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Tips on not winning the Mega Millions lottery

Updated: May 1, 2012 8:17AM

The key factors that the U.S. Supreme Court will use to determine the future of health care reform are, umm . . .

As Iran moves closer acquiring nuclear weaponry, and Israel proceeds with its plans to, ahh, to, something or other . . .

Oh heck, the Mega Millions lottery drawing is 10 p.m. Friday, and I can’t pretend that much of anything else is on people’s minds, not with the jackpot soaring to $540 million.

How bad is it? On Tuesday, I was too busy to eat lunch properly — hey, it happens — so I stopped by the little grocery downstairs at the Sun-Times building and grabbed a Clif bar. On impulse, I also bought a ticket to Tuesday’s Mega Millions drawing, which I took as a sign of desperation, a brief mental trip to Lourdes to beg the heavens for relief.

You’re supposedly buying a dream for your dollar — that’s what the people who run lotteries always say, to deflect criticism that they’re encouraging people who can least afford it to throw away their money on nothing.

I view the lottery as a self-imposed tax. Some call it a tax on the stupid, but that’s cruel, and would be ironic coming from the media, considering how covering the lottery in a giddy swoon is one of the most embarrassing failures committed by the media — or would be embarrassing, if we thought about it enough to be embarrassed. Instead we buy the program. When the lottery rolls over, what gets trumpeted? That the jackpot has gone up. Yippee! What is barely whispered? That a rollover means you could have bought every single blessed ticket sold and still lost.

The odds for Mega Millions — 1 in 176 million — do get mentioned, though the media seldom tries to make you understand what that means, in part because it can’t — 176 million pretty much fries the human brain. I think we should try. It’s a mile to my boys’ high school, and they can walk it in 15 minutes. It’s 176 million miles to Mars (sometimes, the distance varies). It would take 5,000 years to walk. Or another way: pick one person randomly from the entire population of the United States; the odds of that person being Barack Obama or Mitt Romney are one in 155 million, significantly better than the odds of winning Mega Millions.

In other words, you’re not winning. You’re never winning. So why all the stories this week on what to do with your winnings?

“Tips for buying your lucky lottery ticket,” ABC News promised. “Tonight’s drawing is going to make someone very rich,” “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts reported Tuesday, inaccurately, since nobody won that night. “We all are going to win with these tips,” exuded Yunji De Nies, straining her mind to suggest that “tens of thousands of tickets” were being sold, underestimating by a factor of 10,000. The supposed news organization explained a “strategy” for winning, offering numbers that hadn’t been picked recently. “This time might be their turn,” De Nies bubbled, nonsensically.

“What to do after you hit the Mega Millions jackpot?” is the headline on one widespread Associated Press story, although as you read it, winning began to seem less and less appealing. “Contact a lawyer and a financial planner” it advises, noting “it’s essential to assemble a team of financial managers, tax experts, accountants and bankers.”

Sounds fun, huh? The AP story at least points out “9 out of 10” winners burn through their money in five years and Jack Whittaker, the West Virginia contractor who won nearly $315 million in 2002, “quickly fell victim to scandals, lawsuits and personal setbacks.”

I’m not saying that a lot of free money might not be nice. What I’m saying is that you’re not going to win, and neither am I, and we should consider not playing Friday — that’s what I’m going to do. As the hoopla builds, you can take a pass. It requires strength. Look at the money you have, the life you’ve got, and say, “I’m satisfied with this.” Give your lottery dollar to a homeless person — he can use it more than the Mega Millions folks can. Take a gamble on something that might really change your life — randomly pick a book, a class, a party, a church service.

That said, if the only way you can face life is to wait in the long line at a White Hen dreaming about what you’d do if you won, well, heck, far be it from me to squash anybody’s fantasy. Go for it, if you have to.

But you don’t have to. Hope doesn’t cost $1. Hope is free. Skipping it could also save your life. The odds of dying in a car wreck on your way to buy a Mega Millions ticket — assuming you drive a mile — are six times greater than the odds of winning. So while you’re fantasizing about winning, why not save time, effort and money by staying home and also fantasizing that you played? It’s a lot cheaper, and the results will be the same.

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