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The lottery: An 'investment' for fools

Almost anything is a better investment than flushing your money down the lottery toilet.

By MSN Money Partner Apr 4, 2011 10:00AM

Updated March 30, 2012, 2:04 p.m. ET


This post comes from J.D. Roth at partner site Get Rich Slowly.


Get Rich Slowly on MSN MoneyOver the years, I've done some foolish things with my finances. I've squandered money on comic books. I've speculated on risky stocks, hoping to make a quick fortune. I've paid a gazillion dollars -- or something close to it -- in credit card interest and bank fees. I spent large windfalls on the latest technological gadgets.


Image: Lottery Tickets (© Scott Speakes/Corbis/Corbis)No, I'm by no means perfect with money.


One trap I've managed to avoid, though, is the lottery. Playing the lottery has never tempted me. Maybe it's because I know the odds are always overwhelmingly stacked against the player -- I know I can't win the lottery, so why bother?


Caveat: That's not to say I've never played the lottery. I used to play Sports Action, Oregon's NFL-based betting game, once in a while. And I've bought an occasional scratch-off ticket. But when I do these things, I consider them one-time entertainment expenses, not paths to riches.

A fool and his money . . .

Not everyone is so lucky. For some, gambling is an addiction. It may start as innocent fun, but it grows beyond that, becomes a financial funnel, draining dollars from their daily lives. And some in dire financial straits may actually view the lottery as an investment strategy!


According to Wired magazine:

While approximately half of Americans buy at least one lottery ticket at some point, the vast majority of tickets are purchased by about 20 percent of the population. These high-frequency players tend to be poor and uneducated, which is why critics refer to lotteries as a regressive tax. (In a 2006 survey, 30 percent of people without a high school degree said that playing the lottery was a wealth-building strategy.) On average, households that make less than $12,400 a year spend 5 percent of their income on lotteries -- a source of hope for just a few bucks a throw.

Just how foolish is it to play the lottery? It depends on the game you play, of course. I once calculated that for every buck my brother spent on a scratch-off game, he could expect to get roughly 50 cents in return. (That's if he bought a bunch of tickets, of course. If you buy only a few, anything can happen.)


It's even more depressing to take a look at the odds for lottery drawings. Here, for instance, are the odds of winning the Mega Millions lottery. They're not good. You have about a 1 in 40 chance of winning something. Your odds of winning the big jackpot (by matching the five main numbers and the bonus number) are roughly 1 in 175 million.


But that's pretty tough to visualize, right? I mean, 175 million is a big number. No worries! Rob Cockerham at whipped up a little widget that lets you simulate the Mega Millions lottery. This is a great way to see just how fruitless the lottery is. (Post continues below.)

Better bets
Almost anything is a better "investment" than flushing your money down the lottery toilet. In his book "Stocks for the Long Run," Jeremy Siegel crunched the numbers to find the historical performance of several common investments. The results? Since 1926:

  • Gold has a real return (meaning "after-inflation return") of about 1%.
  • By my calculations (not Siegel's), real estate also has a real return of about 1%.
  • Bonds have returned about 5%, or about 2.4% after inflation.
  • Stocks have returned an average of about 10% per year and a real return (or inflation-adjusted return) of about 6.8%.

These options are volatile, of course, meaning the returns one year can be negative (though not nearly as bad as playing the lottery), and the returns the next can be positive. If you're looking for a "sure thing," you're left with so-called safe investments, such as savings accounts and certificates of deposit.

Savings accounts and CDs have paltry returns right now, but they're sure to rise as the economy improves. And even a 1% interest rate crushes a continuing 88.9% loss on your money. (Not to mention that the lottery numbers I calculated above don't factor in inflation.)


Note: I can't find any data on the relationship between savings-account interest and inflation. If I had to make an educated guess, I'd say that savings accounts return about 1% more than inflation every year, meaning that they're on a par with gold or real estate in the long term. But this is just a guess!


Let's assume you inherit $100,000 and want to invest it. Let's also assume that you're going to put it in one investment vehicle and leave it there for 30 years. (And that your returns on this investment will compound monthly.)

  • If you invested in gold or real estate (or a savings account), you might expect to have about $135,000 after inflation.
  • If you invested in bonds, you'd probably have about $200,000 after inflation.
  • If you invested in stocks, you could have more than $750,000.
  • But if you "invested" in the lottery, you'd have nothing. After 10 years, you'd have just 10 bucks left. After 17 years, you'd have a penny -- which you'd promptly lose. And again, the numbers for the lottery don't factor in inflation.

