Dreaming of Mega Millions

Michelle Singletary
Columnist March 30, 2012

We played.

My husband and I decided to do a financially unwise thing and take a chance at winning the $640 million dollar Mega Millions lottery. It’s not a smart use of even a dollar because the odds of winning are, well, astronomical -- 1 in 176 million. Still I understand the lottery fever, especially in an economy that has whacked around so many people.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

We don’t typically play the lottery and in the past have only done so as a lark, throwing common sense to the wind for a chance to dream. During one dinner this week, we joked with our children that we might buy a ticket or two for the Mega Millions. After briefly lecturing them on why playing the lottery is not something they generally should do, we entertained their dreams if their parents won.

“Can we finally get a pool?” our 11-year-old asked.

She emphasized the word “finally” because we’ve wanted a pool for a long time but don’t have the cash to pay for it outright, what with contributing to an emergency fund; keeping money set aside in a “life happens” fund for the expenses that come up all the time such as car repairs; saving for our retirement; our children’s college education, and making extra mortgage payments so we can get rid of the only debt we have before we retire.

My teenage daughter, who just rolled her eyes, didn’t want to play along. She figured out we had little chance to win, so didn’t want to bother with this game. Later when I dared to ask her why she wouldn’t dream with us, she said: “Even if we did win, my lifestyle wouldn’t change to affect me because the money would be secretly put away in some savings account. I wouldn’t be showered with stuff like iPhones and iPads because you guy are super cheap and always preaching about the difference between a need and a want. So if I don’t get it now, I wouldn’t’ get much more if you won the lottery.”

She was right. I had to snicker. She huffed off as teenagers do when you ask a stupid question.

My son wanted to tell everybody and give lots of money away to help people.

We said we would tell no one. We would hire an attorney and anonymously collect our winnings under the cover of a trust. We would not take any publicity photos or announce our newfound wealth with conspicuous consumption. We might get a pool because we all love to swim and it’s good exercise. But generally no one would guess that my husband and I had struck it rich.

There are just too many examples of former lottery winners who end up losing their millions because they overspent and overindulged themselves.

I always say: How do you go broke on $200 million? You spend $201 million.

Quick money is often not a good thing for folks. Think about it. If you aren’t handling the money you have now well, getting more won’t often change that situation. Your problems just become more expensive.

Researchers have often looked at what happens to lottery winners and their money. Many go bankrupt because they are not good money managers. Others find that relationships sour when they won’t give money to family and friends to invest in businesses that are doomed to fail.

Still many people believe their best chance at increasing their net worth is hitting the lottery. About a quarter of Americans believe their best chance to accumulate wealth for retirement is by playing the lottery, not by patiently saving and investing, according to a national poll conducted many years ago by the Consumer Federation of America and Primerica. I doubt that statistic has changed much and probably many more think that way after the Great Recession.

Nonetheless, I won’t begrudge people from dreaming about winning the Mega Millions by buying a few lottery tickets. However, if you are in debt or can’t pay your bills, then playing the lottery for any amount is foolish. Keep in mind little expenditures add up.

So have a little fun and dream. But when you stop dreaming, get back to or start doing the things that give you far greater odds to accumulate wealth. Get rid of your debt, save, invest and learn the difference between a need and a want.

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