In early November Kirby and Marie Fontaine, each without the other’s knowledge, bought a Lotto Max ticket. Both in their 30s, two kids at home, living in a mobile home they were down to their last few dollars. She worked in a care home. He had to give up his position in security because of a stroke months before. Money was tight and there wasn’t enough for him to get the rehabilitation he so desperately needed.

Marie beat the odds that day, 1 in 28 million, and won $50 million dollars. In Canada that’s $50 million dollars tax free!

I’m really happy for this couple. By the sounds of it they are friendly, well respected members of their community. People who know them only have kind things to say about them. They’ve had a difficult time of it and this will change their lives. The ethics of spending their last $10 has spread throughout the media.

Who are we to judge how they spend their money? If I had been in the same situation, discouraged and out of money, who’s to say I wouldn’t buy hope with a $5 bill.

Are lotteries marketed to people who don’t have an emergency fund, are low on finances and are bad at math? Is it ethical to sell hope when the odds are 1 in 28 million?

Fifty million dollars is a lot of money and with it comes a lot of responsibility. There is a misguided belief that money will solve all problems. Yes, it can help. It can buy freedom, experiences, medical treatment, houses, cars and lots left over for giving away. It may solve some of their problems but it will also bring with it new issues. Money changes relationships. It’s one thing to have the freedom to give to people and organizations you want to support. It’s another thing altogether to have thousands of people asking for money and having to say no. It may have you wondering who your friends really are.

In truth I wouldn’t want to win 50 million dollars. I’ve heard too many horror stories about how large lottery wins have ruined peoples lives. Just google “lottery regrets” if you haven’t heard some of the worst of it.

In 2004, Suzanne Conrad of Findlay Ohio won one million dollars in a Pillsbury Bake Off. Being a pie person, I knew I had to try this recipe. It’s been a hit in this family ever since only instead of calling it “Oats N’ Honey Granola Pie” (recipe) which sounds, slightly unappetizing, we call it “Million Dollar Pie”. Let me tell you, that is some fine pie! What I like about this particular contest is that in winning, the finalist doesn’t get a million dollars all at once but $50,000 a year over 20 years. Fifty thousand dollars over twenty years can buy a lot of financial margin but it probably won’t change your life.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I’d rather have $50,000 over 20 years than a million dollars all at once. That wouldn’t make financial sense. Even at ING’s measly 1.05%, a million dollars would still earn over $1000 in interest a month. I just wonder if lotteries paid out over time, preferably with interest, they’d have the potential to enrich lives more than a one time big windfall ever could. It would certainly avoid the bankruptcies within years of winning a lottery. It would also avoid the pitfalls that come along with giving people who are bad a math a huge windfall all at once.

Kathryn works in public relations and training for a non profit. In her off hours, she volunteers as a financial coach helping ordinary Canadians with the basics of money management. Her passions include personal finance and adult education. Kathryn, along with her husband and two children live in Ontario.

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Two things… First, watch “Lottery Changed My Life” on TLC as it gives you a better perspective – good and bad – of what happens when you receive a huge amount unexpectedly..

Second, The problem I have is with the other several million lottery players who didn’t win. Lotteries raise your hopes, and then kill your hopes, every month!

Ummm…sorry but I don’t buy this for a second: “In truth I wouldn’t want to win 50 million dollars.”

Come on! Of course you’d want to win $50 million!

This is terrible writing. The basis of your entire article is that someone googles a term on their own to make your point? Get this guest poster off this site!

good for the couple; they needed the money.
beyond that, unfortunately things get nasty when people know you have a lot of money

I have seen marriages end, friendships fall apart and families members become estranged because of lottery windfalls.

When I was a Financial Planner, I worked with several clients who found themselves suddenly affluent, usually due to a large inheritance, lawsuit settlement or lottery win. The majority of the lottery winners I dealt with had won between $1mm – $3mm. Though I did have one $10mm winner. The majority of the lottery winners had spent/wasted/poorly invested their winnings and had nothing left at the end of the 5 years.

When people first come into a windfall there is a ‘honeymoon period’ where they are relieved of all their financial troubles and concerns. This is then replaced by a condition that we use to call “affluenza” where the recipient suddenly realizes and becomes overwhelmed with the new and unexpected problems and concerns that come with their financial gain.