So, if you really want to strike it rich, don't play the lottery. Do something boring with your money. Take advantage of the extraordinary power of compound interest to get rich slowly. If you don't have a Roth IRA, start one. Use it to buy indexed mutual funds. If that sounds too complicated for you, then open a savings account.

There's no question: Playing the lottery as a strategy to gain money is a fool's game. Play the lottery for fun if you want, but don't do it because you think it's going to help your financial situation.


Bitter irony

Many folks win big jackpots, only to lose the money -- or their happiness. People are fools to play the lottery, and they often remain fools after winning. Some examples:

A 2001 article in The American Economic Review found that after receiving half their jackpots, typical lottery winners had put only about 16% of that money into savings. It's estimated that more than a quarter of lottery winners go bankrupt. Take Bud Post: He won $16.2 million in 1988. When he died in 2006, Post was living on a $450 monthly disability check. "I was much happier when I was broke," he's reported to have said.


Even when they win, lottery winners often lose.


More from Get Rich Slowly and MSN Money:

Mar 30, 2012 8:58AM
If you have only one chance in 175+ Million to win the Mega-Millions lottery here is one absolute mathematical fact.  If you do not play you have 0 chance.
Mar 30, 2012 4:39PM
This is so silly! no one buys a lottery ticket as an investment.  It's bought for the 'opportunity' to win a life changing amount, instantly.  Does the person dream about how they will spend the money?  Sure it's for fun. Nobody stakes their lives on it. Get real.
Mar 30, 2012 11:26AM

I've slaved for 46 years working for various companies to eke out a very simple life style. I've lived a very conservative life only taking 2 expensive vacations my entire life. I am a jack of all trades having built my own house using my own money there for never having to deal with a mortgage and to this day do all my own electrical, plumbing, carpentry and auto repair to live as cheaply as it is possible to live. I denied myself many things thinking that if I invested my money in the market along the way that I  would be able to retire without having to worry about the wolves at the door. Things were going as planned until 2008 when I lost nearly 70 percent of all the money I had invested over the past 46 years to the crooks on wall street. I'll never live long enough to see my portfolio return to its 2007 level. Even if I did the return I would get now on a c-d after taxes would be next to nothing. I may have only one chance in one hundred and seventy five million to hit the lottery but throwing away $2.00 a week and putting my remaining savings under the mattress away from the white collar criminals on wall street and the banking system has me sleeping much better at night.




















Mar 30, 2012 12:20PM
Let's see...playing a $1 and having the chance to win some serious money is belittled by this financial "wizard", yet he/she doesn't speak about the people who have invested millions in Wall Street and have lost everything.  Yeah, we don't want to talk about that right??  Why not let an average Joe, have some fun with a $1 and if he/she doesn't win, they just lost a dollar, not their life savings.
Jan 9, 2012 11:25PM
Tell that to the people who have won.
Mar 30, 2012 3:06PM
Statistically, I know you are right.  However, that didn't stop me from pitching in $10 for the accounting office pool yesterday.  Also, I got caught up in the "irrational exhuberance" of it all and blew another $20 on my lunch break buying quick-picks at the local Quick-E-Mart.  If and when I lose, I will say nothing.  However, if my 30:200,000,000 odds pay off, I will buy the internet and have you banned for life.  jk- instead, I will buy you, Mr. Roth, and let you turn my millions into billions.
Apr 7, 2011 7:47AM
Couldn't disagree more. Playing the lottery for many has nothing to do with economics or financials. It's about the excitement of being given the chance to change your life for ever, something to look forward to and for a mere £1 there is nothing that offers the same prospects (no matter how low the odds might be. 

You say that the odds basically mean that you can't win but that simply isn't true - for a start it isn't all about jackpots - a £10 win has paid for tickets for another 2 months play, a £50 win would cover the cost of tickets for a whole year. The fact is that people win on the lottery every week, many win small amounts and get back their £1 with a little profit, some win intermediate amounts that put them well ahead of the game and small amount win huge amounts of money that changes their lives. 

All this is of course from the players point of view but you also fail to address the truly MASSIVE impact the lotteries have on the charities and organisations they support. In this "current economic climate" and with all the cutbacks from various governments many of these organisations are completely reliant upon lottery funding.

One final point - again going back to your "I know I can't win the lottery, so why bother?" comment - take a look at the results page for 6th April 2011 - that's a staggering 354,647 winners in just one Lottery Draw  that's 36,883,288 winners per year - hardly "no chance of winning"
Mar 30, 2012 7:04PM
@someonex3920, interestingly enough another article mentioned that.  It would take roughly 28 years to fill out all those tickets.

That said, these "lottery is a bad investment" articles are a little obvious.  The lottery isn't an investment, it's a game.  If you're dumping copious amounts of money into the lottery, you need more help than this article.  

