Should You Buy a Lottery Ticket?

Lottery tickets are a big part of the American culture. Last year Americans spent over $100 billion on them. The states that run them claim they are a vital source of revenue for their state governments. That may be true, but it’s also worth asking whether or not lottery money really makes a difference in the broader context of state finances. And it’s certainly worth asking whether the elusive chance to win the jackpot is really worth the risk of losing your entire life savings on a ticket.

The practice of distributing property or other assets through lotteries dates back to ancient times. There are a number of biblical examples and the Romans used lotteries to give away slaves and property at Saturnalian feasts. Lotteries became popular in Europe during the 17th century. The first recorded public lotteries in the Low Countries were held to raise money for town fortifications and other purposes. The Dutch state-owned Staatsloterij is the oldest running lottery.

Prizes for public lotteries in the colonial United States were large enough to finance many buildings and other public works projects. In addition to the roads and canals built with them, colonial lotteries helped fund Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, Union, Columbia, King’s College (now Columbia University), and William and Mary colleges, among others. Private lotteries were also common.

People buy lotto tickets because they want to be rich, and there’s no doubt that the massive jackpots advertised on billboards entice them to spend money on a ticket with the hope that they will become one of the lucky winners. However, there’s much more going on with lottery advertising than just dangling a carrot in front of a bunch of poor people.

In the past, lottery ads have often sounded like a civic duty — even if you lose, you’re helping your community by purchasing a ticket. But that message has faded, and now it’s mostly about winning big and spending the money on a vacation or a new car.

The biggest reason to avoid playing the lottery is that there is no guarantee you will win. Buying a lottery ticket will not make you rich, and it will probably cost you more than you would have paid in taxes or other fees to support your local government.