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It's time to talk about financial abuse

by Sarah-Jayne Dunn, CAS Financial Health policy manager.

This article first appeared in the Herald on 7 April 2021.

This week I was on Radio Scotland’s excellent Clever About Cash programme, talking about financial abuse. This is where someone is being exploited by a partner, family member or other person who is actively stealing, or restricting their access to, their own money.

This is a serious issue, and some of the cases I’ve seen in my career as a money adviser are just heart-breaking.

It’s also a largely hidden issue. People affected are often unable to seek help; they may be afraid of the perpetrator, they may feel ashamed or embarrassed, or they may not even know they are being exploited. It’s therefore difficult to assess the scale of the problem, but sadly it is likely far more widespread than we realise. 

It’s also a problem which exists in many forms. And if we are to get a grip on it, I think we have to begin by recognising its complexity, which means confronting our assumptions.

For instance, when you first read the term ‘financial abuse’ in the headline above, what came into your mind? Most people will have thought of one of two things. The first is a man exploiting a woman - possibly as part of a situation that also involves domestic violence. The other is an elderly person, perhaps disabled or in poor mental health, being deliberately exploited by their children or carers.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Both of these scenarios certainly exist, and indeed are all-too common. But to think of these as definitive is to under-estimate the situation enormously. Anyone can be a target of financial abuse, and anyone can be a perpetrator.

There is also a spectrum here. At one extreme, there are those who cruelly exploit a vulnerable relative, friend, or neighbour.

But at the other end, there is what I’d call the ‘inadvertent’ abuser. Like the loving wife who has always taken care of the money in a marriage - entirely by agreement (“Oh she’s just better at that sort of thing than me,”) and out of habit has reached a stage where she is effectively excluding her partner from any decision-making about their money. Or the loving son whose mother has asked him to formally take care of her finances as her dementia progresses, but who has no experience of such things and so is making mistakes.

Sometimes a person’s need to be in excessive control of the household finances stems from the fact they grew up in difficult financial circumstances where every penny had to be accounted for.

That kind of childhood can scar a person’s attitude to money, which can then spill over into the way they micro-manage it in a household, excluding others from having any choice or control. This is certainly the case for me. Due to my own experience of growing up in poverty and having OCD with my obsessive compulsions being directly linked to money, I have a need to not spend money in order to avoid falling back into poverty. However, at times I have to re-examine my thought process. And I am getting better, with the help of my husband.

Now I would hope no one would consider these latter cases, including my own, to be as morally bad as those of deliberate exploitation at the other end of the scale. These situations are people who, like me, need help rather than punishment.

So, apart from examining our assumptions, what are the more practical things we can do to tackle financial abuse?

Well, if you feel you are being exploited, there are a number of charities and agencies that can help you. Not least Citizens Advice - our free, confidential, sympathetic advice is always there for you.

In addition, we should all keep our eyes and ears open around friends, family, neighbours and colleagues who we think might be vulnerable to such abuse, and just make sure they seem comfortable with their financial situation.

Often there are signs which may flag that someone you know is facing these problems, such as them not having money to buy essentials despite just having been paid or being on a good income, or a sudden inability to pay their bills or just being unable to explain what is happening with their own money. If you are concerned about someone, the best thing to do is to try and talk to them, or again seek advice from your local CAB.

I am a passionate believer in getting people to talk more about their money problems, regardless of what they are. Talk to your friends, talk to your family, talk to an advice body. We need a culture change where money is no longer a taboo topic. Everyone can have, financial problems from time to time, and their effects can be devastating, We need to talk about them more and thereby sort them out quicker.

Other aspects of our culture around money need to change too. Did anyone ever sit you down at school and carefully explain a tax form to you, or what all those numbers mean on a payslip? If they did, you’re luckier than a lot of people. These things are written in such opaque language, and our society in general makes such little attempt to explain them, that it’s no wonder some people feel unable to cope with money, even as an adult. And of course it is precisely this lack of confidence that opens the door to exploitation and scams.

So, simpler language, better education, more vigilance and a culture where talking about money is encouraged. All of these can help tackle the problem of financial abuse - and others besides.