Solutions Available for Gambling Debts
Gambling has become a huge American problem and it’s getting worse. The gambling industry, which conjures images of high-rollers betting in Las Vegas, but also includes buddies playing “safe” games like fantasy football, brings in upwards of $500-billion annually.
About 85% of Americans have gambled at least once in their life and nearly 23 million are in debt because of betting. The average loss is estimated at a staggering $55,000 per person!
That is a distressing amount of debt, but if caught in time, there are ways to deal with the financial downfall. A debt management or debt consolidation plan could help. If the problem has escalated to an unmanageable status, declaring bankruptcy is an option.
First, the gambler must admit the problem exists. At one time, the American Psychiatric Association regarded problem gambling as an “impulse-control disorder,” but now classifies it as an addiction. Gambling addicts suffer a form of withdrawal if you take away the “thrill” of placing a bet, much like what happens when you separate an alcoholic from booze.
“As a nation, we are in the very early stages of taking this disease seriously,’’ wrote Bea Akins, founder of Lanie’s Hope, an organization dedicated to “humanizing and illuminating’’ gambling disorders. “We are probably two decades behind other addictions with regard to national consciousness, conversations centered on service and treatment rather than judgment … and recognition that the compulsive gambler suffers from a treatable mental illness versus a moral weakness.’’
Addicted gamblers scrounge anywhere for extra money to place bets. They tap into credit cards, savings accounts, investment portfolios or retirement funds. They borrow from friends and family. Sometimes, they even steal.
Gamblers have the mentality that one more big wager can get them back to even. That’s never the answer. The prudent task — easier said than done — is admitting the problem, stopping the gambling cycle and seeking psychological help for the addiction. Once the addiction is under control, then seek financial help for gambling debts.
Signs You Need Help For Gambling
Financial problems are always a symptom of problem gambling, never the cause. Whether it’s an addictive, compulsive, problem or at-risk gambler, the following characteristics are often commonplace:
- Moving or shifting money between various accounts in an attempt to hide gambling activity.
- Betting progressively larger amounts to compensate for previous losses.
- Selling possessions in order to get more gambling money.
- Gambling — or the thought of placing a bet — is the dominant theme each day.
- Lying about the money lost or the time spent gambling when confronted by family and friends.
- Inability to stop or limit gambling.
- The gambler borrows from co-workers, friends or family, then uses the money to make a bet.
- The gambler steals from a spouse or children.
- The gambler doesn’t pay bills on time.
- The gambler takes out a series of loans.
- The gambler turns to criminal activity to help fund the habit.
Gambling leads to a familiar pattern of maxed-out credit cards, overdrawn checking accounts, unpaid loans and overdue bills.
If a family member tries to “fix’’ the financial problems of a gambler, that often makes things worse. Regardless, the gambler will keep gambling. The addiction must be recognized and treated before financial issues are addressed.
How to Protect Your Finances from a Gambler in the Family
In the interim, before the gambling addiction is acknowledged, there are short-term steps family members can take to help the situation, such as seeking support groups and getting advice from family and friends.
- No Joint Accounts — Spouses should set up separate savings and checking accounts, so the problem gambler can’t have access to all of the family’s money. Also keep separate credit cards and personal identification numbers (PIN).
- Monitor the Mail — Spouses and family members should gather and monitor all mail coming to the house. Dispenses new credit card or loan offers immediately.
- Open a Safety Deposit Box — It’s to protect jewelry and other expensive items that could be pawned or sold.
- Never Co-Sign a Loan — Problem gamblers can get desperate financially.
- Tell Others Not to Lend Money — Close friends and other family members need to know the situation before hearing the inevitable pleas from the gambler.
- Pay the Bills — The problem gambler should not be in control of the money designated to pay the house bills. The spouse or other family member should take over.
Financial Help for Gambling Debts
Addicted gamblers generally have two separate issues on their road to recovery.
Solving the addiction itself and finding ways to get their finances back in order.
It might be a large debt, but it requires the same principles that everyone uses to make ends meet.
If you owe money to multiple sources, a plan is needed to pay them back.
- General Accounting — Quite simply, you must write down all the creditors and how much you owe, whether it’s casinos, loan sharks, bookies, credit cards, overdrawn back accounts, personal or home equity loans. In one column, list the creditor. In the next column, write how much is owed. This will clearly define the scope of your problem.
- Pay Things Down — Do whatever you can to pay off the debt as quickly as possible. It might involve selling your car or valuables such as electronics and jewelry. Don’t hesitate to make a dent in the debt, especially in the case of bookies and loan sharks, who charge exorbitant interest rates.
- Create A Budget — You must determine the cost of your necessities and how much money you need for basic bills each month. Once you mix in how much money you can put toward your debt, you will know the specifics of your situation.
- Get Another Job — Increasing your income is a solid way to pay down your debt. If you have the discipline to apply the salary from a part-time job to the gambling debt, you have taken a steady path to a solution.
There’s help available in coping with your gambling debt. It’s usually a good idea to contact a credit counselor from a nonprofit debt management agency. Counselors can set up a budget and likely negotiate more favorable credit-card rates.
