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Recovering from gambling debts: A Guide for family and friends

gambling debt

The gambling industry is going strong. The UK Gambling Commission reports gambling participation has climbed slowly but steadily for the past five years, with small losses in in-person gambling offset by gains in online gaming, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Every week, millions of people visit a bookmaker or log on to a casino website to try their luck.

For many, there’s more than money at stake. A combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors leaves some people vulnerable to compulsive behaviors and addiction. Professionals say that for those people, gambling is as big a threat as alcohol or drugs.

Addiction has the potential to break families, careers, and finances. Debts accumulate and grow beyond the gambler’s ability to catch up. So gamblers borrow, do without, even steal so they can return to the casino for one big win that will let them pay off their debts and make things right. With luck, they’ll even return the money before the boss, landlord, or spouse notices it’s gone. That’s the story they tell themselves.

Reality comes calling in the form of late notices and messages from collection agents.

Before anything else, the addict must attend to the financial crisis. You’ve got to put out the financial fire before the house burns down. Then you can think about what’s next.

Here are some steps you can take with the problem gambler in your life.

Step 1: Identify Income and Assets

Before you set off on a journey of recovery, you’ve got to know where you stand today, right this minute – both the good and the bad. How much is in the bank? What are the monthly expenses? What assets have been sold or pawned, and which remain? How big are the debts and just how overdue are they?

Have a frank talk with the gambler and make an agreement about full disclosure. Then use a budgeting app to create reliable cash-flow predictions and visualize the gambler’s current position. You’ll find lots of them on the internet – many of them free.

Start by determining all sources of income. Some are straightforward and predictable – paychecks and pension payments fall into that category. Others are out of the ordinary. An investment may mature. There could be a tax refund on the way. Write everything down.

The point is to identify the potential for misuse. Compulsive gamblers sometimes rely on illegal sources of income or resort to selling household items to fund their addiction. Tracking income, assets, and expenses will highlight just how much money has been gambled away.

While you’re at it, it’s worth ordering a full report from a credit-reporting bureau so you know what you’re getting into. You need a complete picture of the gambler’s financial position before you can make the necessary repairs.

Step 2: Create a Spending Plan

Most people dealing with gambling addiction lack organization. And they have good reason to avoid recording their expenditures.

To make progress, you’ll need to offer a change of perspective and a better way to coordinate monthly financial responsibilities. Help your troubled gambler create a sensible spending plan that lists sources of income and basic monthly expenses. If the numbers don’t add up, if the expenses outweigh the earnings, some belt-tightening may be in order, or an additional source of income.

Gamblers often “chase their losses” by making ever-bigger bets in hopes a big win will erase previous losses. Unbearable tension and insecurity come along with that practice. A stable, manageable financial plan will be a welcome relief. It could prevent a problem gambler from panicking and having a relapse.

The internet is full of budgeting apps and cost-cutting tips – many of them available at no charge. Lots of them are just common sense. For example, when you’re shopping for groceries, buy only what’s on the list you prepared earlier. If you give yourself permission to stray from the list, you will sooner or later make impulse purchases and buy more than you need.

Use coupons. Compare prices in different stores. Check the internet for weekly discounts. Sometimes a small reduction in eating out or clothes buying can lead to a balanced budget.

Step 3: Save and Repay

Once you’ve stabilized the monthly budget, it’s time to focus on repaying debts and investing in a savings account.

Most debt collectors will agree to installment payments because they don’t have to write off the debt, it’s a steady source of income, and they could even earn a bit of interest as an incentive. Include debt service in your gambler’s monthly expenses and accelerate the repayment rate if you can.

Debt consolidation loans can make good financial sense. They pay off your overdue debts and let you start fresh, making monthly payments, often at a lower interest rate. The disadvantage is that the loan makes overdue debts go away like magic, and the gambler may feel it’s okay to return to the gaming table. Debt consolidation loans don’t make your financial obligations go away, and they are not an invitation to create a new round of urgent debts.

If monthly income exceeds expenses, put the extra cash into a savings account. That way you’ll be able to cover unexpected costs or reductions in income later.

Experts recommend that gamblers turn over control of their finances to a trusted friend or family member for safekeeping. Some gamblers are relieved to let someone else take charge, while others are resentful and even angry. Talk to the gambler about what’s at stake and your commitment to helping. If you don’t get full control, you need an agreement, at least, to financial openness and honesty.

Step 4: Prevent a Relapse

Addicts live one bad decision away from calamity. An hour at the table could undo all of your hard work and cause a relapse.

That’s why it’s important to stay in close contact with the compulsive gambler as you help sort out finances and find entertainment that doesn’t involve draining the bank account.

The moment a gambling addict realizes that everything is under control is dangerous. Gamblers think it’s safe to indulge poker or slot machines as a hobby now that the bill collectors are at bay. They fall into old habits. New debts can easily push a good budget out of balance, and then you’re in the thick of it again.

This doesn’t mean you need to stick to the gambler’s side on a 24/7 basis. What you should do is monitor the accounts. Run credit checks now and then. Stay close in stressful situations. Remind them you’re there to help. And confront them with evidence or suspicions. Having an argument is better than getting buried in debt again.


Some gambling problems are so severe they leave a lasting mark on the financial record. In extreme cases, you might need to help a gambler accept the necessity of bankruptcy and the grave credit score penalty that comes with it.

Once the immediate danger has passed, problem gamblers discover that prevention is much preferable to damage control. At some point you’ll be able to return the bank books and the signature cards.

Until then, remember to keep yourself clear and able to focus. The gambler needs your perspective and your ability to organize. You can’t solve all the problems at once, but you can make a realistic plan and support it. That – and the knowledge that you remain committed, ready to help – should be all the problem gambler in your life needs.

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