Why People Play the Lottery … and What To Do Instead

I once held a $200,000 lottery ticket.

It was many years ago. A friend of mine ran a work pool that would regularly buy Powerball tickets … and one time, one of the group’s tickets matched 5 numbers in the Powerball lottery. At the time, the payout was $200,000. When he told me this story, I asked if I could see the ticket.

I think, in my mind, that I expected it to float or levitate or something. Instead, it was just your garden variety paper lottery ticket, only those numbers signified winning a lot of money. Or, at least, a lot of money on the outside. Once the money was split and taxes paid, each winner for that ticket took home somewhere on the order of about $6,000.

My friend, like many lottery players, has played the lottery for years, which means it’s possible he’s paid out more in lottery tickets than he’s made in lottery earnings. Nevertheless, he, like so many others, continues to play. In fact, when jackpots start to get into the hundreds of millions — or even billions — the number of people playing jumps exponentially. Any gas station attendant will tell you that there is no frenzy like a lotto frenzy. I personally know people who almost never play the lottery, but they will when the numbers get really big.

Because, they say, “someone has to win.”

Why People Play

Lotteries come in all shapes and sizes, from cheap scratch-offs to multi-million jackpots, so the reasons people approach different lotteries may vary a little. But, in general, there are two major reasons why people play the lottery.

The hope of making money. This is the obvious reason. Everyone holds to the hope of an early retirement and the rest of one’s life spent on the beach. Some friends of mine, in fact, will jokingly (I think) refer to their lottery pool as a “retirement fund.” Even with remote odds, that pile of cash is so tangible people can practically see it. And, chances are, just about every lottery player has given at least some thought to how they’d like to spend it.

Entertainment. This is an often overlooked reason why people play. Sure, all lottery winners play — especially the big games — in hope of hitting the jackpot, but for a lot of players, there is also an element of entertainment and fun that comes from lottery playing, whether it be the ritual of scratching off a smaller ticket or staying up to watch the winning Powerball numbers. Just like Christmas presents, the real excitement of lottery playing can come not from winning or (more likely) not winning, but from the anticipation that comes as players wait to see what happens.

What Can Go Wrong

Life is full of trade-offs, and playing the lottery is one of them. There are several things that could go wrong, but here are two of them:

Players could lose. This probably doesn’t come as much surprise to anyone but, statistically, a person’s odds of winning a lottery are low. Even for a simple pick three style lottery, the odds are 1 in 1,000, or one tenth of one percent. To put that into context, a person is about as likely to win a pick three lottery as they are to die from drowning. And for higher-stakes lotteries, the odds are even more remote: the odds in Powerball are just over 1 in 292 million. Contrast that with the 1 in 1.6 million odds of being killed by a meteorite in your lifetime. That means that a person playing the lottery is almost sure to lose money; how much money that is depends on how consistently they play.

Players could win. This one might come as a little bit more of a surprise, but the only bigger curse than losing the lottery is winning it. Astoundingly, some 70% of big-ticket lottery winners go bankrupt, and stories abound of winners who suffer from depression and other mental health issues. More than a few winners have indicated that they wish they’d never won. It doesn’t help that, in the case of the big prize lotteries, most states require players to be publicly identified, which leads to all sorts of potentially wild and awful problems, even for relatively smaller winnings.

Alternatives to the Lottery

There is no shortage of ways to spend money outside the lottery, and some of those ways can even be a lot of fun. Here are some ways you can spend your money instead:

  • Invest in the stock market.* The stock market has its share of risks, but stocks and mutual funds are a way to spend money that, statistically speaking, is significantly more likely to pay out over the long term than the lottery. For example, a low-cost S&P 500 index fund tends to perform pretty well over time. Not only could this potentially yield some returns, but some people find tracking the progress of stocks to be entertaining.
  • Put more money into a retirement fund. If you have an existing 401(k), 403(b), IRA, or the like, you might take that money you would have spent on the lottery and put it toward your future self. That’s probably not as exciting as playing a scratch-off ticket, but it will give you more opportunities to sit on the beach when you’re older.
  • Play games, video or otherwise. If the thrill of the game is what you seek, there are plenty of ways to get that thrill without shelling out money for the lottery. Whether it’s free or cheap games on a phone or computer, or a good old-fashioned board game, recreating the anticipation of a scratch-off ticket isn’t hard to find.
  • Treat yourself … and maybe donate to a charity at the same time. Instead of buying a lottery ticket, you might save your unspent lottery ticket money and spend it on something fun, like some item you’ve always wanted or a dinner out. In some cases, that can even benefit others: through Amazon’s AmazonSmile program, a portion of your spending goes toward a charity of your choice.

* Disclaimer: I’m no stock expert. Talk to a professional if you decide to invest in the stock market.


Thoughts? I’d love to hear your them in the comments.

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