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Lessons From The Lottery

The lottery is the number one form of gambling in the US. Players have a variety of popular strategies to win. Here are a few of them.

Lessons from the lottery
Photo by PlayUSA
Maria Healey Avatar
9 mins read

Love it or hate it, the lottery is the number one form of gambling in America. Almost half of the $215 billion revenue generated by the US gambling industry in 2021 is attributable to state lotteries.

Like anyone else who purchases a lottery ticket, I did so with the hope of buying into a dream of wealth I would never be able to accomplish on my own through a lifetime of hard work. Scratchers and draw tickets are so mainstream that phrases such as “won the lottery” or “hit the jackpot” are used in everyday conversation when something good happens.

When the Jul. 29 Mega Millions drawing was announced at $1.28 BILLION, I decided the timing was right to test my luck with a lottery experiment of my own.

The winning lottery strategy

lessons in lottery strategy budget entertainment cash

Everyone has heard stories about lottery jackpot winners featured on the news or reality TV who used a specific strategy to hit their winnings. It seemed simple enough so I decided to give it a shot myself.

As the strategy suggested, I budgeted and set aside $300 cash to purchase California Lottery tickets over three months. With the lottery strategy I’d read about, I planned to duplicate it and spend $25 a week on lottery tickets, amounting to $100 a month for three months.

Responsible gambling’s role in lottery play

Looking at life through my parenting lens, I also used this as an opportunity to talk to my child about responsible gambling. I explained to him that I was spending $25 a week that I’d budgeted for entertainment in the form of playing the lottery.

He needed to know the chances were very small that I’d win anything but I wanted to give it a shot for an entertaining experiment.

I was also taking a proactive approach to responsible gambling by letting him know that I could afford to lose the money I’d budgeted for this purpose. I reminded him that I would not play if we couldn’t afford this form of entertainment.

Playing the strategic lottery experiment

I started on week one playing Mega Millions like the rest of the country in hopes of cashing in on that cool billion-dollar payoff. With my budget of $25, I purchased 12 Mega Millions tickets at $2 each and had a dollar remaining so I added on a $1 scratcher.

Drawing time came and the internet broke. I was certain there was no way that I possessed the winning ticket but the adrenaline coursing through my body thought otherwise as I frantically searched the world wide web for the proof I needed to see for myself.

Nope, I wasn’t that lucky winner in Illinois who took several months to even claim their prize.

gas station lottery tickets

The following week, I wasn’t looking forward to returning to the gas station to purchase lottery tickets once again. I tried to use the Jackpocket app to purchase tickets from the comfort of my own home but found that it wasn’t available in California yet.

Then I went to the grocery store instead and found a lottery vending machine. I bought tickets for Fantasy 5, Powerball, SuperLotto Plus and Mega Millions (now that the billion-dollar jackpot had dropped down significantly). I also purchased scratchers for $3, $5 and $10.

My first win came from a $10 California Dreamin’ scratcher that awarded me $15.

I was already feeling the disappointment of the lottery drawings and only spent $2 on Fantasy 5 in my third week. The rest was spent on a $3 scratcher and two $10 scratchers – both of which were the same game.

This became a key element of my strategy going forward. But not on week three since I didn’t win anything.

Draw lottery drew little appeal

By week four, I decided I needed to radically change my approach because I was quickly getting bored and tired of returning to the gas station or lotto vending machine weekly.

After carefully researching my scratcher odds and options on the CA Lottery website, I decided I wanted to skip a week of lottery play to instead purchase five weeks of the most expensive lottery ticket California had to offer – $30 tickets.

From the CA Lottery website, I was able to research what the top prize was, what the odds were of winning, and what prizes were still available for the scratcher tickets I was considering.

The Costco mentality of gambling

In researching my options, I relied on my prior experience working in the marketing department at a casino where I learned a great deal about the gambling industry. One of the key takeaways was that a player should make less frequent visits to gamble but spend more of their budgeted cash on each of their visits.

Doing so is one way to maximize casino rewards benefits. Rather than gambling weekly with a $25 budget, with that same overall budget, players are better off gambling once:

  • monthly with a $100 budget
  • quarterly with a $300 budget
  • annually with a $1200 budget

That’s one key to maximizing casino or lottery play but it doesn’t allow for the weekly entertainment. The same thing goes for slot play – stick with the high-denomination games and play the max credits. But never bet more than you can afford.

It’s kind of like the Costco mentality – stock up in fewer visits. With this strategy, I went all-in on the next few weeks of lottery play.

California’s $20 million jackpot scratcher

On week five, I purchased $150 worth of lottery tickets (half of my entire $300 budget) and took home five $30 “Set for Life!” tickets. I carefully laid them out and calmly left them to sit on my desk at home to wait to be scratched each week.

