Heather didn’t have any financial responsibility once she got married—and she knew that wasn’t a good thing. "My name wasn’t on any of the accounts or the bills, so if something happened with the phone, I would call and say, 'My phone is not working,' and they would say, 'You're name is not on the account, so we can’t do anything about it,'" she says. "I wasn’t able to do anything with the bills."
After Heather had her second baby, she decided she should get a job to contribute to the household. But her husband said no. "I had the kids and he said we couldn't afford daycare," she says. "So I found little menial jobs—like cleaning out a barn—where I could take the kids with me, and I ended up using that money for me and the kids to go do fun things."
"Being abused is like being put into this tiny little box where you feel like just like dirt."
Her meager allowance from her husband meant that he'd question her expenses on every day necessities—even gas. Although the amount of money she was given varied depending on how much her husband said he had, she wasn't allowed to spend more than $200 a month on food for a family of four. "If I spent money on gas, he'd be like, 'Why are you driving to your parents' house all the time? You don't need to spend that much money. We can't afford it,'" says Heather. "He had this control over me, told me I was stupid, and [that I] didn't know how to handle money."
Heather never knew how much money her husband was earning as a machinist, but she eventually learned that when he was depositing paychecks into his bank account, he was keeping about $600 in cash every month for his beer money.
"There was always an unspoken rule about keeping beer—the good stuff, not the cheap stuff—in the house," she says. "He’s a big drinker, and when I went to the grocery store, I was always instructed to get a certain amount of beer. When my daughter was a baby and he was unemployed, he wasn’t giving me enough money for food. I’d say, 'We need fresh produce and stuff for the kids,' and he’d say, 'That's too bad. Just make sure there's beer.' I ended up sneaking behind his back and going to the food pantry to get some free food."
Heather says her husband told her never to talk about their marriage with anyone, and she didn’t because she was embarrassed. "To make me feel even worse, he'd say, 'Remember this month when you spent too much money on groceries and I almost ran out of beer?' or 'You spent too much money this month and I could barely pay the phone bill,'" says Heather. "It was just constant reminders and put-downs."
He also told her she was crazy. "And when you're told something over and over, you start to believe it," says Heather. "So I thought this was my fault. I thought I deserved to be treated this way. He’d make disrespectful jokes. By the end of the relationship, I don't even remember him calling me by my first name. He just called me 'bitch' all the time."
Heather finally decided to leave her husband in 2013 after a few failed attempts at counseling. The night she left, she ended up calling the police because her husband had been yelling at her for hours. One of the officers sat her down and told her, "I know you don't want to hear this and you're denying the abuse, but I want you to go to a shelter tonight. Because we can’t leave you here."
"The officer was kind of eye-opening," says Heather. "I was in denial. I was still telling people there was nothing wrong. It was so hard to take that first step out the door knowing that I didn't have any job experience. The next morning, I went to go get some money, and there was no money in the bank. It was all gone. He left me messages saying that that was the consequence for the trouble I’d caused."
Heather and her kids were homeless for eight months once she left her husband. "We were going to food banks every other day," she says. "I had family that helped me as much as they could, but I don't want handouts."
Ultimately, Heather found the Moving Ahead Through Financial Management program from the Allstate Foundation and the National Network to End Domestic Violence. For the past 10 years, the free program has helped almost a million women regain financial independence. Financial abuse and domestic abuse tend to go hand in hand, making it that much more difficult to leave a violent situation.
"It was so hard to take that first step out the door knowing that I didn't have any job experience."
"Once I learned how to live on a budget, I worked with a financial advisor to set up a special savings account to pay for college so I won't have to take out so many loans," says Heather. While she and her kids were homeless, Heather talked to some teachers, who helped her prep an application for an educational assistant position. "My teacher's assistant salary is almost $800 a month, and the state garnishes my husband's pay for child support, so we have a place to live and I can pay the bills."
Heather is in school now to get an education degree to be a reading specialist. And she says that talking about what she's been through is therapeutic for her, and she thinks it's just as helpful to listen to other women's stories.
"It's really important to listen to people and believe their stories, because sometimes those stories sound insane," she says. "People have a hard time hearing stuff. I've had so many people say, 'There's no way he would do that.' But he did."
Heather says the last three years have been so busy for her that she hasn’t had time to sit around and mope. "I need to keep working so my kids and I can be successful," she says. "I really keep track of my money so I don't overspend. I haven't worked on building my credit yet, but that's OK. Because of the budgeting and planning I’ve learned, I even have emergency savings if something happens. That's an incredible feeling to have: I have the security of knowing I made it so that we're ready for anything. We really are."
*Heather is keeping her full identity anonymous because of her ongoing legal battles.
For information on how you can support domestic violence survivors, visit purplepurse.com. And if you or a loved one are in a domestic violence situation, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-787-3224.