With inflation battering our pocketbooks, the stock market beating up our portfolios and no place to hide from it all, Americans needed a good financial headline.
And along came a $1 billion Mega Millions jackpot.
I’m not a big lottery fan — and have never even purchased a lottery ticket myself — but right now I recognize that consumers and savers are getting more than a respite from the scary stuff as they dream of lottery riches.
In this case, the lottery can provide a measuring stick.
First off, however, face the fact that you’re not winning the giant jackpot.
No matter the jackpot, the odds are 1-in-303 million against you. Even the chances of winning $1 million – for matching five regular numbers but missing the Mega Ball – are roughly 1-in-12.5 million.
Your $2 ticket buys you a dream, and it will be a fleeting one at that if all you do is hope to get lucky.
To me, the “benefit” to playing the lottery, if there is one, comes in thinking “What if?”
Dreaming of a lottery win can help you prioritize wants, needs and desires. You can fantasize about how you would change the world — beyond just your life — if you become a centi-millionaire overnight, but if you consider the life changes that come from a smaller windfall, you help determine what you’d really like to achieve financially.
Make a list of what you’d do with a lottery jackpot.
Maybe you’d wipe out your debts, bank the full amount of college savings, replace your old car, make some home repairs, take that trip you have always wanted and more.
List everything you’d do if money was no object; if you want to come up with a plan for the grand prize, knock yourself out.
Armed with that list, make money the object. Stop your dream short of the gazillion dollars, cutting it down to a million, then $100,000, $10,000 or $2,500.
What you can achieve with those smaller amounts is no less important in your life, at least if you spend the money on what matters most and in ways that would first improve your life and help you reach your goals.
If you can see that a few grand extra would dramatically ease your financial burdens, you don’t need to win the lottery (or rob a bank) to get it.
Instead, you can work a side gig, or change your spending habits or come up with another way to capture money to accomplish some of those priorities and progress toward your goals. It won’t be as much fun as a lottery win but increased financial peace of mind is valuable.
Still, a big lottery jackpot is a blessing for investors and savers right now for something beyond the what-ifs, because it raises in most people a terrific financial question:
How much money would it take for you to feel set for life?
I define “set for life” as having enough money to live out your days in comfort, doing what you want to do, with no worries about paying for health care and running out of money, no matter what happens in the stock market.
It is “The Number” most people want to achieve, even if few people quantify it that specifically (preferring instead to say their goal is to have 10 times their working salary or something less concrete than one actual number).
It’s particularly worth considering right now because the market action has been eroding account balances, making investors uncomfortable.
I spoke with a friend recently who admitted to losing sleep over the stock market and economy even though his portfolio value remains well above levels that would give him real concerns.
Let’s just say that only a market/global cataclysm should make him nervous.
If current markets are creating stress and fear in the wealthy, they can be terrifying for the less secure.
Rather than pine for the whole lottery jackpot, ask yourself how much of a win — added to your life savings and net worth — it would take feel like you’ve got it made, like you never again will have any real worries about money.
Look for the minimum number, the smallest possible win, that gets you to that point.
No matter the amount, it is “life-changing money,” even if it won’t turn you into a global philanthropist.
There may not be much money involved, just enough to bridge the massive difference between what you have now and the amount that leaves you truly nothing to worry about. You can achieve the latter by having enough to cover your lifetime expenses or by investing in income-generating securities, properties or businesses that will keep you rolling in enough dough that you never run out.
Armed with that number, incorporate it into your financial plans.
Make that what my father and I used to describe as “Don’t mess it up money,” the amount that will get you over the finish line so long as you don’t make some tragic mistake with it.
If you have more than enough, you can do whatever you want with the rest, whether that is investing aggressively or buying, well, lottery tickets. Just don’t mess up the number that is your target.
You’re much more likely to get rich slowly, reaching your goals via conventional solutions — cutting spending, hiking savings, living within your means, and so forth — than from collecting a jackpot.
But if thinking about how you’d handle the grand prize helps you deal with your financial realities, it’s more than worth the $2 price of a ticket to play.
And while you have your head in the clouds, make sure what you are doing with your real-life finances answers the question “What if I never win the lottery?”
The lottery makes big winners of a very small group of people; most people can achieve financial greatness and be a winner with their money even if they never win the lottery.