Easy money can result in some hard lessons

March 06, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Let me be the one to break the news: It's not you.

Well, let me qualify that: The chances that you will win the $355 million Mega Millions jackpot being drawn tonight are 1 in 176 million, so it's almost certainly, nearly beyond the shadow of a doubt, highly, exceedingly, abundantly likely not you.

But that's OK. Really, who needs it? Who needs the ex-wives, the new best friends forever, the lawyers, the accountants, the distant yet greedy relatives, the Mercedes dealers, the mansion builders and the really, truly, deserving charity cases who materialize one step behind the guy handing you the oversized lottery check? Who needs the inevitable follow-up story that comes later, and sometimes not that much later: Lotto winner bankrupt and divorced, living in trailer on cat food.

You've seen any number of variants on this increasingly archetypal lottery story - the rags to riches and back to rags cases, the winners who lost their millions to drugs, bad people or tacky real estate, the living proofs that money, as it turns out, actually can't buy happiness.

A spin through past news coverage finds a Baltimore County man who won a $3 million Maryland lottery prize, only to have an ex-wife get his monthly child support payments increased from $300 to more than $3,000.

And a St. Louis woman who won $18 million in a lottery but after eight years of generous donations to political campaigns and a university, and a string of bad investments and gambling debts, had just $700 left.

And, to show it's not just Americans who can't handle the big payout, the factory worker who won $28 million in Britain's national lottery and got into the usual earthly troubles - intra-family fighting, intense media scrutiny - but also a spritual one: Muslim leaders rebuked him for violating his religion's taboo against gambling, and his local mosque even refused his offer of a generous donation.

I don't know if these stories are necessarily written with some schadenfreude, but they're certainly read with a heaping dose of it. You can't help but think: Now, if it were me, I would handle the money much better. I would give generously and graciously, rather than stupidly and indulgently. I would take care of my loved ones, not get ripped off by shady ones, invest wisely and end up with more than memories of fleeting extravagances.

"Everyone thinks that," says Susan Bradley, a certified financial planner in Florida who has worked with lottery winners through her company, Sudden Money Institute. And she says it in a tone that nonverbally adds: And everyone is wrong.

"There is this vested interest in the myth that lottery winners are stupid people, that they all do a glorious crash and burn," she says. "There's a lot of invalidating smirking."

It's our uneasy relationship with easy money. And is there any easier money - well, maybe a juicy inheritance - than a lottery win? It was bad enough when individual states started offering what now seem like pittances - a stray million or two - but now, with multistate games such as Powerball and Mega Millions dangling jackpots of hundreds of millions, well, now we're talking some serious amounts to blow.

The cautionary tale of the moment is 2002 Powerball winner Jack Whittaker, whose $315 million prize seems cursed indeed. He has sued and been sued repeatedly, he has been arrested for drunken driving, his restaurant - all too mockably named West Virginia Bistro - went belly-up and, sadly, his beloved and indulged granddaughter died of a drug overdose.

But despite such train wrecks of some post-lottery lives, perhaps we make too much of them, Bradley says. It's not like other more conventionally rich people always make the right choices and never lose a penny.

"It's not impossible to lose any amount of money," she says. "Look at Ted Turner; he lost billions of dollars in the AOL Time Warner deal."

There are indeed happy endings to lottery stories. I've read about winners who started charitable foundations, or those who managed to live sane lives despite their insane windfall.

"It is harder than it looks," Bradley warns. "but it's not impossible to be happy with it."

OK, I'm convinced. Where's the shortest line for a Mega Millions ticket?

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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