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Updated on Friday, January 18, 2019
Of all the consequences of gambling disorder or problem gambling, debt can feel like the most immediate — and overwhelming. Problem gamblers may max out credit cards, take out payday loans or borrow money from family and friends. They may also continue gambling in hopes of winning enough to pay off the debt.
But there are ways to get gambling debt under control, like working with a nonprofit credit counselor, pursuing debt consolidation or filing for bankruptcy. Here’s how.
Dealing with gambling addiction
The first step in dealing with gambling debt is to get help treating the behavior and its underlying causes. While that may sound hard right now, know you’re not alone. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, between 4 and 6 million U.S. adults are problem gamblers. Another 2 million U.S. adults meet the criteria for gambling disorder.
As a starting point, explore whether your state offers free treatment using the state-by-state directory offered by the National Council on Problem Gambling, said Lia Nower, professor and director of the Center for Gambling Studies at the Rutgers University School of Social Work. You can also call or text the National Problem Gambling Helpline at 1-800-522-4700, which will connect you with local treatment resources, or search for a certified gambling counselor.
Guide to managing gambling debt
Gambling debt can take many forms and can lead to additional financial consequences, including ruined credit, lost retirement savings or home foreclosure. No matter where you are in the debt cycle, though, you can take control and begin to ease the stress debt creates.
Seek out support
Stopping debt from growing means making a commitment to stop gambling. Since this may also be the hardest change to make, ensure you have the support of a professional and loved ones. In addition to professional treatment, consider joining a local chapter of Gamblers Anonymous, which can offer encouragement and community during this process.
“You’ve got to have an accountability partner,” Nower said. “That’s why some people find Gamblers Anonymous so appealing.”
Communicate with your partner and family
Many problem gamblers may hide accounts or debts from their loved ones. While difficult, it is crucial to share the details of your financial history so you can begin the process of getting out of debt. A good start is to pull and share your credit report, Nower said, which you can access for free once a year from each of the three main credit bureaus at annualcreditreport.com.
A professional can help oversee the process of assessing your finances. In addition, according to Nower, as part of Gamblers Anonymous, participants and their families can attend a “pressure relief” meeting, which helps them develop a budget and come up with a plan to address debts and financial concerns.
Establish healthy financial habits
Set up a spending plan so you can pay for necessary bills and expenses — and avoid building credit card debt — while you work on addressing the gambling debt. Your partner, parent, sibling or another guardian may also be encouraged to take control of your finances and maintain a cash budget so your income is accounted for.
A common budgeting guideline is the 50/30/20 budget. It suggests spending no more than 50 percent of your monthly take-home income on necessities, like housing, groceries, utilities, and minimum debt payments; 30 percent or less on things you want but don’t need; and 20 percent or more on paying off debt and saving.
This is a goal to shoot for and doesn’t have to be followed precisely. When you’re focused on getting rid of debt, for instance, or your fixed expenses are more than half your income, that “wants” budget may need to be smaller for a period of time. But make sure you have some room to go to the occasional movie or dinner out; restricting your spending too harshly could make it less likely you’ll stay on track.
Explore debt relief
The best way to alleviate your debt will depend on the amount you owe, your credit score and how soon you can pay it off. To begin the process, make an appointment with a certified credit counselor who can help you sort through your debt relief options and come up with a personalized payoff plan. A nonprofit agency such as the National Foundation for Credit Counseling can connect you with a reputable local counselor.
Ways to find debt relief include:
Debt management: Nonprofit credit counseling agencies offer debt management plans. These require you to make a single monthly payment to the agency, which then pays the debts on your behalf, including those in collections. You may be able to get a lower interest rate and relief from collections calls. The plan will last for up to five years, and is best for those who are confident they can make the monthly payments until it ends.
DIY payoff methods: You can get in touch with your own creditors and ask for a lower interest rate or payment plan. You can also allocate any money you have available for payoff to the highest-interest loan or credit card first, called the debt avalanche method, which will save you money on interest. Or pay off the accounts with the smallest balances first, called the debt snowball method, which can keep you motivated.
Debt consolidation: When you consolidate debt, you roll multiple debts into one and receive a lower interest rate in repayment. Options include an interest-free balance transfer credit card to make credit card debt more manageable, or a fixed-rate personal loan used to pay off debts that you then repay in monthly installments. You’ll need good credit to qualify for most balance transfer cards and low-interest personal loans.
It is important to note that these methods are not safe for someone who is still gambling, or who is in recovery and is not ready to have access to interest-free credit cards or loan money. Only consider these options with caution and under the guidance of a certified gambling or credit counselor.
Bankruptcy: While bankruptcy should be considered a last resort, it may be the right option for some. If you are financially overwhelmed, which could mean you are relying on payday loans to cover bills or are close to foreclosing on your home, explore bankruptcy. A credit counselor can help you decide whether to pursue it. The bankruptcy will come off your credit report after seven or 10 years, depending on the type you file.
Decide on a repayment strategy and implement it
Once you’ve chosen a strategy, share it with a loved one or the professional you’re working with to address your addiction. Ask for help if you’re struggling to stick to the plan, rather than avoiding payments and sinking further into debt. You may seek additional encouragement from a group like Debtors Anonymous, which offers support in person, via phone and through online chat.
How to avoid future gambling debts
Despite the potential shame of sharing your experience with gambling debt, you have the best chance of overcoming it when surrounded by people you love and those who are trained to support you. Focus first on addressing the gambling behavior itself, then pursue debt relief with your community’s support.
Make sure your spending plan isn’t so severe that you are unable to take part in non-gambling activities you enjoy, like going to concerts or your favorite coffee shop — “That is the surest way to precipitate a relapse,” Nower said.
Avoid future debt by committing to your recovery and giving yourself the ability to participate in life in ways gambling might not have let you before.