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Rats, I Won the Lottery!

(Consider sending this article to a friend or two, to warn them of the incredible danger that they may be in. Click on the "Email this page" link at the bottom of the article.)

Who among us hasn't dreamed of winning a lottery jackpot? I certainly have. (But my dreams remind me of that old joke, where the punch line, exclaimed by God, goes something like this: "But meet me halfway -- buy a ticket!")

Most of us think of winning the lottery as a good thing. We see it as an answer to many of our prayers. It can ensure that Junior gets to go to the college of his choice. (Though read through our College Savings Center and you'll discover that there are ways for almost any American to pay for an education at almost any college, with a little planning.) Winning the lottery might secure us a comfortable retirement, too. (Though, again, this too is within your grasp without your needing to pray for miracles. Let a free sample issue of our Rule Your Retirement newsletter show you how.)

I hereby suggest to you, though, that winning the lottery is a bad thing. A very regrettable development. An event you should strenuously avoid at all costs. Don't believe me, though. I haven't had the misfortune of winning a lottery and being able to relate to you my grisly first-hand experience. (Phew! Dodged a bullet there.)

Lottery winners. or losers
Instead, learn from some people who have actually won lotteries. Here are a few, courtesy of Bankrate.com:

  • Evelyn Adams, something of a statistical freak, won the New Jersey lottery twice, in 1985 and 1986. (Notice that she hasn't won lately? She must have learned something and stopped playing.) Her total take was $5.4 million. What does she have to show for it now? Zippo. She lives in a trailer and recounts that, "Everybody wanted my money. Everybody had their hand out." Her own hand was out, too, at gambling venues.

  • In 1988, William "Bud" Post won $16.2 million in the Pennsylvania lottery. Says the man who, after declaring bankruptcy, now lives on Social Security and food stamps: "I wish it never happened. It was totally a nightmare." (These quotations are real.)

  • Willie Hurt won $3.1 million in 1989. "Two years later he was broke and charged with murder. His lawyer says Hurt spent his fortune on a divorce and crack cocaine."

  • Janite Lee was unlucky enough to win an $18 million jackpot in 1993. She shared her wealth with many charitable organizations, but before a decade had passed, she had filed for bankruptcy and had just $700 in the bank.

Do these folks sound like members of a club you'd like to join? These aren't even the only examples. After I wrote an article in December about a bankrupt man who won a lottery, a reader wrote to tell me about two other winners:

"The first (story) is about Jack Whittaker, who won the largest undivided jackpot in U.S. history. Since then he's been robbed numerous times, arrested twice for drunken driving, pleaded 'no contest' to a misdemeanor assault charge, and faces other legal trouble. This is in addition to the predictable line-up of people looking for a handout. His wife wishes she would have torn the ticket up.

"The second story is about a Portuguese textile worker (Domingos Oliveira) who says that his life has become hellish since his big win. His family has been on the run since he won, trying to avoid calls from friends and relatives and fearing a kidnapping attempt. 'It was always my dream to have so much money. But in these past few weeks I have told myself that I prefer my old life.'"

See? Winning a lottery is something you should only wish upon your enemies. Instead of using curses such as, "May the sweat of a thousand camels infest your armpits," try: "May you win the lottery -- and I mean a big jackpot!" That should give you some satisfaction, no?

What happens when you win
When you win the lottery, you get a lot of money. Fine. But some other things happen, too. Friends and relatives come out of the woodwork -- hinting at, asking for, or demanding money. Even acquaintances may have their hands out. Some people sue you in the hope of getting some of your moolah. Other people want you to be their business partner in some wacky new ventures. Some loved ones may even suddenly start thinking of sending you to the great convenience store in the sky so that they might inherit your fortune. (These things have really happened.)

