Updated: Mar 14, 2024

Financial Abuse is Real: What to Do If It's Happening to You

Financial abuse and financial infidelity are real. Learn how to understand if it's happening to you - and what you can do about it if it is.
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Shannyn Allan was engaged to her fiance for months before she discovered his secret. It wasn't an affair or drugs, he was committing financial infidelity. The two of them had agreed to pay for their wedding and honeymoon together. Her fiance even received money from his family that was supposed to cover his share of the costs. Instead of putting that money away, he spent. Instead of admitting his mistakes to Allan, he opened credit cards in both of their names. His plan? To use them to pay for his part of the wedding. Fortunately for Allan, she discovered what he had done before it was too late. But she's not alone. In fact, this type of occurrence is far more common than many realize. Financial literacy website Centsai recently performed a survey to discover just how common this is. After polling more than 2,000 people, they found some eye-opening results:

  • 53% of the men said they had been victims of financial abuse or financial infidelity
  • 47% of the women said they had been victims of financial abuse or financial infidelity

In other words, nearly half of men and women polled said to have experienced financial abuse or financial infidelity. If it's so common, why is no one talking about it?

What Is Financial Abuse or Financial Infidelity?

Like emotional abuse, financial abuse is hard for others to see. This type of abuse doesn't leave a bruise. But it can cause a great deal of injury that's not as easily visible.

“Financial abuse is one of those things people don't see coming until it happens to them, as we typically don't talk about it as a form of abuse or a form of harm that can have severe consequences which can leave us feeling trapped and powerless,” said Allan, who runs the personal finance blog Frugal Beautiful.

Abuse often comes down to control and victims are often stuck due to limited access to their money. This is no different in financial abuse. In fact, all of these forms of abuse can be used in conjunction with each other. This can create a situation that makes it difficult for the victim to leave.

“With the physical and emotional abuse in my relationship it was about making me feel inferior, worthless, and dependent on him," said social media and blog strategist and abuse survivor Kylie Travers.

"Financial abuse does the same thing and is often a precursor to other forms of abuse. With financial abuse you are no longer your own person, you don't have control of your life, they do. And that is what abusers thrive on - controlling others.”

Signs of financial abuse and/or financial infidelity include:

  • Lying about debt or assets
  • Withholding access to financial accounts
  • Limiting access to joint funds
  • Secretly opening credit in the other person's name

When Allan discovered what her partner had done, she called off the wedding and left the relationship. However, according to the study, few people take these steps. In fact, only 19% of those surveyed said they ended the relationship with their abuser.

“As soon as I realized that he meant to treat me like a pawn, and not a wife, and to strip me of my autonomy by going behind my back and forcing me into a financial situation I hadn't consented to - I knew where the road was to lead,” she said.

How to Prevent Financial Abuse or Financial Infidelity

In any relationship, both parties should have access to all financial accounts and be aware of the account activity.

“Each should know about all their assets and debts, whether joint or separate,” said Valerie Rind, author of Gold Diggers and Deadbeat Dads. “Seek to avoid one person having all the information or sole access to accounts.”

Besides that, there are other ways you can prevent financial abuse or financial infidelity:

  • Check Your Credit Report on a Regular Basis

It also helps to frequently check your credit report, which will list any new accounts, late payments, or other issues. For example, let's say your partner is in charge of paying the credit card. If he or she defaulted on the account, you'd be able to see that on your credit report if you're an authorized user of the account.

  • Set Up Text or Push Notifications from Your Bank Account

If you set up text or push notifications from your bank, you'll be alerted to activity as soon as it's registered. For example, you can set up low balance alerts, due date alerts, and more. These notifications will enable you to stay in the loop about financial activity in real-time.

  • Schedule Monthly Budget Dates with Your Partner

To keep the lines of communication open, set up a monthly budget date with your partner. You should go over spending from the month, outstanding bills, and upcoming goals. These meetings should keep you both engaged in your joint and individual finances. Talking about your finances regularly will also help you remove any potential feelings of shame in case of a financial mistake. By creating a safe place to be open and honest about your finances, a once taboo money subject can get easier and easier for you to talk about.