The top prize on the “Set for Life! Millionaire Edition” tickets was a whopping $20 million and there were six winning tickets available from the CA Lottery. While it’s not possible how to tell if a lottery ticket is a winner without scratching it, the workaround is to just scratch off and reveal the barcode at the bottom of the ticket.

With a ticket the size of a cocktail menu, I could easily find out with just a simple scan on the CA Lottery app and avoid making the mess that scratch-off tickets are notorious for. I wasn’t a winner that week.

Week six was more of the same – another losing $30 lottery scratcher. I started questioning my luck and strategy, but the excitement and anxiety I felt each time I got ready to reveal the ticket details remained.

My mind spiraled with the vacations I’d take or the people I’d be able to help out with $20 million. One of my “poor kid side effects” is that I live within my means and I keep from splurging, but money like that would mean something I couldn’t wrap my head around.

It allowed me to dream wild lottery dreams.

Scratchers for the win

On week seven I revealed a winning $100 lottery ticket. It was a big win for a $30 ticket, though the odds of winning that amount were 1 in 35. Not so bad when we’re talking about lottery numbers where the odds of winning the top prize of $20 million were 1 in 3,021,785.

With odds like that, I had a better chance of getting a hole-in-one on the golf course than taking home the top prize. When I went to the gas station to cash in my winning ticket (prizes over $599 must be claimed in person at the local lottery district office), the young kid working behind the counter was playful and asked if I’d won a million dollars.

But then he tried to short me $20 so I vowed to not return there again.

The consecutive-buy strategy

My week eight scratcher was another dud of a loser but then I won $40 on another scratcher by week nine. The odds for that prize were 1 in 8 so my plan to buy multiple lottery tickets consecutively had worked out.

When I went with this plan, I figured that if I made one big investment up front, I could avoid multiple visits and I had a better chance of getting a winning ticket with consecutive ticket sales. There are even some states that enforce that lottery tickets must have a winner printed every so often.

The following week I revisited the lottery vending machine at the grocery store and purchased four $5 tickets in order, all of the same game. I also purchased two $2 tickets for the same game and a single $1 ticket because of its sheer novelty.

It was Pumpkin Spice Payday and boasted that it was scented like pumpkin spice. So obviously I had to get my hands on one.

That ticket didn’t smell like a winner but once again, the strategy behind buying multiple tickets for the same game paid off as I won $10 on each of the first two $5 tickets and $6 on the next one.

The odds of winning those prizes were 1 in 18 and 1 in 16. Sure, it wasn’t the top prize of $200,000 but it paid for my week of lottery purchases with a total win of $26.

Lottery is all about luck, not odds or strategy

I entered week eleven with absolute confidence in my consecutive ticket strategy only to find it didn’t work. I bought five $5 tickets for a video game-themed Space Invaders scratcher only to find that every ticket was a loser.

It was a good lesson to learn and a great reminder that the lottery is not a game that is meant to be won consistently.

On my final week of lottery play, I threw all caution to the wind and picked up three different tickets with a variety of top prizes. One $10 scratcher had a top prize of $100.

Another $10 scratcher had a $1 million top prize. And a $5 scratcher had a top prize of $500. However, I only walked away with a $10 win on my $5 scratcher.

12 WeeksWeekly WinTotal WinTotal Spent

US gambling strategies revealed

I had a fun time playing the lottery for three months. Though I haven’t bought another ticket since I still get the urge to play when I walk by a lottery vending machine.

I’m a marketer’s dream come true as a genuinely curious person. And as such, I’ve been intrigued by those machines for a while.

6 big lessons I learned and my tips to follow

  1. Stick to a budget! Whether it’s weekly or monthly, quarterly or annually – make a budget and stick to it. Never chase a win. 
  2. If possible, think about using larger periods for your budget rather than participating in weekly play. This way, you can purchase consecutive tickets upfront or pick up a higher-priced ticket that also comes with a higher top prize to award. Those $1 scratchers don’t pay off nearly as well as the $5 or $30 scratchers.
  3. When cashing a ticket, count your winnings before you walk away from the counter! Had I walked away before realizing the young kid at the gas station only gave me $80 rather than $100, I wouldn’t have won that battle.
  4. This one might be controversial. I’m competitive, but I’m not a gambler. As such, I preferred to just scratch the barcode at the bottom of the ticket to find out quickly if it was a winner. I didn’t bother with covering my table or desk with waxy foil. For other players, the thrill of chasing the win is where they get excited. That wasn’t how I played the game.
  5. If I were going to play the lottery drawings, I’d only do it via Jackpocket. There is no fun in going to the gas station to purchase lotto draw tickets. But I did find some joy in coming up with a strategy for scratcher play and sticking to it.
  6. The lottery and all gambling are just forms of entertainment. Overall, after the wins and losses, I spent $109 to entertain myself with lottery play for three months. It’s the same thing as if I had spent that money on going to the movies. I simply walked away with an experience – not tangible winnings. Approach gambling with that same mindset.
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