Hey! I didn’t win the Mega Millions!

By Robert Donovan

You probably didn’t, either. Although winning tickets were sold in several states, odds are they weren’t yours.

The odds really do stink, you know. That’s why some wags call the lottery “a tax on people who are bad at math.”

Going out on a fiscal limb here, but…I don’t think the lottery is so bad.

It’s not that I think the lottery is “good,” i.e., an important part of a balanced financial portfolio. I just think it’s not-so-bad in the way that potato chips are not-so-bad. An occasional handful won’t kill you. If you focus on chips to the exclusion of anything healthy, then you’ve got a problem.

Gerri Detweiler recently interviewed a bunch of PFers for an article called “Mega Millions madness: Money pros weigh in.” Mary Hunt from Debt Proof Living called the lottery “a tax on the stupid.” My MSN Money colleague Liz Weston called it “a tax on stupidity,” while acknowledging that she’d bought a ticket or two in the past.

Detweiler noted that PF experts “usually put lottery ticket purchases in the same category of money sins as bottled water or spending $5 for a cup of coffee that can be brewed at home for 25 cents. But whom among us has never splurged for a one-pump mocha grande latte?”

Me, for one – I don’t drink coffee. But every now and then I do get a lottery ticket.

Here’s what I don’t get: Apps. Candy bars. Lunch out three times a week. Music downloads. Cell-phone upgrades. Manicures. Online gaming community memberships. Auto detailing. Spray tanning. And so on. I bet some people spend more on a single waxing than I spend on lottery tickets all year.

Generally speaking I think bottled water is a stupidity tax on the thirsty. But that doesn’t mean I’m never out and about with no other way to get a drink. Thus buying a bottle of water now and then won’t break the bank.

Neither will buying a lottery ticket. Why is a dollar spent in this way somehow more “stupid” than the occasional mocha grande latte?

Or, for that matter, on anything non-essential? Should we take out after people who go to the movies every Saturday because movies are a stupid, escapist fantasy that do nothing toward ensuring financial security? Of course not. But that’s the kind of thing people say about lottery tickets: That they’re money spent (wasted) chasing a fantasy.

Will a dollar fund my dream?

Yes, I’ve heard about people who seriously believe that lottery = retirement planning and make no other provisions for old age. That’s a serious disconnect and a sign that whatever we’re teaching kids about money (and math) isn’t sinking in.

This also isn’t a majority attitude. It’s just that you remember these folks when you read about them.

A relative of mine gets a couple of Lotto tickets every week. She’s of the “dollar and a dream” school. I’m of the “whenever I remember it” persuasion, which means I pick up a Mega Millions and a Lotto ticket about five or six times a year.

When I lived in Anchorage, I bought a Nenana Ice Classic ticket every spring. Never came close to guessing the day the ice would go out. Even so, I enjoyed the experience. I enjoy games of chance down here in the Lower 48, too, when I actually think of playing.

If I were buying stacks of tickets every day, I’d have a problem. But I’m not. This is an indulgence. I don’t smoke, I rarely go to the movies and since January I haven’t been buying those potato chips.

I don’t really expect a dollar to fund my dreams. But I’m not going to sweat a couple of greenbacks spent on lottery tickets.

Incidentally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with manicures or online gaming or any of the other examples above. You earned the money and you ought to be able to budget for the things you like. If you want the latest app, get it.

And if I want a Mega Millions and a Lotto, I’ll get them. Want to bet who spends less?

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  1. Suzanne

    I agree, its harmless fun for a couple bucks. Daydreaming about what I would do with all that money and the good I could do for my community was enjoyable but alas back to work on Monday!

  2. One of my students from a mathy class last semester stopped by my office the other day to tell me he’d bought a lottery ticket and was explaining to his wife that although it cost $3, it was really worth much less in expected value.

    But, he said, he was doing it because he’s risk seeking over small gambles and for the entertainment value. I also added he must be public spirited as he was making a donation to the government, and he agreed that he could feel good about that.

    I was so proud. 🙂

  3. Cannot get Mega Millions tickets here in Alaska, so called my college student son in Colorado to play some numbers. He almost seem appalled that I wanted him to buy a lottery ticket. Not sure if I am prouder that he is finally getting into “poor college student” mode or concerned that he couldn’t see the fun and possibilities if the ticket had the winning numbers :). Also, I get a Nenana Ice Classic ticket most years and select my daughter’s birthdate in May, knowing I won’t win (just sentimental I guess). With this winter’s weather I might have a chance!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Sherie: I’m heading up to Alaska in May, to house-sit for a friend. Too late for me to buy an Ice Classic ticket, but I should probably send her $2 next year and have her buy me a ticket. For, say, April 31. 😉
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  4. It was fun to have my $5 worth of Mega Millions tickets in my wallet on Friday – occasionally it’s nice to fantasize a little bit.