Here’s a closer look at options for dealing with gambling debt:
- Debt Management Plan — This good-faith effort can provide relief from interest rates on credit cards, late fees or penalties from creditors. Under the debt management plan, negotiated by credit counselors, you promise to pay back the full principal over time (usually 3-5 years) in an efficiently managed manner. The DMP provides an organized monthly payment plan, giving you the ability to handle the debt more efficiently than trying to sort it out yourself. By keeping your payments on track, it will be good for your credit score. There is usually an enrollment and maintenance fee.
- Debt Consolidation — Basically, you are reducing interest rates and combining all of your debts into one manageable monthly payment. Under debt consolidation, you take out a loan, which is used to consolidate and pay off all your other debts. Debt consolidation companies are experienced at acquiring loans and finding the lowest monthly payment. It works well with credit-card loans. The consolidated interest rate can be significantly lower than what is charged on several credit cards. Be careful, though. Look for a dependable and experienced debt consolidation company, one with at least five years of experience. Be wary of consolidating several unsecured loans into one secure loan. If you can’t pay back the loan, typical collateral items are your house or car.
- Debt Settlement — It’s a lump-sum settlement payment with creditors, allowing you to decrease the principal you owe while eventually retiring the debt, but it’s generally only a consideration for people with very poor credit. In some cases, you could pay only 50% of the original debt. But it’s important to determine — up front — whether the company is charging a percentage of the debt as its fee. Debt settlement also is damaging to your credit score as lenders report the debt as “settled for less than agreed’’ or “settlement accepted’’ for seven years.
When to Consider Bankruptcy
Most of the time, bankruptcy should be a last resort, but in extreme cases of gambling debt — when numbers soar into the triple digits — it might be the best option.
Warning: There’s no guarantee that gambling debts will be discharged, even though it isn’t covered specifically in the law. But it could be viewed as a debt that you had no intention of paying back.
If successful, bankruptcy provides a fresh start from debt burdens. You can file for either a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which cancels your debts after liquidating all your assets, or a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which sets up a five-year repayment plan.
Experienced bankruptcy attorneys know how to deal with court officials and creditors. When you file for bankruptcy, the court issues an “automatic stay,’’ meaning that creditors will be barred from making collection attempts on your debts through phone calls and letters. Instead, they must deal with your attorney. Bankruptcy exemptions prohibit your assets from being seized.
This option is not without costs — or repercussions.
Bankruptcy attorneys can be expensive. Bankruptcy doesn’t cover back taxes, most student loans, alimony, child support and fines owed to government agencies.
Of course, bankruptcy is toxic to your credit. It shows up on your credit history for 10 years. It will be more difficult to secure a loan or qualify for a credit card. And the interest rates will be significantly higher when you do get credit again.
Seek Addiction Help First, Then Debt Help
For an addicted gambler, it’s essential to follow a plan that erases debt and reorganizes their financial picture. But it’s even more important to deal with the addiction. After all, it would be devastating to pay down a credit card, then erase the progress with another losing bet.
Here are some tips to overcome a gambling addiction. Once that is under control, it’s a far more effective time to address the finances.
- Cut Off the Money Supply — Cutting up credit cards and ATM cards is a good place to start. Ask your bank to require two signatures for a withdrawal (one from you, one from a friend or relative). If there’s a barrier between you and your money, the urge to bet can be quelled.
- Make the Choice — Psychiatrists and psychologists treat a gambling addiction like a substance abuse disorder. So the same protocol applies. You must quit — not for just today, but forever — then go day-by-day. It’s difficult, but small steps eventually lead to significant gains.
- Get a Support System — Admitting the problem — specifically, admitting it to friends and family — is often a key turning point. They will likely be your biggest allies, while providing help and encouragement. Support groups can be motivational because you will meet others with the same issues. It can also erase the stigma of shame and be a reminder that you’re not alone.
- Seek Treatment — Gambling addictions have been added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, so your health insurance is required to provide some coverage for therapy through the Affordable Care Act. Therapy can provide a safe environment where you can communicate concerns and learn positive techniques.
Here are some helpful agencies related to gambling addiction.
National Gamblers Hotline: 1-800-522-4700.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8235.
Life after Gambling Addiction
Want to know about the high-stakes life of an addicted gambler? Arnie Wexler knows all too well about how it can devastate a family’s finances.
The worst times? Take your pick.
His wife endured 37 hours of labor during the birth of their first daughter. During that span, Wexler twice left the hospital and went to the racetrack. When he learned the child’s weight — 7 pounds, 1 ounce — he immediately played 7-1 in the daily double. He won — and took that as a sign his luck finally was changing.
He received lucrative stock options as the plant survivor for a Fortune 500 company, but the money was soon gone after wagers on games where he couldn’t even identify the players. He stole or borrowed money from co-workers. At one time, he carried six different bank loans and owed the equivalent of a year’s salary to a loan shark. He was in debt to 32 different people, but still bet on about 50 different games every weekend, always believing he would win each one.
He searched for drugs, so he could sell them. He considered robbing a gas station. He wondered about printing counterfeit money. He thought about suicide.
That’s the life of an addicted gambler.
