Giving Up the Lottery Fantasy

Lottery ticket

Ever play the lottery? If you have, did you spend a few seconds thinking about what it would be like to win when you scratched off that ticket or selected your magic numbers?

Don’t lie—no one is listening except yourself. Here’s my guess:

If you ever bought a lottery ticket, OF COURSE you thought about winning. You had a secret lottery fantasy like everyone else who has ever paid their $5 to join the pool of potential winners. However briefly, you thought about what life would be like with that oversized check and all those Powerball millions.

Well, I’ve thought about that before too, but no longer. See, I’ve decided to let go of that fantasy. I haven’t ever really been a big gambler, but I’m taking it a step further—I’m officially giving up the option to win the lottery for the rest of my life.

How It Started

When I was a kid, I moved around a lot, but most of the time I was living in states that did not allow the sale of lottery tickets.

(Note to international readers: in the U.S., there are fifty states and each one makes its own laws, so some states have a lottery and others do not. No, it does not make sense to us either.)

Because there wasn’t usually a lottery where I lived, whenever I went on vacation with a set of parental figures, we’d end up buying lotto tickets in Florida or New York or wherever. Also, every once in a while a visiting relative or family friend would bring them to me as a present.

Whenever this happened, we’d scratch off the tickets with reverence and a silent prayer. If given the option of choosing numbers, we’d carefully pick them out, usually composed of some combination of birthdays and other significant dates.

A couple of days later when the winning combination was announced, we’d all thumb through the newspaper or watch the nightly news to see what happened.

We didn’t kid ourselves—no one really thought we would win. But at least for me, and I suspect with everyone who’s ever had their own glossy cardboard chance at instant wealth, inside my head I was thinking, “I hope I win. I hope I win.”

See, I dreamed about how life would be different if I was a bazillionaire. I could buy whatever I wanted.

Wouldn’t have any problems.

Wouldn’t have any worries.

Could do whatever I wanted to do.

If you’ve ever picked up a $1 lottery ticket or done any kind of gambling, you probably know how the fantasy goes, because I bet you’ve had one too.

Giving It All Up

Fast forward about twenty years to the day before yesterday, when Jolie and I were walking around Portland, Oregon on a three-day trip down from Seattle. Life was good and we were talking about the future and all the things we wanted to do.

While passing by a 7-11, one of us said something about buying an Oregon lottery ticket before going back to Washington. We kept walking without going inside, but a couple of blocks later I stopped with a sudden thought.

“I don’t think I want the lottery ticket,” I said. “In fact, I wouldn’t even want it if it was free.”

Here is the thing: I’ve decided I no longer need the Powerball fantasy. I am no longer interested in thinking “what if” I could win the huge payout.

I don’t have a problem with gambling per se. If you are going to throw your money away, you might as well buy lottery tickets, since at least the profits usually go toward state education budgets.

No, I am now anti-lottery for reasons that have nothing to do with moral qualms. My reasons are even more personal:

I am thrilled with the life I am building. I do not want the state of Washington, or any other government entity, to give me my ticket to happiness. I want to earn it.

Most of us know that money doesn’t create happiness by itself, but that is the whole premise of the lottery—you can be “nobody” and all of a sudden you will be happy for the rest of your life thanks to millions of dollars that dropped in your lap from one random spin of the Powerball wheel. And then you’ll have everything you ever wanted, right?

My decision is that I don’t want the money-for-nothing; I want to create my own happiness and my own amazing life. If no one can give it to me, then no one can take it away.

I don’t really remember when I bought my last lottery ticket, but whenever it was, that was the last one. Goodbye, gambling; hello, making my own life.

(By the way, I reserve the right to buy a ticket in a random country somewhere, just because it would be pretty funny to win the Vietnamese lottery or something. But otherwise, I’m out.)

What This Means

If you enjoy playing the lottery once in a while, my decision is good news. Your odds of winning have just gone up! I will no longer be competing against you, so go out and scratch off those numbers to your heart’s content.

For everyone else out there—I encourage you to work on creating your own amazing life too. I know that many of you are doing it and it is really encouraging to hear the stories.

So now, over to you. Do you need the lottery fantasy? Do you need the what-ifs?

How about this one instead: what if life was what you want it to be because you made it that way? What would you do then?


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  • Andre Kibbe says:

    I tend to look at things statistically, not anecdotally. Even without knowing the specific odds of winning a lottery, the order of magnitude always made the prospect of buying a lottery ticket a nonstarter. At least with a competition, like poker or a marathon, you have some measure of deterministic control or your odds.

    When it comes to lotteries, I’d rather win be saving a buck or two.

