finance

'I had $0 in my bank account. In 3 years, I have doubled my salary and paid off my debt.'

Commonwealth Bank
Thanks to our brand partner, Commonwealth Bank

Tenille* was driving in her car on a Saturday afternoon when she heard ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams on the radio. 

She really liked that song, and she thought her kids would enjoy it too, so she bought it on Apple Music. It cost her $1.20.  

Five minutes later, her phone rang. Her husband’s anger was palpable through the phone line.

“Oh my god, why did you buy that song?” he raised his voice. “I’ve already bought that song. That’s such a waste of money. You’re so stupid.”

The 43-year-old felt her stomach drop. She once again found herself apologising to her husband because she hadn’t forewarned him of her intention to spend money which she had earned. She felt terrible, she recalls.

In their marriage, Tenille’s husband controlled all their finances. He managed their apps, decided their budget and analysed their spending. Every time she used her card, a notification would appear on his phone - supervision she wasn’t aware of at the time. 

If she bought a coffee at work, he’d berate her for not using the coffee machine he knew her work had in the kitchen. If she went out to dinner with her friends, she would tell them her husband would transfer them when she got home. If she ever asked for the password to their bank account, he would provide a wrong one, and then call her stupid for not understanding how the apps worked.

The couple were married for ten years, but Tenille never knew her husband’s salary. The only thing she knew was what he told her, which was: “We have no money.” 

She found out after their split that they were on a combined yearly income of about $300,000 - above the average household income in Australia. 

Tenille's husband always told her, "We have no money". Image: Getty. 

Throughout their marriage, Tenille was given an allowance of $250 a week. Of that, $100 would go to the cleaners; $100 was for fruit and vegetables; and $50 was for the kids if they wanted a bite to eat after school one day. 

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You may have guessed that Tenille was a victim of domestic abuse - financial, yes, but also physical, sexual and emotional. 

Financial abuse, in particular, is one of the most insidious forms of abuse. The mother-of-three says it never crossed her mind she was being financially abused until after she left. 

She’s wondered for a long time why she so blindly believed and trusted her husband. 

“It sounds really stupid, but when you're in a partnership with someone you're supposed to believe them. I mean, what sort of partnership would you have if you didn't trust them? 

“I trusted him, that was it.”

Tenille isn’t stupid, as her husband made her believe. 

When she met him, she was a tertiary-qualified lawyer who was employed at a top-tier law firm in her hometown of Adelaide, with dreams to move to Sydney and, eventually, London.

“The emotional abuse I suffered made me lose all my confidence in everything I did… I ended up leaving law.”

Instead of fulfilling her ambitious dreams, her husband convinced her to step-down the career ladder when she had kids, so that she could spend more time caring for them. 

When she eventually left their marriage, she was working in an entry-level job for a human resources firm. 

Tenille lost everything when she left her husband. Image: Getty. 

Tenille didn’t just lose her confidence, she lost everything. She walked away with no savings and no idea how to set up a bank account. None of their assets were in her name - apart from their house, luckily - meaning Tenille’s husband took it all: their investments, savings and even their car. The only thing she was left with was their house, with a mortgage she couldn’t pay off. 

Tenille literally had $0 in her bank account. She lived paycheck-to-paycheck, earning less than $80,000 a year with three children who were young enough to believe in Santa. 

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“How do you afford to give your kids a proper Christmas?” she remembers pondering. 

Tenille lived frugally and cautiously. She ripped up her garden so that she didn’t have to water plants, she still uses candles instead of turning on lights and she will always use fans instead of turning on the air-conditioning. She managed to stay on top of her mortgage with some small help from her parents, but mainly by not wasting a single cent. 

It’s now been three years since Tenille left her husband and, realising it was a true passion of hers, she has re-entered the law profession. 

“My salary has more than doubled in those three years since I left,” she shares with joy in her voice. “And I’m now debt-free.

“I was really, really proud when I paid off my debts,” she smiles. 

“It's amazing what you can do when you believe in yourself. That was a big part of it for me - actually believing in myself again and having the confidence to make decisions.”

The Financial Independence Hub is delivered by Good Shepherd, in partnership with the Commonwealth Bank, and it offers free financial coaching and support for those previously impacted by financial abuse, regardless of who they bank with. Suzanne Panecki, the Hub's Senior Practitioner Financial Coach, tells Mamamia that there are so many misconceptions around financial abuse that lead to the normalisation of behaviour like that experienced by Tenille. 

One of the most common misconceptions, is that women are not as financially skilled as men. Another misconception, she says, is that abuse is to some degree normal in a relationship. It’s these misconceptions that lead to the normalisation of inexcusable behaviour. 

“It takes a long time to recognise the signs. And then often when people think about leaving, that's when it's become so serious. Often they're left without housing, finances, relationships, friendships that can support them to leave.”

This was all true for Tenille. Ultimately, though, she now lives a financially independent life. She hasn’t just survived the abuse, she has truly thrived. 

As for her ex-husband, the man who told her she was too stupid to even have the password to their bank account, his financial situation has become perilous.  

“He is actually $200,000 in debt now. He lives with his parents and he doesn't pay for anything. I'm living on my own, I'm debt free and I’m able to meet the needs of our children completely on my own - and the ironic thing is that I was the one he called ‘stupid’ because apparently I couldn't even buy a song on iTunes without screwing it up.”

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons. 

If you are experiencing domestic violence, please know that support is available. Call the National Sexual Assault and Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service, 1800 RESPECT, on 1800 737 732. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.

Feature image: Getty.

Commonwealth Bank
CommBank’s Next Chapter program aims to help people impacted by financial abuse, perpetrated through domestic and family violence, achieve long-term financial independence. To find out more about the program, please visit commbank.com.au/nextchapter