Managing Your Money in a Casino

An accountant we know shares this favorite saying with clients who want to push the envelope: “Pigs get fed. Hogs get slaughtered.” This adage is probably more applicable to gamblers tackling the tables than taxpayers dealing with the IRS. Greed and gambling are two words that go together like peanut butter and jelly, and they’re just as likely to get you into a sticky mess.

When blinded by the possibility of winning more, you can easily end up blowing your gambling bankroll (money set aside just for gambling) in one evening or faster. The prospect of striking it rich in the casino may make you forget that you have other financial obligations — paying the mortgage and feeding your children, to name a couple. We’ve heard and seen too many horror stories about individuals whose dream vacation to a gambling destination turned into a nightmare when they frantically began throwing good money after bad to make up for their losses early in their getaway.

In this chapter, we address nothing more than practical, pragmatic approaches to your money — the cash you come with and (hopefully) the money you win as you go along. We arm you with the same sort of no-nonsense advice your accountant or a financial counselor may offer to help you manage your budget.

Setting a Budget and Sticking to It

To enjoy your gambling experience, you must control your gambling experience, which means setting — and sticking to — a budget. Whether you’re taking a weekend backpacking tour in a nearby state park or a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Galapagos Islands, you decide what you’re willing — or can afford — to spend, and then you make your plans. The same goes for a gambling getaway. First you budget for the transportation to your destination, your hotel and food expenses, entertainment tickets, and sightseeing excursions — and how much you plan to spend on gambling.

If your main priority is to retain all of your money, the best advice we can offer you is not to gamble at all. Assuming you don’t want to hear that bit of wisdom, our next-best suggestion is to firmly decide, before you walk through the doors of the casino, how much you’re willing to spend (translation: lose).

Casinos are fantastic places where you can check reality at the door. Gambling should be a fun experience, a chance to get away from your daily stress and enjoy the escape that risk and winning can bring. But when the lines between reality and fantasy blur, when you buy into the dream and forget the budget, you can run into problems, and your money can quickly head south.

This section helps you predetermine exactly how much money you’re willing to spend on your gambling venture. You also discover how to stick to your budget and avoid the kind of fun the casino wants to have — at your expense.

Playing within your means

For most people, gambling isn’t a lifestyle. It’s an escape from reality that has the same components of thrill, sizzle, and excitement as other forms of entertainment — well, maybe a little less than skydiving and a bit more than the opera.

A good starting point to determine your gambling bankroll is figuring out how much you spend on different types of entertainments and vacations, such as theme parks, ski resorts, or other sightseeing destinations. Knowing this information can help you compare your casino budget to the cost of last summer’s beach vacation or that week in Paris.

Your gambling bankroll needs to reflect fiscal reality. If your other vacations cost $1,000, why should your gambling vacation cost two or three or even four times as much? Like all trips, hobbies, or flights of fancy, gambling is a form of entertainment. And, just like that Caribbean cruise, your gambling losses shouldn’t affect your day-to-day lifestyle or your ability to pay bills for the rest of the month, after the vacation is over.

As you calculate the cost of your gambling trip, consider its value to you in terms of fun and entertainment. If you perceive your casino gambling adventure as a form of entertainment similar to, say, dinner at a fine restaurant and an evening at the theater, you can begin to put a price on its value. Would such an evening cost you $500 for two? Possibly. Would you pay $1,000 for it? Possibly again, although sticker shock may be setting in.

Okay, we may sound like credit counselors, but the money for your gambling vacation should come from your entertainment budget. In other words, don’t cash in a savings bond, dip into the kids’ college funds, or take out a new credit card to bankroll the trip. And by all means, don’t budget with money you plan on winning during the trip!

Determining your daily limits

After you figure out your budget for your gambling adventure (whether a five-day trip to Vegas or just a quick jaunt to a riverboat casino), you need to break down that budget into how much you can spend each day. Take your predetermined trip bankroll, and then divide that amount by the number of days you’re going to be in the casino. For example, say you set aside $1,200 for gambling on your three-day getaway weekend. You have $400 to play with each day, separate from the money you budget to feed, house, and otherwise entertain yourself.

From day to day at the casino, you’re either up or down. For example, on Friday, the first day of your three-day venture, you enter the casino with four crisp $100 bills in your pocket and finish the day with $600 for a $200 win. Congratulations! But how does your success affect your game plan? It doesn’t. The next day, you should stick to your budget and still only gamble with $400. However, Saturday is a disaster and you lose every last penny of the $400 budgeted for that day. The carnage continues on Sunday, and once again you burn through $400. But because you stuck to your budget, you return home with $600 of your original $1,200 bankroll, which is a lot more money than less- disciplined gamblers (who never had a starting plan or failed to follow it) have at the end of their trip.

