Escaping an abusive relationship can be a long and dangerous process, and it can leave your finances in disarray. Three survivors tell how they rebuilt their credit in the wake of domestic abuse.
This post contains descriptions of domestic violence events as told by the author of each section. Please skip this article if you are concerned it would negatively affect your mental health. You can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for safe, confidential assistance.
If you are or have been in an abusive relationship, you are not alone.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, an average of one in three women have experienced some form of domestic violence, such as physical, sexual, emotional, economic and psychological abuse. Although escaping such situations is paramount, the process can be long and dangerous.
Here are the stories of three women who left their abusive partners, and how they rebuilt their damaged credit along the way.
My marriage was a poster child for emotional abuse. I lived walking on eggshells trying to avoid his explosive anger. He would lash out, scream, call me names, throw me and my things out of the house, knowing I had nowhere to go. He’d kick out the doors I’d try to hide behind. He’d smash my phone so I couldn’t call for help, threatening to have me deported as I was an immigrant.
Once he woke me up in the middle of the night and dragged me out of bed by my hair. I left because I knew it wouldn’t get better — but it very much could get worse. I didn’t want to wait for it to get more physical, and I was tired of feeling constantly down and depressed. I had to file a restraining order to make him leave me alone, but it was the best thing I’d done for myself.
One of the worst parts was being financially stuck. Being tied to your abuser makes you feel like you’re living in an invisible cage. Leaving when I did meant I’d have no home and no income to support myself. Homelessness was a real prospect. Thankfully, I spent three months staying on my neighbors’ couch until I got on my feet.
I had poor credit for most of my marriage. I hated my financial dependence and began educating myself on credit. About a year before I left, I was able to get the Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card. I got my credit to fair just by making small charges and paying them off right away. The issuer increased my credit line from $200 to $500 after five months of on-time payments. I was so happy. That was $500 I could rely on if I had to.
My credit card became my very first tiny step to financial independence. I couldn’t save any money in my circumstances, but I knew I had a credit line. The morning after I got out, my ex cut me off everything. I used my card to get a new phone number, so I could continue my job search. I also bought food with it because I felt bad raiding my neighbors’ fridge. I had to be very frugal with my grocery shopping, but luckily, I got a job soon enough to avoid getting into debt.
After I started working, I had to figure out my car situation. My car was old and unreliable, and I couldn’t afford to maintain it. Luckily, I was getting close to a good credit score, and having a credit card from Capital One allowed me to create a positive relationship with the issuer. So I financed a car with Capital One. It gave me the best rate I could get back then.
Today, my credit score is good, I still drive that car and I have five credit cards I use to earn cash back and free travel. I still have lots of emotional healing to do, but I’m absolutely financially healthy. My financial independence is my priority now and something I’ll never compromise on.
The day after my 18th birthday, I married someone I had known for under six months. We were both active duty military members, in the same career field and I thought we had the same goals in life. Shortly after we got married, though, he became verbally abusive.
He would use his words to belittle and berate me in private and publicly. He was also financially abusive because he controlled all of the money. I couldn’t buy anything without his approval first.
Eventually, the abuse escalated into physical violence. One day, it all came to a head when he pushed me into a wall and yelled at me in front of our two kids and my best friend. He left for work, and my best friend started packing my things. She told me if I didn’t leave at that moment, she would never speak to me again. I left that day and never looked back. I left because I felt like the way his anger and aggression were growing every day, he would have killed me eventually.
I did not consider the financial aspects of living alone before I left. The military offered no help or support during that time, so I had to care for two children and myself in one of the wealthiest counties in Maryland at the time with no housing allowance and junior enlisted pay. At that time, daycare cost more than in-state college tuition. The rent was high. Food was expensive. Honestly, I probably would have stayed longer if I had thought about it before I left.
When we were first married, my credit was excellent. Two years later, because of joint debts he refused to pay, when I left him my credit was horrible. I remember having a credit score of 444 when I applied to apartments after I moved out.
My credit card was one of the tools I used to help rebuild my credit. I used it when I couldn’t afford diapers and wipes and had a few days until payday. I know now that an emergency fund should have been the tool I used to survive, but as a financial abuse survivor, I wasn’t used to having to budget for one, so I didn’t have one to fall back on. My credit card gave me the gift of survival.
I was in a relationship with a man who started courting me on our first date. That was in 2012. It was great in the beginning, but then about four months into the relationship was the first sign of physical violence. He pushed me so hard against the wall that I almost went through it. There was so much physical violence. Sometimes the beatings lasted over four hours.
And then there was the financial abuse and emotional manipulation. At one point my husband said, “Hey I wanted to increase my credit score,” so he started using my credit. At the time I had a credit score of 800, so he added his name to all my credit cards and used them for expenses. He would tell me that he would pay the bills, but unfortunately it was like pulling teeth to get him to make a payment on those cards.
This went on for years, even after I knew I needed to escape. The final straw was finding out he was having affairs, too. I just lost it. I crumbled.
Eventually I went to Los Angeles and got my head back on straight. I started to realize how much abuse I was experiencing, but not yet fully understanding that it was domestic violence. I started to write out my story in a play format.
I was then contacted by another woman he assaulted and I knew I had a choice to make: stay silent and try to get him to pay off our debt, which would have saved my credit, or take legal action. I chose the latter. I sent him an email saying I’m going to get an attorney and that’s what I did. I sued him.
My play “But I Love Him” was eventually produced. People started coming up to me and telling me their mother’s, brother’s, neighbor’s, sister’s story and I realized I felt a calling. I started volunteering with the Downtown Women’s Center on Skid Row, and discovered that a high percentage of the women there experienced domestic violence. Then I created my own nonprofit called Unsilenced Voices that empowers survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.
Of course, before leaving I was scared. He said he would demolish me financially if I left. He made me totally dependent. Every time I needed money I had to ask him. By that point he had run up $50,000 in credit card debt, in my name. When I left I the debt went into collections, and my credit scores declined terribly.
I knew I had to repair my credit, however, so I just started to apply for cards for bad credit. Now I have five or so great credit cards that I use sporadically and I always pay on time.
Bottom line: Financial advice from the survivors
There are many steps you can take to financially prepare for departure. The first is to not let the threat of bad credit stop you.
“Leave anyway,” says Michelle. “Don’t worry about your credit. You will rebuild it. I made double payments on the car when I finally escaped.”
“Get a P.O. box with a physical address and apply for your own credit cards,” says Markia. “And do not sign up for any new debts with your partner. This means don’t buy a home, don’t buy a car with him. You can do all that later, on your own.”
Ana recommends getting a checking and savings account that only you have access to. Start socking away money. If you can’t qualify for an unsecured credit card, you can use some of that cash to get a secured card.
“Keep it close at all times in case you need to flee unexpectedly,” says Ana. “Make it a part of your go-bag. Your credit will be essential to your financial health once you leave.”
And finally, get help. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for safe, confidential assistance.