Solutions Available for Gambling Debts
Gambling is a pervasive problem in America. From casinos to legalized sports betting to online fantasy football to state lotteries, anyone can wager on something, every day of the year.
Casino gambling brings in almost $45 billion annually in the U.S., but those who wager don’t always handle it well. As many as 10 million Americans live with a gambling addiction, and almost 23 million are in debt because of their wagers. The average debt of those who owe gambling money has been estimated at $55,000 per person.
That’s a staggering figure. But sliding into a problem is easy because gambling is easy. Sports gambling will soon be legal in 22 states, and the American Gaming Association estimates $150 billion is wagered illegally on sports every year.
Help is available to those whose gambling problem has led to significant debt. A debt consolidation loan can combine loans into one with a lowered interest rate. A credit card with an introductory 0% interest rate offer could be used to spread out the debt. A debt management plan could be adopted. Advice is available form a nonprofit credit counselor.
And yes, declaring bankruptcy is an option if the problem has escalated to an unmanageable status.
But the first step is to help yourself. It’s impossible to address the problem without first addressing its cause.
The American Psychiatric Association classifies problem gambling as an addiction. The first step in the Gamblers Anonymous Recovery Program: Admitting “we were powerless over gambling.”
Seek Addiction Help First, Then Debt Help
It is vital to seek help for the addiction first. Admitting the problem allows addicts to address it with their feet on the ground, with a clearer mind and a more positive approach.
An addiction is insidious, forcing gamblers to scrounge anywhere they can for money to place bets. Gamblers tap into credit cards, savings accounts, investment portfolios or retirement funds. They borrow from friends and family. Sometimes, they steal.
It’s vital to understand that gamblers view money only as the way to stay in the game. The bet becomes an adrenaline rush, a natural high. The gambling itself becomes the primary goal and motivation. Gamblers have the feeling that one more big wager can get them back to even.
That’s never the answer. The prudent approach — easier said than done — is admitting the problem, breaking the cycle and seeking psychological help for the addiction.
Those who need a place to turn could easily start with Gamblers Anonymous. Three words on the group’s home page say much: “There is hope.”
Signs You Need Help For Gambling
Financial problems are a red-flag, a warning sign of addictive gambling, never the cause. The following characteristics are often commonplace for compulsive, problem or at-risk gamblers:
- Moving or shifting money between various accounts in an attempt to hide gambling activity. If you’re shifting money from savings and keeping it a secret from your partner, it’s time to self-evaluate.
- Betting progressively larger amounts to compensate for previous losses. Seeking that one big “hit” to make up for the losses rarely works.
- Selling possessions in order to get more gambling money. If you need to sell the car or second TV, it’s time to evaluate.
- Gambling — or the thought of placing a bet — is the dominant theme each day. Thinking about the point spread instead of the job.
- Lying about the money lost or the time spent gambling when confronted by family and friends.
- The inability to stop or limit gambling.
- The gambler borrows from co-workers, friends or family, then uses the money to make a bet. Often this action is accompanied by a lie to obtain the money.
- The gambler steals from a spouse or children. Ponder that reality for one second.
- 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. The worst possible option.
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, it often makes things worse. The gambler will keep gambling.
The addiction must be recognized and treated before financial issues are addressed.
If you’re wary or unsure about your personal situation, the web site Psycom has a quiz that can indicate if you need help.
Paying Off Gambling Debts
It might not be easy to pay off gambling debts, but it is vital.
Some or all of the following steps apply.
Take an accounting: Write down all the creditors and how much you owe. Don’t be shy. Include bookies, credit cards, loan sharks, overdrawn bank accounts, personal debt and loans. List the creditor in one column, the amount owed in the next. Only by being honest with yourself can you come to an honest reckoning of what to do.
Pay things down: Do whatever you can to pay off the debt as quickly as possible. Transferring balances to a credit card with a 0% interest introductory rate may be beneficial to consolidate and avoid interest. Selling valuables like the second TV or car or jewelry may be necessary. Selling items to pay the debt is far different from selling items to place the bets. Freeing yourself from that debt is that important. Start with those debts charging the highest interest rate, typically bookies or loan sharks. Pay that off, then go on to the next in a methodical and determined process.
Understand your budget: You can’t know how much money you have available to pay down debt until you know your budget. Necessities like the mortgage and electric bill must be paid. Maybe you don’t need the extra cable movie package while creditors are chasing you, some in not so friendly ways.
