Red flags: What is financial abuse and what are the warning signs?

Take care of yourself and your friends by getting to know the signs of relationship red flags.
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Financial abuse (or economic abuse) is a form of family violence that affects people in all kinds of financial situations. You can be at risk of financial abuse if you’re financially dependent on someone else, and you can be at risk of financial abuse if you are financially independent.  

Financial abuse can be as literal as your partner controlling or preventing your access to household – or even your own – money, but it can also include things like:

  • coercing or forcing you into getting loans or accounts you don’t want
  • refusing to contribute to household or parenting expenses
  • putting assets solely in your name – removing any liability or responsibility for repayments from themselves
  • putting assets solely in their name – limiting your access and entitlement to its benefits
  • making big financial decisions without you, or restricting your access to information about your joint finances
  • spending money designated for one thing (such as rent or household expenses) on their own interests, like extravagant or impulsive purchases, or risky activities like gambling  
  • forbidding you from getting a job, or manipulating you into being a stay-at-home parent when it’s not what you want
  • secretly keeping significant separate money or assets from you.  

In the case of former relationships, it can also include:

  • refusing to pay child support  
  • deliberately delaying property settlement.

Anyone can experience financial abuse – regardless of how much or how little you earn individually or as a household, or what assets you have. According to the ABS, 16.3% of women and 7.8% of men have experienced financial abuse from a cohabiting partner since the age of 15.  

Financial abuse doesn’t only happen between couples either – it's also a common type of elder abuse.

Is financial abuse just a red flag?

Financial abuse is family violence and it’s never okay. It’s a type of coercive control or emotionally abusive behaviour, which can be a red flag for more frequent and worsening physical and emotional abuse to come.  

It’s dangerous because it limits independence and decision-making and is one answer to the too-frequent rhetorical victim-blaming question: “Why didn’t they just leave?”

What are the early signs of financial abuse?

Shared household budgets and savings goals – and shared accountability for them – are a common and healthy part of many relationships. One person being the finance “lead” in a relationship can be respectful too, if that’s what works in your household.  

But when your partner begins to monitor and judge what you’re spending your money on, or stops you from getting involved in your household finances, it can be a sign of increasing control.  

Likewise, if you’re starting a family (or taking on other caring responsibilities), many couples find a balance of who will stay home with the kids, and for how long, and who will be the “breadwinner”. There are a lot of factors that will inform that decision – including expectations about what men and women should do, and the flexibility, earning potential and security of your employment.  

In a safe and respectful relationship, what each of you actually wants should be a large component too. If you’re not getting a choice within your relationship about being able to go back to work or not, or if your partner gets angry when you bring up other options, it’s a sign to look at the health of your relationship.  

This is still true when they’re coming from the position of wanting to be a provider and shower you with affection. If you want to be working and they try to talk you out of it without listening to and respecting your side, that’s not kind; it’s love bombing.  

If you’re starting to feel isolated from your friends, family, workplace or career, or like you don’t have input into decisions about money or your future, these are clear signs that something isn’t right.

Are shared accounts and one person managing household finances always dangerous?

Shared finances and one person taking more of a lead in their management is realistic in many relationships – and not dangerous by nature. It all goes back to informed consent!  

But if your partner were restricting you from having your own separate bank account, or your own savings goals, or demanding how you do or don’t spend your money – that's when it turns controlling.  

In Australia, women are more often the parent who engages in less paid work – something that can be driven by assumptions about caring roles and the realities of the gender pay gap. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to those more traditional roles if the decision is a shared one that works for both parents, and the value of unpaid care is recognised.  

But when one person in the relationship makes the decision without the other, or refuses to find a way that works for each of you – that’s a red flag. In a respectful and equal relationship, you shouldn’t feel pressured or scared making these decisions together.

How to talk to your friends about financial abuse

For a long time, we’ve been taught that it’s rude or improper to talk about money with our friends. But really, normalising conversations about finances, spending and saving habits, and how finances work in other relationships plays a huge role in our financial literacy and knowing what’s “normal”. It’s very easy to default to how your parents did things, or what your partner suggests if you don’t know there are alternative options out there.  

The experience that comes with talking to your friends about money can also help you feel more comfortable and confident talking about finances in your relationship. It also normalises making financial conversations a healthy part of relationships early on – ideally when they’re still hypothetical conversations: 

  • “If we joined our bank accounts one day, do you agree that we should also keep our own personal accounts?”
  • “If we decided to move in together down the line, how do you think we would manage our finances?”
  • “Do you think being in a relationship would change the way we spend and save our money?”

Conversations that help you understand if you've got similar future goals or how you might manage your finances together might feel uncomfortable or awkward at first – but in a respectful relationship you shouldn’t feel fearful about your partner’s reaction, and they shouldn’t shut down your questions or ideas.  

If you’re worried someone you love is experiencing financial abuse, there are a number of ways you can support them.  

Remember that being too direct about your concerns, or what you think they should do, can actually be unhelpful and push them away. Prioritise listening to and believing your friend. Consider if it’s useful to ask your friend to think about what they would tell someone else in their situation: sometimes it's easier to care for others than care for ourselves.  

Make it clear that you care and will be there for them, in the ways they ask.  

When they are ready to hear it, remind them that financial abuse is abuse. They do not have to wait for something “worse” or physical to happen to seek help from support organisations.

1800 RESPECT shares many options for financial abuse support, including their specialist counselling and links to how your bank can help. 

Across Australia, we have a skewed view of what violence in intimate relationships actually looks like. What comes to mind is physical violence, or sexual violence – something that is much easier to categorise as “not OK”. But that type of behaviour typically doesn’t appear out of thin air. It usually follows non-physical violence – insidious behaviour that breaks down a person’s boundaries, instincts and self-esteem to gain control over their independence, autonomy and judgement.  

This post is part of a series getting to know the common types of non-physical violence against women in intimate relationships (red flags), how to spot the warning signs, and how to look out for yourself and your friends. 

Learn more about financial abuse from our Acting CEO Serina McDuff on The Broke Generation podcast. You can also hear from people with lived experience of financial abuse on the There’s No Place Like Home podcast.