Mega Millions’ $970 million jackpot making players ‘euphoric,’ but your odds are . not good
Most people dream of winning the lottery, but making poor choices can turn your life into a nightmare. Buzz60’s Sean Dowling has more. Buzz60
One in 302,575,350. Those are the odds of winning the $970 million prize that is up for grabs in Friday’s Mega Millions drawing.
During months of buildup 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 amount now.
“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 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 as if 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 10, my chances are increased tenfold. So, wow, let me buy 100, then at a cost of $200 I have increased my chances by 100 times!” Wasserstein said a player 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.
Many financial planners advise lottery jackpot winners to assemble a team of advisers 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 get $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 increases, and you could earn more money over time if you smartly invest the money. But 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 “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.
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 counterargument 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 2½ years since Medenica said he has 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 PressOne in 302,575,350. That's the odds of winning the $970 million prize that is up for grabs during Friday's Mega Millions drawing.
Mega Millions jackpot is $750 million – where does all the lottery tax revenue really go?
Professor of the Practice of Data Science, Washington University in St Louis
Liberty Vittert does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
The Conversation UK receives funding from these organisations
The Mega Millions jackpot drawing for Jan. 15 has soared to US$750 million and counting. This makes it the second largest pot in Mega Millions history – surpassed only by the $1.537 billion winning ticket in October 2018 – and the fifth largest lotto jackpot ever in the U.S.
In the middle of the 20th century, when lotteries first started in the U.S., they were sold to states a benefit to the American public. That suggests that bigger and bigger jackpots should mean more tax dollars to spend on public services like education.
But that isn’t happening. So what’s really going on?
Big money, tiny odds
First, let’s look at how lottery jackpots get so big. Since Sept. 15, 2020, week after week, no one has drawn the winning numbers and the unclaimed pot rolls over into the following week. As the tickets keep getting bought, the pot gets bigger.
You too have the chance to win the one of the biggest Mega Millions jackpots ever with the simple purchase of a $2 ticket. However, your chances are pretty slim. With a 1 in 300 million chance of picking the matching numbers, you are three times more likely to be killed by a vending machine.
An easier way to really wrap your head around these odds is to imagine a bathtub overflowing with white rice. Take one grain of rice, paint it gold and then bury it somewhere in the bathtub of rice. Now, have someone walk in the bathroom door, blindfold them and have them try, in one lucky dip, to pick out that single golden grain of rice.
According to a 2016 poll, about half of Americans play the lottery today, compared to almost 70% in the 1980s. That means the lottery needs to extract more money from fewer people – a worrying trend for lottery runners.
Mega Millions decided to decrease each person’s chances of winning, in order to grow the jackpots bigger. Before 2017, players picked five numbers between 1 and 75 and then one number between 1 and 15. Now, each player picks five numbers between 1 and 70 and then one number between 1 and 25. This increases your chances of matching five numbers and receiving some sort of prize, while decreasing your chances of winning the whole shebang. What’s more, the price of a ticket has doubled.
Apparently, as the jackpot gets bigger, more people are willing to buy a ticket. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017 and 2018, the average American spent just under $70 a month on the lottery or betting pools. And since only about half of the country plays, the average amount spent per player is higher.
Your chances of winning are incredibly small, but lottos are a reliable source of tax revenue for states. AP Photo/Michel Euler
Where the money goes
Mega Millions profits are split between 47 lottery jurisdictions – 45 states, D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Overall, 27 states earmark some or all lottery revenue for education. In D.C., the lotto dollars go to a general fund; in Colorado, the funds go toward environmental protection; and in Kansas, some of the money pays for juvenile detention facilities.
The lottery was promoted as a way to create more money for education – but most state legislatures haven’t been using the money as additional funding. Instead, they use the lottery money to pay for the education budget, spending the money that would have been used on education if there wasn’t a lottery budget on other things. As a result, public schools rarely get a budget boost.
An April 2018 study from the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research showed that many states – including California, Florida and Michigan – simply substitute lottery revenues for normal appropriations. As of 2016, North Carolina devoted a smaller portion of its total budget to education than it did before starting the lottery.
With states like New York getting a record $10 billion in sales from the lottery in 2019, that is a pretty darn big bait and switch.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s time to ax the lottery. But it does beg the question: Is lottery money a good thing for a state? It does fund some government services, but it isn’t always clear what. And the harm of gambling addiction must be taken into account somehow.
For now, I’m off to buy a ticket for this Mega Millions jackpot. I mean, someone’s gotta win….
This is an updated version of an article originally published on Oct. 20, 2018.The Mega Millions lotto pot for Jan. 15 is the second largest it's ever been. Taxes on the lotto go to state governments, but often the money isn't spent in quite the way it's supposed to be. ]]>