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Help! My mom uses credit cards for gambling

Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D.

July 21, 2014

QDear Eva,

My mom likes to go to Vegas every year for a few days. I always thought it was harmless, until I found out that she uses her credit card to get advances so she can gamble. She says she pays it back within a month or two, so it's not a big deal, but it really bothers me. I'm scared she's going to get herself in a jam. Any advice? Thanks. –Petra

AHi Petra,

Indeed, as a general rule, credit cards and gambling are a dangerous mix, so I can see why you would be concerned. On the other hand, if your mom has been doing this every year for many years, chances are that she has it under control.

If your mom does pay those cash advances back within a couple of months, we are talking about small amounts that are not out of proportion to her budget. So in that sense, the expenditures are not different than if she had gone to Vegas and spent a similar amount on good food and great shows — it's just entertainment money.Ask Eva

Of course, it is not unusual for people who have lost control gambling to conceal how much they are really spending, and downplay the charges to their credit cards. I'm not saying that your mom falls in this category, but if you have reason to believe that she doesn't tell you the full story, then yes, it would be a concern.

For most people, gambling problems develop slowly. In some cases, what started as casual social gambling can turn into a compulsive habit. Particularly during periods of depression, loneliness or stress, the urge to gamble may grow to a point where the person loses perspective and begins to gamble more frequently and takes bigger risks.

How will you know? Talk with your mom. Ask why she doesn't play it safe and simply save up the money before the trip. As an excuse for having this conversation, you could tell her that you're concerned about the high interest rates on cash advances — often at 24 percent or higher — and ask her how long it takes her to pay off the bills.

You can also suggest that you look at her credit card bills to help calculate the interest charges on the cash advances in an effort to give her a more complete picture of the true costs.

If she doesn't agree to let you look at the bills, encourage her to talk about her trip to Vegas. Ask her what she enjoys about it, and get her to describe her experiences with gambling. You can intersperse questions to find out more about her gambling habits.

In particular, you will want to know whether she sets limits or if she takes out more cash advances to cover any losses. You'd also want to know whether she engages in other types of gambling than that yearly trip to Las Vegas.

In all likelihood, you have nothing to worry about. A yearly trip to Vegas is not your typical sign of compulsive gambling, cash advances or not.  But still, it doesn't hurt to be alert, and if nothing else, learning more about your mom and what she enjoys about the trip could be a great bonding experience for both of you.

Got a question for Eva? Send her an email.