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What Are the Odds of Winning the Lottery?

Compare the Odds and Find Out How to Improve Your Luck

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odds of winning the lottery

Even the stock market returns better odds than the lottery.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Updated January 15, 2013
The largest U.S. lottery payout ever was the Mega Millions on March 31, 2012. Three winners split a $656 million jackpot. The winning tickets were sold in Illinois, Maryland and Kansas. Those states don't have to reveal the names of the winners.

The largest Powerball jackpot was close behind, at $579.9 million. On November 28, 2012 the winning numbers were selected: 5,16,22,23,29 and Powerball 6. Two winners beat the odds: Mark and Cindy Hill of Dearborn, Mo. and an unidentified Maryland retired veteran, who bought the other winning ticket in Fountain Hills, AZ. The odds of winning either the Mega Millions or the Powerball were roughly the same: 175 million to one. (Sources: Huffington Post, Mega Millions Winning Ticket, March 31, 2012; US News, Powerball Winners Introduced to the Nation, November 30, 2012; CNN, Powerball Winners, November 30, 2012)

One-third of Americans believe that winning the lottery is the only way to become financially secure in life. But how likely is it? Here's a humorous look comparing the odds of winning the lottery to some other lucky and unlucky events. Also, a better way of planning your retirement.

Things That Are More Likely Than Winning the Lottery

If you believe in the odds of winning the lottery, then you should never fly or drive. That because you are more likely to be killed in a plane crash, where the odds are 25 million to 1, and far more likely to die in a car crash, where the odds are only 5,000 to 1. Similarly you should start sleeping on the floor and taking showers. That's because the odds of being killed by falling out of bed are 2 million to 1, while the odds of drowning while taking a bath are 840,000 to 1. However, don't think you can improve your odds by avoiding cleanliness altogether. The odds of dying from a flesh-eating bacteria are only 1 million to 1.

Maybe you'll have better luck outside. Not! The odds of being killed by lightning are 2 million to 1, while being killed by a dog are 700,000 to 1. Bring your anti-venom kit, because you are even more likely to die from a snakebite or bee sting, where the odds are 100,000 to 1.

If these statistics have you feeling a little paranoid, cheer up! There are many happy occurrences that are more likely than winning the lottery. For example, the odds of becoming a movie star are only 1.5 million to 1, while the odds of getting a royal flush in a first hand of poker are just 649,740 to 1. Even better (guys!), the odds of dating a supermodel are a measly 88,000 to 1.

To put it all into perspective, consider this. Scientists have calculated that there is just a 300 to 1 chance that asteroid 2004 MN4 will strike the Earth on April 13, 2029. The asteroid is about a quarter mile (400 meters) wide. This is larger than the asteroid that carved out Meteor Crater in Arizona, and the one that flattened thousands of square miles of forest in Siberia in 1908.

Things You No Longer Have to Worry About

OK, time for a little cheering up again. There are many things that are less likely than winning the lottery. For example, it's safe to go back into the water. The odds of dying from a shark attack are 300 million to 1, only half as likely as winning the lottery. Obviously, swimming with the sharks is much safer than petting a dog, driving your car or sleeping in your bed! (Sources: Savings Advice, Don't Waste Your Time Playing the Lottery; Huffington Post, Powerball Odds; Brain of Brian, Useless Facts)

How to Improve Your Odds

If you've read all these statistics, and still want to play the lottery, here's some ways to improve your odds. First, use the computer-generated numbers, they tend to be the luckiest. That's because there is less chance of someone else picking a duplicate number. Furthermore, only 30% of the winning numbers were the players' "lucky" numbers. Whatever you do, don't pick "lucky" 7, 11, or a birthday. You can be sure that someone else will have also picked those nunmbers.

Second, be sure to play the $1 million or $2 million second prize in the Powerball. There, you only have to match five of the six numbers. Those odds are 1 out of 5 million. Even better odds are available if you only play in the state lotteries instead of the national one. (Sources: Space, Asteroid Watch Odds; TriValley Central, Powerball Odds; Examiner, Odds of Winning Jackpot Is 175 Million to One); Alabama.com, Can You Improve Your Chances of Winning?)

How to Improve Your Chances of Attaining Retirement

Perhaps you are one of those who consider the lottery their best chance of retiring. Well, consider this comparison. Let's say you currently buy a $2 lottery ticket every week for the next 17 years (before the 300 to 1 chance the asteroid hits Earth). There is little likelihood, based on the odds, that you would have won.

However, if you instead invested that $2 a week in securities and got a 5% return, you would have accumulated $2,926. Doesn't sound like much, does it? Let's say you invested $2 a day instead. You would wind up with $20,5361 by 2029.

Your return will probably be greater than that. Before the 2008 financial crisis, the average stock market return was 10% a year. If you get that return over the next 17 years, then your $2 a day would become $33,287. True, that's not enough to retire on. But what if you increased it to $5 a day. You'd wind up with $83,220. Or doubled that, and invested $10 a day, you'd get $166,436. Now you're talking!

The point is that you do have better odds for a successful retirement if you plan for it than by playing the lottery. You don't have to depend on fate, chance or luck. You can take matters into your own hands, starting today! (Article updated January 15, 2013)

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