Should You Really Expect To Get Rich By Winning The Lottery?

At my office, whenever the New Jersey lottery reaches a certain point, many of my co-workers start climbing over each other to pool their money in order to buy tickets. From the Department Head on down, the flames of hope are fanned once again by dreams of riches.

Last year, my wife wanted to take the children to Sesame Place. We stopped at 7/11 to withdraw cash for the day, and I decided to get a bottle of water for the drive. I had to wait for more than 10 minutes at the counter behind a woman purchasing more than $40 in lottery tickets while my wife and kids sat in the car. 

My spam folder on gmail is filled with (aside from Viagra spam and promises of cheap software) notifications that I have won the UK lottery, the Yahoo! lottery, the Microsoft lottery, and so many other lotteries. I recently got a notification that I won a bunch of money for one reason or another from Coca-cola.

What is there about the lottery that keeps people coming back over and over and over again despite the fact that the odds of them winning are actually smaller than the odds of them growing wealthy through their own hard work and creativity? I’ve never really paid much attention to the lottery, even though during my late teen years and early twenties most states began to legalize lotteries. I can remember stories of how the state often got the lottery approved by promising that proceeds would benefit education, while raiding that same educational fund to get the lottery started. While in the Navy, I spent a few months working with a group in Supply led by a Senior Chief (E-8) who read a story about a group of people in the Midwest who all got laid off from their jobs, but won the lottery. He appointed a "Lottery Petty Officer" who had the duty of collecting a dollar every week from each member of the team and buying lottery tickets for us. Obviously, this got us nowhere.

Even before I became a Christian, I was personally opposed to the lottery. Perhaps I have inherited my dad’s cynicism, but I mostly see the lottery as a voluntary tax on people who are either greedy, poor at math, or oblivious to probability. At work, whenever the pot of the New Jersey Lottery gets big enough to attract the attention of my coworkers, I always kid them about lining up to pay tax again. I’ve started telling them that in the time I’ve worked here, they’ve spent enough money in lottery tickets to have funded me in a startup that may have made us all more money by now.

If you want to play the lottery, by all means, go ahead.  Don’t let me stop you.

When I became a Christian, I found a verse that pretty much cinched the lottery for me. I consider this my own conviction; I know Christians who play the lottery and I have once or twice bought my wife a $1 scratch off that looked interesting. I was reading in Exodus about how, when Moses was on the mountain for so long, the people went to Aaron, who made them a golden calf. Aaron said:

Exd 32:4 And he received [them] at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These [be] thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. 

God was, understandably, angry with the people. He had delivered them from Egypt, and here they go making an idol and ascribing His miracles to that idol. That’s the meaning of idolatry, by the way, when we try to represent God with am image from His creation and give the credit for His work to that idol. I’m not sure why that jumped out to me, but when I think of the lottery, I think of "Here, O Eric, is the god who will provide for your family". And so, with that thought, I leave the lottery alone. 

Let’s explore a few issues related to the lottery, and why I don’t play the lottery. I would have an easy time writing off people who play the lottery as lazy or full of wishful thinking, but somehow I don’t think that explains it. I had an interesting conversation with one of my coworkers a few weeks ago which inspired this post. I brought up a few points I have picked up over the years about lottery winners, and during the conversation something occurred to me. 

Lottery winners are often unprepared for the immense wealth and popularity they suddenly achieve.

Robert Kyosaki, in his book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, mentions that there are things the rich teach their children that the poor and middle class do not. I admit that there are some problems with that book, the most obvious of which is that Mr. Kyosaki tells you just enough to get really excited without actually giving you any substantial information, but that is true for just about all "success literature". One thing that really stood out to me,  however, has to do with mentality. I grew up in an Air Force family. We lived in base housing until I was 11 when we moved to Texas and rented a house. I can remember hearing my mom constantly say "We can’t afford that" when I asked for anything, be it school clothes or a new toy. One thing in Rich Dad, Poor Dad that really jumped out at me is that "I can’t afford this" is the wrong mentality. The proper thought should be "How can I afford this?", or at the very least "Would this be a wise purchase?" (my own thinking). However, having been raised with the "I can’t afford this" mentality, I often simply respond to the thoughts of anything I want or my wife wants with that statement, whether there is any truth to it at all.

I remember as a young, broke sailor, one of the most important things to me was to have my own transportation, and I paid through the nose for it. I had a 1990 Mazda B2200 pickup truck, and the insurance to show for it. At one point, when I was stationed at Great Lakes Naval Training Center outside Chicago, my car insurance was so high that between payment and insurance, I had only enough money each paycheck for a tank of gas a week and toiletries. That was it. If I went anywhere, it was often because somebody else wanted off the base so badly that they were willing to pay my way so I would drive. I remember asking some of the drunks how they could afford to spend so much money on beer every night. One of them gave me the most honest answer possible: "It’s what’s important to us". To me, having that truck and the ability to drive myself off base was important. To them, drinking every night was important. Later on, when I started getting interested in computers, somebody asked me how I could afford to upgrade every couple of months when a new processor came out. My answer? "It’s what’s important to me." Time and money are often spent on what we value whether we realize it or not, which is why (and I’ll get to this later) we should sit down and define what exactly it is that we value. I should do another post on that.

