Americans just can't seem to stop taking big chances. During the recent stock market bubble, many of us gambled on irrationally soaring stocks. Now that we've at least somewhat come to our senses on that score, other forms of gambling are getting more of our business.

The American Gaming Association recently released the results of a study that found increases in national gambling. Here are some specific findings:

  • An average of 53.4 million Americans patronized gambling venues in 2003 -- up some 2% over 2002 levels. These venues include the casinos of Harrah's Entertainment (NYSE:HET), Caesars Entertainment (NYSE:CZR), and MGM Mirage (NYSE:MGG), which aims to buy Mandalay Resort Group (NYSE:MBG). (Learn more about this last development in this Don Crotty article.)

  • These gamblers made about 310 million trips to America's 443 commercial casinos last year. The Newark Star-Ledger points out that this is "three times as many trips to casinos as to the nation's ballparks."

  • The gamblers spent more than $27 billion on gambling in 2003, up 2% from 2002. A CBS MarketWatch article notes that, "While that is less than the $41.5 billion Americans spent on fishing, it tops the $23.8 billion spent on DVD/VHS rentals and sales, the $10.3 billion shelled out at amusement parks, and the $9.5 billion dropped at the movie box office."

  • About 27% of the U.S. population visited casinos last year, but nearly half, 46%, played the lotteries.

These numbers are somewhat troubling. Gambling can be considered harmless entertainment -- but only if it's really harmless. For many Americans, that's the case. They only gamble small sums that they can afford. The average amount dropped at casinos was $87, and casino patrons in general are slightly wealthier than the average American, with median household incomes of $53,000 vs. almost $46,000. That's clearly an affordable sum. Still, divide the $27 billion by the 53.4 million gamblers and you get an average annual expenditure per person of $506, suggesting that many Americans are dropping a heck of a lot more than $87 on casinos and lotteries.

According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, "[Lottery] ticket sales are highest in neighborhoods with the lowest income levels and the highest proportion of minority residents." And "the poor are more likely to play than any other income group, and spend a larger fraction of their income." This is not a good thing.

It's fun to take a chance on winning a jackpot, but more people need to realize just how unlikely winning is, and that a smarter way to secure a comfortable future life is to save and invest. Learn more on saving in our Savings Center, and get investment advice in our suite of newsletters.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article.