Get a second job: Using the income from a part-time job that supplements the main income can be an easy way to chip away at the debt.
When to Consider Bankruptcy
Bankruptcy becomes an option when the debt becomes unmanageable. If you are staring at large debts and don’t know what to do, if you’re behind on the mortgage, in danger of foreclosure or are being harassed by bill collectors, it might be time to consider personal bankruptcy.
Tread carefully, though, because bankruptcy can affect your future ability to borrow and it will affect your credit score. It’s wise to first contact creditors to see if you can work out a debt repayment plan, but if that’s impossible or if it fails, it might be time consult with a bankruptcy attorney to assess the options.
The ability to get away from crushing debt outweighs the negatives of bankruptcy, and with careful attention to paying bills on time and using credit wisely, you can gradually rebuild your credit and put bankruptcy in the rear-view mirror.
Financial Help for Gambling Debts
Here’s a closer look at options for dealing with gambling debt:
Debt Management Plan — This good-faith effort can provide relief from high interest rates on credit cards, late fees or penalties from creditors. A debt-management plan involves reduced interest rate on credit card debt and affordable monthly payments. . It provides a fixed monthly payment plan and usually takes 3-5 years to eliminate debt Making those payments on time will help your credit score. These plans typically have an enrollment and maintenance fee.
Debt Consolidation — Combining all debt into one loan can reduce the interest rate and will allow paying off the debts with one manageable monthly payment. Debt consolidation companies are experienced at acquiring loans and finding the lowest monthly payment. But your credit score counts significantly in the interest rate you pay on the loan. Make sure your credit score is 670 or higher to get a good rate. The consolidated interest rate should be significantly lower than what is charged on several credit cards.
Debt Settlement — This involves a lump-sum settlement payment with creditors, allowing you to pay less than what is owed. This option is generally only a consideration for people who can’t qualify for debt management or debt consolidation loans. In some cases, you could pay only 50% of the original debt, but it’s important to calculate how much you’re paying in fees for the service, not to mention the fees assigned to your date for late payment. . Debt settlement also is damaging to your credit score as lenders report the debt as “settled for less than agreed’’ or “settlement accepted.’’ It remains on your credit report for seven years.
How to Protect Your Finances from a Gambler in the Family
Gambling addiction affects those close to the gambler. Family members and friends can take short-term steps to try to break the cycle. They also can help from support groups like Gam-Anon, which is affiliated with Gamblers Anonymous. Specific steps family and friend can take include:
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. Immediately throw away new credit card or loan offers.
Open a Safety Deposit Box — Protect jewelry, family heirlooms and other expensive items that could be pawned or sold.
Never Co-Sign a Loan — The desperation of problem gamblers is scary. Never make yourself liable for his or her debts.
Tell Others Not to Lend Money — It’s vital to break the cycle. Close friends and other family members need to know the situation so they do not enable the problem 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.
College Students & Gambling
The ease to gambling web sites has led to an explosion of wagering among our youth. Reasonable estimates have 75% of college students doing some kind of betting every year. Of those, 6% find themselves with a problem.
The fallout for those who become addicted: Tumbling grades and escalating debt that can lead to financial problems for the student and parent, or in the extreme to being expelled from school.
Though only 22% of colleges have gambling policies, students should be aware what they are at their college or university. Getting expelled because you didn’t know the rules will be traumatic.
Signs that a college student may need to take a step back include frequent and unexplained missed classes, a sudden drop in grades, preoccupation with gambling and withdrawal from friends and family. CollegeGambling.org provides support for anyone who fears they may have a problem.
Life after Gambling Addiction
Arnie Wexler understands how gambling can devastate a family’s finances.
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 from 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.
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 five decades. After losing a two-team parlay on the opening day of the 1968 baseball season, he had a revelation and said, 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 became on television and wrote a book on gambling addiction with his wife, Sheila.
Wexler wrote that he 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.’’
It all sounds familiar to Damon Dye, a licensed mental health counselor and National Certified Gambling Counselor with Triangle Resolutions in Riverview, Fla.
“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.’’
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.’’
Gamblers Anonymous provides a list of hotlines for those seeking help, broken down by states. The phone number for the National Problem Gambling Helpline is 1-800-522-4700. The line is open 24 hours, and is confidential.
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