012: Dreaming Big

In This Episode: I like to make fun of the lottery, but if you are going to play, here’s how to apply some Uncommon Sense to the mix, whether you win or not.


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Show Notes

  • It’s lore that most lottery winners are actually unhappy or, worse, quickly worse off financially than when they started. But those conclusions are based on small sample sizes of people who typically don’t want to be found, or (if found) don’t want to talk about their personal finances …just like most others. (The Atlantic)
  • I argue it’s fine to play with what you can afford to lose (e.g., a portion of your entertainment budget), but some vehemently disagree, such as this response to the above article, and the author argues it well, including this tweet from a PhD student in machine learning: “My hobby: watching underpaid, overworked engineers sacrificing their 20s to an early stage startup ridicule people who buy lottery tickets.”
L-R: Nurse Gretchen Post, Nurse Stephanie Brinkman, and Dr. Casey Orellana, who all work together (with the others pictured behind them) at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Mercy Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo: MCH)

Transcript

I like to make fun of the lottery; a common joke is, it’s “a tax on people who are bad at math.” But if you are going to play, here’s how to apply some Uncommon Sense to the mix, whether you win or not.

Welcome to Uncommon Sense. I’m Randy Cassingham.

It’s a common news staple: groups of people who work together, and pool their money to buy lottery tickets. It’s often in the news because when they win, they all quit their jobs en masse or, worse, one tries to steal the winnings, saying the group tickets didn’t win, but the one they bought “with their own money” just happened to be the one that brought in the big cash!

That doesn’t seem to be a worry for a group of about 140 nurses who work together in the NICU — the neonatal intensive care unit — at Mercy Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. “We have a very stressful job,” acknowledges nurse Gretchen Post, who has worked at Mercy’s NICU for 28 years, “so it’s just something fun that keeps us going.” The group has been pooling their money for years, and only played when the jackpot got into the hundreds of millions. But in all those years, they had never won more than $20 — to get back to the math part!

This past October, there was a frenzy when the Mega Millions Lottery, a multi-jurisdictional game that pools tickets from 44 states, Washington D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands, grew to the point where the estimated jackpot was 1.6 billion dollars — that’s billion with a B. To put it another way, that’s sixteen hundred million dollars.

Once all the dust settled, the final jackpot for that drawing was one billion, 537 million dollars, if paid over 30 years. Most take the lump-sum cash value, which in this case was $878 million. Of course, that’s reduced further by taxes. And I’ll admit it: I put a $10 bill into the pot for a few chances at that. And decided up front that in the unlikely event that I did win, I’d put 90 percent of it into a foundation so that I could give it all away.

On the night of the huge drawing, nurse Stephanie Brinkman, the group’s pool organizer, stayed up late to watch the numbers come in. Before she could even check all the tickets herself, she started getting calls and text messages from her colleagues: they had a winning ticket!

“I was so in shock, I couldn’t believe it,” Brinkman said.

No, they didn’t win the $1.6 billion jackpot. One ticket has long odds at the top prize: about a 1 in 175,711,536 chance of winning — per ticket. Yet someone did beat those odds: that ticket was sold in South Carolina. But the NICU staff’s win was still a nice chunk of change: $10,000, which still had pretty long odds: about 1 in 689,065. After taxes, their $10,000 netted about $7,200. If split among them all, each member of the group would get …about $50.

But in the high glee of lottery winners, even for $10,000 split about 140 ways, life still goes on, as doctors and nurses well know — especially those who work in intensive care.

Dr. Casey Orellana, a neonatologist in the NICU, for instance, was dealing with troubles. Her husband, Phil, is battling cancer, and recently learned it had metastasized to his lungs. Then the other shoe dropped: Gretchen Post, the nurse I quoted at the start about playing the lottery was “something fun that keeps us going” in the stress of the job: she had devastating news. Just before the lottery drawing, her 17-year-old son, Jack, committed suicide.

Sure these are the kinds of tragedy that doctors and nurses deal with as a regular part of their stressful jobs, but that also helps them develop Uncommon Sense. As the group talked, using their chat group on social media, they thought about their 50 bucks versus the challenges that their colleagues were facing, and made a decision.

“We thought right away that this wasn’t going to make us or break us,” said Stephanie Brinkman, the group’s organizer, “and it was money we didn’t have before. We needed to help somebody.” You probably have already realized what the group did: they voted to give their winnings to Nurse Post and Dr. Orellana — $3,600 each.

“It was a little bit of relief that I would have some money to help with Jack’s funeral,” Post said. “It just came at the right time.”

Dr. Orellana’s cancer-stricken husband is also a doctor. She said, “He’s had most of the treatments that are available here in the U.S., so we’ve looked around the world for treatments. It’s required us to travel and pay for things insurance doesn’t cover.”

I know some of you are scoffing at this point: how does Uncommon Sense really relate to the lottery? Some studies show that about 70 percent of people who win big in the lottery end up broke within about seven years after their win — they blow the money because they don’t have any idea of how to deal with that much money. They think the money can just never run out …until it does.

