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Lose Your Retirement in the Mail

Last month in Sweden, a postcard sent from one friend to another finally arrived at its destination just 90 miles away ... 50 years after it was mailed. Inscribed was the number of a lottery ticket that the friends had purchased together.

The Reuters story said that the ticket's value had not yet been determined, but if this were a Steven Spielberg movie, the facts thus far would barely get us through the opening credits.

This being reality, however, it's pretty safe to say that what we have here is an amusing anecdote about snail mail and a worthless lottery number.

Roll closing credits.

Just the ticket
Every day, millions of Americans go through a feature film length's arc of emotion within the time it takes to park their car, pay the cashier, scratch off the foil, and toss the crumbled lottery stub in the trash.

Anticipation ("This might be the day"), buildup ("Just two more to scratch and match..."), anti-climax ("Bust, again?!"), and denouement ("Guess I better head back to work.") -- craving buttered popcorn and Twizzlers yet?

We poked fun at the lottery earlier this year when we launched The Motley Fool's FOOLottery! with great fanfare on April 1. We had the gall to suggest that buying tickets was like purchasing insurance for your retirement. "Pick! Click! Retire!" was one of our taglines.

It's the kind of joke that should make real-life lottery officials squirm. The way they peddle hope is not so different: "You can't win if you don't play," they say. (Ironically, the truth about the lottery system is succinctly put in the first three words.)

At least our game was an April Fool's Day prank. In real life, it's the most vulnerable consumers who are being encouraged to gamble away their paychecks. Less than one-quarter of the population buys nearly three-quarters of all the tickets. One lottery ticket a day is one too many. But if you spend any time in a convenience store catching up on your tabloid reading, you can observe that one ticket for most isn't enough. Things can turn south quick for a few of the most vulnerable. You know what they say -- one is too many, and a hundred is never enough...

With every scratch-off, pick three, take five, etc., the average player gets hammered by a 50% loss of capital. Multiply that by every ticket every day of the year, and the net result for 99.99% of the players is mounting losses, which can demolish hopes of a comfortable financial life.

Too melodramatic? Here's the math: A 50% payback rate will turn $20 million wagered daily in the state lottery into fewer than two cents within 30 days.

Cue the violins. For real.

And the Oscar goes to...
The 50-year-old postcard from Sweden may be worthless, but had it been an envelope with a stock certificate ... well, this story would be far from over. True wealth is built over time, not in the seconds it takes to frantically pick random numbers.

There was no race of emotions and quick letdown for Russ MacDonald when his grandfather gave him 100 shares of Standard Oil (now ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) ) in 1957. Over five decades, those shares blossomed, split 2-for-1 five times, and eventually enabled Russ to retire early and pursue his dream profession. (Read the entire story here.)

Before lotto mania, microwave meals, speed-dating, and day trading, there were generations that valued patience. Schoolchildren would gather signs of their time -- cans of the soup they ate; the newspapers they read; the 78s, LPs, or eight-tracks they listened to -- and put them into time capsules for future generations to uncover.

Who knows how many metal tins are buried under strip malls and fast-food drive-throughs? Ultimately, it doesn't matter, because the most important lesson these kids of old could teach us is that patience is a virtue, and that you won't find in any time capsule.

The end.

Need some advice on winning the lottery of life -- a.k.a. retirement? Whether you're five years or 50 years away, we can help you make the most of what time and money you've got. Kick the tires on afree one-month trialtoour Rule Your Retirement newsletter service. You'll get full access to everything we've ever published on the topic. There's never an obligation to subscribe. To get started, point and clickhere.

Dayana Yochimowns none of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool'sdisclosure policyis one for the ages.


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