Lacy won’t ever forget how much her ex-husband would obsess over her spending habits. Every expense — from haircuts to work lunches — was scrutinized down to the very last penny. “He’d create a constant fear of criticism in me by convincing me I take too long showers or that I eat too many eggs, or that going to visit friends wasn’t important enough to justify spending gas money on,” she recalls. “It became so intense that, at one point, he became angry when I spent gift cards wrong that had been gifted to us.”
As ridiculous as it seems in retrospect, Lacy says she didn’t notice her ex’s controlling financial behavior right away because it increased so subtly over time. But after discovering that he’d spent hundreds of dollars a month on prescription drugs, she realized he had been gaslighting her. “He blame-shifted to make me second guess my financial choices so I couldn’t look at his with any certainty in my suspicion,” she tells me.
The term “gaslighting” is typically used to describe a form of emotional abuse wherein one person progressively manipulates another person, usually their romantic partner, into doubting their perception of reality. To some, this may seem difficult to do with something that can be easily verified with a bank statement. Yet according to psychologist Raffaello Antonino, the type of financial gaslighting Lacy endured is incredibly common.
Financial gaslighting generally starts when one person convinces their partner that they’re better with numbers or managing money, before taking control of the financial decision-making in the relationship completely. So, if your attempt to understand your budget or finances as a couple is met with comments like, “Oh come on, you’re so chaotic and disorganized, you know I’m the numbers guy,” your partner may be taking advantage of you. Other red flags for financial gaslighting include not having access to your financial reports or being told to “take it easy” while your partner “takes care of” your money but refuses to answer any clarifying questions about it.
There’s also another less common, occasionally more insidious form of financial gaslighting that takes the opposite form — namely, when your partner tells you that you’re “too good with your finances, meaning that you’re saving too much and not spending enough,” Antonino says. This manipulation usually happens when someone who is less frugal than their partner gaslights them into feeling like they don’t know how to enjoy themselves. For instance, your partner might say things like, “Money is there to be spent, let’s go out and enjoy.” And sure, that may be true occasionally, but if it’s coming from someone who’s not trustworthy with money or immature about finances, “it’s possibly a sign of financial gaslighting,” Antonino warns.
If you suspect you’re being financially gaslit, Antonino recommends considering what your partner might stand to gain or lose from controlling your spending or saving habits. One good example: If your partner is obsessive about money and worried you’re going to break up with them, gaslighting you into spending more may make it harder for you to leave them down the road. “If it sounds like there could be a lot at stake for them, they have a history of not being trustworthy and perhaps they’re the ‘controlling’ type, you might be facing a potential gaslighter,” Antonino says.
When in doubt, he continues, “consult other people and never blindly trust what one single person tells you.” So, if you’re questioning your own financial reality, it’s time to put some questions to your accountant, a financial adviser or even a bank teller. After all, numbers may not lie, but people certainly do.