Recognizing “Financial Abuse”

Recently I ran across this article on “recognizing financial abuse.” A mother wrote to a financial advisor about her son’s circumstances, out of concern that the son was in a “financially abusive relationship.” It seems that the son’s fiancee manages the couple’s finances and controls their accounts, so that the son is dependent on the fiancee for “anything he wants, even spending money.” Mom worries that the fiancee is intentionally creating a dependency relationship — and the advisor says the Mom is “absolutely right to be concerned.” The article then goes on to discuss financial abuse and its warning signs.

There seems to be a pretty significant back story lurking behind the Mom’s inquiry about potential financial abuse. You can detect a whiff of a Mom who is pretty darned involved in her son’s life — to the point of knowing intimate details about how a couple is managing their private finances — and might, conceivably, have been an overprotective helicopter parent who resents the fiancee’s role for a lot of reasons. But laying that issue aside: when one person in a couple takes principal responsibility for their joint financial affairs, is it really a cause for concern about “financial abuse”?

In my experience, most couples make an allocation of responsibility for financial matters, just as they decide who will be responsible for different chores around the household. That makes perfectly good sense to me and doesn’t seem like a danger sign in any way. You don’t want two people writing checks, and it is a lot more efficient to have one person tracking the household budget. If the son who is the subject of the letter from the hovering mother isn’t incredibly responsible with his spending habits, it’s perfectly understandable that the fiancee might want to assume responsibility for money management and put him (and herself) on an allowance so they don’t have an issue with overspending and growing credit card debt. So long as the couple talks about the issues and reaches agreement on who is going to do what, it’s hard to see why their situation might be cause for concern.

The article linked above notes — correctly, of course — that “financial abuse” can be a form of domestic abuse, and that people need to be wary of things like forged checks, “secret” credit cards, using money to manipulate, intimidate, or interfere with or control a person’s job or lifestyle. And clearly, people need to be sensitive to financial abuse of the elderly and fraudsters emptying accounts that credulous seniors carefully funded over their lifetimes. But those circumstances seem pretty far removed from one member of a couple simply taking charge of finances and trying to make sure that they stick to their budget. And there is a danger, too, in defining potential “financial abuse” so broadly that it sweeps in entirely innocent and rational allocations of household responsibilities. That’s not only going to embolden nosy Moms, it’s also going to make it less likely that people recognize the signs of true financial abuse.