I'm not one of those financial advice people who counsel against small luxuries. Have a latte if it's an important part of your day, and find ways to save or scrimp that are less important to you.
When it comes to the lottery, however, I'm vehemently opposed to the concept. It's not that I'm anti-gambling -- I'm a blackjack fan, after all -- it's the get-rich-quick nature of buying lottery tickets that bothers me, because in so many cases it's people who aren't making any get-rich-slow plans buying the tickets.
Lottery tickets are a fantasy, not a retirement plan -- and while the actual money spent on tickets may be trivial, the thinking it often represents can be dangerous. Nearly anyone can have a better life if they work for it, but there are no shortcuts. It may be fun thinking about what you would do if you won, but the reality is that you won't, and even if you did you would end up broke.
Inside the numbers
Lottery winners end up declaring bankruptcy at a rate of roughly 70%. That happens partly due to people being unable to say no to requests for money, and partly because the person who wins the lottery was not prepared to handle their windfall.
"Studies found that instead of getting people out of financial trouble, winning the lottery got people into more trouble, since bankruptcy rates soared for lottery winners three to five years after winning," wrote economist Jay L. Zagorsky for U.S. News and World Report.
Worrying about what would happen if you win, however, is a bit like spending time thinking what it would be like being married to Brad Pitt or Jennifer Lopez -- it's technically possible, but it's not going to happen for most people.
A financial drain
The lottery dream bothers me because I grew up around the many people who worked for my family's ladder and scaffolding business in Massachusetts. These were hard workers who made a decent wage -- people who could not afford to waste money on the lottery.
The average American spends $207 on lottery tickets -- still a waste, but a more or less trivial sum. Massachusetts residents, however, spend an average of $735 annually on lottery tickets according to a study by LendEDU.
As a kid, I watched people who were already struggling to meet basic needs waste money on a losing proposition. They were all fueled by the dream, and by knowing someone who had won a decent sum (usually in the thousands) via lottery or scratch off tickets.
Nobody considered how the few dollars they spent each day added up, or what they could turn into if they invested the money in the company's 401k (which had an employer match). Playing the lottery itself wasn't the problem, it's that the people who did so often made other short-term poor financial decisions, like buying cars they couldn't afford, paying for vacations on credit cards, and generally not living within their means.
It's deeper than the lottery
Just like your latte habit does not doom you to long-term poverty, buying a lottery ticket here or there on a lark won't either. Be realistic: You won't win so you're really buying a tiny bit of entertainment. That's fine if it's something you do occasionally, or if you throw a few bucks into the office pool in order to be social. It's not OK if you're taking money away from more worthwhile spending, or if you're playing the lottery instead of having a real financial plan for your future.
The best advice is don't buy a ticket. You aren't going to win, and whoever does has a more than even chance of ending up worse off for doing so.
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