If things are rapidly slipping out of control as a result of your loved one’s problem gambling, it may be time for you to act now.
The fact that problem gambling affects thousands of Americans and their families is small comfort when it hits right home with your own family. You already know that the devastating emotional and financial problems affect more than just your gambling spouse. Everyone in the family suffers as a result of problem gambling.
But what can you do, you ask yourself? You certainly can’t stop your loved one from gambling. Only he or she can do that — with the help of professionals to overcome the addiction. There are some things that you can do, however, to regain financial balance in your family’s life. Perhaps you can enlist the cooperation of your spouse in this effort, but if you cannot, you can still take steps on your own.
The key point to remember is that you need to address financial issues before they become major financial problems. If you already have serious financial problems and are looking for a way to get back on your feet, some of these suggestions may also be of help as you begin to recover.
Before You Begin
While financial aspects of life with a problem gambler can be overwhelming, and you can’t force treatment on that individual, it is important to consider doing one or more of the following before you take the steps recommended here to put your financial house back in order.
- Talk things over with a trusted friend or other family member. You need support right now, encouragement that you’re doing the right thing. Galvanized with such support, it will be easier (but not easy) to move forward with some of the tips in this article.
- Get in touch with the Gam-Anon group that’s in your area to find out when and where support group meetings are held. Gam-Anon is for the family members and close friends of those who have a gambling problem and is affiliated with Gamblers Anonymous.
- Call the National Council on Problem Gambling Hotline at 1-800-522-4700 for information and answers to any questions you may have on how to deal with a problem gambler in the family. The hotline is available 24 hours a day and all calls are confidential. You can also check out the National Council on Problem Gambling site.
- Talk with a therapist or counselor about your particular situation. You may wish to participate in ongoing support to help you navigate the emotional roller-coaster you’re on, or you may just seek help for one or two visits.
Financial Problems a Symptom, Not the Cause
Often times the problem gambler will insist that if only there was more money, the family’s financial problems would disappear. If only that were true! Unfortunately, it isn’t now and it will never be that way. Unless and until the problem gambler seeks help to overcome the compulsion to gamble, he or she will progressively become more obsessed with gambling. Money will always be an issue.
What most loving spouses do in this situation is try to bail out the problem gambler. You listen to what your spouse has to say and, of course, you want to believe that everything’s going to be all right. But this is exactly the wrong thing to do. By straightening out the financial difficulties — lending him or her money, for example — you’re just reinforcing the pattern of gambling behavior. There’s no incentive to change, and no penalties for not doing so.
Bottom line: It’s important to remember that financial problems are just the symptom of problem gambling. They are never the cause. Gambling addiction is a serious psychological problem.
Financial Actions to Take Now
If large debts have accumulated or are beginning to mount up, you recognize that it’s going to take time to undo all the damage. Still, there are some immediate actions you can take to put a stop to the severe losses — the so-called “hemorrhaging of money.”
When should you take these steps? Financial management experts who council those seeking to overcome financial difficulties incurred as a result of problem gambling recommend you do so if your loved one is still in denial and continues to gamble, or if your loved one has made a commitment to quit gambling. Note that a commitment to stop gambling involves taking action to overcome it, meaning, in most cases, that the person agrees to and goes into treatment.
No Joint Accounts — In a traditional household, there are joint accounts that both spouses have access to. When there’s a problem gambler in the family, however, that money managing technique is a definite no-no. If you already have a joint account, maybe now is the time to consider setting up separate savings and checking accounts in your own name only.
If you’re worried that your spouse will try to talk you into giving him money you’re your account, it might be a good idea not to tell him about the separate account. You might, for example, ask a trusted friend or other relative if you can have your bank statements mailed to them so that the existence of your accounts remains secret.
You may also decide to limit your problem gambler spouse’s access to household accounts. Do not give your personal identification number (PIN) to your spouse if you have a bank debit card.
This separation also applies to credit cards. Remove your name from joint credit cards and get one in your name only. In a worst case scenario, with credit cards maxed out all over the place, you may even consider alerting various creditors of your spouse’s gambling problem. Also ask them not to extend any more credit to your spouse.
Monitor all Mail — Be the one to gather and monitor all the mail that comes into the house. Immediately shred and dispose of any new credit card or loan offers that come to the house.
Open a Safety Deposit Box — Why go to the trouble of opening a safety deposit box? Think about your jewelry and other expensive items your spouse may take to pawn or sell for cash to gamble with.
Don’t Co-sign any Loans — Your problem gambler will get desperate to obtain more money. Never agree to co-sign any loans or other financial obligations.
Tell Others Not to Lend the Gambler Money — This may be tough to do, letting close friends and other family members know of your spouse’s problem gambling, but you have to do so as well as ask them not to lend any money to the gambler — despite all the pleas and wild stories he or she may come up with.
Take Over Bill-Paying — The only way to get control over what’s going on with the family’s finances, you need to be the one paying the bills. If possible, arrange to take over this family financial management obligation. You could say, for example, that you’re really good at this and it’s a way of saving time and aggravation that you spouse would probably appreciate.
