Mega Millions: How to Win a Jackpot

Last Updated Mar 31, 2011 1:24 PM EDT

7 workers split $319 million jackpot
Who won the $319 million mega-millions jackpot? The identities of seven state workers who won the massive mega-millions jackpot will be revealed Thursday in a ceremony that's sure to draw both envy and new players to the multi-state lottery.

Amidst the fanfare, lottery officials will be certain to mention that this jackpot isn't even close to a record. The record-setting jackpot of $390 million was won in 2007 and split between two unrelated winners -- one in Georgia and one in New Jersey. The second-biggest jackpot wasn't much less -- $380 million -- won last January. Two winners also split the lottery's third-biggest payout -- a $336 million check won in August of 2009.

This $319 million is merely the fifth-largest jackpot in history. Lottery officials will happily lure anyone interested to their "Winners Gallery," where you can see the names and smiling faces of dozens of overnight millionaires.

Lest the mental picture of becoming the next teary-eyed recipient of a multi-million-dollar jackpot is so strong that you're tempted to head to the nearest 7-eleven with your paycheck, the killjoys at Get Rich Slowly have a different type of check for you. A reality check.

The personal finance website has created a lottery simulator, where you can plug in your favorite numbers and assess your chance of winning -- not just on a one-shot ticket, but on the tempting "I-play-the-same-numbers-every-week-to-boost-my-odds" basis. And they'll let you simulate your results even if you want to assume that you play twice a week, every week, for a decade.

You can try your luck here. But I'll warn you, it's not likely to be pretty. I experimented with my favorite numbers, assuming that I played twice weekly for 10 years, and won $71. Unfortunately, I would have spent $1,040 to get the $71, which left me with a net loss of $969. I did a little better when I let the widget pick numbers for me (apparently my lucky numbers are duds), winning about $250. But, again, that's at a cost of $1040. Net loss: $790.

J.D. Roth, the founder of GRS, says he's such a geek that he tried the 10-year approach 100 times. His winnings amounted to $11,554, which sounds pretty good until you realize he would have spent $104,000 on tickets. That's another way of saying that he lost a fortune. (Fortunately, only on paper.)

The bottom line? Your one-in-175-million chance of winning the lottery is, well, a long-shot. Your chance of losing every single time that you play? Excellent.

If you want to make a million, you're far smarter to sock your money into boring investments -- stocks, bonds, savings accounts and real estate investment trusts. Or you could create a Lazy Man's portfolio by putting together a mix of those investments and just ignoring it until it makes you rich.

It's no fun to say that doing boring things, like consistently living on less than you earn, is the best way to win a jackpot. Unfortunately, it's true. The truth is, getting rich quickly is difficult and rare. Getting rich slowly happens all the time. It's the basis of Thomas Stanley's "Millionaire Next Door" and the bulk of the real rags-to-riches tales in America (as opposed to the Barry Minkow tales of rags to riches). If you want to be a millionaire, you can be. You just need to be patient.

Kathy Kristof is the author of Investing 101, which includes the Lazy Man's Portfolio Planner.
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