Your chances of getting rich off a $2 lottery ticket may be 1 in 176million... but your chances of getting rich by investing that $2 in gold/real estate/bonds/stocks.... 0.0

It's nice to dream

Mar 30, 2012 4:44PM
That is why you need to be the one running the lottery. But of course, the government says that gambling is immoral except when they are running it.
Mar 31, 2012 1:59PM

"If some billionaire would just invest $175 million & buy all 175million possible combinations and win it outright - even if they had to split it with someone else - wouldn't they come out ahead?"

Not this time, Einstein. Let's see, at 540 million, split 3 ways or 180 mil, with 25% going to yours truly that leaves 135 mill, not counting any state and local taxes if applicable. You would have just blown a cool 40 million bucks, even IF you could enter all possible combinations in time. No rich person is stupid enough to use the lottery as a strategy to increase their wealth, or they wouldn't have gotten to be a billionaire in the first place.

The law of probability is a harsh mistress...
Mar 30, 2012 11:52PM
They'd have better odds of getting rich by getting off their lazy asses and providing something valuable to society lol!Smile
Apr 2, 2012 11:34AM
He's right unless ya win. Then you're smart.
Jan 10, 2012 2:50AM
Sure, it's really easy to tell folks to invest in gold or stocks and bonds or whatever and I suppose that i could put the 4 bucks a week that a I spend on my local state lottery into a savings account.  Most folks don't have the kind of money needed to make some decent investments that will make them much more than the average savings account would.  Your BS is nothing more than typical Wall Street hyperbole!  

But when a 1 dollar ticket has a chance to win 190,000 with some fairly decent odds, I think I'll give that a shot.  I usually play 2 dollars a ticket, twice a week.  Sure, I could put that 192 bucks in savings with a 1% return.  But not taking 96 shots at winning enough money to get me out of debt?  I'll take the chance!  I could win any day now.  Seems to me you're the loser with all those failed investments eh?  "Can't win if you don't play!"
Apr 2, 2012 5:00PM
the guy says lottery is a bad investmentand that gold is much how much gold do you get for a dollar
Apr 3, 2012 9:52AM

Yeah, yeah.  In the big picture the lottery isn't any kind of investment, stupid or otherwise.  But the $204.00 I spend a year on the bi-weekly Mega and Super in California is just the price of a six pack of Pabst a week.  The Pabst won't even give me a buzz.  There is, however, a little bit of excitement participating in the improbability of such a magnitude as is presented by lottery participation.  The universe is so large that anything of such outsized proportions is, possibly, quite improbable.  The lotto gives me the only chance to actually participate in such improbability.  And, for only $4.00 per week. The rest of the universe is inconceivably large and its workings are beyond any influence from me, do I have a gravitational field?  No, I don't.  .   

Apr 2, 2012 11:27PM
do you mean to say that the stock market is not gambling as well, and quite frankly it also offers no control on your investment and a pretty good chance to lose just as well
Mar 29, 2012 9:15PM
I must say,being a formal gambleholic,myself,that the lottery in general is a pipe dream.I won't even THINK about playing unless the payoff "strips" the odds(over 177,000,000 to 1)which currently,it is.Therefore,I'll flip a few bucks for the ONLY reason that SOMEONE,SOMEWHERE will have to win it,however,I'm also a realist,and won't jump off a bridge if I lose,but I WILL be happy for the one person who BEAT the odds!
        As for gambling,itself,I used to do very well at blackjack tables.Trouble is,no gambler can ever TELL you exactly how MUCH you'll win,so what happens?A lot of the time,I'll "miss" my last top-out bet,and,yes,the Casino will take a lot of it back,if not all of it.My advice?If you have a stable financial head on your shoulders,make the bills on time,and don';t have a heavy debt load,stay away from gambling,because you already know what you're doing,and you're AHEAD of the game!:)

Mar 30, 2012 8:19PM
Speaking as a mathematician you really don't know what you are talking about. While playing the lottery most of the time is unbelievably stupid with the current pot it is actually a good idea. Or as a mathematician would say: in this situation the expected value of your $1 is actually greater than a $1, so stupid it ain't.

Apr 2, 2012 1:57PM

What people tend to forget is that the larger the lottery, the more people bet on it, which dramatically increases the odds that you will be splitting the jackpot with others who have the same ticket numbers. 


So in essence, the lottery is really smaller than advertised, statistically speaking that is.

Mar 30, 2012 4:50PM

I would keep 100 millions for myself and the rest is for taxes and for other people including the homeless but they have to work hard to earn it.. No give away and I mean it.

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