  • Consider Seeing a Counselor for Extra Help

If you're considering marriage or merging your finances, then these financial conversations are critical. Before you combine anything, discuss assets and debt. Talk about your vision for the future. See where you stand on budgeting and other tactics for financial success. And don't forget to talk about your financial weaknesses as these are things you may be able to work on together as the years go on. Allan talks more about when this step is important to think about:

“It's not just marriage - be sure you know what it really means to sign a lease, car loan, or mortgage together and how you could handle it if a situation turned abusive,” Allan said. “Are you truly empowering yourself, or losing the ability to leave by signing this contract together?”

During this process, it may be helpful to meet with a counselor specializing in premarital issues. That way you have an objective third party weighing in on things should you find it hard to come together on certain topics. And after you merge your finances, consider finding a financial planner to help you map out your future together. Again, an objective third party helps. Also, using a financial planner means you'll have another set of eyes on your accounts. This can be helpful both on accountability and prevention of deceptive financial behavior.

  • Maintain Joint and Individual Accounts

To avoid giving over complete financial control, Travers recommends keeping individual and joint accounts. (The latter can be used for joint bills). Both people's names should be on joint accounts and joint bills. However, if you haven't yet merged your finances, you may want to avoid cosigning on loans. If you do cosign, you'll be held responsible if your partner defaults on the debt.


How to Stop It

If you find out that your partner has committed financial infidelity, all is not lost. Here are a few things to consider as you move forward:

  • Attend Couples and Individual Counseling

Couples and individual counselors can help both of you work through these issues. They can help you understand why it happened and learn how to make sure it won’t happen again. A counselor can help your partner understand how they broke your trust. At the same time, a counselor can help you learn how to move past the mistake if the trust can be repaired.

  • If It's Abuse, Consider Leaving the Relationship

However, if you're in a financially abusive relationship, it may be time to leave. There is no clear cut way to determine the difference between financial abuse and financial infidelity. That's why talking to a third-party may help.

  • Organize Your Finances

If you're planning to leave the relationship and are worried about the financial ramifications, Travers recommends finding organizations to help. There are organizations out there that can assist you in organizing your finances, reducing financial commitments, and creating an emergency fund.

“If you are already in a financially abusive relationship I would try to open a private account online or find another way to start saving some cash, even if it means keeping the money at a close family member or friend’s home who you trust explicitly,” she said.

  • Moving Forward, Track Your Finances Diligently

From now on, it's imperative that you track your finances diligently. If you're listed as a joint or authorized user on any of your partner's accounts, keep an eye on the transactions. You may also want to consider being removed from those accounts. As for your own accounts, keep an eye on your transactions to make sure they're all your own. And monitor your credit so you'll know if anything new has been opened up in your name. If you do spot fraudulent charges or lines of credit, dispute them immediately.

  • Change Certain Information to Protect Your Future Finances

If you leave the relationship and the residence, immediately change your address on all of your accounts. Then change your passwords and pin numbers and clear the cookies on your electronic devices. Don't enable automatic storage of your passwords.

  • Remove Your Name from Joint Accounts

If you are an authorized or joint user on any of your partner’s accounts, remove your name from those accounts. That will remove any liability you have for future transactions or default on these accounts.

  • Seek Support to Help You Through the Transition

There's no question that financial abuse or financial infidelity are painful things to endure. Don't hide the situation from those who can support you. Talk to trusted loved ones and seek professional help if necessary. There is a variety of resources available, including the following:

Above All Else, Make Safety and Discretion Your Top Priorities

For anyone trying to leave an abusive relationship, Travers advises to “do it safely and discreetly. It takes a lot of preparation to leave an abusive relationship, it is doable, though.” No one should stand for abuse under any circumstances. If you think you've been the victim of financial abuse or financial infidelity, know that you can break free. Follow these steps and, above all else, make safety and discretion your top priorities.