What is financial abuse?

Financial abuse is a form of family violence. It can include withholding money, controlling all the household spending or refusing to include you in financial decisions. Financial abuse can happen to anyone.

When we got married I had some savings, a job and a car. The marriage is over and I’ve got nothing.

Sound familiar?

Many people do not have access to finances in their relationship. If the relationship breaks down, they often find themselves without any money, or may not even know how much money they are entitled to.

What defines financial abuse?

The law in Victoria states that financial abuse is a form of family violence. Family violence is when one person uses power and control over another. Family violence is a repeated pattern of behaviour, and can occur between partners or other family members. Many people think of family violence as either physical injury or emotional abuse. However, withholding money, controlling the household spending or refusing to include you in financial decisions can be defined as family violence. Financial abuse can be present with other forms of abuse, like physical or emotional abuse, but can also be present without these other behaviours.

Financially abusive behaviours include:

Controlling a family member’s money:

  • Taking control of someone else’s finances (e.g. being in charge of all the household income and paying the other person an allowance)
  • Controlling how all of the household income is spent
  • Forcing a family member to claim social security benefits like Centrelink
  • Making a family member be the guarantor on a loan or taking out a loan in their name
  • Making a family member take out a second credit card
  • Forcing a family member to work in a family business without being paid
  • Filing fraudulent insurance claims
  • Forging a family member’s signature on financial documents
  • Taking money out of a family member’s pension
  • Selling a family member’s possessions without permission
  • Misusing an Enduring Power of Attorney
  • Forcing a family member to change their Will

Stopping a family member from earning their own money:

  • Stopping a family member from getting a job or going to work
  • Stopping a family member from going to work or important meetings by keeping them up all night or physically hurting them
  • Stopping a family member from studying
  • Stalking or harassing a family member’s colleagues

Limiting a family member’s access to money:

  • Not giving a family member access to bank accounts
  • Denying a family member access to money so they can’t afford basic expenses like food or medicine
  • Destroying, damaging or stealing property
  • Racking up debt on shared accounts or joint credit cards
  • Withholding financial support like child support payments
  • Refusing to work or contribute anything to the household income
  • Gambling away a family member’s money or shared money

Who can experience financial abuse?

Anyone can experience financial abuse. It can occur no matter your age, where you live, your occupation, your abilities or disabilities, your sexuality, your gender, your religion, your ethnicity, your skin colour, your residential status, your education, your social class, whether you live with your partner, whether you have children or whether you are in a monogamous relationship, have more than one partner or if you are no longer in a relationship. Financial abuse can also occur in other family relationships. This can be between parents and children, between relatives or in any family-like relationship such as with carers or housemates. Although it can happen to anyone, like other forms of family violence, the vast majority of violence is perpetrated by men against women.

Read our information booklet

This comprehensive booklet, updated in 2020, contains information and resources for women, nonbinary and gender-diverse people in relationships where there is financial abuse.

Download the PDF

He controlled all the money. I had to account for every cent I spent.

Dowry-related violence

Dowry is giving of money or goods to a bridegroom or his family in exchange for the promise of marriage. In some African communities, dowry is practised as payment to the bride’s family from the groom. It is a deep-rooted practice in some South Asian cultures, although it varies greatly across different groups and is by no means uniform. In the Indian context, dowries likely originated as a woman’s inheritance. Some women still view their dowry in this way.

In more recent times, however, dowries sometimes began to be transferred directly to the groom or his family, leading to an increased risk of emotional, physical and financial abuse of women.

Whether paid from bride to groom or vice versa, the dowry practice maintains gender inequality. Victorian Law now includes forced marriage and dowry-related abuse in the legal definition of family violence.

Realities of ‘relationship debt’

Sometimes the debts you are left with due to financial abuse are referred to as ‘sexually transmitted debt’ or ‘relationship debt’. Relationship debt is common and serious – it happens when you have to pay your partner’s, or ex-partner’s, debts. Your partner might have forced or tricked you into signing a loan contract as a co-borrower or guarantor, or signing a mortgage so they could obtain a loan.

The reality is that you may be held responsible for these debts. If your name is on the contract, then as a co-borrower you are responsible for repaying the loan. If you have more assets or earnings than your partner, or you are easier to find, you may have companies telling you that you have to repay the debt. You may even find yourself solely responsible for a debt that you know nothing about. It is important to get assistance as soon as possible — it may be possible to have some or all of these debts waived or transferred to the person who caused the debts.

If you are experiencing relationship debt, you can call the National Debt helpline for free and confidential advice from professional financial counsellors. Call 1800 007 007 or visit the National Debt Helpline website.

How did you get here?

I loved him and trusted him with our money, now I’m left with all his debts.

Trust in a relationship

In a relationship where you are in love, you may find it easy to trust your partner with all your money matters. It can also be challenging to question your partner about money as you may feel you are questioning their love.

Myth: Handing over all responsibility and control of the household finances is a way of showing your partner trust, respect, love and commitment.

In reality:

Shared trust, respect, love and commitment in a relationship are reflected in having honest and equal power in all aspects of the relationship, including finances. If your partner truly trusts, respects and loves you, you should be able to have a choice about money matters and be part of the decision-making process.

Influence of your family and community

Your family background and beliefs often shape your approach to money and might affect your confidence in managing your finances.

  • In your family, women might be excluded from financial matters and discouraged from managing money.
  • Your beliefs might lead you to think that money is a private matter that is not discussed publicly, so you might have no one to talk to.
  • Socially, there are lots of signals, like jokes and stereotypes, that lead you to think that it is acceptable for your partner to use money to control you.

Controlling behaviour regarding money in relationships is prevalent across all cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. The language used to justify financial control of women may vary according to your culture, religion or class, but no group is immune to family violence and coercive control.

Myth: Men are heads of the household and are better at finances than women.

In reality:

Lots of women have terrific money skills, and everyone has a right to learn about managing their finances. Women are great managers of household budgets and everyone has a right to know about money.

There are a variety of intersecting issues that mean people from some communities have a higher risk of experiencing financial abuse — it is more likely that women will experience family violence than men, for example, and then more likely again if you are an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person, a person with disabilities or a transgender, nonbinary or gender-diverse person. You might also experience discrimination from a bank or an employer. This is because patriarchy, racism, ableism and transphobia compound your experience of marginalisation, not because of anything you have done.

Lost your confidence with money

I’m so scared of dealing with money I don’t even want to think about it.

When someone has limited your access to money or told you that you’re not good with money, it can be really easy to lose confidence. It can also feel overwhelming, and you may find it hard to take the first step. Many people in similar situations feel this way. Unfortunately, if you don’t do anything, it can make things hard for you and your loved ones in the long run. If you are concerned that you might not have money management skills, think back to when you have successfully managed money in the past. A good example might be when you worked out the household budget or paid rent and bills. WIRE research has shown that financial decision making and money confidence can return.

When the penny drops

It can be hard to recognise financial abuse in a relationship. Often people know something is wrong but they don’t have a name for it. However, something might tip you over the edge — receiving another bill you weren’t expecting, discovering your partner’s hidden assets, or reading an article. You suddenly realise that you’ve been financially abused, and you might feel betrayed, confused or unsure about what to do. When you realise the extent of your loss due to the abuse, you might feel angry and determined to get your share back. Navigating the legal and child support systems in Victoria can be frustrating, challenging and drawn out over a long period of time. The next section is designed to start you on the path to recovery.

Where can I go for help?

If reading this article has raised issues for you, you can contact WIRE at any time between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Contact us here

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