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5 things dumber than a lottery ticket

Some say games of chance are a waste of money. I can think of worse ways to drop a few bucks.

By Donna_Freedman Mar 25, 2013 10:10AM
Logo: Lottery Tickets (Scott Speakes/Corbis/Corbis)Someone in New Jersey purchased the sole winning Powerball ticket for the March 23 drawing. That person or persons earned $338 million -- or will, once the ticket is claimed.

I live in Alaska, one of seven states with no lottery. The closest thing to a Powerball or Pick 6 is the Nenana Ice Classic, an annual pool in which people guess when the ice goes out in Nenana, Alaska. It's $2.50 per guess and allegedly (perhaps apocryphally) some numbskulls write "April 31" each year.

But I did buy an occasional ticket when I lived in Washington, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Illinois. I don't see the harm.

Before you kick me out of the frugal movement, let me say that yes, I have heard the horror stories about people who buy bushels of tickets every week because they just know they're going to win. Apparently some even consider it a valid retirement strategy, which is a little scary.

Clearly we need better math instruction in our schools, because when some people hear "odds are 1 in 18 million" they focus on the first number rather than the second. An article on the Daily Finance website puts those odds into depressing (though amusing) perspective.

Your chances of...
  • Getting pregnant from a one-night stand: 1 in 20.
  • Being struck by lightning: 1 in 10,000.
  • Dying in an airplane crash: 1 in 355,318.
  • Being dealt a royal flush in a given hand of poker: 1 in 655,750.
  • Dying from a flesh-eating bacteria: 1 in 1 million.
  • Winning the California Super Lotto Jackpot: 1 in 18 million.
But I'm talking about a couple of bucks at a time, not spending one-tenth of my take-home pay on scratch-offs or machine picks.

Some of you are probably saying, "Oh yeah? If you saved that $2 a week and invested it, you'd have eight bazillion dollars by the time you retired!"

So you're saying you allow yourself no "fun" money, no small treats, no creature comforts? That every dollar you don't spend on the most basic of food, clothing and shelter goes into savings/retirement? That you never buy a beer, a magazine or a pack of gum?

Dumber ways to spend

I don't drink beer, I don't read magazines and I don't chew gum. But while I lived in the Lower 48 I'd occasionally drop a few dollars on lottery tickets. They were a big goof, a dream that I knew, intellectually, probably wouldn't come true.

But if it did…! Every time I bought a ticket or tickets I'd daydream about how I'd spend the money (some on me and mine, some on causes I already support). It was a harmless bit of escapism.

Besides, I can think of dumber ways to spend a few dollars. Such as:

1. Bottled water.
Every frugalist's favorite example, true, but let's do it again: Unless the water in your town is nasty (yo, Philly and Phoenix!), why are you doing this? Add up how much you spend in a month. Then pick up one of those pitchers or faucet-mounted filters. Seriously.

2. Frou-frou coffees.
Another of the go-to gripes for thrifty types: If you buy fancy java on your way to work every day, you forfeit the right to complain about the cost of living. Home coffeemakers aren't expensive and travel mugs can be had for a buck or two at most thrift stores, and not much more than that retail.

3. Ringtones.
Your phone comes with the ability to ring all by itself. Why pay a couple of dollars every time a new hit tune catches your ear? Personally, I wish everyone would leave his phone on "silent" mode. If you're sexy and you know it, just keep that information to yourself.

4. Apps.
Sure, plenty of free ones exist. Plenty of not-free ones exist, too, and one of their foremost attractions is their low cost (usually about $1.99 to $6.99). You figure you're getting a little amusement out of money that might otherwise have gone to a couple of those fancy coffees. So, all you app addicts: Take a second to add up the total amount you've spent on these things, and how often you actually use them. Maybe it's just one app for $1.99 and you use it every week. Maybe.

5. Smartphone games.
I'm told these are lifesavers if you're stuck in a long line with a cranky kid. But I sure do see a lot of grownups launching birds at pigs or flipping virtual solitaire cards. How many games have you downloaded, how often do you play them and why is the $1.99 you spent on "Family Feud" somehow nobler than my $2.50 on the Nenana Ice Classic? (Which I haven't bought yet, by the way.)

Personal vices

"But wait!" you cry. "Who are you to tell me that I shouldn't buy apps or bottled water? It's my money!"

Yep, it is, and you get to decide how to spend it. If you want those things, then work them into the budget and enjoy the heck out of them.

But that road runs both ways. The next time you're tempted to criticize people who buy Powerball tickets, think about your own little vices.

I don't own a smartphone but I will defend to the death your right to improve your prowess at Angry Birds. So why should it bother you that I'll buy a New Jersey lottery ticket the next time I go see my dad?

As for those who grouse about all those poor people who accept social services but still buy lottery tickets, let me ask: How do you know? Even if you do know one or more people who do this, does that mean that all recipients of SNAP, TANF or Section 8 are spending the milk money on scratch cards?

Before you tee off on people who shouldn't indulge in games of chance, remember that you don't get to decide what constitutes fun for them, either. Even a minimum-wage earner has the right to splurge a few bucks now and then on a burger, a DVD rental -- or a lottery ticket.

More on MSN Money
Mar 25, 2013 1:52PM
I look at it this way, when I was younger in my twenties, I spent my money on wild women and booze, the rest of it I just wasted.
Mar 25, 2013 3:54PM

Lets get this right.


Never take a chance.

Never go anywhere.

Never do anything.

Never buy on a whim.

