In recent years, there’s been many brilliant conversations about women and money. We’ve encouraged women to feel bolder and braver in making it, talking about it, saving it, investing it. I’ve sat in cafes in east London watching women get excited about pensions. And that is brilliant because it’s really important. Understanding money – and using it smartly – is a woman’s fastest ticket to independence.
But in the recent flood of books and blogs and podcasts, I worry we’re not having the whole conversation. And that’s because we’re not talking about economic abuse. Even when we are. I was moved to read this powerful piece on The Frugality about a woman’s ex-husband who ran her into thousands of pounds of debt, causing extreme stress and anxiety. She warns us how blindly we walk into joint bank accounts but how hard they are to extract yourself from if something goes wrong. I was amazed to see that she was so clearly a victim-survivor of economic abuse but she didn’t mention that phrase once. That may have been her prerogative but I also wonder if she knew the term. I wouldn’t be surprised if she hadn’t – it has only just been recognised in law for the first time this year.
To understand economic abuse, I think it is important to appreciate how, as a society, we think about money and relationships. When you find yourself living with a partner there’s no guidebook on how finances should be worked out between you both. For many, we replicate our parents because that seems normal to us. As does, traditionally, in hetronormative relationships at least, men taking a more active role in household finances. For a long time, women have been told, in and out of the home, that money is men’s territory, especially as they are paid more, and even though that is changing, it’s certainly not changing fast enough. We’ve also been told – in marriage especially – what’s mine is yours and everything should be shared.
And this is a very dangerous cultural backdrop for a type of abuse centred around finances and economic resources where the majority of perpetrators are men and majority of the victims are women. 1 in 5 adults in the UK have experienced economic abuse and 60% are women. Much like we saw domestic abuse rocket under lockdown, Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA), the UK’s only charity dedicated to the issue, saw a staggering 257% increase in web traffic. So what exactly is it?
According to Nicola Sharp-Jeffs, CEO of SEA, economic abuse is where “one partner controls, exploits or sabotages the other partner’s money, finances or economic resources, in order to control them”. And it can take many forms.
For example, through my work as a journalist I’ve met women whose ex-partners refuse to pay child maintenance in order to push the family into poverty. I’ve met women whose partners have stolen savings. I have met women whose partners have withdrawn large sums from a shared overdraft that the bank now wants back and are threatening court action to the victim left trying to pay off the debt and facing repossession of their home. Perpetrators will bleed their victims dry financially or cut them off, controlling the household expenses, demanding receipts and denying them basic dignities, sometimes even food. For some women, the control of the finances is reinforced by violence.
Economic abuse works like other types of domestic abuse – it is a cruel drip, drip, drip of control. Consequently, it can take a while for a person to realise what is happening.
So how do you spot the signs?
- Secrecy about finances: Is your partner open about their money? If your partner keeps this from you, do you know why?
- Independent accounts: Does your partner insist everything is shared? Are they comfortable with you having private savings or accounts?
- Quitting work: Has your partner suggested you shouldn’t work anymore? Making a person financially dependent is a powerful way to control them
- Keeping tabs: Does your partner ask you to keep receipts of what you spend? Do you feel you need their permission before you buy anything?
- Joint products: Has your partner insisted everything is in your name? Has he named you in any of his financial products, like a mortgage, a flat or a car? By doing this, you become responsible for those products and any associated debt.
- Fair share: Is your partner asking you to pay for more and more things? Does the household feel fairly run between you both?
Recognising abuse when it is happening to you is a very hard thing to do, and now, when we’re having to spend more time at home than ever, accessing help might seem harder than ever too. But there is support out there. If you think you are experiencing economic abuse, SEA has a wealth of information on its website.
When we talk about empowering women with their money, let’s not forget the most vulnerable. Helping women understand money might not just enable them to buy a flat or save for a pension. It could help transform a woman’s life – and perhaps even save it.
If you think you might be experiencing economic abuse, phone the police in the first instance. You can also contact the National Domestic Violence Helpline for support on 0808 2000 247. For more information and resources to support you visit the website www.survivingeconomicabuse.org.