    I generally buy a handful of lottery tickets maybe once a year – doesn’t do me any harm, and it’s nice to dream occasionally 🙂

  5. Heh. It was a waste of money, I’ll admit it but it was so nice thinking that I held the winning jackpot ticket in my hands multiple time. Every time I didn’t win I would vow not to buy another one but that vow didn’t last long. A waste? yes. Fun and exciting when I did purchase a ticket? yes. 🙂

  6. My concern is the larger social implications of the lottery. I live in Texas, a low tax state that originally established a lottery 25-30 years ago in part to fund education. In reality, the lottery only funds 4-5% of state education expenses-most of the financial support for education comes from local property taxes. This funding base insures a very unequal quality of education across the state and contributes to poor quality of public education. No lottery is a substitute for judious public spending on public priorities.

  7. tosajen

    My DH and I buy a couple of lottery tickets when the jackpots get high. Maybe once a year or so.

    We find the “what if” time to be valuable from a personal finance and life direction point of view. Suddenly, we feel free to think outside the box: what would we change if we had more money that we needed for the rest of our lives?

    We usually find a few things come up that we can and should do soon, even without a windfall. 🙂

    Side story: DH called Friday to ask if he should buy tickets. I said 2. He said 20. I laughed that it wasn’t worth $20 to me to improve our odds to merely astronomical. He bought 5.

  8. Ro in San Diego

    My husband and I will buy lottery tickets now and then, but mostly we’re in the $1 dream category – we buy them for the entertainment value. Another reason my husband and I will buy lottery tickets as part of the in-work pool is if the tickets win we don’t want to have to show up to work and the “winners” get to quit!

    I do a good number of the things you don’t “get” but I never pay full price for them and do them as a special treat. I live in a suburban area and have other things I don’t get. I hear people talk about how broke they are and they employ house cleaners and gardeners.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Ro in San Diego: When I wrote that I don’t “get” them it mean just that — I don’t get them, but I do get other things. I completely “get” why people want them. And no doubt there are some people who don’t “get” why I get massages.
      Again: I figure it’s your money and you ought to be able to do what you want with at least some of it. I just hope people will do things intentionally vs. mindlessly or as part of a herd mentality. (“All the cool kids drink XYZ coffee!”)
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  9. jestjack

    I too took the plunge! I bought 2 tickets one for DW….one for me…sadly no winner. But the $2 was probably well spent in entertainment value as DW stayed up to watch the drawing and left a note for me to read the next AM that we did not win. Talk about crazy….the 7-11 that sold the winning ticket in Maryland is exctly 2 blocks from the rental property that I was working at last week. Had I chose to make a left instead of a right to buy my tickets….who knows. Aaaand lastly every time I here the discussion about the Lottery I am reminded of the words of our Governor at the time, Marvin Mandel, who while defending the start up of the Lottery in Maryland described it as…”voluntary taxation” and described an enviroment where there would never be a need to raise property taxes again…that didn’t happen. I just wish the Lottery proceeds went where it was originally intended to go ….education. Now it goes into the general fund and is dispersed…..WIDELY AND OFTEN…

  10. I love your logic here. Those same people who call Lotto players stupid with a fancy $5 coffee in their hand. Now who is the stupid one? Even if odds of winning the jackpot are astronomical you can win lesser prizes & I would be ok with 10,000 or heck even 1,000 that would probably cover all of the Lotto tickets I’ve ever bought in my life. If your spending ALOT then you have a problem if you buy a couple tickets once in a while or even every week then that is your business.

  11. average guy

    1 lottery ticket is cheaper than 1 suv

    buying 1 lottery ticket is a helluva lot more fun than listening to, and considering how much all the $ spent on, political ads

  12. We didn’t buy any tickets — but our friend Thom did. 3 Mega Millions and 2 scratch tickets” $7 total. (He very, very rarely buys any.) Guess what — one of the scratch tickets kicked out $70! He said, “I’m already ahead.

