What is financial abuse & how to spot the signs

What is financial abuse & how to spot the signs - The Thrifty Island Girl

Most of us have heard of emotional and physical abuse, but many are still not aware of a lesser known form of domestic abuse; financial abuse.

Though I enjoy sharing ways to save money & make money through my blog, I feel it’s equally important to raise awareness of financial abuse. Many people experiencing this type of abuse, are unaware that this is happening to them. I once was one of these people, who was unaware of this form of control and manipulation that can slowly and silently erode the autonomy and security of its victims. Oftentimes it’s believed that this happens to individuals in romantic relationships only, but this can happen to anyone!

Today I’ll unmask the impact and signs of financial abuse, to hopefully help many victims break free and leave this toxic environment safely.

To give an example of what this can look like, I’ve shared my financial abuse story at the bottom of this post.

What is financial abuse?

What is economic and financial abuse?  - The Thrifty Island Girl

Financial abuse is a form of coersive control, wherein the perpetrator utilises money to limit and control a person’s action and freedom in the present and future. The abuser uses this tactic to restrict the victims access to financial resources, obstruct their independence and destroy their confidence. This often leaves the victim with no money for basic essentials such as food and clothes, as well as no access to independent income, feeling trapped and isolated.

The abuser’s ultimate goal is to make the victim financially dependent, forming a continued cycle of abuse, control and dependancy. It’s important to know that financial abuse very rarely happens on its own. In most cases the abuser uses other abusive behaviours to threaten and reinforce this type of abuse.

What is economic abuse?

Economic abuse is wider in its definition than financial abuse. It can include restricting the victim’s access to essential services such as transport, doctors, benefits and preventing the victim from doing things that could improve their situation. This may also include preventing them from gaining employment or continuing education. The perpetrator may also control & listen into phone conversations. Lack of these economic resources results in the victim staying with the perpetrator for longer and experiencing more harm as a result.

Who commits financial abuse?

Who commits financial abuse? - The Thrifty Island Girl

Anyone anywhere could be committing financial abuse. Even people employed to provide care to clients such as carers. Individuals who might be financially abusing someone may include:

  • Spouses
  • Friends
  • Family members
  • Parents
  • Neighbours
  • People employed to provide care
  • Volunteers
  • Strangers

How do I know if I am a victim of financial abuse?

Anyone can be effected by financial abuse whatever their background, age, gender, wealth, sexuality or ethnicity. Often it takes place where there is an imbalance of power. As mentioned before this type of abuse seldom happens on its own. The abuser often uses a combination of different types of abuse along side this. Vulnerable individuals may be at higher risk such as:

  • A victim of another form of abuse
  • Someone with a learning disability
  • Someone with a medical condition

However it does not mean that someone has to be a vulnerable person for this to happen.

Spotting the signs of financial abuse

Spotting the signs of financial abuse to stay safe. - The Thrifty Island Girl

Since this form of abuse can manifest in various ways, recognising the signs is a crucial step to getting support, regaining financial control and to break free safely from the shackles of financial abuse. No one deserves to live in fear! Everyone deserves to regain financial independence and rebuild their lives.

If you are suspecting that you or someone you know might be a victim, here are some examples of behaviours and signs that might suggest financial abuse could be happening.

Some signs that financial abuse may be happening:

  • Preventing or forbidding the victim to go to work or attend school / college / university.
  • Preventing the victim to enquire or obtain public benefits.
  • Controlling how the victim’s money has to be spent and asking for proof.
  • Withholding money form the victim or children to obtain basic needs such as food, medicine and clothing.
  • Hiding assets and not including the victim in investment or banking decisions.
  • Causing the victim to lose his or her job by stalking or harassing the victim at the workplace.
  • Preventing or forbidding the victim to attend job training or advancement opportunities.
  • Not allowing the victim to have his/her own bank account.
  • Purposely ruining the victims credit score.
  • Forcing the victim to take out money or credit in the victim’s name.
  • The abuser may refuse to pay child maintenance.
  • Pressuring the victim into getting their benefits paid into a bank account they don’t have access to.
  • Forcing the victim to work in a family business without paying them.
  • The abuser may trap an older child by making him/her look after the younger siblings and not paying for the childcare that they’ve agreed on. If this happens frequently, the older child may not be able to attend education or employment.
  • Stealing the victims inheritance or property.
  • Pressuring the victim into transferring money into the perpetrators account.
  • The abuser may run up large amount of debts on joint accounts.
  • The victim may notice unexplained transactions on their bank statement.
  • The perpetrator may “borrow” money, but never pays it back.
  • Pressuring the victim into changing their will or financial plans in a way that makes the victim uncomfortable.
  • The perpetrator may cash in the victims cheques or birthday money that they’ve received without permission.
  • Forcing the victim to have a joint account.
  • Forcing the victim to commit fraud.
  • Being forced to give money to the abuser, leaving the victim without money to pay for essentials such as clothing, food or transport.

How to get help and leave financial abuse safely?

How to get help and leave financial abuse safely? - The Thrifty Island Girl

Breaking free from financial abuse requires courage, resilience and support.

Step 1

The first step is to recognise and acknowledge the signs of financial abuse, as well as knowing that everyone deserves a life free from control and manipulation.

Step 2

The second step is to prioritise your and your kids (if you have any children) safety. I know it can be scary as you may not know where to get help or how. While you are planning to escape from this toxic environment, it’s important not to let the abuser know, by doing this all carefully and secretly. If the perpetrator is aware that you are planning to escape, he/she may become more violent and controlling.

Be aware of tech abuse:

Be aware of tech abuse

If you’re suspecting that the abuser is monitoring or tracking your devices such as a computer and mobile phone, try to access help through a computer or phone that they don’t have access to. Safe places to access a computer or phone would be in the library, at work or borrowing a friends. For more information on tech safety have a look at RefugeOpens.

The abuser may go through your messages and pictures on your mobile phone, to prevent this change your password or delete/hide these pictures or messages with a friend or family member you can trust.

You may ask what should be included in the safety plan?

Here are some points worth covering in your plan:

  • Have important and emergency telephone numbers to hand eg. : GP, children’s school, your local domestic abuse services, police domestic violence unit, Social worker (if you have one) and National Domestic Abuse Helpline.
  • Form an established support network with your family (avoid the abusers family) and the organisations above.
  • Collect and store important documents such as your and your children’s passport, birth certificate, educational certificates, driving license etc. These can be stored safely at a trusted friend’s or family members home, because once you leave, it may not be safe to return later to collect these things. Make sure it’s not a mutual friend and the abusers family!
  • If possible set aside a small amount of money each week or create a separate bank account.
  • Teach the children to call 999 in an emergency and teach them how to tell the operator their name and address. If it is not safe to speak, press 55 on the phone which will let the operator know that it’s not safe to talk.
  • Pack an emergency bag for yourself and the kids and keep it safe with a neighbour, trusted friend or your family.
  • Is there a neighbour you can trust to call the police if they hear a violent attack?

Step 3

In the meanwhile try to reach out to local helplines and domestic violence organisations to access resources and guidance. Some organisations offer free emotional support. Since I’m based in the UK, I’ve listed some useful numbers below. If you are based outside of the UK, try contacting your local council to get sign posted to the right numbers and organisations.

A list of useful national helpline and services numbers and websites:

  • Find your local Women’s Aid. You can also contact them via the Women’s Aid online chat.
  • Make an appointment with your GP and tell them everything that is happening.
  • Speak to your children’s school and tell them what is happening so that they can safeguard the children.
  • If you have a health visitor, let them know what is happening if you are able to see them alone without the abuser.
  • Nour provides islamic support and advice for victims of domestic abuse.
  • 24 Hour Free Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808 200 0247 or chat to someone online.
  • Men’s Advice Line offers emotional support, practical advice and can sign post to services giving specialist help. Their number is 0808 801 0327 and it’s free to call.
  • Rights of Women provides free legal advice their number is 020 7251 6577.
  • Age UK provides help for older people and has a free helpline open daily from 8am-7pm 0800 678 1602.
  • NSPCC offers help for adults concerned about a child. Their helpline is open from 10am-2pm Tuesday to Friday on 0808 800 5000.
  • Samaritans offers free 24hr emotional support for people feeling distressed or suicidal. Their number is 08457 90 90 90.
  • Make an appointment to see your local Citizen Advice for free advise on benefits you may be entitled to.