But it’s hard to get accurate data since winners are hard to track down, and most people are reluctant to give specific figures about their finances, so many researchers think the 70 percent figure is grossly exaggerated. Whatever the numbers are, it’s clear a lot of winners don’t go broke. If they don’t have Uncommon Sense themselves, they can sure afford to buy it, bringing in tax lawyers, financial planners, and other professionals to help them figure out what to do with their windfall.

And then there’s this: studies show that in the United States, about 85 percent of lottery winners actually continue to work, with just over half staying in their same job, so my bet is, yes: the 70 percent figure is probably way wrong; it’s probably more like 85 percent do just fine — and clearly, a lot of them also do good.

Because clearly, a lot of them don’t really need a lot of outside help: once the money is in hand, they know what to do with it. And it’s awfully heartening to see that a very typical response is to give it away to help others. “It’s completely unbelievable,” nurse Brinkman said, “and I think it happened for a reason — so we could help those in need.”

“I was surprised that they won the lottery,” Dr. Orellana said, “but I wasn’t surprised they were being so generous and amazing, because that’s just who they are.”

Nurse Post, who used the money for her son’s funeral, said, “It really was a relief. I’m very grateful. I know our unit always stands by each other.”

If there’s one thing that Uncommon Sense helps bring, it’s really, really loyal friends.

“We have a very strong bond and I think this just goes to show that we’re always here for each other, no matter what,” Brinkman said. “We hope stories like this encourage others to spread kindness and love.”

And that’s why I wanted to tell their story: while the lottery may really be “a tax on people who are bad at math,” there is a return for the investment, even if you don’t win: it promotes really big “what-if” thinking, and provoking that kind of thought really is valuable. And if you do win, well, in this world, there are an awful lot of opportunities to spread the wealth.

And think about this: this kind of thinking isn’t limited to lottery winners: think of the billionaires. (Won’t SOMEONE think of the billionaires?!) But seriously: take, for instance, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who went back and forth as being the richest men in the world for years. Gates is still worth $95 billion or so even after spending tens of billions to set up and endow the Gates Foundation, which is doing amazing things in education, medicine, reducing poverty, and more. He left Microsoft so he and his wife could work full time on giving away the fortune he had made.

“Even before we got married,” Gates said this year, “we talked about how we would eventually spend a lot of time on philanthropy. We think that’s a basic responsibility of anyone with a lot of money. Once you’ve taken care of yourself and your children, the best use of extra wealth is to give it back to society.” And speaking of Warren Buffett, he has made the same pledge. Unlike Gates, he’s currently still the CEO of his company and concentrating on making more money — he’s up to around $85 billion now. Why work so hard at 88 years old to make money when he’s that rich? Well, he wants more to give to the Gates Foundation when he dies, because he doesn’t think any similar foundation that he might create could do better than Gates’ to help improve the world, thinking about the big picture of future generations long after he’s gone.

“Bill and I have been doing this work, more or less full-time, for 18 years,” Melinda Gates said earlier this year. “That’s the majority of our marriage. It’s almost the entirety of our children’s lives. We do the work because it’s our life.”

Not everyone can pledge their entire savings to charity, but a lot of us do. You don’t have to be rich to have Uncommon Sense, or even to change the world, and it’s awfully cool to watch people ponder the “what-ifs” no matter where the thought is sparked. And really, one of those sparks is from the lottery. As long as people play responsibly, for instance using part of their entertainment budget, why not dream about how they can improve the world in a big too? Yet if they don’t, many leave their savings to do their part anyway: they “do the work, because it’s their life.” It goes for thousands of us every year, and the cumulative effect is enormous.

The Show Page has a photo of the nurses at Mercy: that’s at thisistrue.com/podcast12

I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.

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2 Comments on “012: Dreaming Big

  1. Glad to know I’m not the only one who enjoys thinking about which groups I would give a bunch of money to if I won. Meanwhile, my financial adviser has said I should stop donating to so many organizations, or I’ll run out of money by the time I’m 88. Now that tariffs and corruption have bitch-slapped the stock market, I guess I really will have to cut back, dammit!

  2. I, too, have done the ‘what if’ thinking — perhaps I should call it day-dreaming — if I won a big lottery, but I never imagine the biggest pots; usually I dream about $40 to $50 million net (taken as a lump sum), and I deduct about 1/3 for taxes. That still leaves me with far more than I need for myself, so my first thoughts are how I will give it away. One thing I know is that I don’t want my name over a door. I’m not sure I even want my name on a plaque in the corner of a room. I’d just as soon walk away knowing that my money was well used and that most of the beneficiaries have no idea where the money came from. I sometimes wish I could distance myself even further from the gift by not knowing who benefited from it, but somehow I sense that that might be a little irresponsible.

    I actually think there’s utility in acknowledgement of the donor — especially if their name isn’t otherwise known. It shows that “regular people” can make a difference that lasts generations — no, this facility/service/whatever didn’t come from “the government” or “some celebrity” but someone just like you who looked beyond his or her own needs. -rc

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