After reading this article on financial abuse, a good friend of mine asked me to anonymously share her story. I hope she doesn’t mind me editorializing just a bit. It’s important to note that what this story and other stories like it highlight is the presumption of entitlement by men to financial resources. It’s the old “I made the money so I deserve a little extra consideration in spending it” argument. This is the way that society has, for centuries, devalued the work of family and community: by placing control of the resources in the hands of men who consistently undervalue their wives and families while indulging themselves.That last clause is really the kicker. There are plenty of poor families who actually can’t get by or patriarchs (with financially disinterested wives) who stash away most of their income in savings and investments and thus live far below their actual means, and there’s nothing wrong with either of those things. It’s when a family breadwinner prioritizes his hobbies and purchases while denigrating the equal hobbies and purchases of other people in his family that this kind of financial abuse becomes a problem. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, as they say: If he gets to spend $200/month on hobbies, she should be able to spend the same amount without being yelled at about it.
The other thing that this story makes clear is that financial abuse can and does happen at any level of privilege. It’s not a matter of how many resources are available, it’s about equal distribution of those resources and the danger of allowing the breadwinner entitlement to them. This lesson applies to welfare recipients and the 1% alike.
JANE DOE’S STORY OF FINANCIAL ABUSE
Financial abuse is real. It’s a form of emotional abuse, and it can often be subtle. Unlike victims of domestic violence who know that they are being beaten, victims of financial abuse may not even recognize the signs of abuse. They may not consciously know they are victims at all, especially when the abuse is relatively minor.
I know because I’ve been a victim of financial abuse and I didn’t realize it until almost a decade later. My mother has been a victim of financial abuse for over three decades and she still doesn’t recognize it… or maybe she does and has just decided she feels so powerless there is nothing she can do about it. I don’t know.
Part of why financial abuse is hidden is because it seems ordinary. I was never called names. I was never told I was worthless or useless. Instead I was told over and over and over “we can’t afford that.” But I digress, I should start from the beginning…
I grew up in a relatively middle class family. Sure, we had financial setbacks from time to time. As a young child, my father was unemployed for over a year, but from the time I was ten until I was twenty five, both my parents worked full time and my father made six figures during at least part of that time. The unique thing about my family’s financial situation is that we have always owned rental property. The rental property has paid for most of or the entire mortgage. Certainly I don’t know all the details of my parents’ financial situation and certainly there are financial obligations of home ownership apart from the mortgage, but imagine how much better you would do personally if you didn’t have to pay rent or a mortgage. It makes a big difference.
But despite all this, I always grew up thinking that my family was poor. Or at least far less well off than my friends’ parents. Looking back, this clearly wasn’t true. My father always found room in the budget for the things he cared about most dearly – CDs. But when my brother or I wanted to do something that most middle class kids participated in, we were too poor to afford it. Anytime my mother took us shopping for clothes or back to school, he grumbled. We rarely went on family vacations. If I asked to go to camp, it was a huge financial burden. I was constantly wearing ill-fitting clothes as a tween because they were the cheapest. Whenever we went out to eat at restaurants, my father would ask everyone what they wanted to eat and complain if they chose an expensive item. Now certainly, none of these things are so terrible alone, but it’s the big picture that counts.
It didn’t become a major problem for me until I was in high school and even then I didn’t get the brunt of the abuse. When all my school cohorts were taking SAT prep classes, I received no such amenities. As a good student, my school counselors expected me to go to a four year university directly from high school, but my father insisted that I should receive an AA degree at a cheaper institution first (I later received a scholarship and inheritance money to pay for college). When I got a job my senior year of high school, all my earnings went into a joint account with my parents. I was berated for taking money out of the account. Again, I’m not trying to say that my life was horrible or I experienced any of the terrible emotional traumas that can come from more severe forms of abuse… but I certainly did suffer emotionally. After the constant insinuation that money couldn’t be spent on me (even though I intrinsically knew the money was there), I started to *feel* unimportant… so I ran into the arms of anyone or anything that *did* make me feel important. This lasted for nearly a decade until I became financially independent and began to create my own internal sense of self-worth. It took another five years for me to realize that there had been emotional abuse… but that’s another story.
So I know what you’re thinking. I sound like a spoiled brat. My life was not that terrible, I was provided for. I had clean clothes and food and a roof over my head. I had plenty of middle-class amenities. But also take into consideration that I was not on the front-lines of my parents’ financial battle. I was largely protected by my mother who seemed to understand that we could afford more than the bare survival minimum for herself and her children, even if she didn’t have access to all our financial data.
So what of my mother? Yes, she put herself in a weak financial situation when she married my father. Yes, she allowed it to happen. And she has continued to allow it by not educating herself – she doesn’t even know how to use an ATM. They have all joint accounts and my father maintains responsibility for managing them. Makes sense since he is a financial advisor, right? He pays all the bills and does transfers into savings or retirement accounts as necessary. She just spends the money. So yes, she has her own credit card. She can spend as much as she wants on it and buy anything she likes. Doesn’t seem like there is much abuse going on? Except anytime the credit card bill comes, or anytime she returns home with shopping bags, the degradation begins. Sometimes it’s just a groan. Other times she is berated for spending money on non-necessities (my mother isn’t allowed to have hobbies, or visit friends, apparently). Surely these types of financial squabbles happen all the time between married couples, but I’d like to think that in most cases the complaints aren’t continuously on-sided. These types of complaints over and over are what constitute abuse… and since my mother doesn’t know enough to analyze the bank account, my father can paint any picture of their financial situation he likes and she wouldn’t know if it’s true or not.
Except she does.
Fast forward a few years. My father has been unemployed on and off for the past five years. Certainly this puts financial strain on any relationship… but again, keep in mind that my parents’ mortgage is covered, my mother has a steady income and at the time my father became unemployed, both children had left the home. So there is less money to go around, but few necessary expenses. Time to cut back, right? Not for my father. He has taken his unemployment time to become more involved in his hobby of square dancing – a hobby my mother cannot participate in due to disability. He has driven all over the state and rented plenty of hotel rooms going to square-dancing conventions. He still buys CDs all the time. In one year of intermittent unemployment, my father put more miles on his car than my mother did on her car while working full time. Not exactly a prime example of “cutting back.” Especially in California where gas is consistently over $4.00/gallon.
Yet still, my mother is berated for spending money… even though she’s the one earning most of the money.
I hope I’ve painted a picture of what financial abuse can be like. It can be subtle. Not all cases are extreme. But the end result is that the victim *feels* powerless. I’m certain that my mother feels powerless to leave my father. She doesn’t understand what her resources would be without him… because she doesn’t even know what her resources are when she is with him. Again, I’m not privy to all their financial details, but my mother has been working in a union job for over thirty years. She’s a teacher-assistant, so she doesn’t have a huge salary, but it has increased over time. I’m confident that she could afford a 1 bedroom apartment to herself.
I have plenty more stories I could tell, but I’d like to close with the follow one, which I think is poignant. In my early twenties, before the years of my father’s unemployment, I travelled to visit my parents in California from Maryland. I was visiting for Thanksgiving which happens to fall around my mother’s birthday. My mother and I had planned for the three of us to go out to dinner to celebrate. My father hadn’t bought her a gift, and then he complained vehemently that they couldn’t afford to go out to dinner. My mother burst into tears and refused to go anywhere with him. I told her that we could go just the two of us, but she still refused. She was so upset about him completely neglecting her birthday. At the time, I thought she was just being difficult, but looking back I was wrong. She was not trying to be difficult, she just felt worthless.