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5 things you shouldn’t do if you win the lottery
Most people dream of winning the lottery, but making poor choices can turn your life into a nightmare. Buzz60’s Sean Dowling has more.
One in 302,575,350. Those are the odds of winning the $970 million prize that is up for grabs during Friday’s Mega Millions drawing.
During months of build-up and the longest stretch in the game’s history without a jackpot winner, millions in smaller prizes were won as the jackpot crept up. Now it’s the third largest prize in U.S. lottery history, if claimed at its current amount.
“The mood is euphoric. This is what we live for,” Maryland Lottery Director Gordon Medenica told USA TODAY on Thursday.
Adding to the excitement for Medenica: A winning ticket for Wednesday’s Powerball was sold in the small town of Lonaconing, Maryland, at Coney Market. The jackpot reached $731.1 million, making it the fifth largest U.S. lottery jackpot ever.
But just because there was a winning ticket on Wednesday, don’t get your hopes up that you are going to win on Friday, said Ronald L. Wasserstein, executive director of the American Statistical Association.
“People confuse their chances of winning with the chances of someone winning. Sooner or later, someone will win that jackpot. That’s certain. What’s just about nearly as certain is that it won’t be you!” Wasserstein wrote in an email to USA TODAY.
But really, how low are my odds of winning Mega Millions?
Understanding a 1 in 302,575,350 chance of something is tough, Wasserstein said.
Stand on the corner of a football field and start laying out dollar bills until you’ve placed 302,575,350 of them: That’ll take up about 585 football fields, he said.
What if you had pennies and placed 302,575,350 in stacks as tall as the Empire State Building? It’d be more than 1,000 Empire State Building-tall penny stacks.
“Humans are not naturally equipped to understand such big numbers,” Wasserstein added.
The odds of winning are 1 in 302,575,350 because there are 302,575,350 possible combinations of six numbers when picking five numbers between 1 and 70 and then a sixth, separate, number between 1 and 25, he said.
The chances of winning Powerball’s jackpot are a little better: Roughly 1 in 292.2 million, but that’s still a long shot to say the least.
To feel like they are increasing their chances, some people turn to lucky numbers, anniversaries or birthdays. Others study past jackpot drawings to notice trends (22, for example, has been drawn 21 times as the Mega Ball in the 337 drawings since Mega Millions last changed its number matrix in 2017, according to lottery tracker USAMega.com.)
But there’s no real advantage there, Wasserstein said.
“Each number in the first five numbers has a 1/70 chance of being drawn. That’s about 1.4%. At any given point, some numbers will be drawn at a slightly higher rate than that, and others lower. Over time, those percentages tend to even out. So one might think the best strategy would be to pick the numbers that had been picked less often. But the math doesn’t support that approach any more than it supports picking the numbers drawn more often,” he explained.
“If people feel they have some lucky numbers, more power to them. It’s another aspect of why playing the game is entertaining,” said Medenica, who added that most people opt for random numbers when buying their tickets.
The only thing someone could do to increase their chances of winning? Buy more tickets. But those are still not great odds.
“If I buy two, my chances are doubled. If I buy ten, my chances are increased ten-fold. So, wow, let me buy 100, then at a cost of $200 I have increased my chances by 100 times!” Wasserstein said one might reason.
“Unfortunately, that just means that I have a 1 in 3,025,753.5 chance of winning. Rounding that to 1 in 3 million is still a very tiny probability, and so you are, realistically, just going to lose $200 (though perhaps you have a small chance a recouping a small portion of that by winning a smaller prize).”
What happens if I do win?
Call a lawyer, and stay quiet. Seriously.
One of the worst things a lottery winner can do is immediately spread the news, Andrew Stoltmann, a securities attorney in Chicago, told USA TODAY in 2016. Lottery winners “become one of most heavily targeted marks in the entire world,” said Stoltmann, who has represented multiple lottery winners in lawsuits over investment scams.
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Many financial planners advise lottery jackpot winners to assemble a team of advisors who can help them navigate their financial windfall, guiding their investments, taxes and spending.
Another question many have is should they take their winnings as a lump sum or paid out over 30 years.
If you were to win Friday and take the lump sum, you’d bring home only $716,300,000, according to USAMega.com. That’s before federal and state taxes (though some states don’t charge any tax on lottery earnings).
After federal but before any state tax, a potential winner Friday who opted to be paid out at once would earn $451,304,928, USAMega.com says. Someone who went for the yearly payments would be paid $20,405,928 for the next 30 years before state taxes.
Both options have pros and cons. Those who opt for the annuity would have a guaranteed income stream for the next 30 years, which largely ensures you never run out of money. But it’s possible taxes increase over the next 30 years, meaning you’ll see less of that money, or you die before it’s all paid out.
Taking the lump sum means you wouldn’t have to worry about tax hikes, and you could potentially earn more money over time if you smartly invest the lump sum payment. However, the concern is that lottery winners may not be frugal in where they put their money.
Over the years, a number of winners have suffered from the alleged “curse” of lotteries.
Jack Whittaker, already a millionaire when he won $315 million in West Virginia in 2002, went broke within four years. Abraham Shakespeare, who won $30 million in Florida, was murdered soon after. Ronnie Music Jr. was convicted of investing some of his earnings in a crystal meth ring. And Urooj Khan died of what was later determined to be a cyanide poisoning a day after collecting a lump sum of $1 million.
More on the lottery curse: You won’t want to win jackpot after reading these horror stories
For protection, some lottery offices allow winners to stay anonymous, but the rules vary by state.
In New Hampshire in 2018, a woman won a battle in court to remain anonymous after winning a $559.7 million Powerball jackpot. State lottery rules required release of winners’ names, but lawyers claimed her good fortune placed her in a small demographic of jackpot winners that “has historically been victimized by the unscrupulous.”
It may seem like the obvious choice to remain anonymous and avoid the infamy, but Medenica said there is value in knowing the winner.
“The counter argument to that is one of public transparency and integrity … to show that real people are winning real money,” he said.
So is it worth it to play the lottery?
It’s been about two-and-a-half years since Medenica said he’s seen this level of excitement around such a big jackpot. In late 2018, the sixth largest U.S. jackpot and the second largest were won within days of each other. The largest U.S. jackpot ever was a $1.586 billion Powerball prize won by three tickets on Jan. 13, 2016.
“The fun is back. People are talking about it,” Medenica said. Even if you don’t win the jackpot, there are still plenty of smaller yet still sizable prizes to be had, he added.
And perhaps the main reason people play, according to Medenica: “They’re buying a permission to dream and that’s the main event.”
Wasserstein, the statistician added: “I don’t buy lottery tickets. But if I did, I’d probably buy one when the prize is huge, like it is now, because, well, go big or go home.”
Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller
Contributing: Hadley Malcolm, Janna Herron and John Bacon, USA TODAY; Taylor M. Riley, The Louisville Courier-Journal; The Associated Press