by Dana Sitar
Lisa Orban was married to her abuser for three years. In 1990, she left after he threatened to kill her and their two young children. She was 20 years old.
Her financial situation in the marriage? “Bad, in a nutshell,” she recalls. Not unusual for the time, her husband was the main breadwinner, and he managed the finances. “Whenever there was a chance that I might make enough money or make more money than him or do anything to upset his financial apple cart, so to speak, he would come in and sabotage it.” She lost multiple jobs because of his meddling.
She moved with him from her hometown in Illinois to Arizona for college, where she’d won a four-year scholarship to study psychology. Before she could start, he contacted the university and told them she’d decided to drop out. “Imagine my surprise when I go to registration day and find out that my scholarship is gone,” she says.
He even had control of the mailbox. He took her key, though she thought she’d just lost it, and put off replacing it. That had major, unexpected financial ramifications. “It wasn’t until after we were divorced that I found out that I had not paid off my student loan.” The $4,000 loan ultimately cost her $38,000 to repay, she says. The checks Orban thought were going into the mail were not, and the missed payment notices from her loan providers weren’t getting to her. He kept control of the checking account. He wouldn’t let her use the car alone. He knew how much money she earned, and he would accompany her to the bank to deposit her paychecks. He signed up for credit cards in her name. By the time Orban left and filed for divorce, she was $80,000 in debt and didn’t even know about it.
What is Financial Abuse?
About 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience severe intimate partner violence in their lifetime, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. Domestic violence and abuse come in many forms, whether it’s physical, emotional, psychological or sexual — but it can also be financial. Likely, it’s some mix of these, but not always all of them.
Of those who experience violence, 98% also experience financial abuse.
“Like all abuse, financial abuse takes a lot of forms, but it’s all controlling behavior; power and control,” explains Casey Harden, interim CEO of the YWCA USA. “Imagine tightening the reins on the financial condition of the home, so that there are limited options.” Abusive partners may leave you out of major decisions and purchase a home that’s well out of your family’s budget, for example. They may run up credit card debt without their partner’s knowledge or input, lie about paying bills or damage valuable property.
In addition to safety concerns, victims of domestic violence often stay in abusive relationship because of a lack of financial resources.
“Many survivors, even after they’ve left, often return because of finances,” says Kim Pentico, director of the Economic Justice Program at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Michelle Kuehner, a survivor of domestic violence who is now a financial advisor and author of The Money Diet blog, explains:
“More often than not, the abuser has made the victim feel as if they are dependent upon the abuser. That without the help of the abuser, the victim could not survive financially in the world, and it is only by the grace of the abuser that the victim has a roof over their head, and food on the table.”
If you’re in a bad situation, we want to do our part in empowering you to move forward.
The Penny Hoarder features a ton of content to help you understand your finances and improve your financial situation. But it can be tough to see how it pertains to you when you feel like you have zero control over your financial life.
Here, I try to put it into context.
I spoke with financial, legal and relationship experts, as well as domestic violence advocates to bring you resources, advice and action steps to prepare you to leave and recover your finances afterward.
6 Steps to Prepare Your Finances Before Leaving
“The largest hurdle you face in an abusive relationship is getting back your independence,” Kuehner says. “Only when you take back the feeling or idea that you are not completely dependent on another can you move towards financial independence. And only then can you successfully remove yourself from that type of relationship.” Even then, it’s easier said than done.
In addition to the financial hurdles, Harden repeats a fact many of us have heard often: “Lethality for an individual and her loved ones goes up drastically when she makes the decision to leave, when she leaves and the time period following.”
That’s why before you do anything, we recommend this step:
1. Connect With a Victim Advocate
Harden and other experts urge anyone trying to leave an abusive relationship to work with a victim advocate. These people are trained and experienced, so they know how to help you plan to leave safely and quietly. They can point out potential pitfalls and let you know what major financial hurdles to expect.
How to get in touch with local advocates:
- Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY: 1-800-787-3224. The national hotline can get you in touch with an organization in your area.
- Statewide advocacy groups can also connect you with local advocates.
- Your local YWCA has resources to fight domestic violence, including shelters and services around the country.
We have additional recommendations for your financial health, but can’t tell you what’s best or what’s safe for your situation. You’re the best at assessing your own safety, so listen to your own instincts, work with an advocate and only consider these steps if you know it’s safe.
2. Save Money
“Be sure you have liquid funds held in an account in your name only,” says Allison Alexander, a financial advisor at Savant Capital Management. She also recommends having credit cards in your name alone. Allstate’s financial empowerment curriculum includes advice on how to build a solid financial foundation, including places where you could find loans. If you don’t have access to a loan, see if there are other ways to secure money for yourself that your partner doesn’t have access to.
Here are some creative ways to make extra money:
You can also keep an eye out for influxes of cash your partner doesn’t know about or have access to. “A lot of survivors … wait until that tax return comes, and that’s a nice little chunk to get started on,” Pentico says. A bonus at work may be a similar lifeline.
You may be able to work with the human resources department at work to automatically deposit part of your paycheck into a separate bank account. Catherine Scrivano, a Phoenix–based financial planner, says HR may also be able to help you make an adjustment to your W-4 to help you receive more money with each paycheck that you can save or invest throughout the year.
3. Make Copies of Important Documents
“Make copies of all financial documents you can find, e.g., tax returns, bank statements, investment statements, mortgage/loan information, car titles, paystubs, etc.,” Alexander says. You can simply snap a picture of these documents with your phone and email it to a friend. Or store them in a cloud drive that you — and only you — can access from anywhere, like Google Drive.
4. Cut Ties and Open a New Bank Account
Before opening your own account, Harden recommends, you’ll need a new mailing address — a P.O. box could work — and an email address your partner doesn’t know about.
Harden also suggests you contact your bank to update your account’s security questions, if your partner already has access to an account in your name. “Your husband of 10, 15 years probably knows the answers to most of your security questions,” she pointed out, “especially if he’s been actively working to know them.” She said you can tell your bank the question you want to use. You don’t have to stick with a default question your partner might know the answer to.
If you can, set up separate accounts your partner doesn’t know about, or at least can’t access.
Also, “remove your personal items from a safe deposit box if it is held jointly,” Alexander says. And “establish your own safe deposit box at another bank and place your financial documents and sentimental items, including jewelry, pictures (or) valuables there.”
5. Find a Financial Advisor
“Find a supportive financial advisor, therapist, and friends who will encourage you during the bleak times and celebrate your successes,” Scrivano recommends. If you have the resources to hire a professional financial advisor — who works for you alone, not you and your partner together — great. If you can’t afford to work with a professional, utilize your local library or Parks and Recreation department for resources. It may have financial literacy classes, support groups and literature to help you.
Even financially-savvy friends and family can offer advice. Pentico often tells survivors, “There’s somebody in your life, more than likely, that seems to know what’s going on when it comes to money and finances, whether it’s a co-worker or a family member. Reach out to them.”
6. Find an Attorney
When Kuehner was preparing to divorce her abusive husband, she started by meeting with attorneys. “I scheduled appointments to meet with all of the best attorneys in town. … All in all, I had meetings with over 85% of the local lawyers in a matter of a couple of weeks…
“If I had an introductory meeting with a particular attorney, my ex-husband wouldn’t be able to use them. It could be considered a conflict of interest. … By narrowing his options, and forcing him to use a less-experienced professional, I gained some ground in the divorce.” California-based family law expert Amey Telkikar confirmed this tactic, though called it “unsavory” for typical situations. “An in-person meeting going over the circumstances almost certainly will (include confidential information), resulting in a conflict of interest. A lawyer may still represent the other spouse, but only with the informed written consent of both spouses,” Telkikar explained.
He recommended, “It is in the best interest of a spouse to consult at least one reputable attorney as soon as they suspect or learn of a possible filing for divorce.” If you don’t have money to hire a lawyer or don’t feel safe conducting this kind of business on your own, a victim advocate can help you discover the resources available to you.
Unfortunately, Lisa Orban didn’t make a plan to leave her abuser. She did what she pointed out many survivors do:
“Most abused women do not ‘plan’ their escape, they run blindly for their lives when the situation reaches deadly levels, and then pick up the pieces afterward,” Orban explains. “If you have a golden opportunity to escape, that’s generally what people do,” Orban adds. “They look for a moment — a credit card left unattended, a check that unexpectedly arrives that you somehow got access to, a Christmas bonus from your work that your spouse doesn’t know about,” Orban says. “These are things you look at, and you go, ‘This is it. This is my chance.’”
When you see that opportunity, she said, “You grab it and you go.”
And then what?
This excerpt is from 12 Steps to Protect Your Finances When Leaving an Abusive Relationship