  13. I’ve never played the lottery; to be honest, I don’t entirely understand how to play it, and I never bothered to learn. I do occasionally splurge on those $5 coffees, though, mainly because I like writing in cafes. If I won the lottery I’d buy my own cafe. 🙂
    I read a news article recently about a woman who won the lottery but continued to collect food stamps; I read an article a year or so ago about a man who did the same thing. Both of them saw nothing wrong with what they did, though the woman’s food stamps eventually were taken away from her once a TV news crew did a story on her. Fortunately, most lottery winners are not like that, but people like those two make me really mad. The woman even claimed that she was still “struggling” after winning the lottery because she now had two houses to pay for. Ha!

  14. I’m not one to play the lottery because in general gambling of any kind gives me hives. (When I went to Las Vegas for my cousin’s wedding, my dad gave me money to gamble with. Even though it wasn’t my money, I hated the feeling of inserting money into a machine, pulling a lever, and having no return–not even fun!) However, I do enter contests. I call the phone numbers on receipts where you can take a survey and be entered to win $5000. I enter the contests through banks. I feel like a it’s a similar phenomenon. Yes, I could find a better use of my time. And yes, I will probably be annoyed that these folks have my information. But I’ve got five minutes and a dream, and it makes for a nice, free gamble that won’t make me break out in an allergic reaction.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Emily Guy Birkin: I do those receipt surveys, too. Haven’t won yet, alas. I also do online Publishers Clearing House entries. I did win once — it was only a $5 Amazon gift card, but now I get to say “I won the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes!”

  15. ImJuniperNow

    Eleven of us at work went in on lottery tickets last Friday and it was the most fun I’ve had in a loooong time. Before lunch I stood in line with a lot of other happy people who were so positive it was going to be their ticket. We all wished each other good luck, knowing that our state rarely (if ever) has a big winner. The boss bought pizza for us as an early “Out of Business” present. Nobody worked very hard because it wouldn’t matter come Saturday. All afternoon we talked about what we were going to do with the money. We were very mean to laugh about the people here who didn’t go in on the tickets with us. I had a sign ready to hold up in the group photo saying “Sorry So-and-So”.

    It was by far the best dollar I’d spent in I don’t know how long.

  16. Maggie

    I echo the sentiment that the $5 we occasionally spend on high pot ticket opens up the lines of communications as we talk about our dreams. I will always remember the pot in 2002 where hubby expressed the wish to go back to school full time if he won. I told him that I thought we could make it work without winning the lottery, and we did. I am still happy with that decision… Now if only we could go back to the 2 years after his graduation and rein in his spending before I got him on the frugal bandwagon.

  17. Katie Schulz

    I bought a ticket too. I figured that one ticket had about as much chance of winning as the 50 tickets I saw the lady in front of me buy. I knew I wouldn’t miss $1 but I sure would miss $50.

    I’ve also gone gambling. On the most recent trip to the Grand Canyon we stopped in a casino for breakfast. I spent $1 on nickle slots while waiting for my food to arrive. I was tickled to play the slots that early in the morning and my breakfast was yummy – I would call that a win-win situation.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Katie: My daughter and I sometimes played the penny slots at an Indian casino near Seattle. Sometimes we broke even, sometimes we used all the money we allotted — but we always had fun.
      If gambling (including the lottery) is a problem, that’s one thing. Otherwise, it’s no different than the person who allots $50 (or whatever) for the opera, an amusement park or some other entertainment. An evening movie with popcorn, Raisinets and a soda can run $30 or more these days. People tend not to get all tight-jawed about the opera or a movie, though, whereas the notion of a lottery or a horse race or a slot machine sets off alarm bells.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

      • I see a lot of difference in a night at the opera or at a movie with snacks. A person can spend only so much money going to the movie and mostly has a resonable expectation of the movie experience. The lottery can drain a person for weeks with an astounding promise that will not come true except for a few, a very few tickets.

        I have a friend in CA who won $30K at his first horse race. He estimates he has spent $750K over the last 40 years gambling while he has won about $250K in the same period. He said the early win made him determined to top his win and made him think he knew how to bet the horses.

        I am not a gambler and refused to allow my children to gamble even for a Coke over the Iron Bowl. None of them gamble, thankfully. Gambling is an addiction with the capability of ruining lives.

        That said, I don’t hold any bad opinions about the people who did gamble on the lottery. I have never been to a casino to gamble and don’t really have a desire to do so. I am not setting myself up to being superior to anyone, just not my thing, that’s all.

        By the way, Indian casinos do not pay out the same percent of their gains like other casinos must pay out. The Indian casinos pay out much less.

        The lottery excitement always permeates my thought with “what if” even though I have never bought a ticket. They don’t sell tickets in this state, so maybe I have just never had the chance to be tempted to indulge.