Finally Step 4

Last but not least, Financial empowerment. In your spare time try to educate yourself about personal finance, budgeting and managing money. I know this can be daunting, but the knowledge will come in very handy to regain control of your finances and when you leave the abuser and start a new life by yourself. I used to find it boring, but now love learning new ways to save and make money. Hence I’ve created The Thrifty Island Girl blog, to share what I’ve learned with you.

You may find some of my older post helpful for when the budget may be a little tight:

Some good reads on personal finance:

There are so many books on how to save and make money. I’ve read a few, but found most personal finance books quiet boring and not very informative. The one book I found very easy to read and very helpful was Money: Know More, Make More, Give More: Learn how to make more money and transform your life by Rob Moore.

Unfortunately I didn’t know much about personal finance, until I left the toxic marriage to my ex and decided I wanted to be financial independent. I was 27 years old when I started researching and learning how to budget, manage money, save and make money, while raising my daughter who was only 1 year old at the time. Thus I’ve decided to teach my daughter about money from a very young age, as these important life skills are not taught in school. The children’s personal finance book Managing Your Money by Usborne is a great, easy to understand book to introduce the topic money to children.

My parents spoilt me rotten as a child. Subsequently, I never learned how to manage my own finances until I was in my mid twenties. To better prepare my daughter for the future, I want things different for my child.

Lei Hang’s financial abuse story:

Lei Hang's financial abuse story - The Thrifty Island Girl

So here is my story. When I was 25 years old I was studying for my masters in Infection and Immunity at UCL. I fell pregnant with my daughter Yas and got married all at once. It all went so quick. When my ex asked for my father’s hand in marriage, he agreed to my father’s condition. The condition was that all financial responsibilities that my father carried for me, would be handed to my ex. My dad did not expect much, just that he would put a roof over my head and provide me with basics like food and clothing. As I was a full time student studying my masters I had no income.

Attempt to prevent me from attending university

Once we married, I’ve been asked numerous times to quit my studies by my ex and his family. At the time I was determined to carry on despite the pregnancy, so I continued. It didn’t really occur to me that getting me to quit my masters, to secretly make me more dependant on him was a form of financial abuse. I ignored it and graduated with my masters. I had to do it for myself, as I knew graduating with a masters from such a good university will open a lot of doors for me.

Lei Hang's financial abuse story.

Lei aHang graduated from UCL with a masters degree.
Lei Hang graduating from UCL with a masters in Infection & Immunity

Withholding money and not providing basic essentials such as clothing and food

During my pregnancy I got really big and needed new clothes. My underwear got so tight, that it would cut into me leaving a lot of sores and red marks around my hips. When I asked my ex whether I could have some money to get some pants that fit from Primark, he would complain that he had no money despite him working and us living in his parents home at the time. He did not have to contribute to any living costs at his parents and was going out every night on the weekends. Instead he would say “Ask your parents for money”.

I couldn’t get £3.50 for a pack of 5 pants from Primark. So I asked my parents out of desperation. When it was winter and I didn’t have a winter coat to keep me warm, you can guess … he told me to ask my parents again. My parents told me that something is not right and I felt something is seriously wrong too. There were many basic essential things I had to ask my parents to help me financially with. When I once told a nurse at the hospital she told me that this is a form of financial abuse and neglect. This was the first time I’ve heard of financial abuse.

During my pregnancy I had a good appetite and would get hungry very quickly, but then I was growing a little human in me therefore needing the energy from food. I once asked whether I could have £15 a week so that I could grab a sandwich or something if I get hungry while at uni. As you can guess the answer was NO. I then realised that I was trapped and controlled. It didn’t make me feel like I was his wife, more like a slave.

