Hiding the fact I had bought presents for our kids, how financial abuse damaged my life - Sarah Coles

At Christmas 2010 I told everyone at work I was getting the kids’ presents delivered to the office because nobody was home.

In fact, I was taking the toys out of their packaging, roughing them up a bit, and then putting them into supermarket carrier bags. My partner at the time had told me I wasn’t allowed to buy our children presents anywhere other than charity shops.

It wasn’t because we were short of money. He had decided to give up work, so I was working three jobs and bringing in three salaries. I just wasn’t allowed to spend my money.

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And if I dared break the rules, or challenge them, I would face abject fury, days of silent treatment, an escalation of the rules until they were even stricter, or he would just disappear. At the same time, he was still going out to exclusive bars and clubs, and buying rounds of drinks that ran into three figures.

The author was forced into hiding presents from her partner

After the end of the relationship, I told people how he would control my spending, and they were incredulous. How could a financial expert, of all people, fall victim to this? Why didn’t I refuse? Why didn’t I just leave?

It’s difficult to understand unless you’re actually living through it. Often financial abuse will build gradually, so that the victims slowly adapt to increasingly extreme behaviour.

In any relationship, there’s a certain amount of give and take when it comes to money. We all know couples where one of them ‘‘holds the purse strings’’, and where someone takes charge to make sure all the bills are paid. We also know people whose partner keeps an eye on them, because they have a history of spending well beyond their means and running up debts.

And we know couples who have a joint account, and run a very tight ship, so that all spending needs to be agreed. There are plenty of perfectly functional couples who do any or all of these things.

Financial abuse is a problem for many families.

However, there’s a firm distinction between this and coercive control, and it comes down to collaboration and equality. Where couples have reached a solution together as a result of a sensible compromise by them both, it’s very different from when restrictions are imposed by one person for no better reason than they want to be in charge.

But inside a relationship, that distinction can be hard to see, especially if the financial abuser starts with a sensible compromise, and then gradually shifts the goalposts. They may also put in a great deal of effort convincing you that you have agreed to their demands as the best possible solution, ‘gaslighting’ you until you feel the only real problem is your need to be in control of your own finances.

In many ways I count myself lucky. This form of control simply meant I worked so hard it damaged my health, and I had to come up with increasingly creative excuses for how the children had new coats. Financial abuse can take a number of far more damaging forms, including refusing to let you earn or study, or letting you work but taking all your income and controlling your bank account.

The abuser may allocate a needlessly restricted allowance or force you to justify every penny you need for household expenses. They may apply for credit in your name, or run up joint debts, so you’re tied to them through overwhelming mountains of borrowing. Some will also damage or steal your property, to undermine any economic security you may have.

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At the time, if I’d wanted to get help from the police, there was no specific law protecting me. That changed almost exactly five years ago, when coercive control was made illegal on December 29, 2015, in a law that covers financial abuse. It has taken a while for this to feed through into how police officers record abuse, but the number of these offences recorded by police doubled in the year to March 2019 to over 19,000, and had tripled the year before that.

You can be sure that the numbers of people facing financial abuse are far higher than this. Given the difficulty in recognising abuse and then informing the police, there’s a real risk that victims are suffering in silence.

It means we can all do more to keep an eye on our friends and family. In my case I met up with an old friend, who had noted that despite losing weight I was in old, baggy clothes. I made excuses, but eventually the full story emerged.

Consider if anyone you’re close to has suddenly started spending less or saying no to invitations, without a noticeable change in their circumstances. Do their spending decisions logically add up? Are they free to commit to things that require a small amount of expense? Do they use language around having to ask, or get permission before they spend time or money with you?

If you’re worried, just ask. They may be waiting for an excuse to tell someone.

The victim may also need help to make a break. This may mean contacting the police, especially if the abuser uses threats. If they have enough money, it’s also a good idea to contact a solicitor.

They can help ensure their rights are upheld and can get court orders to keep them safe. If they can’t afford legal help, and don’t qualify for legal aid, charities can help. If it’s safe to do so, they can call the 24-hour Domestic Violence Helpline run by Refuge. The advisers there can talk through where they stand.

In my case, my family stepped in, and a year after that Christmas, I was looking forward to celebrating as a single mum, when I could buy gifts from wherever I liked, and provide the kids with all the warm clothing I wanted.