Financial abuse figures: how to spot the signs

Police recorded 1.46 million domestic abuse incidents or crimes in the year to March 2021.

845,734 were recorded as crimes, which is up 6% from a year earlier.
33,954 were cases of coercive control, up just over a third (37%) from a year earlier.

Coercive control became a criminal offence in December 2015.
Coercive control includes financial abuse, where the abuser uses money to control their partner.

Domestic abuse figures were released by ONS today. The figures are not as detailed as usual, because domestic abuse questions were left out of the crime survey, so data comes from crimes recorded by police: Domestic abuse in England and Wales overview – Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)

Sarah Coles, senior personal finance analyst, Hargreaves Lansdown: “Domestic abuse doesn’t always involve the kind of drama we’ve come to expect from soap opera storylines. Sometimes it’s a slow and steady escalation of behaviour that makes it difficult to spot, both when you’re in a relationship, and when you’re looking out for your friends and family. Financial abuse can be eating away at someone’s mental and financial resilience, without anyone realising what’s going on, so we all need to know the signs.

“One of the problems is that in any relationship there’s an element of give and take over the finances. There are plenty of healthy relationships where one person takes charge to make sure all the bills are paid, or where they share a joint account and have to agree before making big purchases. It means it’s easy to write something off as perfectly normal behaviour.

“However, the key difference to be aware of is collaboration and equality. If you’ve reached decisions together about how you’ll manage your money, and it’s the result of a sensible compromise by you both, it’s very different to one person imposing restrictions because they want to be in control.

“Another challenge is that the early signs are very difficult to spot, even within the relationship, because often the financial abuser will begin with small steps, like checking receipts or asking about your spending, and will slowly escalate over time. Eventually, the abuse can become increasingly extreme, until victims have no control over their own financial life, and can be dragged further and further into debt.

“Even when the abuse grows, victims can find it difficult to see the issue clearly, because the abuser is working so hard to convince them that their approach is the only option. Eventually, many victims will start to question whether the only real problem is their need to be in control of their own finances.

“And even when they’re aware this is abuse, they may feel powerless to do anything about it. It can be incredibly difficult to challenge, because abusers will often exact a price for pushing back, either by making things worse, or through other forms of abuse. It can also feel impossible to leave, especially if the abuser ensures you have no money, no job, and huge debts, so you have no way of starting again.

“It means we need to keep an eye on our loved ones, to see whether they could be a victim, and may need our help.”

Examples of financial abuse

  • Stopping you from studying or working
  • Making it impossible for you to work from home when you need to
  • Forcing you to work while they refuse to
  • Insisting you hand over your salary and any benefits
  • Taking control of your bank account
  • Denying access to information about the household finances
  • Skipping bills and spending the money on themselves
  • Applying for credit in your name
  • Forcing you to ask for money for household expenses
  • Giving you a ‘spending budget’ without your input
  • Making it so low that it forces you into hardship
  • Insisting on seeing receipts for every expense
  • Not allowing you to spend money on yourself or your children
  • Paying for things and expecting something in return
  • Refusing to pay their fair share of something – such as childcare or bills
  • Spending money set aside for children
  • Withholding child maintenance payments
  • Continually returning to court after separation with the aim of depleting resources

Ten signs someone may be a victim

  • They might have started spending less, despite no change in their circumstances. They may keep ‘forgetting’ their wallet.
  • They could have started refusing invitations that involve spending money.
  • They might always pay with cash rather than a card.
  • You may spot they’re not buying things that their circumstances should have afforded them – which can be anything from a new coat to food.
  • They may be anxious around anything that involves spending money.
  • They might need to borrow money for essentials, despite still working.
  • They may change their working or studying arrangements without being able to explain why.
  • Look out for language around having to ask or get permission before they spend time or money with you, or not being allowed certain things.
  • They may admit to not knowing anything about the household finances, or where their money is spent.
  • Their spending might differ strikingly from that of their partner.