Perhaps most troubling is that your relationships with many of your loved ones changes. In the back of your mind or theirs will always be the fact that you're suddenly wealthy and they're not. It's just human nature, isn't it, for them to be jealous and perhaps even resentful? When you meet new people, if they're aware of your good fortune, you'll never know whether they're interested in you or your money. These headaches may seem worth it, in light of your riches, but to many people, they prove to not be worth it.

Good news.
Here's some very good news, though: The odds that you'll win the lottery are remote. Very, very remote. Want to know how remote? Well, consider this striking example from a Bankrate.com article that describes 1-in-80 million odds, which are not far from typical in lotteries:

"'Suppose you have one friend in Canada. If you put the names of everyone in Canada in a hat and draw one name at random, you are 2.5 times more likely to draw your friend's name than you are to win the Big Game,' according to Cal State-Hayward statistics professor Michael Orkin."

The bottom line is that you probably won't win the lottery.

And bad news.
Still, though, fate spits on a few people each year, and they win a jackpot.

In Scientific American, Michael Shermer explained that, ".a principle of probability called the Law of Large Numbers shows that an event with a low probability of occurrence in a small number of trials has a high probability of occurrence in a large number of trials. Events with million-to-one odds happen 295 times a day in America." Yikes!

Perhaps, instead of betting on 1-in-80 million odds, you might invest in some shares of companies that can much more reliably, and safely, reward you. Hidden Gems pick Fresh Del Monte (NYSE: FDP  ) , for example, even has fewer than 80 million shares, as do Inside Value pick MasoniteInternational (NYSE: MHM  ) and Income Investor pick Snap-On (NYSE: SNA  ) . Of course, the number of shares shouldn't be a major factor when you select a stock, and our newsletter analysts focus on much more critical numbers. But back to our new enemy, the lottery jackpot.

Prepare to win the lottery, anyway
If you're now kicking yourself for having bought some lottery tickets, I don't blame you one bit. If I had an outstanding lottery ticket in my pocket right now, I'd be quaking in my boots. Make the most of this dangerous situation, though, and prepare yourself. Here are some steps you can take to minimize the damage:

  • First off, stop buying tickets! Or at the very least, rein in your habit so that it's merely an occasional recreation -- perhaps a ticket or two per month.

  • Next, don't move to Rhode Island. It has the ignominious honor of being the state that spends the most per capita on state lotteries and gambling, averaging $1,195 per person per year. Just think about that -- that's about $100 per month. Invest $1,000 per year in the stock market instead and you'll be pretty much assured that over the long run, you should lose little to no money and are rather likely to increase your wealth -- quietly.

  • Get all your financial ducks in a row. Become savvy about money, so that if you suddenly end up with thousands or millions, you'll make smart decisions. Let us help, with our new Rule Your Retirement newsletter. It's short, readable, and full of valuable advice. We're even offering a free sample issue of it -- so you have little to lose (unlike when you win a lottery).

  • Don't make common mistakes. If you take the winnings not as a lump sum but as, perhaps, $100,000 per year, don't think of yourself as a millionaire -- yet. You're still just a thousandaire. Don't spend more than you can afford. Don't spread yourself too thin. Don't fail to sock some (or a lot) of the money away, for your future needs. Don't act too quickly. Giving away money to charity is good, but don't do so before you take the time to learn about lots of charities and evaluate them and their effectiveness, and decide which ones you want to focus on. Most lottery winners can't afford to do everything they might dream of. You'll still have to make choices.

You can continue to prepare for the worst by reading a few more articles:

Selena Maranjian's favorite discussion boards includeBook Club, The Eclectic Library and Card & Board Games. She owns shares of no companies mentioned in this article. For more about Selena, viewher bio and her profile. You might also be interested in these books she has written or co-written:The Motley Fool Money GuideandThe Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.


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Selena Maranjian
TMFSelena

Selena Maranjian has been writing for the Fool since 1996 and covers basic investing and personal finance topics. She also prepares the Fool's syndicated newspaper column and has written or co-written a number of Fool books. For more financial and non-financial fare (as well as silly things), follow her on Twitter...

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