How to Avoid the Lottery Traps

Lottery is an arrangement by which prizes are allocated in a way that relies entirely on chance. The word derives from the Dutch noun lot, meaning “fate.” People have been playing lotteries for centuries, and the modern American version of the game began in 1744, when Congress used a lottery to raise funds for the Revolutionary War. Since then, state governments have used the lottery to finance a range of public usages, from roads and canals to colleges and churches.

A lot of people play the lottery, especially in states with large social safety nets. Those who win, however, can sometimes find themselves worse off than they were before they won. For example, many lottery winners end up blowing their winnings on houses and cars, or gambling it away. Others are slapped with lawsuits. But there are ways to avoid those traps, a Harvard statistics professor says. One option is to try a different game, like a regional lottery with lower odds than the Powerball or Mega Millions games. Another is to avoid picking numbers that have sentimental value, such as birthdays or ages, which other people are likely to pick too.

A third is to play only when the jackpot is big enough to make it worth the effort. Sadly, the people who play most often are those with the lowest incomes. That makes the lottery regressive, even though the average winner only spends about a dollar a week.