Wexler said he’s still in recovery even though he hasn’t made a bet in nearly five decades. After losing a two-team parlay on the opening day of the 1968 baseball season, he had a revelation. Enough!
After repairing his finances and family life, Wexler has become much more than a cautionary tale. He’s a Certified Compulsive Gambling Counselor (CCGC) and spent eight years as Executive Director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey.
He has done hundreds of seminars and workshops, while speaking to gaming industry executives, corporations, legislators and college students. He has become a regular on television — appearing on Oprah, NightLine and 48 Hours — while writing a book on gambling addiction with his wife, Sheila.
Regardless of who’s writing the tale, the story never changes.
Wexler wrote about his obsession, saying it was “as frantic as a cat trying to dig a hole in a marble floor.’’ The inability to stop gambling, he wrote, “often results in financial devastation, broken homes, employment problems, criminal acts and suicide attempts.’’
For Damon Dye, a licensed mental health counselor and National Certified Gambling Counselor with Triangle Resolutions in Riverview, Fla., it sounds familiar.
“It’s devastating,’’ Dye said. “When you need money to survive (in gambling) and realize that you’ve run out, it’s a very deep bottom. Sometimes for them, the hole appears too deep to dig out of. It’s a tremendously difficult place to be.’’
And Dye said that place is usually filled with false perceptions from society.
“There’s a tremendous amount of judgment,’’ Dye said. “There’s a tremendous amount of belief that’s it’s a will power or character issue. When people get in too deep, they try to hide it and it becomes even worse.’’
Dye said families are obviously deeply affected by the financial woes of an addicted gambler, who might have a distorted view of the situation.
“Generally, there’s a diminished sensitivity to what money even means,’’ Dye said. “A lot of people report it’s almost like play money. They lose the ability to see it as a real figure. On recovery, part of the issue is a major problem with having a healthy relationship with money again.’’
How a Gambler Sees Money
Dye’s assertion is now universally accepted by mental health professionals. To understand gambling addiction and how it can affect a family’s finances, it’s always useful to know this: problem gamblers view money in a completely different light than everyone else.
Here’s how it was stated in “Problem Gamblers And Their Finances,’’ a breakthrough 2000 study conducted by the National Endowment for Financial Education and the National Council on Problem Gambling:
“As gamblers move from stage to stage, and more and more into the powerful grip of betting, their view of money begins to change. It no longer holds its traditional value as a means of exchange … a way to accomplish goals … a measure of security … a source of freedom … a standard of accomplishment. Instead, money to the gambler has only one value: to enable the gambler to keep gambling, to stay ‘in action.’
“This corrupted view of the value of money is why problem gamblers may do anything to obtain money to keep gambling — lying, borrowing, even stealing. Gamblers have been known to sell a new television set or a car for a fraction of its value because they desperately wanted the cash to gamble.’’
The act of gambling itself becomes their primary goal and motivation.
Sometimes, it’s perceived as a skill or a talent. It’s an adrenaline rush. It’s a natural high. It’s a challenge.
And it’s a problem.
“For most people who gamble, it’s a social and recreational activity that does not incur long-lasting damage,’’ said UCLA associate professor of psychiatry Timothy Fong, director of the gambling studies program at the school, which was the first to introduce a publicly financed treatment program for compulsive gamblers and their families.
“But for about 2% of the population, they have this psychiatric disorder called gambling addiction that can severely impact their lives in permanently harmful ways.’’
Particularly, it inflicts financial harm.”
To understand the scope of potential gambling problems, it’s instructive to know the size of the gambling industry in the United States.
U.S. gamblers lost $117-billion with legal bets in 2016, according to the Economist, while illegal sports betting with bookies accounted for another $150-billion.
Casinos in Nevada — particularly in Las Vegas — are the highest profile gambling emporiums and turned an $11.1-billion profit for the 2016 fiscal year. But Native American casinos operate in 28 states with an annual revenue of $30-billion.
Casinos aren’t the only contributor to gambling. It takes place at horse tracks, dog tracks and jai-alai frontons. Down the street, you might be able to purchase a state lottery ticket. Around the neighborhood, your buddy might have a weekly poker game.
It’s everywhere. In fact, there’s gambling allowed in every state, except Hawaii and Utah. According to Las Vegas tourism statistics, the average visitor stays for 3.2 days and allots a gambling budget of about $510.
Maybe that can dismissed as casual vacation entertainment.
But in the decidedly non-casual category, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), an estimated 2-million Americans are classified as addictive or pathological gamblers. Nearly 6-million are considered as problem gamblers. Another 15-million are placed in the at-risk category.
Of the gamblers who are consider addicted, 90% use funds by withdrawing cash advances from their personal credit card accounts.
The average debt generated by a male addicted to gambling is between $55,000 and $90,000. Female gamblers average about $15,000 of debt. More than 20% of compulsive gamblers file for bankruptcy.
Mounting losses make a huge impact on the gambler’s personal life. For problem gamblers, the divorce rate is twice the rate of non-gamblers. Meanwhile, a stunning 1 in 5 addicted gamblers attempt suicide (about 20 times the rate of non-gamblers).
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