In any case, most lottery winners are ill prepared by upbringing or life experiences to handle the sudden wealth. Some succumb to the constant requests for money, others simply blow it all. Most lottery winners end up worse off after having won than before. Many of their families are torn apart in the process. For once in my life, I decided to perform some brief research for one of my blog posts. Here is a story about 8 lottery winners, and here is an ABC News story Curse of the Lottery Winners. Although these stories may or may not be typical of all lottery winners, they do have a common thread.

What exactly does "rich" mean?

Everybody seems to hate "the rich", and yet that word is often thrown around as an abstract, subjective term. Everybody hates "the rich", yet everybody wants to be "rich". I would like to suggest that what "rich" means may be different to each of us. This comes back to defining values. "Rich" seems to have to do with a large house, fancy cars, lots of toys, and oh, yeah, of course doing something noble like paying off mom and dad’s mortgage or as my wife said the other night while discussing this issue "we could give 20% to the church!" Most of us know, at least on the lowest level that we may never think about, that toys and things never really satisfy us. I could get a brand new Pocket PC tonight, and be mostly bored with it in less than a week, lusting after some newer model. Can you tell me how much money you would need to be "happy"? Now, please don’t get me wrong; I do not believe even as a Christian that we should all sit around in pious misery and poverty. That is not the message of Scripture at all, even though through the centuries it seems to have been believed by many groups. I want to have nice things myself. I’d love to have a larger house, a newer car, a more powerful laptop, a flat screen HDTV. That would be great. None of it would make me happy (for long), but I’d still love to have them.

What are we teaching our children?

While my wife and I were out the other night, I shared with her that I was writing this entry. We got to talking about the lottery. She shared some dreams that she had if she won (although she does honor my request not to spend money on lottery tickets). Her thoughts were pretty much what I said earlier "pay off our house, our parents houses, give 20% to the church…" I asked her "Why does it have to be the lottery though?" What is so great about the lottery? I asked her what message we would be sending to our children to bank our hopes on one lucky ticket. What message would we be sending, by extension, to the children in our church and community? I asked her, what if I wrote a book that became a best seller and we became wealthy that way? What if through hard work and advancement, I was asked to serve on the board of a major corporation? What if I wrote a highly successful software program (unlikely; I don’t like to code)? What if my blog became a successful web destination and brought in plenty of advertising revenue? What if I became a highly successful IT consultant? What’s wrong with us banking our hopes on defining our values and then working toward those values together? To me, that sends a much stronger message to our children. I decided right then and that that I don’t want to win the lottery, so if you are buying tickets, you don’t have to worry about me adding any more odds against you winning it.

So, what does "rich" mean to you?

Before you buy your next lottery ticket, spend some time thinking about what your values are. Be honest with yourself. If your top values is getting drunk every night, then by all means, be true to yourself. But if your top value is something else, and you’re not living up to it, then I’d like to ask you to consider a change in course. This isn’t easy at all to do. I’ve been working on my values for over a decade, since I bought my Franklin Planner and Hyrum Smith’s book The 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management back in 1996. There are all kinds of ways to sort out your values. I ultimately found a tool on Franklin Covey’s website useful for defining my values. ThinkTQ has some interesting resources as well. You may try a brainstorming session. I’m sure there are plenty of other resources to help you with this. After you’ve defined your values, then think about where you want to go in life. What is important to you? What do you want to be when you grow up? Begin to set some goals. Is the mansion really what you want in life, or would you like a Victorian style home in a certain city? Would you like to live in the mountains? What
kind of car do you want to drive? Work on your vision. Don’t worry about being "practical" on vision, just see how you want things to end up. Take your time on this because this is important. I have a mind map I’ve been working on for months with my vision. Remember:

Pro 29:18 Where [there is] no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy [is] he.

Once you have your vision, values, and some goals worked out, then get to work on them. Trust me, this will take you much farther than a weekly trip to 7/11 to buy a lottery ticket ever will.

If you’ve read this far and you think I’m full of it, by all means, continue your surfing somewhere else and good luck on your next trip to the lottery ticket selling destination of your choice. If I’ve struck a chord with you, then join me in working to achieve wealth not by random chance, but by God’s grace and our work. Let’s try to add some value to the world rather than fill the world with mindless greed.


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One Response

  1. […] of my favorite questions so far have to do with should you really expect to get rich by winning the lottery, does watching TV really cause short attention spans, and is the Internet doing something to our […]

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