When gambling is wrong

Tina Haapala |

Written by Gary Silverman, CFP®

I typically go to Las Vegas at least once a year. No, it’s not to “invest” my clients’ money; rather I have conferences, clients, and friends in the area. And while I can’t remember the last time I went just for pleasure, I usually have fun when I’m there.

For me the allure is more about food than gambling or shows. There are not many other places in the world where I can walk to a dozen award-winning restaurants and still not walk as many steps as my doctor would like. Yet, judging by the action in the casinos I walk through, gambling seems to be doing just fine without me. So today I want to ask the question: is gambling wrong?

Now, if you are religious, and your religion tells you that gambling is wrong, then it is indeed wrong for you. Likewise, if you are addicted to gambling, then it is as wrong for you to put a quarter in a slot machine as it is for an alcoholic to put a wine glass to his or her mouth. But what about the rest of us?

First, forget the idea that you are going to make money gambling. If you play against the house you will eventually lose. You might have come back a winner; but if you kept at it, no matter what system you use, you will eventually lose. The entire gambling industry is dependent on this fact.

Since I’ll assume you will not end up winning, and I assume you get some enjoyment out of the process, I’m going to put gambling in the category of entertainment. And that’s what it is. What is the difference if I spend $100 on a two-hour gourmet meal and you spend $5 on a burger and $95 playing craps during the same time? We are both out $100, had dinner, and enjoyed ourselves in the process.

The issue, from a financial point of view, isn’t that you are gambling, it is that you are spending money that might need to be spent somewhere else. People who can’t afford medical insurance gamble. People who can’t afford to replace an old car gamble. People who don’t save enough for retirement gamble. If you have current or future expenses you aren’t prepared for, gambling isn’t going to make this better (well, not without luck, and I’d hate for you to depend on luck). So in that case, gambling is “wrong.”

Note that I put “wrong” in quotation marks. That’s because using that same logic, a lot of other things are wrong, too: Going to the movies, buying a painting, ordering onion rings, getting your nails done, golf… The list could go on indefinitely. There are other priorities in life that should get that money we spend, and we may not always choose the responsible payment first. A little frivolous spending makes life more interesting. Too much makes it hard. Know the difference.

This article was published in the Wichita Falls Times Record News on December 13, 2015.