After Your Spouse Quits Gambling
You already know that there are some things that the recovering compulsive gambler can and cannot do. While he or she may — after treatment — be able to avoid gambling sites, stop buying lotto tickets or going online to gamble, it’s not possible to avoid the thing that all gamblers need and that is money. If your problem gambling spouse has made a commitment to quit gambling, or has already quit gambling, the temptation is still there every time he or she passes a cash register, goes by or to a bank, or pays for something at the store.
Financial management experts who counsel loved ones of recovering problem gamblers say that there are a number of things you can do to help your spouse learn again how to manage money so that the family can once again regain financial stability and prevent future problems with money.
These actions cover identifying income and assets, establishing a spending plan, shifting control of finances to a nongambler, setting up repayment plan for debts, and deciding if investing is the best option.
- Identifying income and assets — You need to know where all the sources of income and assets come from that your spouse could use for gambling. This involves making a list of all such sources. Here are some obvious sources, but they are just the beginning of what should be on your list: paychecks, Social Security, pension benefits, unemployment income, income from trusts and credit card cash advances. If your spouse also receives income from tips and/or bonuses, remember that he or she may try to hide some of this by telling you lies about the amount (so it can be used for gambling). Also list any financial asset your spouse could potentially turn into cash for gambling. These include IRAs, certificates of deposit, mutual fund accounts, equity you have in the home, retirement accounts, real estate, cash value in life insurance policies, and bank accounts. Don’t forget personal assets such as cars, boats, motorcycles, RVs, jewelry, artwork, furnishings, collectibles, even appliances and electronics. Be aware that your spouse may have a hidden “stash” of cash that he or she may be reluctant to tell you about. It’s important that you uncover this stash so that it can’t be used for gambling.
- Establishing a spending plan — Once you know the sources of income and assets, it’s time to put your financial house in order by establishing a spending plan, also called a budget. Use a computer or worksheets to compile and keep track of the budget. List all monthly sources of income. Then list basic monthly household expenses — being sure to treat debt as a monthly basic expense. Monitor your own spending habits and cut down. Next, cut unnecessary expenses — which may be 20-30% of the household budget. Break large periodic bills into smaller monthly payments or put money each month into a savings account so that when the bill arrives, you’ll have the money. You may also wish to save money to pay for treatment for your spouse’s gambling addiction.
- Shifting financial control to a nongambler — If your spouse is already in a treatment program to overcome gambling addiction, it’s more likely that there’ll be a willingness to allow you to take control of the household finances. If he or she is still in denial about problem gambling, however, you may be limited to what you can do on your own to take control of the finances. Support groups for families of problem gamblers can give you emotional support you need as you begin to assume the role of financial control in the family. Follow the recommendations in the first section on taking control of the finances and add to it the responsibility for taking charge of tax returns. For shifting ownership of property, do not undertake this without first getting legal and tax advice.
- Setting up debt repayment plans — The only way you’ll come out from under a financial meltdown caused by your problem gambler spouse is to set up a repayment plan for outstanding debts. This is also important if you want to stave off bankruptcy. The way to get started is another list. Jot down what is owed to what creditor. Include car loans, mortgages, second-mortgages, furniture loans, bank loans, medical bills, utility bills, back taxes, child support, spousal support, education loans, credit card debt and so on. Paying off non-gambling debts needs to take priority over paying off debts related to gambling. Next, establish a debt repayment plan with the creditors. Recognize that some debts are a higher priority than others. Also, some creditors may not accept reduced payments. If possible, have the gambler make the calls to the creditors — so that he or she takes ownership of responsibility for his or her actions. Only use bankruptcy as a last resort — since it takes a long time to recover from this option.
- Deciding if investing is the right choice now — Not every problem gambler goes to the casinos, places sports bets, or gambles online. Some are obsessed with investment. Some experts say that problem gamblers should never invest. It’s up to you to determine whether this applies in your situation. If it does, investing is probably not a wise choice right now. However, since you are a nongambler, you should be able to continue your own investment strategies — if they continue to make sense. The most obvious investment you’d likely continue is your retirement plan through work.
Finding Professional Financial Advice
Besides consulting an attorney and perhaps a debt counseling service, you may also want to consider the help of a qualified financial planner as you work your way through dollars and sense strategies to overcome financial difficulties caused by your problem gambler spouse. Check out the following resources for help in financial planning.
- Nonprofit Debt Counseling Services — These include the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or call 1-800-388-2227.
- Financial Planning Association — To find a certified financial planner, go to the Financial Planning Association website or call them at 1-800-232-PLAN (7526).
- Society of Financial Services Professionals — Go to the Society of Financial Services Professionals or call them at 1-800-392-6900.
- National Association of Personal Financial Advisors — Go here to locate a fee-only financial planner for your area or call 1-888-333-6659.
- Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. — This board regulates Certified Financial Planner licensees. To locate a CRP practitioner near you, go to their website at or call 1-888-237-6275.
Bottom line: You’re about to embark on a long and difficult process. Regaining financial stability after losses incurred as a result of your problem gambler spouse means you will need to employ some dollars and sense strategies to get there. Recognize that it will take time and determination. You can do it, but be sure to get whatever support and counsel you need as you begin your journey