  18. Chris Searles

    I will express the contrarian view here. I do not like the lottery and I have never bought a lottery ticket. I wish the people who spend more than a dollar or two a year would put their money to a better use, such as donating to a soup kitchen or to the Salvation Army. Alternately, I wish they would save their money and put it in their emergency fund. Yes, I have bought a chai latte or two in a year, but at least I receive value for the money spent.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Chris Searles: True, but some of us find “value for the money spent” in the amusement factor, the daydreams, the laugh with friends.
      I have an emergency fund (and am continuing to fund retirement) and I donate a lot of money to a lot of causes — but I don’t save or donate every dollar I have. Some of it I spend on treats. Sometimes that treat is a lottery ticket.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  19. ImJuniperNow

    Donna – Any comment on the woman in Baltimore who won’t share the winnings she allegedly won?

    • Donna Freedman

      @ImJuniperNow: If indeed she has the winning ticket — and she has yet to produce it — then she can look forward to a nice long court battle. Her coworkers are rightly pissed off that she may (or may not) have used pooled funds.

  20. Katie Schulz

    @Donna – you are right that people get their panties in a knot about gambling. I was just thinking about it from a mathematical perspective. Given the minuscule odds of winning, I figured I had just as much chance of wining with 1 ticket as I did with 50. Also, since we have a family history of “Schulz Luck” I never stood a chance anyway. We also have “Schulz Aim” – yes, it’s that bad.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Katie: Yep. Somebody’s gotta win and it might be you. From my “Fisher Luck” perspective, I look at it more practically: A whole bunch of somebodies gotta lose and that’s probably me.
      One ticket won’t break the bank. It probably won’t win, either, but it’s fun to think it will.

  21. Being Canadian, I couldn’t buy a ticket. 🙂 I did a post not too long ago on whether buying a ticket is worth it – and I think it is, as long as you can afford it and don ‘t have it as your key to financial planning! 🙂

  22. whoisbiggles

    I am a sucker for kids selling raffle tickets outside the hardware store.
    I like supporting kids who are raising money for a cause they think is worthwild.
    Just before Christmas last year my 12yo daughter calls me at work to tell me I had won a CAR raffle. I am thinking to myself woohoo but I don’t remember entering any such raffle, but call the number wondering what sort of car I had won..

    The raffle was organised by the

    I loved my new esky, beach towels and christmas hamper.

    But most of all I loved my new anecdote.

  23. jestjack

    Update on the Maryland winner….now they can’t seem to locate the ticket and if the gal even had it. I was at the McDonald’s yesterday that she worked at as I am doing work on a rental across the street and there are local news crews all over the place. Just a heads up…the Lottery officials when announcing the winner stated that the winner at the Milford location bought ….one ticket….not a “gaggle” as would have been purchased when funds are pooled. It appears the gaming system has the sophistication to tell how many tickets were bought at a time and when. And as memory serves in Maryland verbal contracts are legal…..they just aren’t enforceable. Would agree this will wind up in the Courts….too much money involved not to….

  24. “Generally speaking I think bottled water is a stupidity tax on the thirsty.”-This one made me laugh really hard.
    My dad always said that he got a few days of dreaming for that $1. You could buy or be anything on that buck. I think about it that way.

  25. ImJuniperNow

    I’m getting a kick out of reading all the comments at the end of the Maryland “winner” articles on the Web. Funny how many people hope she uses the money to go back to school and learn English.

    I really hope there’s some guy (or gal) out there who is really holding the ticket, laughing their ass off.

  26. I never buy actual lottery tickets, even when the jackpot is up to some ridiculous amount. I do, however, sometimes include a scratch-off ticket in birthday/holiday cards; the odds of winning some small amount are greater, and it makes getting a card somewhat more exciting.

  27. Jen M.

    I bought 5 lottery tickets, just so that I could I say I played the record-breaking drawing. 🙂

    My kids got a slushie while I waited in line at the 7-11. I heard them talking to each other about what they would buy if we won. My son would buy a cool bike helment, just like Dad’s, and a Build A Bear. My daughter said she’d get more outfits for her doll. They both agreed that we’d give most of it to charity, but they couldn’t agree which one. It was an awesome conversation to overhear, and now I know what to get them for their birthdays! 🙂

  28. I take the same view (and wrote a similar piece). The odds and raw math doesn’t make any logical sense, but it sure is worth a $1 of entertainment and daydream fodder.

    Personally, my wife and I went in with a bunch of friends. It was fun. We had a blast sharing, at a breakfast gathering, what we would do when we won.

    Lottery winnings = $0. Fun and fellowship = Priceless!

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