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17 Jun 2024 2:56
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  •   Home > News > Business

    Financial abuse in relationships and ways to protect yourself

    One in six women in Australia experience financial abuse. We share three ways that could increase your financial safety, including the questions you should ask a partner early in a relationship.


    Holly was working four jobs to pay off a credit card she shared with her former husband.

    "I'd noticed the credit card was basically at $16,000, and I was really concerned we would default," says the 59-year-old from Nipaluna/Hobart (who we have given a different name to protect her identity).

    "I managed to pay off half of it, but the next month, he put another $7,000 on the card."

    Holly says racking up debt in a joint account without her consent was just one element of the financial abuse she experienced during their 20-year relationship.

    She says her husband was also hiding money, and refused to ever discuss financial management or budgeting together.

    in Australia experience financial abuse. It can happen at any income level, often alongside other forms of domestic and family violence.

    Below, we share three ways that can increase your financial safety.

    Knowing what financial abuse looks like, and the signs

    Bomikazi Zeka is an assistant professor in finance and financial planning at the University of Canberra and says it's "frightening" how broad the spectrum of financial abuse can be.

    Dr Zeka says examples of financial abuse in intimate relationships include:

    • Sabotaging your ability to earn money, such as denying you the opportunity to work.
    • Being forced to deposit money into an account you don't have access to.
    • Having debt created in your name without your consent, or being forced to take out a loan you don't want.
    • Being excluded from large financial decisions.

    Other examples listed by Respect Victoria include:

    • Refusing to contribute to household or parenting expenses.
    • Putting assets solely in your name and therefore removing any liability.
    • Spending money designated for one thing, such as rent, for their own interests like gambling.
    • Hiding significant amounts of money or assets from you.

    Respect Victoria says early signs of financial abuse could include a partner monitoring or judging your spending, or preventing you from becoming involved in financial decisions.

    A partner pressuring you not to work could also be a sign of increasing control.

    One person taking the lead with the money in the relationship doesn't necessarily equal financial abuse, explains Supriya Singh, an adjunct professor at La Trobe University's department of social inquiry. She's also the co-chair of Multicultural Women's Alliance Against Family Violence.

    "The 'head of the household' regime doesn't mean other people in the family have no access to money," Professor Singh says.

    Talking to your partner about money

    Chatting to your partner about finances and your values around money in the early stages of a relationship is key, says Professor Singh.

    "It's a difficult thing to do … because money is so private, we often don't talk about how it shapes relationships.

    "[But] you must talk about money and what it means to each of you across life stages."

    She and Dr Zeka recommend covering off the below points:

    • How each of you grew up with money, and what you saw your parents do.
    • Your financial histories; for example, your approach to savings, and how you have managed debt.
    • What are your money goals and priorities?
    • Your attitudes towards finances in relationships. For example, in heterosexual relationships, is there an assumption the man is responsible for the finances?
    • If you're planning a family, who will stay home with the kids?

    You could also ask hypothetical questions, such as if someone loses their job, how will you manage that, suggests Dr Zeka.

    Professor Singh encourages couples to keep talking about money even after you are committed.

    "In Australia, the real pressure point is when you have children.

    "You might talk about whether you can afford to have a child on one salary, but you don't talk about … how do you actually have money of your own if you are not earning."

    Protect your income and keep records

    Maintaining a level of financial independence is vital in protecting yourself against financial abuse, says Dr Zeka.

    "Even if you do have a joint bank account, it's always good to … have your own bank account in your own name," she says.

    Dr Zeka suggests having your own email address, with a level of privacy, where you can receive banking notifications for that account.

    If entering a new relationship, Holly says she would maintain some financial independence.

    "It would be a red flag if he didn't want to sit down and do the finances together," Dr Zeka says.

    "I would always have my own separate bank accounts."

    If you see there are signs of financial abuse, Dr Zeka says to keep records.

    "Document anything you see as suspicious, because an abuser will gaslight you into thinking you are making a big deal out of nothing.

    "In an event if you decide to get out of a relationship, you at least have evidence of what happened."

    Individuals should also keep their own copies of any legal documents.

    "Anything that has your name on it, have a copy of it," Dr Zeka says.

    Cultural differences in financial abuse

    While financial abuse is the same across cultures, Professor Singh explains differing boundaries of domestic money can shape how vulnerable you are.

    "In Anglo-Celtic culture the couple is the domestic financial unit. Money is private to the couple."

    For example, she says often couples won't share with adult children how much money they have, and they won't ask their children directly about their finances.

    "In cultures in the global south — Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, the Pacific — it is the family that is the boundary of money."

    Professor Singh says in these families, money is "a two-way thing", where parents will give money to support their children, but also children have a moral duty to help their parents — and even extended kin — financially.

    This difference means an entire family can be involved in the abuse. It can also create an environment that makes it easier for a perpetrator to commit financial abuse, she says.

    "You think he's a moral man for sending money home to his parents, but [he might actually] be sequestering money in a different jurisdiction so his wife and children cannot use it."

    Migrant women may find themselves more vulnerable when first arriving in Australia.

    "Even if they are well-educated and in managerial jobs in their country of origin, sometimes their careers are not recognised in Australia," Professor Singh says.

    "Then they are totally dependent on their husband for a while."

    She says there is also little awareness about financial abuse in some countries.

    "In countries like India where financial abuse is legally part of the definition of family violence, there is very little talk about it.

    "Very much like [many] Australians still, they also see family violence as [only] physical violence."

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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