Edition #8: Early signs of harm from gambling

Close-up image of green piggy bank sitting on a calculator.
Close-up image of green piggy bank sitting on a calculator.
Photo: iStock

‘What difference is another $20,000?’ Recognising financial harm

Alex* has been free from gambling for the last seven years. There was a time, however, when, despite a six-figure salary and a successful IT career, he was mired in debt. He’d maxed out 24 credit cards and taken out a loan for $350,000. ‘I would not sleep well unless I knew I could get hold of money the next day. If I couldn’t gamble, I was stressed out.’

The harm Alex experienced from gambling wasn’t immediate. ‘Like all gamblers, I started off small.’ The fact that he had a high income reassured him that he could afford to gamble, even when his losses began to mount. ‘I initially worked out that I was $100,000 in debt. That’s OK; what difference is another $20,000? I just chose to ignore it and as time went on it got worse and worse.’

The fact that he had a high income reassured him that he could afford to gamble, even when his losses began to mount.

Many of us struggle with managing money

Annette Devereaux is a Gambler’s Help financial counsellor at Geelong-based Bethany Community Support. By the time clients come to see her, their financial harm is usually quite advanced. ‘Maybe they’re behind with their utility bills, electricity or gas, or they might have a notice to evict.’

Financial literacy is not generally taught at school, Annette says, and gamblers aren’t the only ones who struggle to manage their money. ‘The good news is that these skills can be acquired at any age.’

Esther Gregory, a financial counsellor with over 25 years’ experience and currently working with Gambler’s Help at the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service in Preston, agrees. ‘People who are gambling often experience difficulties prioritising weekly expenses. Financial counsellors can help them better manage household expenses and debt.’

Part of Esther’s task is to increase clients’ awareness that gambling is a commercially marketed product designed to generate profits – and those profits are not going to gamblers. ‘If you gamble, and you don’t have surplus disposable income to do so, then you’re impacting your quality of life, health and wellbeing’

‘People who are gambling often experience difficulties prioritising weekly expenses.’

Esther Gregory, Victorian Aboriginal Health Service

Early signs of gambling harm

A recent Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation study, Assessing gambling-related harm in Victoria, identified that relatively minor financial harm – such as reduced savings or spending on recreational activities – can be an early sign of gambling harm. The study also found that even non-problem gamblers** occasionally experienced restriction of spending on essential items at a similar level to low-risk gamblers. Sometimes being unable to pay a bill will motivate people to gamble more rather than seek help, Annette says. ‘They lose their weekly wage or their Centrelink benefit as well. Then they’re in dire straits.’

‘Sometimes being unable to pay a bill will motivate people to gamble more rather than seek help.’

Annette Devereaux, Bethany Community Support

Given over 60 per cent of Victorians who gamble fall into the category of non-problem gamblers, this could mean a high proportion of people in the general population limit spending on essential items from time to time due to gambling.

Understanding the level of harm

Tracey Grinter, a Case Management Services manager with Anglicare Victoria in Bendigo, has 10 years’ experience as a financial counsellor. Around 10 per cent of her clients identify gambling as the main cause of their financial difficulties. The stigma of being perceived as a ‘problem gambler’, however, sometimes prevents them from initially talking about gambling, she says. It may take several sessions for clients to trust their counsellor sufficiently to admit to the extent of gambling harm.

For clients wanting to restrict their gambling and its associated harm, Tracey might suggest:

  • setting affordable gambling limits
  • separating bank accounts for essential items such as rent and food
  • leaving debit cards at home when going out.

Drawing up a budget that includes gambling expenditure can also be eye-opening, Tracey says. ‘People suddenly realise, “Oh wow, this is how much money I’m spending”.’ Another useful tool for those wanting to assess their financial harm is the gambling calculator.

‘People suddenly realise, “Oh wow, this is how much money I’m spending”.’

Tracey Grinter, Anglicare Victoria

Heeding the early signs

Alex is now educating others about recognising the early signs of gambling harm. He volunteers with ReSPIN Gambling Awareness Speakers Bureau, which recruits and trains people who have experienced gambling harm to share their stories with community and professional audiences.

People at risk need to hear from those with lived experience, Alex says. ‘We all thought it was under control, but it got the better of us.’ He stopped gambling only when he was declared bankrupt. ‘I would have continued, but I couldn’t because there was such a tight noose around my neck.’

‘We all thought it was under control, but it got the better of us.’

Alex

Alex rues not heeding those early signs of harm – delaying bill payments, negotiating with banks and credit unions on managing his debt – and that he prioritised his gambling above his children’s education. His wife wanted to send them to a private school, but Alex, knowing their real debt, found excuses to put her off. ‘That’s something I regret to this day.’

How to get help

If you have concerns about your gambling, or are affected by someone else’s gambling, call Gambler's Help on 1800 858 858. To find out more about getting help, including online help and self-help tools, visit: gamblershelp.com.au.

* Alex is a pseudonym.

** The categories for risk of gambling harm used in the study are based on the Problem Gambling Severity Index. This is a questionnaire that helps us estimate a person’s risk of developing a gambling problem and, therefore, their risk of experiencing harm as a result. The categories are: non-problem gambler, low-risk gambler, moderate-risk gambler and problem gambler. For more about these categories, see the Fact sheet 2: Categories for risk of gambling harm (PDF - 310.7 KB) from the Study of gambling and health in Victoria

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