Why I Buy Lottery Tickets

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I didn’t win the giant Mega Millions jackpot. You probably didn’t, either. The odds really stink, you know. That’s why some wags call the lottery “a tax on people who are bad at math.”

Going out on a fiscal limb here, but…I don’t think the lottery is so bad.

It’s not that I think the lottery is “good.” It’s certainly not an important part of a balanced financial portfolio. I just think it’s not-so-bad in the way that potato chips are not-so-bad. An occasional handful won’t kill you. If you focus on chips to the exclusion of anything healthy, then you’ve got a problem.

Gerri Detweiler recently interviewed a bunch of personal finance experts for an article called “Mega Millions madness: Money pros weigh in.” Mary Hunt from Debt Proof Living called the lottery “a tax on the stupid.” My MSN Money colleague Liz Weston called it “a tax on stupidity,” while acknowledging that she’d bought a ticket or two in the past.

Detweiler noted that experts “usually put lottery ticket purchases in the same category of money sins as bottled water or spending $5 for a cup of coffee that can be brewed at home for 25 cents. But who among us has never splurged for a one-pump mocha grande latte?”

Me, for one – I don’t drink coffee. But every now and then, I do get a lottery ticket.

Here’s what I don’t get: Apps. Candy bars. Lunch out three times a week. Music downloads. Cell phone upgrades. Manicures. Online gaming community memberships. Auto detailing. Spray tanning. And so on. I bet some people spend more on a single waxing than I spend on lottery tickets all year.

Generally speaking, I think bottled water is a stupidity tax on the thirsty. But that doesn’t mean I’m never out and about with no other way to get a drink. Thus, buying a bottle of water now and then won’t break the bank.

Neither will buying a lottery ticket. Why is a dollar spent in this way somehow more “stupid” than that mocha grande latte?

Or, for that matter, on anything nonessential? Should we look down on people who go to the movies every Saturday because movies are a stupid, escapist fantasy that do nothing toward ensuring financial security? Of course not. But that’s the kind of thing people say about lottery tickets: money spent chasing a fantasy.

Will a dollar fund my dream?

Yes, I’ve heard about people who seriously believe that lottery = retirement planning and make no other provisions for old age. That’s a serious disconnect and a sign that whatever we’re teaching kids about money (and math) isn’t sinking in.

This also isn’t a majority attitude. It’s just that you remember these folks when you read about them.

A relative of mine gets a couple of Lotto tickets every week. She’s of the “dollar and a dream” school. I’m of the “whenever I remember it” persuasion, which means I pick up a Mega Millions and a Lotto ticket (always together) about five or six times a year.

When I lived in Anchorage, I bought a Nenana Ice Classic ticket every spring. Never came close to guessing the day the ice would go out. Even so, I enjoyed the experience. I enjoy games of chance down here in the lower 48 too, when I actually think of playing.

I don’t really expect a dollar to fund my dreams. But I’m not going to sweat a couple of greenbacks spent on lottery tickets. Or movie tickets, for that matter.

Incidentally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with manicures or online gaming or any of the other examples I listed above. You earned the money and you ought to be able to budget for some of the things you like at the same time as you take care of financial business. So if you want the latest app, get it.

And if I want a Mega Millions and a Lotto, I’ll get them. Want to bet who spends less?

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