If you’ve read around other personal finance blogs, you can sometimes catch a glimpse into their lives with a sentence here and a sentence there, but the best post I’ve ever read was written by Lazy Man and Money. One day, for whatever reason, he decided to tell his mother for the first time what he’s been doing for a living. It was short but fantastic and it somewhat inspired me to do the same, albeit with what you might consider a more hard-hitting topic.
One of the advantages of writing for a site that has a large audience is that sometimes, you can express yourself when no one really knows who you are. DR has been kind enough to allow me this forum to write regularly about most things related to personal finance and now I’ve decided to share with you something that I consider to be my greatest achievement. For the last ten months, I’ve been gamble free.
When most people think of gambling they think of a different class of person. The term "degenerate" seems to always be attached, and if you started a survey on whether drinking or gambling was a "worse" addiction, you'd have mixed results. I don't look at myself as a degenerate; never have, never will. I'm just a kid who worked himself into a very terrible situation without a visible way out. Without further adieu, here we go.
The year was 1999 and I was 16 years old. A big-time sports nut, I convinced my father to deposit $200 into an online gambling account because I knew for a fact the Duke Blue Devils were going to slaughter the Arizona Wildcats in the men’s college basketball championship game. Duke was favored to win by only three points (which means after you subtract three points from Duke’s final score, the higher score wins the bet) so I put all $200 on it. Unfortunately for me, I was right and I felt an adrenaline rush a 16-year-old has no business feeling. It was the beginning of the end.
I graduated high school and attended the University of Miami on a partial scholarship. My parents really didn't want me to leave the state of New Jersey but I wanted out, at least temporarily. Because school was so expensive, I promised to pay my own way, which is the main reason why I currently sit on top of a student loan mountain of $150K+. At this time of my life, gambling wasn't really that big a part of it. I would deposit a few hundred dollars here and a few hundred dollars there and I was actually pretty good at it. Sports is what I knew best, and while I was earning a degree in gambling from the University (Officially called probability and statistics), I was also enhancing my handicapping (professional gambling term) skills.
The sharper my gambling skill set, the bigger the problem became. I started skipping random classes because there was a day baseball game on TV. $50 bets turned into $100 bets. $100 bets turned into $200 bets. $200 bets turned into $500 bets. Meanwhile, my A grades turned into A-. The A-’s turned into B’s and on rare occasions, the B’s turned into C’s and D’s (and one infamous F). Any handicapper will tell you that to do it right, you have to go through mountains of information and follow every game because even the slightest detail can give you the edge you need to make the right decision. More and more of my time was going into gambling and less and less of my time into everything else. I was so good, that I was receiving checks from online gambling sites for $10,000 on a monthly basis. I was sacrificing my life, to gamble.
But just as fast as the checks came in, they went right back out. The problem with gambling is that even winners become losers because you just can’t shut it off. When I was flying high, I estimate I was ahead by $85,000 and I intended to earn as much as I needed to pay off my student loans in one payment. Then, I ran into a losing problem that I just couldn’t seem to shake.
Gambling 101 teaches you not to chase your losses and walk away. Hot streaks are awesome but cold streaks can ruin you forever. I was so close to my $100,000 goal I could taste it but $500 at a time, it was slipping away. Some of my losses were just so unbelievable, I would stare up at the sky and wonder what I’d done to deserve this. After losing around $25,000 in a month, I “snapped”. The yearly Army/Navy football game was on TV and with Army’s terrible offense and the way Navy controls the clock, I was certain the game would stay under 53 total points. (Both teams’ final scores combined). The score was just 3-0 after the first quarter and I felt awesome. Finally, I’ve come back and am ready to reach my goal once again. Well, needless to say, these teams went on a scoring spree in the last three quarters and I lost $11,000 on one football game. I think I blacked out during the 4th quarter when I knew I had lost because I remember every second of every game I’ve ever bet on except that one.
