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The warning signs you’re on the pathway to financial abuse

The telltale signs of financial control are not always obvious at the start. Here’s how to guard against them

By Mercedes Maguire
Thu, May 2, 2024 9:23amGrey Clock 4 min

It can be insidious, its victims hard to spot and it happens at all levels of society. Men, women, young, old, poor, affluent — financial abuse victims come from all walks of life. We only have to look at the most high profile case in the world — Britney Spears — to see evidence.

Statistics reveal that the average victim is a woman in her 40s or 50s with little or no access to employment and poor health outcomes. 

But an increasing number of Australians are falling victim to financial abuse. In Australia, more than 623,000 men and women were subjected to financial abuse in 2020 — that is one in 30 women, or one in 50 men, according to the Commonwealth Bank’s Cost of Financial Abuse in Australia report.

Put simply, financial abuse is a form of family violence which occurs when one person exploits or controls another person’s financial resources. It most commonly takes the shape of a victim having money withheld or controlled by a partner, a victim made liable for joint debts, or even a victim being prevented from being able to work or further their education.

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And it can happen to anyone, says financial wellness coach, Betsy Westcott, who states up to 40 percent of Australians will experience it or know someone who has experienced it.

“There was a lady I once saw from Mosman — a suburb which on the surface has all the trappings of wealth and prosperity,” Westcott recounts. “She drove a Range Rover and lived in a lovely house but after she and her husband had their first child, she was made redundant while on maternity leave and her husband told her ‘Don’t worry about a new role, I’ll look after everything.’

“It turned out she always had to ask her husband for money because she had no access to the household accounts and she had to account for every last cent she spent. In the end, when she tried to leave the marriage, their account had been drained and all the debt was in her name.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re smart or educated, we all have vulnerabilities.”

Financial wellness coach Betsy Westcott

But just because financial abuse is prevalent — and has become more so since the pandemic and the onset of the cost of living crisis with financial situations becoming more tenuous — it doesn’t mean you can’t safeguard against it.

Heidi Reid is the executive director of strategic engagement at Berry Street, a child and family services charity whose mission includes educating adults to build money management skills.

Reid says a money-smart education should start in early childhood to create a generation resilient to financial abuse.

“Financial literacy education can build knowledge, confidence and skills to help people make informed decisions and manage their finances and their future,” Reid says. “Financial literacy…is appropriate for people at any age and life stage, and many experts recommend introducing basic concepts to children and young people early on. By incorporating age-appropriate discussions and activities, children can develop a foundational understanding of money and financial principles.

“Parents, guardians, and educators can tailor these conversations to the individual child’s maturity level and experiences. The goal is to build a gradual understanding of financial concepts and responsible money management as children grow.”

Laura Higgins, senior executive of ASIC’s MoneySmart, says there are eight main financial abuse warnings signs to look out for in a partner.

1. Controlling access to common accounts

2. Not providing enough money for living expenses

3. Trying to prevent you from working or studying

4. Taking out debts in your name or exerting pressure on you to sign up for loans

5. Making you account for how you spend your money

6. Selling or threatening to sell property without permission

7. Hiding money from you

8. Making you feel like you’re financially incompetent

Westcott adds that financial abuse can look different at different stages of life, particularly for women, whose vulnerabilities change with the decades. In your 20s it can be a partner pressuring you to take a loan out in your name; in your 30s it can be a partner who encourages you not to return to work after the birth of a child; in your 40s it can be the removal of assets in your name so you are trapped in a relationship; in your 50s and beyond it can be vulnerability from poor super accumulation and job prospects.

But she warns it doesn’t just affect women.

“When it comes to men being the victim, it can generally (but not always) look a little different,” Westcott says. “Consider scenarios where a man is coerced into paying for things to sustain a certain lifestyle and messages of love mixed with guilt, like “If you loved me” type of threats. It’s generally more about being pressured to financially over commit and then sometimes being left with unpaid loans.

“And it’s even harder to see when it happens to men because society holds men accountable for finances and so under reporting is a big problem.”

Either way, experts agree the best way to protect yourself is to have good financial literacy.

“To protect yourself you should stay informed and actively involved in your financial matters, being aware of your income, expenses and assets,” Reid says. “Financial literacy education can build knowledge, confidence and skills to help people make informed decisions and manage their finances and their future.”



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How cost of living pressures are impacting the health of Australians

Money worries are having a cascading effect on stress levels, conflict and even the rate of ageing

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Worrying about the cost of living is causing accelerated ageing, household arguments and creating significant stress, according to new research. More than half of Australians say they have experienced personal setbacks due to financial strain over the past year. Almost 20 percent say that have suffered a stress-related illness, 33 percent have lost sleep and almost one in five are seeing signs of early ageing.

Household hostility is also rising, with 19 percent of Australians admitting they have argued with their partners about money, and a further one in 10 have argued with family and friends.

The Finder survey of 1,070 Australians reveals women are bearing the brunt of financial stress, with 62 percent reporting they have worried about money compared to 42 percent of men.

Younger Australians are struggling the most, with almost 7 in 10 Gen Z respondents reporting financial strain compared to 58 percent of Gen Xers and 24 percent of baby boomers.

The impact of cost-of-living pressures among different age groups and income levels is reflected in new data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The selected living cost indexes show employee households are under more strain from inflation, with the CPI measure for this population group at 6.5 percent today compared to the official overall CPI figure of just 3.6 percent.

The discrepancy is due to higher mortgage interest payments – which make up a higher proportion of expenditure for employee households — as well as an increase in primary and secondary school fees, and the indexation of tertiary education fees at the start of the year. The official CPI does not include mortgage payments, so the living cost indexes provide a more accurate picture of how rising interest rates are impacting households with mortgages today.

The inflation rate is much lower for older Australians, who have often paid off their mortgages. The inflation rate on living expenses for age pensioner households is below the official CPI level at 3.3 percent, and it’s only slightly higher at 3.4 percent for self-funded retirees.

Graham Cooke, head of consumer research at Finder, said that despite cooling inflation, Australians were still under significant financial pressure.

This can be seen in Finders Cost of Living Pressure Gauge, which has been hovering in the extreme range for the past year and a half, Mr Cooke said. The gauge returned a reading of 78 percent in March this year compared to 47 percent in March 2021, when inflation was 1.1 percent and the Reserve Bank’s official cash rate was 0.1 percent.

Interestingly, Australians’ cash savings are higher today than they were in 2021, likely reflecting stimulus payments received and saved during the pandemic. The Reserve Bank has cited pandemic savings as a factor in keeping mortgage arrears low despite much higher interest rates. The Finder research shows Australians have an average of $37,206 in cash savings today, up from $24,928 two years ago.

Money concerns can cause problems in your everyday life and snowball quickly if you don’t get them under control,” Mr Cooke said. Building financial resilience is as vital as ever as costs continue to rise. Pay close attention to where your money is going so you keep impulse spending to a minimum, and don’t overspend.

Australians appear to be heeding this advice, with the latest ABS retail figures showing seven straight quarters of declining per capita spending. “Per capita volumes show retail turnover after the effects of inflation and population growth have been accounted for,” explained Ben Dorber, ABS head of retail statistics. “Following an unprecedented seven straight falls, it is very clear how much consumers have pulled back on spending in response to cost of living pressures over the past two years.

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