If you lose your $400 (or whatever the amount of your daily budget) early in the day, do something else. The free activities in and around casino towns can be pretty entertaining. Discover the mountain trails of Lake Tahoe, stroll the boardwalk in Atlantic City, or just hang out at the hotel and enjoy the swimming pool or workout room. A big mistake many people make is getting so engrossed in gambling that they miss out on the attractions of a beautiful resort.

Sizing up your bets

After splitting your bankroll into daily increments, the next step to budget your gambling is bet sizing, or breaking down your budgeted bankroll into the amount you allocate for each bet.

A general rule (for most table games) is to have a bankroll with at least 40 times the maximum bet you plan to make. So if you decide to ration your trip bankroll into daily allotments of $400, your betting units are $10 per hand. Proper proportional betting reduces your risk of tapping out (going home flat broke).

Keeping your bets consistent

Unless you’re a professional card counter, you don’t benefit from changing the amount of your bets. The simplest and safest strategy in most casino games is to bet the same amount each time. For slots and video poker, that may mean playing the max number of coins or credits each time if you are playing a progressive machine.

Most players change the amount they bet on each play — typically increasing the bet size — because of two circumstances:

They’ve been losing, so now they’re desperately attempting to regain that money. Consequently, they steam, or increase the size of their bets.

They’ve been riding a hot streak and are playing on house money (funds they’ve won from the casino).

Although games do run in streaks, you can’t know when those streaks begin or end. After you have the money, it’s yours. How you obtained it doesn’t matter, but you still need to be judicious about how you spend or bet the money.

Limiting your losses

In addition to establishing a budget and portioning it out on a daily — and bet-size — basis, you can employ some simple strategies that help you stay within the framework of your budget. This section contains a few time- honored methods of limiting your losses.

Stop-loss limits: Covering your own butt

You may be familiar with stop-loss limits from the stock market. Stop-loss limits protect your shares from a severe downturn by instructing your broker to sell if a stock falls to a certain price.

You can apply the same rationale to gambling. An example is our earlier recommendation to decide in advance how much you’re willing to risk per trip and per day (see the section “Determining your daily limits”). When you lose your preset amount, stop, head for the door, and spend the rest of the day golfing or sightseeing.

Big comebacks — erasing your gambling debt by winning big — are the stuff of legends. And that’s where those stories belong. You’re not gambling in the casino to make a living or pay off your bills. Treat gambling like a vacation, and leave the dreams of making a fortune in the casino for Hollywood movies. (Check out “Resisting the urge to chase losses” in this chapter for more about how this strategy can get you in trouble.)

Time limits: Knowing when you’ve had enough

Another good restraint is to set limits on how long you play each day. Marathon sessions at the tables usually spell disaster. The longer you play, the more likely you are to lose your focus and perspective.

Don’t play for more than two hours at a time, and don’t go play for more than four to six total hours a day. Casinos are tough enough to beat anyway, but when you’re mentally foggy or hungry, you add an extra burden to the job.

Figure out how to take breaks because they can help you clear your head and protect your bankroll. Stopping for lunch or dinner may seem obvious, but the number of players who totally forget to eat when they’re gambling is amazing. Reasons to take breaks abound. Here are just a few:

Visiting the bathroom: Drink plenty of water so you have to take frequent trips to the powder room. Those short walks stretch both your legs and your bankroll.

Exercising: Even if it’s just a brisk walk around the casino floor, do something to get your circulation going. Even better is a real workout at the hotel gym.

Calling your loved ones: Your significant other and family appreciate a check-in call every once in a while. A check-in call can also provide additional restraints for sticking to your budget. You can easily lose touch with reality while gambling, and a quick phone call can remind you of what’s important in life.

Win limits: Winning something is better than losing

Everyone wants to walk away a winner. Cashing out a winner is one of the

greatest feelings in the world, and it’s the ultimate goal of everyone who gambles. But remember — one of the worst feelings is dumping all your winnings back when you’re up a lot and then losing for the day. So quitting when you win a predetermined amount ensures that you have some winning days during your visit.

Some people set up target goals, such as quitting when they get ahead of their daily bankroll by 50 percent or 100 percent. If you wisely add your profits back into your bankroll (rather than spending them), you have a larger buffer to withstand future negative swings.

Keep in mind that quitting early never helps you in the long term because you have absolutely no way of knowing when the cards are going to turn for the day. But you reap a tremendous psychological benefit if you stop playing when you win a certain amount.

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