I’m always fascinated by lottery winners – especially the ones that go bad. :)

A couple of points – Barry Schwartz in Paradox of Choice talks about the fact that people who have good or bad things happen to them end up getting used to their new situation and aren’t usually any happier than they were before the life changing event. This applies to lottery winners since once the “honeymoon” is over they just end up with new problems. This doesn’t mean things automatically get worse but rather that in a lot of ways their life doesn’t change much.

Another thing which isn’t all that related to the post is that there is a common perception that most lottery winners end up living in the ditch because they won the lottery. From what I’ve seen (and Dana clearly knows more than I) it appears that people who are poor and can’t handle money often have a tough time with new found riches. Another thing is that there are a lot of lottery winners every week – I haven’t really heard of that many tales of woe from lottery winners so would assume that most of them end up doing ok. Sure they might end up spending it all but they probably end up with some neat toys…

I should also say that I have also worked with lottery winners who were able to successfully manage their windfall. One thing most of the successful lottery winners had in common? They kept their windfalls as private as possible (told people on a need to know basis), did not outwardly change their standard of living very much, and sought advice from several professionals (lawyers, accountants, Financial Planners) before taking any action with their money.

Those who were successful with their windfalls also seem to be people who were fiscally responsible before they come in to money (not necessarily wealthy, just prudent) and who have specific goals they want to use the money for.

Many lotteries in the US do pay out the winnings over many years. Unfortunately, there are companies that specialize in buying up lottery annuities by paying out lump sums to lottery winners so that they can have a large amount of money right away. There is even an entertaining book about a guy who worked for one of these companies.

I too, doubt the fact that most lottery winners end up with nothing in the end. My guess is that this is the exception and not the rule. I think we just hear about the tales of woe because they are an interesting story that the media picks up on and reports. Imagine how many papers this headline would sell:

“Lottery winner invested wisely and is still doing fine after ten years.”

For me, winning the lottery would change my life significantly, because I would definitely quit my job. Having to find something different to do with 9 hours of my day is pretty huge. But I would not move, I’m not interested in toys, and my husband would have a field day investing it all, so from the outside, it would not look like much had changed.

For me the biggest problem will be dealing with my family. There are a couple of people there who would feel that I should be obligated to give them money (they already do in fact), so I would have to find an effective way to deal with that, or cut ties. That is the saddest part about winning money – people feel that since you won it, you owe them something.

Andrew: You suggest Kathryn has only one point throughout the entire article, while she actually has several points and she poses some questions, too. Her writing about “lottery regrets” is simply one point and the reference to “googling” seemed quite logical to me.

You seem to be upset about what you perceive to be a generalized argument in her writing. Interesting that you passionately advocate for Kathryn’s removal based on one article she has written. Is that not making a sweeping assumption about her writing? Perhaps you should read her other articles and note their worthy writing, and the number of positive comments before you rush to a snap judgement.

I am of the opinion that most “lottery regrets” type people were stupid with money before they won, and didn’t bother to learn anything about how to handle money once they got some. Lotteries happen every week. Granted, the huge jackpots are more rare, but if all, or even the majority of major lottery winners went belly-up we’d hear about a lot, lot more cases.
Alexandra is right – financially stable lottery winners do not make headlines. Just like how your average “millionaire next door” isn’t on E!TV. It’s not entertaining to the masses.

I am perfectly willing to test my theory. Someone give me $50M and I’ll show you what I can do. ^_~

The “bad winners” get the press but the sheer number of prizes tells us plenty of people do well (or are screwing up slowly and without drama). I know I’ve mentioned this before, but a friend of my mum’s won the lottery back home and is doing great – better than great really. But he definitely isn’t going on reality TV to talk about it!

I love to gamble, but far prefer horse racing and betting on rugby games to playing the 6/49, which I rarely play at all. So I’ll probably never win $50mm – but I’d sure love to!

I haven’t read any of the articles questioning the Manitoba couple’s spending their last ten bucks on tickets, but agree with the whole “who are we to judge” thing for sure. I have read some fairly nasty assumption about that couple because of their ethnicity, which is just one more reason not to read the comments under the Globe and Mail’s stories I guess.

I have never bought a lottery ticket a day in my life. In my opinion, it’s an idiot tax. It’s for people who don’t understand probability in a meaningful weigh.

