Imagine trying to raise three young children, two with major health problems, with no access to money.
That’s what life was like for Lisa* for many years.
She didn’t have access to the family’s bank accounts and wasn’t given enough cash to cover the basics for her three young children.
“There were days when I couldn’t go shopping, couldn’t get fuel for the car, just simple everyday needs, especially when you’ve got young kids and living semi-rurally outside of Melbourne,” she recalled.
“It gradually got worse over a few years.”
As part of our personal finance project, you asked us to investigate financial abuse.
Questions you asked us about financial abuse:
- What is financial abuse and what do you do if it’s happening to you?
- I’m a 23-year-old who has gone bankrupt after an abusive relationship. How do you overcome this?
A hidden crisis
Financial or economic abuse usually occurs when a partner controls or manipulates the other person’s access to finances, assets and decision-making to create dependence and control.
“I think it is a hidden crisis,” said RMIT research fellow Jozica Kutin, who studies financial abuse.
“It’s really under the radar. It’s really hidden because it can be really, really subtle. It’s so embedded in our daily lives. Everyone has to deal with money, you can’t eliminate it.”
According to a study by RMIT, women are more likely to experience economic abuse, with around 16 per cent of Australian women and 7 per cent of men experiencing it in their lifetime.
Warning signs of economic abuse:
- Someone taking complete control of finances and money
- Restricting access to bank accounts
- Providing an inadequate allowance and monitoring what their partner spends money on
- Forbidding a partner to work
- Taking a partner’s pay and not allowing them to access it
- Preventing them from getting to work by taking their keys or car
- Identity theft to secure credit
- Using their credit card without their permission
- Refusing to work or contribute to household expenses
Source: White Ribbon Australia
“It can happen to anybody,” Ms Kutin said.
“You can be at any age, you can be young or old, highly-educated or you could have minimal education, it really cuts across those groups.”
Financial abuse is usually entwined with other forms of abuse, like physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
On average, it costs $18,000 to leave an abusive relationship, according to research by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, so restricting access to money is often used as a tool to prevent someone leaving.
Up to 90 per cent of women who seek help from domestic violence services have experienced financial abuse, according to the Women’s Information and Referral Exchange.
But many women do not realise they have suffered from financial abuse until they’re told by a support worker.
Ms Kutin says that’s because financial abuse is embedded in gender stereotypes about how we manage money in relationships.
“Some of those practices can be, ‘well that’s his job and that’s the way we do it,’ where ultimately it’s actually not fair,” she said.
“It’s exploiting, it’s controlling and really sabotaging your potential for being economically independent now or in the future.”
What can the courts do about it?
Economic abuse is a form of family violence recognised under the Family Law Act but currently, Tasmania is the only state where it’s a criminal offence. They have never had a successful criminal prosecution.
The Women’s Legal Service in Victoria, which provides legal support and financial counselling to 3,000 women each year, says financial abuse can often result in victims experiencing high levels of debt.
“We see people when the damage has been done, when significant debt has been incurred in her name, or when someone discovers the equity in their mortgage has been drawn down without them knowing,” lawyer Helen Matthews said.
Ms Matthews says a recent review into the federal legislation did not go far enough in helping sufferers of financial abuse.
“The opportunity to take a fresh look at what the family law can do to address economic abuse seems to have been missed,” she said.
“I don’t think it recognises the breadth of the problem and the impact it has in resolving family law matters.”
She would have liked to have seen changes in legislation so that family violence is taken into account when assessing financial settlements and for financial abuse sufferers to be better protected when being chased by creditors.
“It’s always easier to have people sympathetic or critical of abusers when you’re looking at physical violence,” she said.
“I think financial abuse is really something that people have less sympathy for, they find it difficult to understand how people get themselves in that position.”
How do you seek out help from other resources?
For Lisa, a lack of access to money meant it was very difficult to leave.
“We owned our own home. The issue was how do I leave with three children? Or do I stay?” she said.
She says reaching out for support from community groups made all the difference, including access to accommodation through WAYSS, financial counselling from Anglicare, and a small no-interest loan from Good Shepherd Microfinance to spend on essentials like education and medical costs.
“That’s just through talking to people and getting out there with different organisations,” she said.
“I’ve had great community support up here [which] I’ve found essential to get through the emotional battles.”
But Lisa says she’s also got more savvy with accessing financial hardship provisions at the bank (some even have domestic violence assistance programs).
Lisa’s teaching her kids to be financially savvy
And now she’s focused on teaching her own kids the importance of being financially independent.
“They have jobs and save up their own money,” she says.
“My daughter is particularly good at saving — I’m particularly proud of that.
“I’m teaching them a way to manage money through saving and having good work ethics, which is incredibly important.”