Sunday, April 1, 2012

Life After Lottery Letdown

If I Could Have One Wish . . .

Right now Sunday morning is dawning across America.  Tens of millions of citizens (and illegal aliens) are still recovering from the fact that they did not hold one of the winning tickets in this past week’s Mega-Millions lottery.  Three tickets will split the jackpot that finally reached 640 million dollars; that is $640,000,000.00 nearly two-thirds of a billion dollars.  Who wouldn’t want a piece of that – or all of it?

Of course, the sobering reality is the real chances of hitting the winning combination are ridiculously small. The fact that three tickets did seems to fly in the face of statistics, but they don’t.  Mathematicians who created the game give the odds of winning as 1:176 million.  As the pot was over three times that size it almost works out to the three winning tickets.  Nicely done, government bean-counters, nicely done.

Meanwhile the many millions of us who did not win return to our normal lives, somewhat deflated after inflated expectations.  It was hard not to catch “Lotto Fever.” Instead of covering the high gas prices, the Iranian nuclear program, the impending Israeli raid to stop such, the latest Muslim terrorist attacks, the Republican primary and the myriad of other important news items, the mainstream media spent as much as a third of their daily programming talking about this lottery.

I watched the talking heads muse about what they would do with the money.  They chatted about it as they broke for every commercial, dragged the sports and weather personalities into it on their segments, and called in lottery winners, psychologists and statisticians.  It was a full court press like as reserved for major war stories, hurricanes and elections that matter.  No wonder the lottery was on everyone’s mind.

Now back to reality.

“All you need is a dollar and a dream.”

That’s how the lottery is sold in many states.  Who doesn’t have the occasional dollar to spare?  When you get change at the convenience store, it is very tempting to try one’s luck with a ticket or two, maybe a scratch off; hey, somebody has to win, it might be you!  Are you feeling lucky?

Everybody has a dream of how they would spend so much money but the dreams of normal people are inadequate to the task. Consider that each winning ticket will actually be worth only 150 million in lump sum payouts. After Uncle Sam dips his monstrous hands in the pot (again) you will be left with 100 of the 640 million that had you panting breathless Saturday morning – a big step down.  But still it is more money than you and likely everyone you know have ever held in the totality of their lives. And it’s all yours.  Now what?

You can’t spend that kind of money

You can blow through that money, many lottery winners end up broke in a few years with nothing much to show for their winnings, but people of our level cannot spend that kind of money properly.

Back in the 80’s I did this experiment with a shipmate on the ENTERPRISE.  Earvin “Magic” Johnson had just signed a 40 million dollar endorsement contract and my fellow sailors were alternately complaining and dreaming about what that must be like.  I told them, “You can’t spend that kind of money.”

After the protests died down I took out a piece of paper and began to ask specific questions; what would you do with that kind of money.  I listed each purchase a person had.  House, car, bills paid off; the usual things people say when asked on television after a big win. But be specific; what kind of car, how big a house, where are you going to build?  Gifts for mom and dad, share with the siblings – yeah I wrote those down too.

Some big numbers piled up.  We moved into extravagances like jewelry and luxury travel while the big house was under construction.  The Riviera is nice in the spring.  First class tickets and beach front rentals are not cheap.  Eventually that first year winds down and you want to settle into something a little more normal, so you go home.

I totaled up the bills from that big blowout and it came to 2.5 million or less for everyone!  My estimate still holds true today.  A money manager who advises those who are suddenly rich from the lottery or a big athletic contract to take three million in “mad money” and go do their dreams and leave the rest to start working for them.  Thirty years later, just three million can cover the average person’s dreams.  Bill Gates can burn that much money every day of his life and the fire would never go out.

You Can’t Go Home Again

But home isn’t what it once was.  Your friends still have money problems and you want to be generous but you start to feel taken advantage of.  Eventually, money envy turns into resentment.  People think you just got lucky (which is true) and you are no more deserving of such wealth than they are.  One thing the money did for you quickly was reveal who are your real friends. It’s time to move into your new home – and get an unlisted number.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though.  You can find friends with approximately the same standard of living you now possess in your new neighborhood.  And you don’t have to fear bills coming in for a few years – if you are handling your money properly.  Taxes won’t even scare you.

In the long run money in any amount cannot make you happy.  A pundit once opined that big money only makes you more of what you are.  If you are a jerk, you will just become a rich jerk with enough money to be a more noticeable jerk.

But a wise person will still be wise no matter the balance of their bank account.  A fool goes broke in a few years, a wise person does all he or she wants to do in their lifetime and leaves an inheritance to their children.

I didn’t play the lottery.  I don’t play no matter how big the pot gets because I can do Math.  I prefer to work for what I get and, being a Christian, I prefer the odds I get investing my spare dollars in God as opposed to a government run lottery.

But I still dream of a life different from my own. A nice house in the country, a couple of new cars paid off.  I will get them, too.  It will come through effort, through training myself and disciplined investing of time, money and faith, and possibly a little luck.  But I like my odds.

No need to worry about Magic Johnson either. He didn’t win the lottery – except the genetic lottery that made him freakishly tall and talented – but he also got where he is today through hard work, careful investing and wise spending.  Even the rich have dreams.

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