  • Chris says:

    @ Andre –

    Yes, it is a good idea to look at the stats. The thing with the lottery is that most people don’t consider the statistical odds at all; it is all about the anecdotes. That’s why there is so much promotion of the few people who do win those kinds of contests, whether it is the lottery or casino gambling.

    Good luck out there (no pun intended!) and thanks for writing in.

  • Mary Sue says:

    I haven’t bought a lottery ticket in, oh, five-six years? I dunno. I also go to Vegas and don’t gamble. I like my dollars. They are shiny and allow me to buy comic books.

    I do always know what the Powerball amount is, and I can do the conversion in my head (take it in a lump sum halves the jackpot, then halve that number for after-tax net). Part of this is because there’s one of those electronic billboards with the current jackpot on it right on my way in to work, and the other part is I find it a useful pre-fiction writing worldbuilding exercise.

    But that’s just me.

  • Michael says:

    “If no one can give it to me, then no one can take it away.” Amazingly insightful, on many levels. Those words just punched me square between the eyes!

    I admit to buying the occasional ticket, but only when it is over $100 million. ; )

  • Sara says:

    I won $3 in the Texas Lotto once for matching 3 numbers – I used my winnings to buy a coke and chips.

    I used to think when I was younger (I’ve only been able to buy lotto tickets for just over a year) that I would try to win the lotto all the time, but I’d rather keep the one or two dollars I’d spend and pop it into savings.

    Not that I don’t still get a small thrill from buying a ticket. But in the year+ that I’ve been able to, I’ve only purchased three or four tickets, and I think that’s okay too. I like having that shiver of anticipation, as long as I don’t make a habit of it.

  • Tom says:

    You convey a great message here. Happiness is internal and having the power to create your future the way you want with or without a lottery ticket.

    That being said, I have purchased a few Powerball tickets thinking that winning would take care of everything.

    Thanks for the article!

  • Andre Kibbe says:

    “That’s why there is so much promotion of the few people who do win those kinds of contests, whether it is the lottery or casino gambling.”

    I don’t gamble, but I’d draw a distinction between lotteries and most forms of casino gambling. The latter balances stochastic and deterministic control through informed risk analysis, at least for the professional player. Someone who’s skilled at championship-level poker is making moment-to-moment calculations of odds based on experience, the current hand, and an intuitive profiling of the other players’ strategies. That separates people who make millions a year, and a novice like me — in my case, playing a round of poker would be closer to buying a lottery ticket.

  • Benny Lewis says:

    My dad always said “If you’re not in, you can’t win” so I used to play the lottery regularly and actually beat the odds on several occasions so that it didn’t turn out to be that expensive.

    But the last time I won €50 I decided to quit while I was ahead and came to the same conclusion you did. I actually don’t want to win the lotto or inherit a fortune etc., especially since I enjoy my work and get satisfaction out of it. It would be a nightmare of sorts to not need to contribute to society and laze my life away. I feel better knowing that every cent I spend, I earned it. I feel sad when I see people overspend since they have too much money and don’t realise the value of it and what good they could do with it.

    Very good post; it solidified thoughts I’ve long had myself!

  • I really enjoyed this post – it was funny because I also had the lottery fantasy. Who doesn’t?

    It was funny because I found myself thinking the exact same thoughts, “What would i do if I won millions?” I even did a search on what happened to other winners and felt sorry for them not being able to handle the sudden wealth. Then I said to myself, “Well, I know I’ll be able to handle it because …….” That’s when it trailed off.

    I agree with you that it’s better to earn your wealth, not necessarily be given it. It’s much more satisfying. So count me in as another “would-be” lottery winner. LOL.

  • Psiplex says:

    The real value in such a windfall would be to direct its usefulness to some purpose which has fallen past agencies and systems that serve the needs of people. Specifically, the value of attaining a windfall would be to redistribute the winnings in a way that allows others in dire circumstances to get a break. Those with chronic and life-threatening illnesses, children facing cancer or chronic illness, those who cannot care for themselves and their families and those who are forgotten and ignored by society.

    I am so glad you are fortunate enough to realize where the blessings in life have placed you and I admire you for your thoughtful articles and thought provoking posts. Always good to see other readers insights and remarkable responses.

  • Ryan says:

    I have the fantasy too, but I’ve never played the lottery. The closest I ever got to that was playing pogs (don’t tell me you don’t remember them) in grade school. Those were the days….

