Is the lottery the best bet for my pay-off?

18th April, 2009

Dear Economist,
Thanks to the recession kindly engineered by financial whiz-kids, I find myself jobless with large debts and a house that is worth less than the mortgage. I have some redundancy money. What am I supposed to do with it? It’s not enough to pay off my debts. Financial disaster seems very likely, so why shouldn’t I just spend the windfall on lottery tickets?
J.P., via e-mail

Dear J.P.,

I’m not going to argue with you about the expected returns on lottery tickets; you’ll know that your chances of winning anything worthwhile are near zero. Let me make a more striking claim: even if you won, it would be unlikely to save you from financial trouble.

The economists Scott Hankins, Mark Hoekstra and Paige Marta Skiba are in the process of investigating that claim, looking at 35,000 winners of the Florida lottery, almost 2,000 of whom later filed for bankruptcy. The researchers find that lottery winners are more likely to go bankrupt than others – which is not surprising, since many of them don’t win much, and lottery enthusiasts tend to be poor.

More surprising is the discovery that those who won between $50,000 and $150,000 were as likely to have gone bankrupt five years later as those who won less than $10,000. Since the size of a win is random, there should have been no difference between big winners and small winners at the time they bought their ticket. It is remarkable that the additional money was not used to pay off debts.

Admittedly, winning $100,000 did seem to postpone bankruptcy by a year or two, so presumably these winners had a nice time on their way to ruin. Yet this is not an approach I feel able to recommend. Finding a job would go a long way to solving your problems. I won’t pretend that will be easy, but the odds are better than those of winning the lottery.

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