When Sarah and her husband Mark decided that she should stay at home when they had kids, she had no idea that he would be so manipulative about money. Sarah had given up a good job as a lawyer and whenever she tried to talk to Mark about the family finances he verbally abused and threatened her, particularly when she asked about his spending or their savings. Mark gave Sarah a small allowance that barely covered groceries and essential items for the children and refused to include her in major financial decisions, claiming she wouldn’t understand. Mark scrutinised Sarah’s spending and humiliated her choices in front of the children and other family.
Mark’s behaviour is known as financial abuse because it negatively impacts on Sarah’s finances and undermines her efforts to become economically independent.
There are some 2 million women in Australia experiencing financial abuse, according to Christine Nixon, the chair of Good Shepherd Microfinance. They are often also victims of family violence (80%) and are spread throughout all income levels. Nixon says financial abuse is particularly prevalent among new immigrants.
Financial abuse – often referred to as sexually transmitted debt – covers being coerced into signing loan documents, having household debts being put in your name or being made account holder for overheads like utilities and credit cards but not being allowed to access the household income.
But financial abuse also covers not being allowed to work, or being denied access to a car, or having your name on a contract but being denied access to the phone, car, credit card and the like.
Even when the relationship has ended, women can continue to be abused by being denied child support or help with paying debts that occurred in the relationship.
“One of the top five reasons women stay with violent partners relates to finance, so by tackling financial abuse we’re also addressing family violence more broadly,” says Nixon.
What can women do about it? Nixon says that in the early stages of a relationship women should be alert to any controlling behaviour. If your boyfriend hits you or asks prying questions about how much you earn and your assets, take it as an early warning sign. She says that if you have a friend who doesn’t realise they are being financially abused, or are embarrassed about it, raise the issue with them.
About 1500 counsellors are being trained to identify financial abuse and refer people to family violence support services and offer access to no-interest loan schemes (NILS) co-ordinated by Good Shepherd Microfinance. These schemes started 31 years ago and are a better alternative to payday lenders, offering flexible terms and interest-free or low-interest loans. There are three of Good Shepherd’s Good Money stores in Victoria, set up close to payday lenders, with more scheduled to be rolled out. Over the past few years National Australia Bank has put up the capital for the loans, of which 97% are paid back.
Nixon says that to access a NILS or a Good Shepherd StepUP loan, you need to go through a community provider.
She says Good Shepherd offers people on low incomes access to loans and other financial programs at 650 locations across Australia. “We enable people to define and then to realise their own economic wellbeing and to feel valued and in control of their finances and lives.”
Nixon says she would like the lenders such as banks and hire purchase companies to be aware when women are being bullied into signing documents.
What does financial abuse look like? Here are some examples of domestic violence that is classed as financial abuse:
“My boyfriend gets angry if he doesn’t have money to go out with his mates. So I pay all the rent and the bills.”
“My boyfriend says I’m useless with money. He tells me exactly what to buy.”
“My boyfriend maxed out my credit card without me knowing. I’ll be paying it off till I’m grey.”
“Only my name was on the lease. He trashed the place and dumped me. Now I’m the one paying.”
“I went guarantor for my boyfriend’s car loan. He crashed the car and then he dumped me. Now I owe thousands.”
“My ex-boyfriend wanted a home theatre system but only my name was on the rental contract. Now he’s got the goods and I’m still paying.”