Those who truly see it as entertainment, honesty and truly ONLY as entertainment probably buy 1 ticker and never more than that.

My supervisor buys lottery tickets, he’s and engineer and should know better in my opinion. His argument is the probability says no one should win, but people do all the time,so why not him?

There is some serious flaws with this reasoning. First off, the probability that you will win is negligible. The probability that someone will win out of all players is probably about 1 in 20. So on average say every 20 weekly draws someone wins, so you read about jackpot winners once every few months.

The probability that someone in your province will win is probably once per year. The probability that someone within 100 km of you will win probably once every 5 years.

You can see where I’m going with this. The “closer” you are to a winner, the more you feel like you have a chance. But YOUR chances do not change.

They are still 49-choose-6 = 1 in 10 billion on any given draw of winning the jackpot.

If you figure out what your chances of wining something significant are, given you play several times per week, you’re odds don’t improve substantially and you are wasting more money.

One more thing, poor people win the lottery all the time, it’s because wealthy people don’t waste their money on lottery tickets.

Interesting topic, Kathryn. Thanks for bringing it up.

I believe that money is the great amplifier. If lottery winners had troubles with finances and relationships before winning, those bad habits and troubles will be magnified when large sums of money are involved. On the flip side, if they were financially responsible and made sound investment decisions, large sums of money should serve to help them, not be a hindrance. However, I am guessing that the demographic of typical lottery players falls into the former category, not the latter – hence the reason for such “regret” stories.

P.S. I’ve always enjoyed your writing. Thanks for your hard work!


I agree completely with your general argument, but you make it way too easy for others to disagree by pointing out the numerous errors in your comment. Quite apart from the typos and grammatical errors, most of your numbers are obviously wrong. To begin with, 49-choose-6 is just under 14 million, not 10 billion. More than one-twentieth of the possible combinations are covered in most (if not all) 6/49 draws. That said, I agree that people waste money on tickets with false hope.

I agree with PD…this article is not “one point”. It is well-written and thought provoking. I have enjoyed Kathryn’s articles. PLEASE don’t stop, Kathryn.

I have to say that I would never hope NOT to win the lottery, though. I may make a huge mess of things, but I would love the opportunity to do so!

You know you don’t have to win the TOP prize. I’d rather spend a few bucks on a lottery ticket once in a while for fun then buying a coffee every day at Timmies or Starbucks like others do. Everyone has their own version of idiot tax I guess.

@Crucial I like your point about everyone having their own idiot tax. I work with a bunch of bright individuals but many of the brightest actually leave work in the middle of the day in the freezing cold, get in their cars, drive over to Tim Horton’s and pay for a cup of coffee which they promptly bring back to work to drink and continue working.

We have perfectly good always free coffee here at work along with a huge selection of teas. It isn’t just a pot of crappy coffee either … we have several premium roasts as well as an automatic machine that puts out a few flavours of coffee along with hot chocolate, mocha, etc.

I understand people need an excuse for a break … but there are better ways. When I got to Timmies … I at least pay for the convenience of food (lunch or a bagel for breakfast) and only get a drink when I’m on the road or have no other access to caffeine.

Anyway, on topic … I don’t buy lottery tickets either because I look at them in the same way as a waste of money. I’d rather buy something with my $2-$5 that I know will give me value or enjoyment instead of buying a dream that probabilistically will never come true.

Thanks for the thought provoking article. Makes me stop and think about what I would do.

I don’t think it’s our place to judge what people do with their last little bit of money; haven’t been in that position. The ‘idiot tax’ that was used to describe the lottery ticket could be used to describe many things that aren’t necessary.

Thanks for making me stop and think, Kathryn!

You can talk about the morality of selling hope but I think the lottery is inherently amoral to start with. It adds no value whatsoever to our society. People frequently complain about big corporations and their big profits but at least they actually “add value”. The create services or products that people are willing to pay extra for. Lotteries are purely taking from one person and giving to another (less the government rake). Nothing is created. I used to buy the argument about it being entertainment and I used to gamble a little but then I realized that gambling fostered a mentality which had nothing to do with the person I wanted to be. I don’t want my neighbor’s money. I want to “earn” my own.

