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Gambling: No longer a man’s game

As more and more women roll the dice, financial expert Jean Chatzky gives advice on how to stop a game from becoming an addiction.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Each time I go my local newsstand, I see someone buying scratch-off lottery tickets by the dozen. More and more often these days, according to the proprietor, it's a woman.

This led me to suspect that gambling among women is on the rise. Another observation (the growing crowd of Internet sites that'll now let you gamble from the comfort of home) and a recent talk with Martha Frankel, a former gambling addict and author of "Hats and Eyeglasses: A Family Love Affair With Gambling," spurred me to dig deeper into this topic.

Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) in Washington, D.C., bolstered my initially informal conclusions. He says that, 30 years ago, men were more likely than women to gamble by almost a 3-to-1 margin. Today, those odds are almost even. A recent study from New York's State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services reported that 63 percent of women in the state gambled at least once in the past year, and 2.3 percent admit to problem gambling.

"It's not that men are gambling less, it's that women are gambling more, and on things that they never used to," Whyte says. "Nowadays, you're slightly more likely to find a woman in a casino than a man."

Reasons for the rise include easier access to gambling via the Internet, women making more money than ever before and, quite frankly, more social acceptance of seeing a woman at the craps table.

I've never been much of a high-stakes gambler. I do think that an occasional roll of the dice or pull of the slots (nickel slots are my speed) can be fun — in moderation.

Here's how to make sure your games don't turn into a habit:

Keep your credit card out of it Gambling with money you don't have is a huge risk, and almost a sure way to spiral out of control. The temptation to keep playing "just long enough to break even" is strong in all circumstances. Bringing plastic into the equation tends to give the pull even more power. Frankel, who battled an Internet gambling addiction for more than a year, started the cycle by charging $300 on her credit card each day, then continuously trying to climb out of the hole. She ended up more than $50,000 in debt.

Keep it in perspective
Gambling doesn't have to turn into an addiction — keep play at arm's length. Putting other hobbies or interests front and center is a good way to do it. So is setting limits, and, perhaps even more important, sticking to them. If you go into a casino with a $20 bill, play until that $20 is gone and then leave — no trips to the ATM allowed. But limits of time are equally necessary. It's all too easy to get sucked in, only to realize many hours later that you've missed dinner with a friend, your son's baseball game or even work.

Recognize the warning signs Whether we're talking about your own behavior or that of a friend or family member, keeping your eyes and ears peeled is key to staying on the right side of a very fine line. So what are you looking for? According to Whyte, there are three classic signs of problem gambling: Preoccupation, loss of control and harm toward oneself or family. If other interests are being pushed to the back burner in favor of a blackjack table, or limits are repeatedly broken, you likely have a problem on your hands. Likewise, things like depression, job loss and suffering relationships are also major red flags. "The psychological and social consequences of gambling can cost a lot more, in some ways, than dollars and cents," explains Whyte.

The tricky part, of course, is that it's very difficult to recognize these aspects of your own behavior. That's why it's so important to rely on other people in your life. If friends or family members are telling you to take it easy, listen.

Admit to the problem "Any addict who wants to stop has to come to that abyss and step into it," says Frankel. Her turning point? A call from her mother, who was in tears because Frankel's excessive gambling didn't leave any time for their relationship. Frequently, that's what it takes — a kind of "aha!" moment that allows you to finally look at yourself from an outsider's perspective. Once that happens, reach out to someone for help, advises Frankel. Every state has a gambling hot line: A complete list with contact information can be found on NCPG's Web site, and Gambler's Anonymous offers free support meetings.

If you have the money (and many gamblers don't), a therapist can also be helpful.

With reporting by Arielle McGowen.

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL’s official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC’s “Today” show and is also a columnist for “Life” magazine. She is the author of four books, including “Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day” (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .