The Urge to Lose Money
Compulsive money behavior, from gambling to shopping, hits millions—and not who you think
(MONEY Magazine) – FOR MORE THAN 35 YEARS, SANDY YAKIM has recorded every bill in a notebook. She drove a used Honda and shops at thrift stores so that she can enjoy a nice summer vacation. The 57-year-old divorced schoolteacher even put her daughter through college debt-free.
Sandy Yakim is also a compulsive gambler.
Her habit began innocently enough: About three years ago, driving home from her weekly visit to see her ailing mom, Sandy would stop at one of the new video poker parlors in her area to blow off some steam. She'd drink a cup of coffee, chat with some of the other players and make a few small wagers. Once she reached her $20 limit, she was out the door.
It wasn't long, however, before Yakim began making daily trips to the parlors, which quickly spiraled into 12-hour marathons. Five months in, she had emptied her savings, maxed out her credit cards and blown through a total of $50,000. When she finally tearfully confessed to her sister, the reaction was as devastating as it was typical. "She didn't believe me," says Yakim.
Psychiatrists call compulsive gambling—like other money addictions from day-trading to compulsive shopping—a hidden addiction. Its victims don't announce their state with telltale track marks or slurred speech, but their addiction is no less powerful than that of alcoholics or junkies. The brain chemistry of a problem gambler at a slot machine is akin to that of an alcoholic seated at a bar, and the sense of despair is just as complete: Problem gamblers suffer one of the highest suicide rates of any kind of addict. The National Council on Problem Gambling has seen phone calls to its help line rise by an annual rate of 10% a year for a decade, and as the Internet and legalized casinos spread access to games of chance (every state but Utah and Hawaii allows some kind of commercial gaming), the addiction has spread rapidly among population groups you might least expect: college students, the elderly and women. (Women, disturbingly, tend to become addicted much faster than men—within six months, on average, rather than over a few years.) In short, the likelihood that someone you know has a gambling problem is on the rise. Here's how to help.
Get Real The first step, of course, is recognizing the addiction for what it is. This is not easy. "You can't smell addictive gambling on someone's breath," points out Bruce Roberts, executive director of the California Council on Problem Gambling. Instead, look for patterns: In the case of a college student, experts say, pay attention to any sudden interest in poker nights and online games. Among many seniors, be aware that the seemingly harmless pastime of bingo has developed into a serious problem. In Yakim's case, the signs were all there, although they were easier to recognize in retrospect: She found herself selling off jewelry to come up with funds for gambling; she lied about where she was; and at family gatherings, she would urge relatives to go with her to a nearby casino just for fun.
Break Patterns Psychiatrists say that the urge to gamble tends to be triggered by recurring stimuli: a bad day at the office, a fight with a spouse, the sight of the neon sign outside the casino. Avoid those cues, and the habit will be easier to kick. Early in her recovery, Yakim carried a sheet of paper with her and wrote down every time she felt the urge to gamble. Going over her notes, she was able to see certain triggering patterns—which made it easier to avoid them. Nowadays, Yakim goes for a long walk with a friend after work, which is exactly when she used to hit the poker machines.
Starve the Habit Cutting off a compulsive gambler or shopper's money supply is equivalent to throwing away an alcoholic's liquor stash: It's an essential part of the cure. Problem spenders should carry only one credit card with a low limit for emergencies and should also opt out of credit-card solicitations (call 888-5-OPTOUT). Bills should be turned over to a spouse or friend. And no more checkbooks and ATM cards—only small amounts of cash.
Create a Plan "People will often distort how much debt they have because it can feel overwhelming," says Jon Grant, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota and co-author of Stop Me Because I Can't Stop Myself. Having a concrete plan is both pragmatic and therapeutic—it shows how you can climb out of your hole. To emerge from hers, Yakim totaled her debts and determined how much money she could afford to send to her creditors each month. She took out a $7,000 low-interest loan from her retirement fund to pay off the credit card. She has been chipping away at the other loans, and in 18 months she'll be debt-free. Coleen Moore of the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery says she often recommends that clients extend the repayment period for a few years (even though it results in higher interest costs). The monthly outflow serves as a useful reminder of how serious the problem was.
Don't Go It Alone It's important to seek (or offer) support as soon as the gambler is ready. "We know that the motivation to change usually lasts about 48 hours after a crisis," says Isabelle Duguay, a counseling expert. (For problem-gambling hotline numbers, go to ncpgambling.org; check out debtorsanonymous.org for compulsive shopping). Yakim found help with a therapist and Gamblers Anonymous. Nearly three years after her last video poker game, she continues to attend meetings—she knows how easy it would be to fall off the wagon. "I'd like to be able to buy a raffle ticket in 15 years, but I know I can't," she says. Still, she's got plenty to feel good about. "I've found my joy again," she says. For Sandy Yakim, there's no bigger jackpot.
When she makes more than he does by Dan Kadlec 36
Contactless credit cards 40
The Long View by Walter Updegrave 42
Number of Americans with a gambling problem
SOURCE: National Council on Problem Gambling.
DO IT NOW
Hold on to your checkbook. It's natural to want to bail a loved one out of a dire financial situation, but don't: It's a quick fix, and the person you're trying to help may just relapse into bad habits once again.
3 FAST FIXES
GETTING YOURSELF BACK TO EVEN
NOW THAT SANDY YAKIM has stayed away from gambling for nearly three years, financial planner Sid Blum of Las Vegas offers these tips to rebuild her finances.
Make sure the habit is kicked.
Whatever Yakim does to repair her finances will be useless if she falls back into her old, bad habits. That means treating her recovery as an ongoing process, whether by continuing to attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings or by maintaining a relationship with her therapist, who has helped address the underlying issues that caused her habit.
Don't rely on willpower.
One thing that aided Yakim's recovery happened long before she started gambling: She had automatic paycheck deductions for her retirement plan. If you're suspectible to spending, turn over basic things like retirement savings and bill payment to the computers—it'll put more distance between you and your money.
Take baby steps.
Don't try to do everything at once and overwhelm yourself. Aim for small successes. First, Yakim should finish paying off her remaining debt. Second, she should rebuild the emergency fund to at least $3,500, which will cover three months of living expenses. After that she can start rebuilding her savings for the new condominium she wants to move into.