Bryce: I agree strongly with your argument. It’s why I said “in truth, I wouldn’t want to win $50 million..”. If I have money I want it to be money that I’ve earned or at least won as a result of some effort on my part (like creating a winning pie recipe).

My purpose in writing this was not to make judgments on people who play or win but to generate discussion which it seems to be doing well.

Thanks to the financial advisors who have shared their personal experience with the success stories of lottery winners. It’s true, the good news doesn’t always make it to the media.

I don’t get TLC but I’m going to look up “Lottery Changed My Life”. Instant millionaires and rags to riches stories have always fascinated me. Thanks for sharing!

Sure they sell hope. I buy them once in a while when the pot gets big enough. It’s true, the odds never change. However, the expected winnings do change as the pot grows, and in some cases, the expected winnings can exceed the price of the ticket, so statistically, you should be buying a ticket.

I always thought if I had a winning ticket, I would get my sister or very close friend to cash it for me (with a generous gift for them). And to be honest, if I had won $50mil, I’d be more eager to grow it to 1 billion than to spend it all.

As for the ethics of spending your last $10 on a lottery ticket. Well, it’s certainly a hail-mary type of last play. We don’t hear about the thousands of other people who tried it and it didn’t work out for them. But we did hear about the one couple where it did work out. So more people might be likely to try the hail mary play if they’re put in that situation.

nobleea: I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but the odds do change as more people buy tickets. The more tickets that get sold, the more likely that you’ll have to share the top prize with one or more people. Lesser prizes get divided over more winners as well. Statistically, you should never be buying a ticket.

Sure, I’d rather earn it than win it. And I know there are many pitfalls to winning large sums —- but —- I’m willing to take those risks!

Actually, I don’t play the lottery. Not beacuse I wouldn’t want to win, but because I know I never would.

Sometimes the lotteries actually gives you a positive expected value (assuming only one person hits). So then it’s a good bet!

I think we should have more things like lotteries. Open more casinos and have more lotteries and tax them heavily. I see no problem with this voluntary distribution of money. We may even be able to reduce mandatory taxes if we introduce more lotteries/casinos!


“Sometimes the lotteries actually gives you a positive expected value (assuming only one person hits). So then it’s a good bet!”

That’s like saying that roulette gives a positive expected value, assuming that a black number comes up. All modern lotteries I’ve looked at do not give a positive expected value, ever. They are not good bets. Some past lotteries were poorly-designed and gave positive expected value in extreme cases, but these mistakes seem to have been fixed.

Buy tickets if it makes you happy to have a little hope, but don’t delude yourself into thinking that it is a smart play.

Like a lot of people, Steve frames the issue of the attraction of buying lottery tickets as simply a matter of failed intelligence and reasoning. But obviously gambling is primarily emotional, as any savvy investment advisor will remind us. Emotional desire is more often than not stronger than reasoning – see the history of drama (or maybe your family) for quick examples.

Lotteries aren’t “an idiot tax…for people who don’t understand probability in a meaningful weigh (sic)…” The terrible odds of winning the lottery is easily understood, and pretty much everyone who buys a ticket understands it. It’s just that “understanding” isn’t the prime motivator.

Almost every day, in small and not-so-small ways, we bet on things turning out differently than they usually do, or perhaps than they ever have. (Doomed romances, anyone?) Human beings are not only, or even primarily, rational, and lotteries are popular with the poor and uneducated, as well as middle-class and educated, such as Steve’s boss, because they fundamentally appeal to the imagination, to certain powerful, familiar dreams – not to intelligence. It’s an expression of the primal, irrational desire to make probability bend to our personal desires. Like not dying, or being able to fly, or trying to find happiness by pleasing someone else, ad infinitum…

When it comes to buying lottery tickets, I think the real difference between Steve’s boss, the engineer, and relatively poorer, less educated lottery players, shows up in the way they excuse their participation, not in intelligence.

Due to his status, Steve’s boss must try to at least give lip service to rationalizing the irrational – “the probability says no one should win, but people do all the time, so why not him?” Of course there are “some serious flaws with this reasoning,” but Steve’s boss has to at least attempt to portray his buying lottery tickets as a rational move. If he doesn’t, people may doubt he’s quite worthy of his status.

