With a condo of her own, retirement savings and a career she enjoys, Elaine Comeau has come a long way. In 1997 after almost 30 years of abuse, Comeau left her husband with little more than the contents of a black duffel bag.
Since then, Comeau has built a new life and become financially stable. She now uses her own experiences to help others in the Capital Region with their finances, offering financial counselling to clients as a part-time associate at World Financial Group, and also volunteering to give talks about her experience and coach women in a local financial literacy group.
Even 15 years later, Comeau finds her new life a bit surreal. After all, she was stuck in an abusive relationship for much of her adult life and, for many years, she didn’t understand what was happening. “It’s almost like brainwashing. They tell you you’re not good enough, you’re stupid, you don’t keep the house clean enough – even though it’s spotless,” she says.
That abuse occurred as Comeau raised a son and worked for many years as an administrative assistant and stenographer. But by the time her son was grown, she realized things weren’t right. She made several false starts before she was able to leave her husband permanently.
The turning point came when her husband decided to retire, buy a fifth wheel and travel across North America. The couple sold their acreage an hour southwest of Edmonton and Comeau was left to keep track of the financial tasks associated with the move (she’d handled their finances with a lot of difficulty for most of their marriage). But Comeau made some mistakes and even though her husband was dipping into the couple’s money without telling her, he became enraged when he discovered the financial errors she’d hidden from him. Afraid of what he might do, she drove to High River to stay with siblings.
For two weeks, Comeau refused to speak to her husband when he called. When she finally did talk to him on the phone, he sobbed and begged her to come back and join him on the trip. Comeau reluctantly returned and for almost five years, they travelled the continent. Comeau regretted not leaving him when they’d sold their home and finally, during a particularly nasty altercation in Great Falls, Montana, she left. Comeau’s husband dropped her off at a store to buy a duffel bag for her things and she took the next flight back to Edmonton and moved in with her 24-year-old son.
While the couple had split the proceeds from the sale of the acreage, most of Comeau’s share had been spent during their journey. What she had left would only keep her going for a short while, but finding a job was tough since she hadn’t worked for the last five years. For several months she had no income at all and relied on a food bank. When she finally found work, it was underpaid and fleeting.
When Comeau attempted to get a car loan, she discovered she had no credit score, since she’d banked with her husband for 30 years and the bills were in his name.
Even though she was broke, Comeau felt more financially empowered than she had in a long time. For years, her husband had racked up credit card debt and taken money out of their shared bank account without telling her. Comeau had learned basic financial management skills when she took a college program in the 1970s, but managing their finances and following a budget, under those conditions, was next to impossible. “It was easier keeping track of things when I was on my own, because I was the one spending the money,” she says.
Comeau knew she had to upgrade her skills to get a full-time job. She registered in an administrative program at NAIT and paid her tuition with the last of her funds, a government bursary, a student loan and some help from family members.
At 51, Comeau graduated and began working again. Comeau knew she’d just begun to figure out her career and finances and needed all of the help she could get, so whenever she heard about a program in the community, she’d sign up.
Bit by bit, Comeau was rebuilding her life. But even as she gained confidence and skills, she was haunted by her abusive marriage. When Comeau attempted to get a car loan she discovered she had no credit score, since she had banked with her husband for 30 years and the bills were in his name. To get the vehicle she needed to get to work, Comeau needed her brother to co-sign the loan.
There were also emotional scars that needed healing. Fortunately, a variety of community programs helped Comeau process her painful history. She took a program through Edmonton Community Services that helps survivors understand the psychology of abuse and care for themselves, including managing their financial lives. “This was all part of the healing process. I’d been on that emotional rollercoaster for almost 30 years,” Comeau says. Since graduating, she has returned to the group and mentored participants.
As Comeau built her skill set, her career developed – but in fits and starts. Eventually, a friend told her about an administrative job at Pelican Products, a company that makes watertight cases, and the position was a good fit. Comeau has worked there for the last six years. She’s also working as a part-time associate with World Financial Group, thanks to a lead from another friend who knew about Comeau’s budding interest in finance. The firms helps clients find the best investments, mortgages and insurance at large financial institutions.
In this role, Comeau often provides financial counselling to clients. She’s helped families save a significant amount of money per month and helped others avoid bankruptcy. Comeau says many people need help figuring out their finances. “People just live their lives in quiet desperation, from paycheque to paycheque,” she says.
Comeau knows what it’s like to be there, barely eking out a living and struggling to save. But now, in addition to making a healthy living and saving for her future, Comeau owns her own condo in Edmonton. Five years ago she participated in The Home Program, which helps people understand the ins and outs of buying a home and gives those who qualify up to $3,000 to put towards a down payment.
Comeau is struck by how radically her life has changed, but she knows the financial challenges aren’t over yet. While she’s been saving for the future, she jokes about being on the “Freedom 100” retirement plan. But Comeau is satisfied with the financial gains she’s made.
“I’m in a heck of a better position than I’ve ever been in,” she says. “I’ve actually got some investments and every month I’ve been putting some money aside for my granddaughter’s education.”