Rosalie Gurske, 51, was a supervisor at Crosstown Civic Credit Union’s Winnipeg Square branch. She was responsible for the daily cash supply. Over six years until January 2013, Gurske diverted $900,000 from the credit union’s treasury to herself and cooked the accounting books to cover her tracks. Why did she do it? To feed her gambling addiction. At her trial, the judge said, “A sad life is not a reason to steal,” and sentenced her to 42 months in prison. Gurske suffered from anxiety and other psychological disorders and had had a life marked by tragedy.

For many people things start innocently enough. Today, women no longer have to hang out at the racetrack or casinos with unsavoury characters. Gambling is as easy as picking up a carton of milk or logging onto a gambling site at the end of the day while nursing glass of white wine. “For many men and women, it is a social recreational form of entertainment and for most people, that’s what it remains,” says Jeffrey Derevensky, Chair of the Department of Education and Counseling Psychology at McGill University in Montreal. “They even call it gaming now—not gambling—making it feel more acceptable and less harmful. But you have to know your limits. Otherwise it can become a behavioral addiction like alcohol and drugs.”

Some of the warning signs are obvious. For instance, real gamblers don’t know their limits. So, if you’re spending more time and money gambling, then it’s likely becoming a real problem. As well, “gamblers inevitably start chasing their losses,” says Derevensky. “That’s when you lose $100 today and then go back tomorrow to win it back.”

Once you begin to tap into retirement savings to gamble, it’s incredibly hard to rebuild your savings—especially for women who generally have lower incomes than men, greater longevity, as well as the “pink premium” for goods and services—a type of price discrimination by retailers that has women paying up to twice as much for nearly identical products, such as clothes, toiletries, and gender-specific toys. “If you don’t have the finances to support a spiraling gambling habit, it can be destructive,” says Derevensky.

This is especially true as you get older. For instance, widows can have emotional triggers and often gamble to avoid loneliness. “Going to the casino becomes a social outing for people,” says Derevensky. “But really, there’s no socialization, especially because women tend to like games of chance like the slot machines. They feel intimidated sitting at the Black Jack table where they may make a wrong move and feel embarrassed.”

To ensure you don’t fall prey to reckless gambling, understand that you’re not going to make any money gambling because the vast majority of people never do. “Go to have fun and go occasionally with friends,” says Derevensky. “Set limits on the amount of cash you will bring and when the money is gone, it’s gone. Monitor the amount of time you spend gambling to ensure it doesn’t get out of hand.”

Never go into debt for your gambling habit. Maintain your long-term savings habits, such as automated savings programs. Working with a financial planner, someone with whom feel safe to share information about your money habits is important. “They can serve as a shield for your long-term savings if gambling looks like it’s becoming a serious problem for you,” says Alycia DeGraff, a financial therapist at Georgia State University.

But perhaps the key is just staying out of the casinos—and finding other forms of activities and social events to keep you busy. “Volunteer work, book clubs, bowling, curling, travel, art classes, skiing, hiking—the list is endless,” says DeGraff. “Keeping busy and scheduling routine classes and activities—often very low cost and even free at your local library or recreation centre—can keep you stay motivated and constantly learning and socializing. You’ll find yourself happier—and wealthier—too.

Julie is senior editor and writer at Moneysense magazine. An award-winning business journalist, she has written for Macleans's, Chatelaine, Canadian Business and many other leading publications. Her mission is to empower women to be proactive about money.