Should I Be Playing the Lottery? It’s a Toss-Up

Man With Glasses Thinking Next to a Pile of Lottery Tickets

The lottery in the United States, like most western countries, is big business. Most Americans have scratched those little silver circles covering the possible prize(s) on a scratch-off lottery ticket.

My family likes to give them as stocking stuffers around the holidays. My kids, and their kids, all sit around and scratch away, hoping they’re going to win it big. My husband even takes the time to tape a nickel to each one, so no one needs to look for a coin to use.

One year, my son even thought he might win enough on that innocent ticket to finally buy the absurd speaker system he wanted for the already obnoxious truck he had in college.

Scratch off tickets, the lottery, in general, should be fun, right? That’s the point. Buy a 1-5 dollar ticket and get that exciting rush of whether your small investment will be a big payout.

My point is that the lottery, Powerball or Mega Millions, is a form of entertainment. It should not be your nest egg.

History of the Lottery in the US

I want to note that I’m only going to address government-run lotteries in this post. Private run lotteries and raffles are a whole different animal that has been mired in scandal and mismanagement.

The first government-run lottery in the United States was in Puerto Rico in 1934. New Hampshire was next in line, but many decades later. New Hampshire launched their state-run lottery in 1964.

Several Eastcoast states followed suit with their own state-run lotteries. The popularity of the lottery spread across the United States like wildfire. Many states started to offer lottery tickets based on a random number drawn by the local lottery commission and scratch off tickets.

In-Store Rack of Various Lottery Cards

Currently, 44 of the 50 states in the US have some form of government-run lottery systems. The only states that abstain from lotteries within their borders are Hawaii, Alaska, US Virgin Islands, Utah, Alabama, and Nevada. Let’s talk about that for a second.

Nevada and Alabama don’t have any kind of lottery (state or government-run) because of their prosperous casino-based industries. Fun fact – Did you know that Nevada’s gambling industry employs over half of its workforce?

Utah and Hawaii don’t participate in any type of gambling for economic and religious reasons. Alaska has not joined the lottery trend, but their govern has brought legislation to the floor in 2020 that might shift to a state-run lottery.

In the 1980s, a new kind of government lottery system began to take hold, multi-state lotteries. It caught hold when New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine formed the Tri-State Megabucks lottery in 1985.

Three years later, the Multi-State Lottery Association (MUSL) was conceived. This more extensive format lottery system included West Virginia, Rhode Island, the District of Columbia (DC), Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, and Oregon. The MUSL has added multiple states across the US since its founding.

The MUSL is best known as the Powerball lottery. This multi-state charter created bigger jackpots than Americans had seen before. Another multi-state lottery system that is now a household name is the Mega Millions (formerly The Big Show).

That about sums up the history of government-run lotteries in the United States. If you’ve lived here for any amount of time, you’ve heard the incredible lotto jackpots’ news stories and their subsequent winners.

I have written in the past about where those winners are now. Unfortunately, there are some devastating stories and some happy endings too. Sometimes, money doesn’t make you happy. Let’s talk about the odds and is the lottery worth playing for real money.

Odds of Winning the Lottery

I have shared before that my husband and I used to buy scratch-off tickets when we were first married to win enough to help with our bills. We were young, broke, and hopeful.

I think the most it ever paid was $50.00. Considering we probably spent closer to $300.00, that would be a horrible investment opportunity that any sane adult would not put their hard-earned money towards.

Let’s look at the odds of winning the lottery.

Today’s (7.30.2020) Mega Millions jackpot is at $62 Million. That is a pretty large sum of money by any standards.

Your chance of winning the next drawing for the Mega Millions lottery is 1 in 302,575,350. To even have a 10% chance of winning, you would have to buy almost 31 million different lottery tickets with different numbers. That is around $31 million in lottery tickets.

I don’t have that kind of money lying around, do you?

I know for sure if I had 31 million to waste on lottery tickets, I wouldn’t play the lottery. Let’s be honest; I wouldn’t do a lot of things because I could pay someone to do them for me. I’m lazy.

Here are some things you have a better chance of happening to you:

There are 1000s other things you have a higher likelihood of happening to you. The point I’m getting at is playing the lottery for profit is not a good use of your money.

There isn’t a financial advisor out there that will suggest that you invest your money in playing the lottery as opposed to a 401K or other retirement fund. If they do, you should run and report them to the same officials that popped Bernie Madoff.

What Happens to the Money You Don’t Win?

What happens to all the money from the tickets of people who didn’t win? It’s simple, it goes back to the state, or states, that host the lottery drawing.

Here in Texas, the lottery money goes to future winners. The Texas Lottery Fund is broken down here:

  • 1 % to lottery winners
  • 5 % to Texas education via the Foundation School Fund
  • 4 % to compensating retailers
  • 7 % to the lottery administration
  • 3 % to fund the Veterans Assistance Program and other state programs

So, the lottery isn’t a total waste of your money. Like most states, Texas uses the most significant percentage, outside of paying winners and to fund their education systems. Or you could just donate to the education system in your home state.

Even better, you could just give your friend $100.00 since every time you buy a lottery ticket or scratch off your paying for someone else’s jackpot.

Your call.

Play the Lottery for Fun

Like other forms of gambling, playing the lottery for fun is a different story. I love the excitement of betting for fun.

In my first job out of college, I was a copywriter for a natural living magazine. There was a colossal lottery drawing, and my co-worker got excited. Her cousin had won some money in an office lottery pool.

She suggested we all go in on a bunch of tickets. Five of us chipped in a couple of bucks and bought like 15 tickets.

We went to the bar around the corner from our office to watch the drawing on live TV. The excitement of checking the numbers against our tickets as the iconic white ping pong balls popped up through the tube has us on the edge of our seats.

Powerball Lottery Winners Holding a Large Check

It was bonding. It made us a closer-knit group. We didn’t win, but so much more than a chunk of cash came out of that experience.

We have been in each other’s weddings. We have been through the thick and thin together: divorces, babies, loss of loved ones, grandbabies.

I can’t say it’s because we played that lottery together, but I can’t say I would have these lifelong friends without the lottery. All because someone’s cousin won some money playing the lottery in their office.

That is why you play the lottery because you want to have fun, feel the excitement of playing a game that the odds are against you. You play for fun. We are humans, and humans like games of chance.

You never know what might come out of it. I got lifelong friends, a family tradition, and a glimmer of hope when my husband and I were young and figuring out how to be responsible adults.


Americans love to play the lottery. It’s part of our culture. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

If you decide to buy a ticket or a scratch-off, remember this one rule, it’s for fun. This is the hunger games of investing; the odds may never be in your favor.

Play the lottery for the thrill; play with your family around family gatherings. Make it a silly past time. Don’t ever kid yourself and think today’s going to be the big winner, and all you’re problems are solved. 1 in 302,575,350 is not good odds.

A lottery is a form of gambling, so play at your own risk. FOR FUN.