Secret financial escape plan for domestic violence victims
7 steps to build a credit history, quietly, before getting out
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If you're a domestic violence victim, you may still be living with your abuser for a simple reason: money.
It's common for abusers to keep victims in the dark about household finances and to limit access to bank accounts, victims' advocates say. Your abuser may force you to stay on a strict budget and account for every penny you spend. If you work, the abuser may make you turn over your paycheck immediately.
"Abusers use finances as way to gain and maintain power and control over their partner," says Amanda Stylianou, associate vice president of quality and program development at Safe Horizon, a domestic violence victims' advocacy agency. "We even see situations where the abuser may be doing things to purposely hurt the victim's credit, like opening credit cards in her name and running them up."
If you can become more financially independent and establish a credit history while you're still living with your abuser, that can help give you the confidence and security you need to escape, Stylianou says. But it's important to do it carefully, without raising flags for your abuser or putting your safety at risk.
Below are some steps Stylianou and other experts say domestic violence victims should consider to secretly start building financial independence while they're still in an abusive relationship (keeping in mind that safety should always be the top priority):
1. Assess your financial situation
If possible, start with a thorough accounting of your household finances. What are the household assets, and how much debt are you carrying? Which are joint accounts and which are just in one person's name? Whose names are on the mortgage? How much income is coming in? "If there are safe ways for you to get that information, we want you to collect it," Stylianou says.
If you're planning to leave, make copies of important documents such as bank and brokerage statements, birth certificates for you and your children, insurance inventories and policies, recent tax returns and more. Keep the copies at the home of a trusted friend or family member, or in a safe-deposit box your abuser doesn't know about.
Here's a checklist of questions to ask yourself to assess your financial situation, as well as a list of documents to gather or copy.
See related: 9 signs your spouse is a financial bully
2. Set up a way to communicate privately
You'll need a safe way to correspond with financial institutions, support groups and a divorce attorney if necessary, says Jeffrey Landers, a divorce financial strategist who has worked with victims of domestic violence. While your personal email may seem safe, experts say it's not unusual for suspicious spouses to install spyware or keystroke tracking software on the home computer. Instead, set up a new, private email account that you check only from computers outside your home. You can use a computer at work, at a friend's or relative's home, at a local library or in a domestic violence shelter.
You also need a physical address to receive mail, because you don't want statements coming to the house. "A post office box can work, but some financial institutions will want a physical address and not a P.O. box," Landers says. If that's the case, he recommends asking a family member or friend you trust if you can receive mail at their address.
3. Open a bank account
To start building your financial safety net, open a checking account at a different bank than the one where your spouse has an account. "Sometimes wires do get crossed, so I'd go to a totally separate institution," says Persis Yu, staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center, which advocates for the rights of domestic violence victims. Use your new address for the account or request that all communication from the bank be emailed to your secret email address.
Start squirrelling away any money you can in your new account. Some victims take out extra cash each week when they buy groceries. Others arrange to have any raises they get at work automatically deposited into their new accounts. "Even if you save only a few dollars a week, it's a start," Yu says.
In addition to providing emergency cash, the account will give you a way to make monthly payments if you choose to open a credit card in your name.
4. Pull your credit report
Your credit report can give you important information about your household finances, from bank account balances to debt owed. More importantly, you can find out where you stand when it comes to your credit history, since having good credit will make it easier for you to rent an apartment, get a credit card and take other steps to start a new life.
You can get a free copy of your credit report once a year from each of the three biggest credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) at AnnualCreditReport.com. Use a computer outside your home to request the reports and have them sent to your new private email address. You can also request your reports by phone by calling 877-322-8228.
The best-case scenario is you find you have more credit than you think. If you have a joint mortgage or credit cards with your spouse, even if he made all the payments, they will still show up on both of your reports and will boost your credit score if payments were made on time.
Unfortunately, it's more common for domestic victims to find problems on their reports, experts say. If your abuser isn't giving you enough cash to live on, you may have been forced to run up your credit card. If your spouse hasn't made payments on joint accounts in both your names, that hurts your score as well. You may also find loans and credit cards your abuser took out in your name without telling you. (If your abuser used your identity to rack up debt, it may be considered identity theft, and you can dispute the charges once you feel it's safe to do so.)
"If there's any debt that's just in your name, you can start to do some damage control around that," Stylianou says. "Call the companies and say, 'Here's my situation. Can we work out some kind of payment plan?' Make sure they know to use your new private address and not to call you on the home phone."
Sometimes, Stylianou says, victims learn that they have no credit at all. If that's the case, you'll need to build your credit from scratch.
See related: Domestic violence, coerced debt often go together
5. Start building your credit history
Having a credit card in your own name – and paying the balance in full and on time each month – is the best way to start establishing a credit history. If you're not working, it may be easier to get a credit card in your name while you're still married, because issuers typically take into account household income when making approval decisions. If you're denied, try a store or gas station card. Those often have looser credit requirements.
If you're still turned down, consider a secured card (here is our list of the best secured cards). Designed to help those with little or no credit history, they require you to make a deposit with a bank or credit union; the bank then gives you a credit limit equal to your deposit. Before you sign up, make sure the fees are reasonable and that the bank will report your account history to the credit bureaus. "You want to have something on record that shows you're capable of making timely payments," Landers says, "even if you're just charging a $3 coffee at Starbucks a few times a month."
Again, set up the account using a secret email and physical address.
6. Get help
If you're in a precarious financial situation or if you fear for your safety, you don't have to take these steps on your own, Stylianou says. Domestic violence organizations can connect you with financial counselors who can help. They can also help you access financial resources such as emergency assistance, utility assistance, public benefits, legal aid and more.
"There are so many nonprofit organizations out there to support you," Stylianou says. "We can help you create a plan to get you back on your feet and keep you and your children safe." To locate a program in your community, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-SAFE.
7. Establish a budget you can stick to
Once you’re able to escape, having a budget that you can work with will be a key part of maintaining financial freedom. If you’ve been able to set up private communication with friends or family, ask for their help creating a budget, establishing communication with landlords, and setting up utilities once you’re out.
A strong budget will have 50 percent dedicated to bills and necessities such as food and water, 30 percent dedicated to personal care and social events with friends and family, and 20 percent to saving. It’s easy to overlook personal care and saving, but both are essential to long-term financial independence.
It’s important to establish a budget that you will be able to stick you and manage. If you have to work towards this 50-30-20 breakdown over time, that’s OK. Make your budget something that will work for your personal goals and needs.”
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