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June 9, 2013

Will you be happy if you win the lottery?

TERRE HAUTE — “But ‘happily ever after’ fails

And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales”

— Bruce Hornsby and Don Henley

“Someday I hope you have a chance, to live like you are dying”

— Tim McGraw

A Psychology Today article titled “What Will You Do if You Win the $550 Million Powerball Lottery?” caught my attention. Helping lottery winners with their money is my long-time gig.

The author, Galen Guengerich, Ph.D., is a minister who admits that he has “never been much of a lottery person.” He makes a point that I hammer on in two bestsellers, “Life Lessons from the Lottery” and “Son of a Son of a Gambler: Winners Losers and What to Do When You Win the Lottery.”

Money alone does not buy happiness. Although income is the highest predictor of increased life expectancy (higher income people can eat healthier, have time for exercise and have better access to health care), I have not seen any evidence that lottery winners live longer.

I’ve seen several cases like Abraham Shakespeare, who was murdered in Florida, and Amanda Clayton, a 25-year-old lottery winner from Michigan who died of a drug overdose, of lottery winners dying far too young.

Guengerich makes one conclusion similar to my own observations: Happiness comes from giving back to society and making a difference for other people.

However, I disagree with another of his points. He says that lottery winners should spend like there is no tomorrow.

Too many lottery winners already do that.

For a decade, I have used a statistic I found that shows 90 percent of lottery winners run through their money in five years or less.

Jeremy Babener, a top notch tax attorney in Portland, Ore., has done extensive research on the subject of income dissipation and has convinced me that the percentage is more like 70.

Either way, it’s still a lot of people. A lot of lottery winners may not live like they are dying tomorrow, but they like spend like they are.

Guengerich quotes the famous psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who said, “It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth — and we have no way of knowing when our time is up — that we begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.”

Although I’m a big fan of Kubler-Ross and understand, at some level, what Guengerich is trying to say, lottery winners are not a subset who should be encouraged to spend money quickly.

Every financial concept that I encourage, such as taking lottery winnings in annual payments instead of a lump sum, using lifetime annuities and investing in a way to “get rich slowly,” asks people to spend like they are going to live to a ripe old age.

I want lottery winners to have the idealism of Kubler-Ross in all their actions, but not to the point where they aren’t able to meet their own financial needs.

The last time we heard from lottery millionaire David Edwards, he was living in a storage shed, just a few years after hitting the jackpot. I am not sure if Edwards spent any of his money to help others, but wish he had spent more on helping himself.

Lottery winners may find the balance in an extremely hot new book called, “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending.” I plan to devote more ink on the authors, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, at a later date, but the two rising stars in the field of behavioral finance do a terrific job of answering the question, “Am I getting the biggest happiness bang for the buck?”

Lottery winners are not the only people who live by the Will Rogers adage of “spending money they don’t have to impress people they don’t know.”

Winning the lottery has not always been the ticket to paradise. But if people use the money wisely, for a purpose, and with financial security being their number one priority, it might allow them to get closer to that elusive dream of happiness.

On the other hand, you don’t need to win the lottery to be happy. As Dunn and Norton show us, you just need to spend your money wisely, no matter how much you have or how you got it. Will you be happy if you win the lottery?

Don McNay is a columnist for the Richmond (Ky.) Register. Contact him at don@mcnay.com.

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