Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

5 Common Signs of Financial Abuse

Many people who have never experienced domestic violence ask, “If someone’s being abused, why don’t they just leave?” The answer is abusers use very effective tactics to gain control and trap victims in a relationship. Survivors know “just leaving” usually takes both careful preparation and a support network, and the days right before and after leaving are the most physically dangerous. One common control tactic is financial abuse, which occurs in up to 99% of abusive relationships.

Although financial abuse is very common, it’s not as well-recognized as other forms of abuse like hitting, shoving, or verbal threats of harm. Financial abuse means controlling access to resources to make a victim isolated and dependent on their abuser for survival needs.

Here are some examples to recognize signs of financial abuse:

1 – Interfering with Work

  • Telling you where you can or can’t work
  • Getting you in trouble by calling, texting, or showing up at your work all the time—maybe even getting you fired by harassing you at your job
  • Keeping you from getting to work: they might take your car without asking, “lose” your keys, or say they will babysit and then not show up
  • Bugging you to quit a job, or repeatedly telling you not to take job training or new career opportunities

2 – Forcing You into Debt

  • Running up bills on credit cards or opening new accounts and credit cards in your name
  • Saying they will pay bills and then never doing it
  • Constantly getting into legal trouble and making you spend all your money bailing them out
  • Pressuring you to sign things, or to sign an authorization for them to sign documents in your name
  • Making you to prioritize family obligations while they buy things for themselves

3 – They Call All the Shots

  • You never know what resources they have, or what’s happening with shared money
  • Not letting you see bank accounts that you own or share
  • Keeping you on an “allowance” with no independence (an abuser may promise to give you a comfortable life, then decrease your access to cash over time)
  • Making you ask permission to buy things you need, or making you show receipts for every dollar you spend
  • Holding back money for things you or your children need, like medicine or food

4 – Manipulating You with Money

  • Having a power imbalance where only one person ever pays for meals/gifts/travel
  • Pressuring you to “pay them back” for gifts or kindness with obedience/affection
  • Only giving you money if you have sex with them, regardless of what you want; this is especially common for teens and younger people
  • Messing up your relationships by stealing money from your family or friends, or making you give them control over gifts from family
  • Reminding you how you have nothing, or threatening you’ll be homeless without them

5 – Messing With Benefits & Legal Threats

  • Making you hand over public benefits (like Food Stamps, a WIC card, or TANF payments)
  • Threatening to report you for “cheating” to benefits programs, even if you haven’t done anything wrong
  • Refusing to pay child support, or threatening they’ll never pay child support
  • Dragging out a divorce case to cause financial suffering, or threatening to do so

Remember, you don’t have to recognize all of these signs for you or someone you know to be in an abusive relationship. However, every example here is a red flag for an unhealthy relationship.

If you or someone you know is experiencing some of these forms of abuse, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline (nationwide) or DC SAFE’s 24/7 advocacy line at (844) 443-5732. DC SAFE can help you learn about making a safety plan and what services are available. You can also read about how to start over after financial abuse and how to report identity theft if someone has opened accounts or run up debt with your name and information.
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