"The real chances of winning [the lottery are] akin to getting struck by lightning at the same time you're getting eaten by a shark."

-- John Oliver on Last Week Tonight, HBO

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

And yet, last week, someone did beat the odds of winning the national lottery. Self-proclaimed "America's biggest jackpot game" Mega Millions confirmed Wednesday that a shopper at a New York state Valero (NYSE:VLO) lucked into the winning numbers 09-15-24-39-41 and "Mega Ball" 01, instantly becoming the sole winner of the $326 million jackpot.

"Whoever purchased this ticket is about to have their life changed forever," said Gardner Gurney, Acting Director of New York's Division of the Lottery.

Photo: Flicker.

"Hey, you never know"
One life changed? Check. But what are the chances that it's your turn next? What are the odds that you are in line to claim Mega Millions' next big jackpot (currently estimated at $26 million)?

The bare statistical odds of winning the national lottery are grim. To be precise, experts put the chances at one in 258,890,850. But to be honest, most people probably don't see much difference between odds of "one in 258,890,850" and odds of, say "one in 112,000,000."

Fact is, most human brains probably skim right over each string of digits, translating the both formulas as "some really big number -- but hey, somebody has to win." So let's try and put these numbers in context. Here are 10 scenarios that are all each more likely to happen than the odds of you winning the national lottery:

  • Odds that you're a genius: One in 50. Mensa, the society for high-IQ individuals, requires that its members score in the top 2% of IQs.
  • Odds of getting struck by lightning at least once in your lifetime: One in 3,000, according to National Geographic.
  • Odds of becoming a millionaire in any given year: One in 492. From 2012-2013, the number of U.S. millionaires grew from 8.99 million to 9.63 million, an increase of 640,000. Out of a population of 315 million people, that works out to one in 492 Americans becoming newly minted millionaires in just one year.
  • Odds you will inherit $1 million from a relative within the next 12 months: One in 78,484. Of course, most of these folks probably had to work for their money. What if you don't want to work? Well, the population mortality rate in the U.S. is 0.815%. Apply that to 9.63 million current millionaires (and fudge the numbers a bit, because some of those inheritances get split up, and some of those millionaires are actually billionaires), and you're still about 3,300 times more likely to inherit money from a wealthy relative, than to beat the odds of winning the national lottery.
  • Suffering a pogo-stick related "incident": One in 2.5 million. In 2011, Pogo Stick distributor Bravo Sports recalled 169,000 pogo sticks from retail stores, citing a risk of breakage that could endanger consumers -- and 123 documented cases of pogo stick-related "incidents."

And now we move on to the ever popular "death-bys." Here are the odds of ...

  • Death by bee sting: One in 5.2 million. World Health Organization statistics confirm that 54 people died of bee stings in the U.S. in the year 2000.
  • Death by airplane crash: One in 11 million. Out of every 1.2 million flights, one airplane crashes in an average year. (Not all crashes are fatal, however).
  • Death by ebola: One in 15.1 million. According to NPR, the chance of an American contracting ebola in a given year is one in 13.3 million. Ebola infections are fatal 88% of the time, making the odds of death by ebola (slightly) more remote.
  • (Near-death) by shark bite: One in 87.5 million. There were 80 unprovoked shark attacks reported worldwide in 2012, out of a global population of 7 billion. Again, not all ended in death.
  • Death by vending machine: One in 112 million. From 1978-1995, deaths caused by people shaking vending machines, toppling and getting crushed by the machines, averaged 2-3 per year.

So do you remember how I said up above that the odds "one in 258,890,850" feel a lot like the odds of "one in 112,000,000"? Here's why: You're more than twice as likely to get killed by an angry and mentally unbalanced Coke machine, as to beat the odds of winning the national lottery.

Time to beat the odds
But here's the good news. Here are three ways you can be 100% certain of retiring a millionaire, no lotteries, lightning strikes, or rich relatives required. According to The Motley Fool's "What will it take to become a millionaire?" calculator, if you:

  • Invest $10,000 in the stock market at age 25, and then add $300 more to that investment every a month, then by age 65, you will retire with $1 million in the bank.
  • Want to "set it and forget it?" Simply invest $50,000 in the stock market at age 25, and you can retire at age 67 with $1 million.
  • Like the idea of guaranteed millionaire-hood, but don't have $50,000 -- or even $10,000 to invest right now? That could be even better. Start with nothing, but commit to making monthly investments of $400 from age 25 to retirement, and you can retire at age ... 64.

Mind you, every individual's situation is different. For the above scenarios, for example, I fed into our calculator assumptions that you're in the 25% tax bracket, in a state with 3% income tax, and earning only the market's long-term average of 10% annual returns. But in fact, we think you can do even better than this, retire earlier, and with much better odds those for winning the national lottery.