    Unfortunately, I was pretty bad at pogs. And so I’m all for the self-made approach to life. What else is life for? If it were for strictly leisure and laziness then, well, sign me up! But it’s not, and we all know you never feel as good about yourself when things are simply handed to you as you would if you knew you had earned it. Just think if the Detroit Redwings had sat on their bums and somehow still won the Stanley Cup. They probably would have felt like idiots.

    Go Penguins!

  • Two Crabs says:

    I’m an American living in London, and occasionally play the UK Lottery and the EuroMillions, which is sort of equivalent to the U.S. Powerball and with the same crappy odds. I’ve never won a single penny in European lotteries. I once won $30 in the Virginia lottery but other than that, I only play when the jackpot is big. I justify that SOMEBODY has to be and it might as well be me, and the fact that most of the pot goes to education and other needy programs. The only thing that scares me about the lottery is that if I were to win a UK lottery, I’d owe taxes in both the UK and the US!

  • Heather says:

    I never play the lottery. I edit math and stats books for a living and when you do that all day, going and buying a lottery ticket on the way home just seems embarrassing, not to mention pointless. Also, the Texas lottery started in my formative years, and I remember my mother grumbling that the proceeds of the California lottery were *supposed* to go to state education but they really didn’t and they just used it as an excuse to cut other education funding. So no public service appeal.

    I’m not saying I don’t *still* feel the thrill of anticipation if I see someone scratching off numbers – I do. But I know I wouldn’t be happier if I won (or at least I tell myself that. 🙂 It reminds me of a game I used to play with catalogs. If I was feeling poor and frustrated that I couldn’t Buy Things, I’d look through the catalog and decide what I’d take if it were all free. And *if it’s free* I hardly ever wanted any of it!

  • Danny Garant says:

    I had that Lottery Fantasy too. But I stopped buying tickets when I realized what would be the wisest things to do with $30M:

    1- Giving it to family members.
    2- Buy a farm.
    3- Create my own private school.

    I don’t need millions to give a token to my family. I don’t need millions to become an entrepreneur. Instead, I could find partners to finance me. And so I would meet new people.

    So I think now that lottery money is for weaklings. And I’m not a weakling… I hope.

    However, I reserve the right to play local lotteries to the profit of local organization like a school activity or else.

  • george says:

    “Lottery: A tax on people who are bad at math”

  • If I can trot into Fast Stop and blow $5 on a pop and bag of chips that will just go to my butt anyway – whats the difference if I blow $5 on lottery tickets. Hey, I might win. The fact that the government will take most of it, and most of what’s left I’ll very likely give away is kind of immaterial. I love my life, I have a great life and yes, I made it. But it is a wee bit marginal financially, so it would be nice to be totally out of debt and have a little cushion. I love what I do for a living, so I wouldn’t stop working. Might work a little less – give myself a break now and then. I consider buying a ticket a sort of mild indulgence – on the line of buying a candy bar. I suppose you’d have to keep in mind that I live on a remote ranch, and only go to the Fast Stop about once every two weeks – so both my candy bar and the lottery ticket is not a large expense in my life. I’ve had a few small wins (I think the largest was $20) and they’re fun little cash injections that I allow myself to blow. As long as it’s all discretionary cash, what the hell. The only problem I see is people who spend the grocery money on lottery tickets – and I think that’s something of a personal problem they need to work on themselves.

  • lenamcg says:

    “It’s only a couple of bucks.” That’s what I hear from people who buy lottery tickets on a regular basis. For me – I skipthe lottery tickets and instead take the two bucks and put it in a savings account. I have an automatic transfer scheduled with my bank to move the two bucks to a high-yield savings account each Friday. I know. Two bucks isn’t so much. But you know what? I bought my wedding dress by saving just two bucks every week! And now that I have kids, I’ve taught them to save two bucks every week from their allowances and now just a few years later, my 14 year old has a CD worth nearly $1000 and his younger brother just renewed his CD at close to $700. I know a lot of adults who don’t have that much money saved! So if you’re thinking it’s just a couple of bucks, think again! YOU have the power to make your dreams come true – one little step at a time.

  • quickroute says:

    If you’re not in you can’t win!
    It is the far fetched dream that keeps me going.

  • Jordy says:

    Hi Chris,

    I know this is an old post, but as soon as I saw the title it triggered me. I just found your manifesto through Michael Bungay Stanier great work blog (love his work) and I like your ideas a lot! I’m 25 now, graduating as a computer scientist any day now and it feels a bit like this will settle my dept to the western society I grew up in by getting my degree and then, for the first time in my life, I am really free (I know I always was, but still).