On the other hand, people lacking that status are free to admit that their motivation has nothing to do with probability and reason. They can shrug and just come right out with admitting it’s dumb, silly, wishful thinking, or whatever substitute term for “emotional” or “irrational.”

Michael James – Nobleea is right – the odds of winning don’t change if more people play. It’s true that you might have to split the prize with more people.

My “strategy” for lotteries is to play smaller ones. Draws at work, 50/50 tickets at hockey games have much smaller prizes but the odds of winning are far more realistic.

Michael James –

Actually what I said was perfectly true for the 649 at least. What happens is that if nobody wins the jackpot keeps going up. If the jackpot reaches higher than the the number of combinations x the price of the ticket, then i’ts a positive expected value for that instance of the lottery (but ONLY if there is one winner – a rule that isn’t enforced since mutiple people can own the same number, so if you were the only person who bought a ticket, you’d be buying at a positive expected value).

So… there is no similarity to what I said and your roulette example. Regardless, the point of my post was the second paragraph, I’m all for people being taxed voluntarily!


It’s true that if we exclude some bad outcomes, many bets have a positive expectation. However, if you factor in the probability that there will be multiple winners, 6/49 does not have a positive expectation. This works the same for roulette. If I bet on one of the black numbers, my bet has a positive expectation if we exclude the possibility that a red number comes up.

Thanks for bringing up such an interesting discussion, Kathryn. Rags to Riches stories have always interested me as well.

Oh, you’re right with that example… but we can still get a positive expectation from the 6/49!
I wonder how many people would have to buy the lottery tickets to move the positive expectation to negative…. Like, if the number of combinations is 20 million, and the ticket costs $2, and the payout is 80 million, then we’re getting a positive expectation of $2 assuming nobody else hits our number, how many people would have to buy before the probability of two (or more) people hitting the same number is over 50%? It’s like the birthday “paradox”. And I’m too lazy to figure out the stats even though i vaguely recall how to calculate it. Anyway, it’s goign to be a fairly small number of buyers that will probably never happen.

Four Pillars:

I believe that Michael James is correct. If 28M people bought a ticket then statistically there should be 1 winner. If 56M people buy tickets then statistically there should be 2 winners of the grand prize. So while your individual odds of hitting the jackpot are 1 in 28M, your expected winnings are (1/28M) x Jackpot/2. The more people that play the lower your real expected winnings are.

I’ve often questioned whether 6/49 was rigged. You often have no winners for 2,3 sometimes 8 draws and then when the jackpot gets to be huge you have 4 tickets split the prize. Regulars will play when the lottery is low, so it gets carried forward until the jackpot is big enough for the hopefuls to get their money in there increasing the payday for the lottery corp.

BryceT – I agree that the “expected return” might be less if more people play but Nobleea specifically said the odds of winning the jackpot remain the same regardless of the size of the jackpot. MJ said that wasn’t the case which is wrong.

Obviously MJ was referring to the expected return not the actual odds of winning the jackpot.

As for whether these changes in expected return will affect purchases? I can guarantee the only people who are thinking about this stuff are a bunch of geeks who hang around this blog. :)

It’s very difficult for the 6/49 jackpot to get as high as $80 million because if a jackpot of more than $30 million isn’t won, they allocate less new money to the jackpot and more to the lesser prizes. If the number of tickets bought is double the number of available combinations, but the tickets are chosen randomly, then here are the probabilities for the number of winners up to 4:

0: 13.5%
1: 27.1%
2: 27.1%
3: 18.0%
4: 9.0%

So, the odds of a single winner are fairly low with this many tickets.

“Even at ING’s measly 1.05%, a million dollars would still earn over $1000 in interest a month”

Umm…no. It would earn $875 a month.

Well… I don’t buy lottery tickets because my faith.

However, happy endings can happen with someone hitting the “big one”. With $50 million, Kirby and Marie can buy 200 houses (assuming it’s $250,000 a piece) and live happily ever after… MORTGAGE FREE!

Let’s say net rent per house is $800 per month, that’s $160,000 in monthly income without getting out of your pajamas. If I were Kirby and Marie, the money can go to lots of charity and still have enough for everyday needs. I for one would not live like a celebrity and go down the tubes in 5 years time.

My 0.02!

DividendMan: “I think we should have more things like lotteries. Open more casinos and have more lotteries and tax them heavily. I see no problem with this voluntary distribution of money. We may even be able to reduce mandatory taxes if we introduce more lotteries/casinos!”

