The Costs of Playing the Lottery


Lottery is the world’s most popular form of gambling, and state governments promote it as a way to raise revenue. People spend billions on tickets each year, and the money is a significant chunk of many people’s budgets. Yet few people consider just how much lottery games cost them—and whether those costs are worth the benefit to society.

Lotteries have a long history in Europe, with their origin in towns and cities seeking ways to raise money for defense or charitable purposes. They were especially popular in the 1500s, when Francis I of France introduced them as a means to raise taxes for his treasury. By the end of the century they were widespread in England and the United States, where they helped build Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), and William and Mary colleges.

The word “lottery” derives from a Latin phrase, “loterium,” meaning the drawing of lots. The idea is simple: each person draws a number and the number corresponds to a prize. The prizes can range from cash to goods and services, but the odds of winning are usually quite small. Despite the low odds, people continue to play the lottery in large numbers, spending trillions of dollars on tickets over the years.

There are many reasons for this. People feel a natural impulse to gamble, and the lure of huge jackpots is hard to resist. The size of the jackpots, combined with a meritocratic belief that we’re all going to be rich someday, drives ticket sales, and news media coverage of big-ticket winners helps feed those perceptions.

Moreover, the underlying odds make lottery playing seem a relatively risk-free endeavor. Buying a ticket costs only $1 or $2, and the opportunity to win millions of dollars is advertised with remarkably little risk. People also tend to equate lottery plays with investing, which has a reputation for being a low-risk activity.

But the odds of winning are much lower than what’s advertised. The chances of winning the Powerball or Mega Millions jackpot are about one in 340 million, and the odds of a smaller prize like the second-place winner in a state drawing are even worse. Even if the odds are in your favor, you can lose your entire ticket investment if you buy too few tickets or select too few of the right ones.

To maximize your chance of winning, avoid selecting numbers that are sentimental to you or others (like birthdays) or sequences hundreds of other people might play. Instead, try selecting random numbers or buying Quick Picks. If you do win, remember that you’ll have to split the prize with anyone else who has those same numbers. The more tickets you purchase, the greater your share of the jackpot will be. So don’t get discouraged if you don’t win the first time, and don’t be afraid to buy more tickets in future drawings. And if you’re lucky enough to become the next multimillionaire, be sure to thank your lucky numbers!