Don't waste your money.

Spend your life being frugal.

Never have any fun or do anything foolish.

Live just for survival.


Mar 25, 2013 2:12PM
lottery tickets are a wonderful way to DREAM
Mar 25, 2013 1:13PM
In correct.  My chance of getting pregant from a one night stand is 0.0% as with all males.
Mar 25, 2013 3:00PM
Oooh, I have one: spontaneous new hobbies.  I have friends whose basements and hall closets are full of skis they never ski with, craft supplies that are getting dusty and rusty, model train landscapes that will never be finished or played with, "rare, one-of-a-kind" beanie babies that will surely be worth billions one day, sports and exercise equipment that was used once or twice five years ago, fancy tools to fix things that they no longer own, obsolete computer equipment, the antique chair that they're going to refinish some day, and so on forever and ever.  Money well spent?  Nope.  Gonna get that money back at the next thrift sale?  I'd say 5% max.
Ringtones makes for the best choice on this list. Really, why pay just to have your phone play some different music? No one cares!
Mar 25, 2013 4:21PM
There are two ways to look at it.  One is that the odds are astronomical against you and therefore it is a waste of money to buy a ticket.  The other is that the person who won had no greater odds to win than you do.  Tell that  person in NJ that the ticket purchase was a waste of money!
Mar 25, 2013 2:49PM
People on public assistance shouldn't buy lottery tickets.  Just like people in public housing should not be doing drugs. If they have money for drugs they don't need to be in public housing. Besides drugs are illegal. If NY mayor Bloomberg wants to make people more healthy he should look into the drugs in the public housing. Start his capaign there since the citizens of NY who pay taxes are funidng these people's unhealthy habit. I would think that he would have more say over someone who is getting city money than he would over a citizen who is not on the welfare rolls. Just like compnaies such as CVS are dictating what you can do or have to do on your own time to keep healthy the city should be able to put restrictions on welfare receiptients. 
Mar 25, 2013 4:43PM
It's not rocket science!  You can't win if you don't play.  What are your odds of winning the lottery if you don't play?  Now, I'm not suggesting that you get crazy but a dollar here and a dollar there is a much better way to spend your money than a $120/month phone bill for your smart phone, data plan, and a bunch of other worthless whoey that doesn't even come close to offering you a mathematical possibility of winning anything!
Mar 25, 2013 1:18PM
It's OK Donna, you go ahead and blow as much on the lottery as you want. You are all grown up now and can make these decisions by and for yourself. As for the naysaying buzzkills, foo on you.
Mar 25, 2013 3:25PM

Ever lived anywhere that the water tastes like crap?

Good reason to buy bottled.



Mar 25, 2013 2:41PM
I've been looking for  job for six years. I buy lottery tickets every once in a while and win a few dollars back. The difference between the two so far is the lotteries are random and everyone has a equal chance (low as it may be) to win. The chance to get a job is often based on subjective, selfish and greedy reasons rather than being qualified. At least the dollar to a lottery tickett lets me dream.
Mar 25, 2013 1:29PM

Life Insurance for babies and toddlers: Dum da dum dum dumb.


Mar 25, 2013 5:38PM
Thank you. An occassional lottery ticket is a harmless daydream. The thing is, it has a very slight chance of becoming reality, which makes the day dream all the sweeter. I buy maybe 2 or 3 tickets a year. At a buck apiece that's cheap entertainment. Just don't get stupid about it.
Mar 25, 2013 4:13PM
No-one ever adds tobacco to dumb things to buy lists. Smoking is worse than wasting money on lottery tickets. When you smoke, you may buy more than you think. Would you buy lung cancer or emphysema outright? yet, your taking that risk everytime you buy cigarettes. We all waste some money, but if you buy a frappe at least you're getting a little pleasure back. I don't play the lottery. I'm not good at beating the odds and even less so when they are176 million to one. Plus I'd be throwing away money I don't want to lose on a wild hope of getting back more than an empty wallet. Also I'm a Christian who avoids greed.
Mar 25, 2013 4:25PM
biggest waste? Starbucks but then all those yuppies who buy it for an ego boost would have to brew there own
Mar 25, 2013 4:40PM
Out of genuine conern tht such a high percent of women live in poverty in old age, I made a comment on thrift to a co-worker once.  It was something I'd observed about mny women, including my mother.  Their homes tend to be filled with useless clutter, like those scavenging birds who decorate with junk. They nickel and dime themselves into poverty spending on useless small purchases.   

To underscore my point about wasting resources on useless stuff, I said "beanie babies, they will be the cause of poverty for thousands of women.   Her face crumpled.  And she stormed away angrily saying "I collect beanie-babies!".    

I keep my financial advice to myself now!
Mar 25, 2013 2:49PM

I've been wondering about this. If you are a bona fide mathematician, please tell me where I'm wrong. (If you're not, I'll write you off as another wisecracking troll.) If my chances of winning the Powerball jackpot are one in 176 million, it is not illogical for me to spend $1 on a Powerball ticket every time the jackpot equals or exceeds $176 million, correct? In fact, it would not matter whether Powerball is rigged or not; my chances of matching a predetermined six-digit number are indistinguishable from my chances of matching a truly random number at odds of 176 million to one. Also correct?


And yes, I know the price of Powerball tickets has risen to $2 a pop. In addition, I always buy the PowerPlay. My justification, as someone who is thrifty with a penny in most other respects, is that I never buy those $3-plus coffees at coffee shops, and only play the lottery under the above condition. 

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.