This is sponsored content for Commonwealth Bank – www.smh.com.au
By Penny Carroll
Imagine starting over with just $17.50 to your name. Here, one woman shares how she escaped a violent relationship and rebuilt her life – and finances – from scratch.
Theirs was a whirlwind romance. Emily* was just 19 when they met and eight months later they were married and expecting a baby. Her new husband insisted that she quit her graphic design course because he would take care of her. Emily agreed, but it wasn’t long before she started to feel the suffocating effect of his financial control.
“I was brought up believing that the man looks after the money. I was pregnant and it all made sense at the time,” recalls Emily, now 39. “But I was waiting for the moment where I would not need for anything. It always felt like I needed stuff that I wasn’t allowed to have.”
Emily didn’t recognise it at the time, but she was experiencing a textbook case of financial abuse. It’s a widespread problem in Australia: research shows that of the one in four women and one in 13 men who seek help for domestic and family violence, up to 90 per cent are also impacted by financial abuse.
It can take many forms, such as co-opting wages, restricting access to cash and accounts, or forcing a partner to take on debt, and it often prevents people leaving abusive relationships. In Emily’s case, her husband forbade her to study or work, gave her a limited weekly allowance and scrutinised every dollar she spent.
“There was a lot of shouting and a lot of putting down,” she says. “[He would say] I didn’t understand money.”
As time went on, her husband’s behaviour became increasingly violent. When he threatened the lives of Emily and their three children, she knew she had to leave, and police found them a place in a women’s refuge. “I had $17.50 in my bank account. I had no paper to my name, never finished anything. I’d never had a job,” she says.
A new start
With the help of the refuge, one of the first things Emily did was secure her bank account so her husband could no longer access it. “They set me up at Centrelink and I started getting the single parent payment. I also applied to TAFE and was granted the domestic violence scholarship, so I could study for free.”
Although she had little income and no possessions, Emily had her kids’ future in mind. “Straight away I went and opened up three [savings] accounts, one for each of my children.”
The next few years were tough for Emily, as she studied a trade at TAFE one day a week and worked as an apprentice the other four days, battling long commutes and even longer nights working on assignments. But her hard work paid off. “I became really savvy with my savings,” she says.
Emily now has a new partner, with whom she shares a child, and has found her feet in a new career. “About four years ago I went back to study community services,” she says. “I now have a job that I absolutely love, pays really well, and I couldn’t be happier.”
As for the savings accounts she started for her kids? They’re still going, minus one: “For my eldest daughter’s18th birthday, I gave all that money to her. And I’d saved so hard I was able to take her to Paris for her 18th birthday,” Emily shares proudly.
How you can help
When it comes to fighting financial abuse, knowledge is power. So, having open conversations about money is one way you can make a real difference.
“People often don’t know they’re in a financially abusive relationship. It may not be until they hear about how others manage money or about the cycle of abuse that they realise what they thought was normal is not,” explains Catherine Fitzpatrick, Commonwealth Bank’s general manager of community and customer vulnerability.
Commonwealth Bank has a number of resources available not only for people experiencing domestic and financial abuse, but for the wider community to learn more. Its Recognise and Recover guide is “really useful for anyone wanting to know more about financial abuse, but also where and how to get support in order to get back on your feet,” Fitzpatrick says.
Because the signs of financial abuse are subtle, Emily says it’s key to know where to look. “If you see someone refusing to buy the smallest of things, or if you see the kids wearing clothes that are too small for them, maybe offer some help or even offer to listen,” she suggests.
“If anyone is concerned about the wellbeing of their friends and family they should certainly reach out and check that those people are okay and safe, and always contact police if there is a risk of harm,” adds Domestic Violence NSW’s Renata Field. “It’s also important to know that friends and family can call 1800 RESPECT or other support services for advice to make sure that they’re responding to their friends and family in the safest way.”
Now that the nightmare is behind her, Emily wants others living with abuse to know that they, too, can survive. “You’re stronger than you think,” she says. “Reach out to society, talk to support lines, be prepared for hard work, but know it will be worth it in the end. You deserve it.”
*Name has been changed to protect identity.