    This is exciting and scary at the same time and I hope to have the balls to use this newfound freedom. The lottery fantasy is one I’ve had a lot of times, even without ever buying a ticket, but I hope I don’t need it anymore. I want to do the things I dream about doing then, but without the money. Keep up the good work and if you are ever in my country other then our beloved aitport I would be happy to show you around.

    From the Netherlands,
    Jordy Voesten

  • Rossi Stoyanova says:

    Just found this wonderful blog and reading through some older posts now. My grandfather actually won form the lottery – an appartment which was in a different city from where we lived at the time. We gave it for rent and had some problems with the tennants so he sold the appartment. Just a month later there was hyperinflation in Bulgaria and we lost all the money. Easy come, easy gone.

    I’ve also dreamed about winning the lottery and how I could use the money to travel. But now my job allows me to save some money and visit 2-3 countries in Europe and I hope I’ll eventually be able to save enough money to travel to more distant places. I’ve also started blogging and really enjoy it so it’s nice to feel I’m building my own life instead of waiting for some miracle which might never happen.

  • xenia says:

    I have to admit, I have bought the occasionaly lotto ticket … once, when all I had in my pocket was $2, I thought, “why not? I can’t buy much else with it” and won $20.

    I have the “what if” fantasy, but mine includes: what if I could set my parents up for life, pay my brother’s mortgage, buy a nice cottage somewhere and then give the rest to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation? they would benefit from the money more than I ever could, and as long as I have a roof over my head, I’ve just won happiness for life 🙂

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  • You Never Know says:

    Thou shalt not judge thy neighbor who purchases a lottery ticket. For thou doth not know his or her’s financial circumstance.

  • Annonymous says:

    I foolishly quit my job. Let me back up… I participated in California’s recent $1billion dollar lotto. WIth a $20 bill in my hand I knew that I had decreased my odds… From there I lost control. I insulted my boss, slacked on the job, visited car lots, and was living in a fantasy world. To say that I’m embarrassed is an understatement. I was convinced that this was my time. I wish I had read this post sooner. I had promised my family and friends riches, and I couldn’t deliver. I feel like an ass. My best advice is to let go of the lotto dream. Don’t let it control your life like I did. I tried to get my job back but my boss laughed and hung up the phone. Don’t let this be you.

  • Curse The Lottery says:

    My reasons for quitting the lottery are quite different from yours. I quit out of spite, anger, and disgust for the rigged Powerball and Mega Millions. Once again, Publix from Florida wins a major jackpot and 7/11 from California wins.

    I invite all lottery players to take a look at their so called “quick picks”. Do you know how many of those tickets are completely identical to your fellow gamblers so no one can win? I challenge you… set up an independent website that can check all Powerball/Mega Million quick picks and see if any of your tickets match fellow gamblers out of state. Reality shock huh?

    Oh… and don’t forget about former Powerball President Eddie Tipton. The rotten scoundrel who rigged several lottery drawings and KNEW the winning numbers before hand. Didn’t hear that on the news huh?…

    Also keep track of the large jackpot winners ($250 million plus) and the areas where large jackpots are won. It is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS a small unknown town that wins $326 million, $400 million, $590 million, $636 million, etc.

    Also, notice how right before a Mega Millions/Powerball jackpot is about to be won, Publishers Clearing House starts advertising commercials out of nowhere for 2-3 weeks? It’s like they’re coordinating with the lottery to continue to drain the hope and financials of the American people. Someone wins the jackpot… Publishers Clearing House starts. Publishing Clearing House ends… and both the Mega Millions/Powerball jackpot sky rocket.

    “Oh wait… we can’t let anyone win the Powerball until the Mega Millions jackpot is close to $100 million and vice versa! Hey… let’s make the American people think the game is honest and fair by pretending to not know when and where the jackpot will be won BEFORE the drawing.”

    To all young and poor people… STOP PLAYING THE LOTTERY. It is designed to take away your hope, what little money you have, and your joy. If you disapprove of Washington because you believe it’s “broken” and “corrupt”, then why in the hell would you trust in the lottery when it’s just another control of government!?!!

    THE.LOTTERY.IS.FIXED. Unless you’re married, 55+, retired, or financially set, YOU… WILL… NEVER… WIN.

    Stop buying powerball and mega million tickets and live your life to the fullest. Go meet the woman/man of your dreams, go write that book and publish it, go talk with your family and create lasting memories, and forget about gambling.

    It should infuriate you, losing on every Mega Millions/Powerball draw. Ticket after ticket after ticket, and not a single number of yours hits. That $10 powerball ticket could have been spent on a Papa John’s pizza. That $20 Mega Millions ticket could have been spent on a bag of popcorn, soda, and a movie.

    Live life… let go of the lottery. Goodbye.

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