Really? This model may work in a place like Vegas where people come and leave their money and return back to where ever they came from but who is going to go to Edmonton or Winnipeg to do their gambling? Do you want to promote a gambling society?

I would agree. I would rather make the money thru hard work and dedication. There are too many people banking on making it to easy street via a short cut. 1 in 28 million are better odds than I though the lotta was though.

Lotteries should be illegal, or at least come with the same kind of warnings as tobacco. It’s a scam to take away poor people’s money.

I personally like lotteries. I probably buy 1 ticket a year when I’m bored. I just think the state should raise the taxes on the entire program so more money can be allocated to programs that better the communities we live in.

In that scenario, I’d rather have people addicted to lotteries because although they are hurting their very own financial position, they are helping those that need it the most like under-privileged children.


The ironic part is that people who tend to participate in lotteries are the type of people who are far more likely to mess up their finances once they win it. Of course this is no universal and many responsible people play the lottery for the fun of it rather than some hopes of actually winning.

Slow financial news day

Gambling on the lottery is not a whole lot different than the gambling done on Wall Street. Done recklessly it hurts people.

I remember an experiment where a group plucked a homeless man off the streets and gave him 1 million dollars and tracked his life experiences for a year. At the end of the next year he was right back where he started, broke and homeless. I think in instances when people win a lot of money they should also be forced to go through financial education classes so that they understand how to spend it wisely.

Most lottery/contest winner have already spent their money before it even lands in their hands.

I wouldn’t say that the lottery sells hope.

It’s just luck – if you win you get money – if you don’t you don’t get money. Rt?

Plus the lottery winners have to give half of it to taxes – which is good for the public because tax money goes into education, and all that good stuff.

But of course people who buy lottery tickets are just ordinary people and don’t really know how to invest with the money they win and end up in the dumps later.

Hi Kathryn,

Good post. The one good thing about lotteries is that the can make people think about finances. Most Canadians will earn well over $1 million in their life. How they live depends on the choices they make about their million – how much they save, how much they enjoy the things they spend it on, how effectively they manage it.

I have wondered about the ethics of lotteries, since I think of it as a “tax on the stupid”. Studies say 30% of Canadians ACTUALLY expect to win the lottery as part of their retirement plan. If met a lot of people that buy lottery tickets every single week for 40 years and think this puts the odds in their favour. They don’t realize that the odds of winning are still negligible.

Interestingly, if you add up the cost over their life, they may have been able to make $1 million. Let’s say a couple pays $10/week for 2 tickets for 50 years and the ticket prices rise by 3% inflation. If they invested this at the average stock market return (11%), they would have $1.2 million.

And unlike the lottery, this COULD actually happen.

The government does make a lot of money from them, though, so if there were no lotteries, they would have to raise taxes on all of us.

I guess they are acceptable to the public because they are voluntary – unlike other taxes.



Great article. I always find it odd that someone would be so readily to dismiss another’s opinion as useless (why comment then?)

I agree that lotteries are something akin to an “idiot tax”. I’m not sure it’s such a bad thing though. At least money gets redistributed to others that need the money through government programs.

For instance, if I bought a TV instead, it’s true that I would be contributing to the economy, but is that ‘morally’ better? Who benefited from that purchase? The company, executives and shareholders probably benefited more directly than society did.

While I think lotteries are a great way to raise money for necessary things (i.e. hospital lotteries), I do agree that they are somewhat ‘unethical’. Because of the ‘hopes and dreams’ that they sell, I think that lotteries tend to draw many who are financially vulnerable and probably would be better off spending the money on other things or saving it.

I guess that’s reality (if everyone had what they need, lotteries probably wouldn’t be that popular).

The pyramid of who makes moneys on lotteries are simple:

1) The top is the lottery commision (note these are tightly regulated, because that IS where the money is)
2) Printing and distributing the lottery tickets
3) Selling the lottery tichets
4) Buying lottery tickets

This is a logarithmic scale too. The bottom’s income is infinatecimal (sp?) compared to the top.

Lotteries rely on the “Shark bite” principal, everyone knows of SOMEONE who was bitten by a shark, same with lotteries everyone knows of SOMEONE who won it big.