Many people, including myself, have day dreamed of the financial windfall that comes from a lottery win. I have had many acquaintances tell me all about their planned purchases and vacation plans following their upcoming lottery jackpot.
While the largest lottery jackpots often attract the most entries, they often have the longest odds. But with numbers this size, it can be hard to wrap your head around the odds, and know which games offer the best chances of winning.
I should note that of all the people that have expressed in detail how they plan on spending their millions, every one of them is still waiting for that day.
Understanding the Odds
According to USC mathematics professor Kenneth Alexander, it does not make financial sense to play the lottery.
He explains that people who play should use it as entertainment only, spending the $2 to get that feeling that you could hypothetically win. The odds are against you that you’ll actually win, but plenty of lottery fans are willing to spend $2 on the fantasy.
But if you are going to play, what are the odds?
If you play the Powerball lottery, you’ll need to match five numbers plus the Powerball to win the jackpot. The odds of scooping the grand prize are 1 in 292,201,338.
The overall odds of winning a prize are 1 in 24.87, so for smaller cash prizes the odds are a lot better.
Mega Millions odds are even tougher to beat, at 1 in 302,575,350. Just to put that in perspective: the odds of getting hit by lightning are 1 in 700,000 while the odds of getting dealt a Royal Flush are 1 in 649,740.
So, let that sink in before you take a second mortgage and come home with a wheelbarrow full of the tiny slips.
The odds are so tough to beat that buying more tickets really doesn’t help.
I’ll see if this puts it into a clearer perspective; my favorite description of Powerball odds is that if you’d been buying 1,800 tickets per week since the time of Jesus, there’s a better-than-even chance you wouldn’t have won the jackpot yet.
Lotteries That Offer Better Odds of Winning
So, if the odds of winning Powerball are that tricky, which lotteries should you play if you actually want to win?
The experts say that you players looking to win should stick with pick-3 or pick-4 games that are only offered to in-state residents. The payouts may be much smaller, but your odds of winning are significantly higher.
You might only win a few hundred dollars, but at least you stand a chance to win back more than you’re spending on tickets.
Some states are more generous than others. Looking at average payout per dollar, Massachusetts state lotteries are the most generous, getting close to 80 cents. Most states range between 60-70 cents per dollar, with some falling well below that.
In fact, if you’re playing state lotteries in West Virginia, you’re looking at just 16 cents of every dollar! That said, you still have a better chance of winning a state lottery in West Virginia than a national lottery.
Another popular option are scratch offs. Because of the range of prizes awarded in scratch cards, you’ll have a 60% or higher chance to make back what you spent on the ticket. Winning a substantial prize can quickly change to 1% or less, but they still tend to payout more often.
This means that you’ll be able to play more scratch cards while staying afloat, compared to other lotteries where the odds are you’ll never recoup your ticket prices.
There are a number of ways you can improve your chances of winning scratch cards too.
Improve Your Odds With the Right Games
People talk about entering the lottery as if it were just one game, but every state has a selection of lottery games, and they each have different odds of winning.
Read the odds before you spend your money to ensure you’re maximizing your chances of winning. By picking games with better odds, you boost your chances of being a lottery winner.
Remember that lottery games like Powerball and MegaMillions are national lotteries. They have fixed odds of winning, but if many people enter, you could end up splitting a jackpot. That would lower the value of your prize.
Don’t write off scratch-off games, either. They usually offer smaller prizes but higher chances of winning overall.
Multiply Your Odds With Second Chance Games
OK, so your numbers didn’t come up in the drawing. That means it’s time to toss your lottery ticket, right?
Many lotteries offer second-chance drawings on non-winning tickets. Fill out the form on the back, send it in, and you’ll have a bonus chance to be a winner.
On June 8, 2010, a woman in Kentucky reported a big lottery win. She didn’t win because of the numbers she played when she bought the ticket, but because she entered the second-chance game in the Kentucky Lottery.
Her name was randomly drawn as the second-chance winner, and she took home $120,610.70 after taxes.
So, I encourage you to not give up just because you didn’t win the first time. If your lottery game includes a second-chance drawing, entering could be your ticket to winning.
Beware of Lottery Scams
Unfortunately, many scammers try to take advantage of people’s dreams of winning the lottery. Here are a few tips to protect yourself and avoid lottery scams:
- Only buy tickets from authorized lottery retailers.
- It’s not legal to sell lottery tickets across national borders. You can usually buy tickets if you are located in the country, but offers to sell international lottery tickets by mail or online are usually illegal.
- If you didn’t buy a lottery ticket or participate in a second-chance lottery game, you didn’t win.
- The lottery doesn’t notify you when you win; you are responsible for checking your winning tickets.
- You’re never required to pay money up-front to receive a winning lottery prize.
The Largest Lottery Wins in History
Even though the odds are astronomical, the biggest gambling wins in history come from games like Powerball and Mega Millions. In May 2013, a Florida woman won a jackpot worth about $590 million, which at the time was the biggest jackpot won by a single person.
It’s important to note the number of winners for these prizes. For example, in December 2013, there was a winner in Georgia and California for the $648 million Mega Millions. Both opted for the lump sum payout, getting $173 million each.
After winning the $758.7 million Powerball jackpot in August 2017, the single winner quit her job and took the lump sum payout of $480.5 million before taxes. When the Powerball hit $1.586 billion in January 2016, three winning tickets were sold, which meant they each got about $327.8 million as the pre-tax lump sum.
But the research shows that the fantasy of winning is often way better than the reality. For many, the lottery makes lives worse instead of better.
About 70% of people who receive a cash windfall lose it within a few years. Beyond blowing it on frivolous things, many winners end up getting cheated out of cash or losing loved ones.
Don’t Miss a Lottery Win!
Even worse than never winning at all perhaps are those who misplace winning tickets.
Imagine winning a big jackpot, but missing out on your money because you forgot to double-check your numbers. It happens more often than you think.
One MegaMillions lottery ticket worth nearly $300,000 was never claimed. Somewhere out there, there’s someone with no idea that they won, and lost, a huge prize. Don’t let that happen to you.
When you buy a lottery ticket, keep it somewhere where you can find it again easily. Jot down the drawing date and time in your calendar if you’re afraid you might forget it.
Check the numbers against your ticket, and double-check them, just to be sure. Also, make sure that you are looking at the numbers for the correct date.
Some people like to have convenience store clerks verify their tickets to be sure they don’t make a mistake while checking their numbers. Another option is to use a lottery app to help you keep track of the drawings.
The Best Advice if You Win?
Hire a financial planner and accountant to help you manage your money for the future.
Also, if you live somewhere that allows you to stay anonymous, that’s probably best, unless you want to spend the rest of your life fighting off friends and acquaintances asking you for cash.
I have not purchased a lottery ticket in a couple of years. While the fantasy of striking it rich can be a fun distraction, I’ve decided I prefer the simpler life.
I take pleasure in picking up my own dry cleaning and I don’t have much use for a fleet of supercars anyway.
For me, removing the complications of what would come with actually winning and focusing on what I have today has made me much happier.
Having said that, I would not discourage anyone with a few dollars to spare from giving it a go with a local or online lottery. Just understand, you’re almost certainly not going to win.
So, enjoy dreaming of kicking back in luxury on your mega-yacht or visiting your summer home in Italy. Just don’t go broke chasing your lavish dreams. Gamble on.
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