farah Nazeer, chief executive at Women’s Aid.

Farah Nazeer:  'Economic abuse is a significant barrier to leaving an abuser'

Farah Nazeer:  ‘Economic abuse is a significant barrier to leaving an abuser’

‘The manipulation of money and other resources limits women’s actions and freedom of choice, and deprives them of the material means needed for independence and escape.

‘The effects of this abuse can be devastating- leaving women with no money for basic essentials such as food and clothing, without access to their own bank accounts, or with debts that have been built up by abusive partners set against their names.

‘Everyone has the right to feel safe and happy in their relationship, and you should never feel as though you are being controlled by your partner.

‘If you are worried about your relationship or that of a loved one, you can use our live chat for confidential expert advice and support.’

Christina Govier, head of support to financial services at Surviving Economic Abuse, says: ‘This week marks one year since the landmark Domestic Abuse Act was given Royal Assent and became law.

‘For the first time, economic abuse is now recognised in law as part of the statutory definition of domestic abuse. If you are worried that you, or someone you know, may be experiencing economic abuse there are organisations that can help.’

Govier warns: ‘Economic abuse rarely happens in isolation; it normally happens alongside other forms of domestic abuse.’

Where can you go for help?

If you are in immediate danger, contact the police.

If you are not in immediate danger but are concerned about your safety, the National Domestic Abuse Helpline is on 0808 2000 247 and open 24 hours a day.

Surviving Economic Abuse’s financial support line, run in partnership with Money Advice Plus, offers specialist advice to people experiencing domestic abuse who are in financial difficulty. SEA says the advice may help you to regain control of your finances.

Women’s Aid has help and advice here, including a live chat service for confidential expert advice and support.

It runs a Rail to Refuge scheme, a joint initiative with rail companies where operators cover the cost of train tickets for women, men and children escaping domestic abuse travelling to refuge accommodation.

You can find out how to access it here, and the Rail Delivery group explains more here.

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