So just as fast as I won all of this money, I ended up losing it. When I finished up my degree, I probably wagered over $5 million in total bets and the madness is that from a profit/loss perspective, I was down only $1,200. Tens of thousands of hours were put into five years (because I was too lazy and too heavily invested in gambling to finish in four) worth of gambling in college and I had -$1,200 to show for it. Most Saturday nights weren’t spent at the clubs, bars, or friends’ houses, but rather in front of the TV or computer, watching an Australian Rules Football game at 3:30 in the morning. Geelong Cats were always the safe bet there, in case you were wondering.
I finished school with a massive college loan debt, no immediate job and the fear that if I returned home, I would be exposed as the habitual gambler I had become. I decided to stay in Miami and with two days left in my on-campus apartment lease, I found a new apartment. At least I wouldn’t be homeless! Two weeks after that, I became a store manager for the local Boston Market fast-food chain. One thing I always worked hard at was my job and I’ve been employed somewhere every single day since I was 7 years old. I started at the fruit stand, worked my way through selling golf balls and asking people if they wanted pickles at Mcdonald’s for six years, then worked two jobs in college. The income wasn’t close to enough to supplement my monthly rent and student loan payment, so I started to fall months and months behind on many payments. Add that to the gambling I was continuing to do with every spare minute of my free time and I was in pretty terrible shape.
I can remember thinking to myself that I could quit at any time. I thought of gambling as a hobby that I had full control over and when the time was right, I would just turn it off. If I had my 2008 calendar in front of you, you would see two or three days per month that said “The first day of the rest of my life”. With each failed attempt, I began to doubt myself and with each collector that called me, I feared I would be stuck in this hole for the rest of my life. I spent 8+ hours a day focused strictly on gambling. Hell, I could tell you the 53 roster players for every professional football team, including their college background and their stats. Even now, I’m loaded with thousands of useless sports facts and player knowledge that holds no other purpose than for gambling.
But even with the addiction, I seemed to still be able to work and live a life that wasn’t completely out of control. I picked up a new job with a little more money, and was strong enough to pay for the necessities. Just not strong enough to kick the habit I suppose. Nothing I seemed to do worked. I tried closing all of my gambling accounts but I would just reopen new ones in a few days. If it wasn’t sports, it was poker, then race track betting and even online casinos. (which is just financial suicide). I didn’t know what to do. Financially, I was better off than before, but still in the negative each month.
In September of 2009, I made the craziest decision of my life and decided to quit my job with no new job in sight and zero dollars of expected future income. My work was inhibiting my gambling because I flat out hated it and I couldn’t wait to go home, plug $500 into an online account and watch it dwindle to nothing. It was more about the time-consuming activity than it was winning or losing money and while I used to get a rush from winning and losing, I was now somewhat immune to the whole thing.
Through absolutely no effort on my part, I found a girl that tolerated my company and a job that saved my life. More and more of my time was shifting from gambling to work and a social life and I was able to focus my “addiction” on healthier things. For the last 10 months, instead of reaching for the credit card, I’m up all night watching romantic comedies(It’s the very least I can do for her), or writing about how to help others avoid the pitfalls I’ve fallen into. I’ve caught up on most of my loans and am even able to save an ever-so-small amount of money each month in a high-interest savings account. How in the world did I do this?
I wish I could provide step-by-step instructions on how to break a gambling addiction but I can’t. For me, the strategy that worked was to refocus my addiction on things other than gambling. I had hit rock bottom a couple of times in regard to losing a lot of money but I was one of the lucky ones. I started out ahead and only lost house money in the long run. I wonder what would have become of me had I started out a gambling loser? Chilling.
So while I haven’t exactly taken the Lazy Man and Money approach and announced how I’ve lived the last 8 years of my life to my family, it’s a start. I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading about my misery as much as I enjoyed writing about it. If you find yourself in a similar gambling situation, the best course of action may not be the one that worked for me. Admitting you have a problem is truly the first step to moving in the right direction and whether you tell someone close to you or a complete stranger, it’s a beginning. Comments are anonymous, feel free to ask for help if you need it. I’ll listen, I promise.