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Lauren Cobello’s last relationship cost her $100,000.
When Cobello met her now ex-husband, he had just relocated and was looking for a job. He was quick to help the mother of four with errands and chores, so when he eventually asked for a financial favor, she agreed.
“I’m a financial professional and I was raised in a traditional sense that couples combine finances and build each other up,” she says. “So I said ‘yes’ when he asked me to put him on my credit cards to help him build up his credit scores.”
But the financial problems escalated quickly. The two planned a wedding and honeymoon, and at the last minute, he confessed that he couldn’t pay. Cobello footed the bill.
Then she cosigned on his truck loan. When her ex-husband defaulted, Cobello took money out of her retirement savings to pay the bill. She even helped him start a construction company.
After less than a year of marriage, Cobello says her ex-husband walked away with a paid-off truck and a business. She was left with $100,000 in debt, an ex she saysid was stalking her and a restraining order that was minimally effective at keeping him away.
Cobello, who would later discover that her ex had done the same thing to a string of other women, used the experience as inspiration to launch Hard Money Talks, a podcast about taboo financial topics.
Like Cobello, nearly all people who go through domestic abuse experience a financial abuse component. Being coerced into debt can keep victims trapped in relationships and cause them to suffer financial consequences for years after they figure out how to leave.
What Is Debt Coercion?
Debt coercion is a form of financial abuse that happens when an abuser uses fraud, theft, force or misinformation to get their partner into debt.
According to a spokesperson for Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA), a U.K.-based advocacy group, this type of abuse is “an effective and lasting trap that drains what money a victim does have available, reducing their space to act.”
These are examples of what debt coercion can look like:
- Using a partner’s information to obtain credit cards or loans (also known as identity theft)
- Using a partner’s credit card without their knowledge or permission
- Forcing a partner to take on debt or sign financial documents
- Refinancing a mortgage or car loan without a partner’s knowledge
All of these behaviors can prevent someone from leaving an abusive relationship, says Lauren Duff from the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV). The abuse can make it difficult to rent an apartment, open a bank account or even get a job.
“It can prevent survivors from being self-sufficient and accessing resources needed to leave and not return back to an abusive relationship,” Duff says.
Anyone can be a victim of this type of abuse, but people from some demographics are more susceptible. Because women earn less money than men—particularly women of color and mothers—they are at higher risk of experiencing financial abuse, reports show.
What is Financial Abuse?
According to the PCADV, financial or economic abuse happens when one intimate partner has control of the other partner’s ability to access, acquire, use or maintain economic resources.
On her podcast, Cobello says it’s easy to miss the red flags for financial abuse because it’s often disguised as love.
“[My abuser] and I had been together since middle school, and you couldn’t convince me we weren’t in love,” says Jane, another financial abuse survivor. Her name has been changed to protect her identity. “You could not convince me he was taking advantage of me,” she adds.
After she became pregnant with their third child, Jane’s partner convinced her to stop working and apply for government assistance.
“He had all of these financial plans for our family,” Jane says, “and I thought he was smarter than me so I believed what he said. But I also felt like I didn’t have a choice. I had nowhere else to go. In hindsight, that was part of the plan to take away my independence.”
Later he encouraged her to use student loan money to buy a home for their family. But there was a catch. All of their assets had to be in his name, he told her, since Jane was receiving government benefits.
Eventually Jane’s partner kicked the family out of the house, and the property was later repossessed. Jane is still paying off those student loans. She initially took out $80,000 but now owes over $125,000 because of interest charges.
Jane experienced several tactics of financial abuse. According to the PCADV, these are some of the most common behaviors:
- Attempting to control or depriving a partner of access to their income and financial accounts
- Preventing a partner from holding a job or attending school
- Withholding resources to limit your partner’s independence
- Forcing a partner to take on debt, or racking up debt in their name
- Stealing or destroying a partner’s personal belongings
- Hiding or lying about financial dealings that affect the household
- Misinforming a partner about how money works in general
A 2018 Allstate Foundation study on domestic violence and financial abuse found that for people who’d experienced domestic abuse, the financial aspect of the abuse was one of the main reasons they couldn’t leave their partner.
How Can You Recover From Financial Abuse?
For survivors of financial abuse, the road to recovery can be long and expensive. It’s difficult to prove that debt was accrued as a result of coercion, and even if you can, the law may not offer protection.
According to the PCADV, there may be some ways to prevent and mitigate the damage, depending on your situation. Once you’re safe, the organization recommends taking the following actions:
- Contact financial institutions. Update your passwords and work with your financial institutions to ensure that all account information is confidential. Open your own new accounts where possible.
- Report unauthorized credit activity. Review your free credit reports on a regular basis and report unauthorized accounts and charges.
- Work with law enforcement. Work with the local police or district attorney to seek criminal charges against the abuser and restitution for financial loss and harm.
- Seek court intervention. The court may be able to order the addition or removal of names from financial or service accounts.
- Start divorce proceedings. File for child or spousal support as soon as possible through your local Domestic Relations Office (DRO) or a private attorney.
The PCADV recommends saving financial documents, like proof of your former partner’s employment and income. You should also document your correspondence with financial institutions and save communications with the abuser, including texts and emails.
According to Duff, holding on to these items can be the key to proving you were abused.
Tips for Escaping and Recovering From Financial Abuse
Getting out of an abusive relationship can feel impossible when you don’t have control of your finances, or when your partner is monitoring your every move or threatening violence, but taking small steps can open the door to leaving safely. Here’s what you can do:
1. Make a Plan
You might not be ready to leave yet, but you can make a plan in case you eventually decide to go. Consider these details:
- If you have children or pets, think about where they’ll stay.
- Make copies of important documents and keys.
- Get a rough idea of how much money you’ll need in order to get away and get on your feet, even if it’s just a few dollars for a bus ride to a local shelter.
- Write down or memorize important phone numbers.
2. Start Saving Money
“Start saving your little secret stash,” says Jane, “because one day you’re gonna get tired of this and you’re gonna leave and you’re gonna need money and resources lined up.”
If you can set aside a few dollars, whether it’s hidden in your house, in your own checking account, or a friend holds onto it for you, the money could help you pay for transportation to a safe location. If you can save more, you may be able to buy your own cell phone, purchase a flight, or make a deposit on an apartment or a down payment on a car.
3. Tell a Trusted Friend or Family Member
“A common tactic used by abusive partners is isolation: making the survivor believe the lie that the abusive partner is the only one who cares for them, understands, and supports them,” says Duff.
Even if you’re not ready to talk about all of the details, try reaching out to a loved one for support. They may be able to offer resources, hold onto cash or important documents for you, or simply offer a listening ear.
“I think women know they want to leave someday, but they need a friend to help them make a plan,” says Jane. “It would have made a big difference if I knew I didn’t have to do it alone.”
4. Use Local Resources
Cobello says she got support from a local domestic violence shelter. “They offer free counseling,” she says. “I did six months of anonymous free therapy, and my counselor understood the financial side of the abuse.”
A financial therapist or counselor can also help address financial trauma or other emotional effects, and help you reset your goals, Cobello adds.
You can also locate your local domestic violence program by calling 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for 24/7 help in more than 200+ languages.