How I formed a safety plan and used the available resources and guidance around me

Whenever I had an appointment with a nurse, doctor or health visitor without him or his family being there, I told them everything that is going on behind closed doors. This left a trail of evidences of what was happening, as everything I’ve reported would be logged in my medical record without him and his family knowing. This way I was able to get the help I needed. This is why I recommend you to do this too if you are in an abusive relationship.

Lei Hang's mother and daughter- The Thrifty Island Girl
Lei’s mother and daughter, when Yasmin was only 2 months old

After my masters degree and giving birth to my wonderful daughter, I was staying with my parents every other month as I couldn’t stand being in an overcrowded house at my ex’s parents. Every time I travelled to the Isle of Wight to visit my family where I felt safe and emotionally supported, I slowly moved my important documents such as educational certificates, passport and other small things that were important to my parents home. I left some of Yasmin’s and my clothing at my parents house, each time I returned to the mainland to my ex in-laws home in the preparation to leave the marriage.

While I was on the island, I registered myself and my child with the local GP and health visitor so I could seek advice and let them know what was happening. That way they could help safeguard my daughter and myself.

While I was staying with the ex and the ex in-laws, I would speak in Cantonese or German with my family. It was safer to do so, as they do not understand these languages I used to speak to my family with. While I was on the phone, often times they would listen into my conversations, which made me feel very uncomfortable.

Attempted control after leaving the toxic marriage

I left the negative environment by moving to my parents home with Yasmin. I did this to protect my mental wellbeing and my daughter. As mentioned above, the financial abuse often is accompanied with other forms of domestic violence. In my case, there was also emotional abuse and neglect. Because he was very controlling, he tried to control me by not paying child maintenance at one point. I didn’t let him control me, so I called the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) and told them that he had stopped payment. If this happens to you, make sure to notify CMS. They have to power to enforce your ex to pay child maintenance. My ex tried several times to stop payment, but thankfully CMS was always able to get him to pay the amount he owed.

Setting boundaries and staying strong

Lei Hang and Oliver Reade -The Thrifty Island Girl
Lei Hang with her partner Oliver Reade

By showing that I’m not afraid and not allowing him to control me, he has given up trying to control me over the years. Of course, I remember the past and it has taken a long time for me to recover. After the divorce I was single for 7 years, before I met my partner Oliver. The experience traumatised me and I had to focus on myself and my daughter first for a very long time. I struggled to trust people, so it was nice that my partner was very patient with me. We spoke over the phone and on video calls for 6 months to build the trust, before we even met in person. Now I’ve been in this healthy and happy relationship for 3 years.

You are not alone

I hope by sharing my personal financial abuse story, this has help you to see that you are not alone. There are actually many people in an abusive relationship, but don’t talk about it. They may be scared, ashamed or embarrassed to talk about it. It is important to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that nobody deserves to be mistreated! Hence, it’s important to address financial domestic abuse!

Since, I’ve experienced an abusive relationship first hand and know how alone and scary this can feel, I like to help others that are going through this as much as I can.

Anyone can be a victim. Even a parent could be an abuser

Recently, I helped a young man, who is being financially abused by his mother. He told me that he wasn’t happy at home and that it’s effecting his mental health and education. As he is a young adult, I’ve suggested to find out what help he could get. If he’s able to claim some benefits while studying, he could move out and become independent. When his mother found out, of course she was not happy. She tried to brainwash him and myself into believing that he is not entitled to any help. But she wrong, the Citizens Advice lady has told us that he is entitled to approximately £600 a month.

The mother of course tried her best to trap and control him by preventing him to get this information. One of the main reasons she did not want her son to become independent is so that she would have a constant babysitter. By getting her son to babysit for the younger children, she would shirk her responsibilities of a parent. Often times she would promise her son x amount of money for babysitting. However, she’d never give him the full amount or sometimes give him nothing. Instead she would regularly go out volunteering for organisations and go out partying & drinking. Meanwhile her son is unable to get a part time job, attend college or have a social life with friends, which all is a form of abuse.

I will not mention the names of these individuals, due to privacy and confidentiality but have shared this story to show that financial abuse really can happen to anyone.

Lei Hang - The Thrifty Island Girl - Personal finance blogger