Should You Buy a Lottery Ticket?


The lottery is a fixture in American society, with Americans spending upward of $100 billion on tickets each year. States promote it as a way to raise money — and they do, in some cases, use it for important purposes, like education and public works. But just how meaningful that revenue is in broader state budgets, and whether it’s worth the trade-offs to people who lose their hard-earned money, is debatable.

Lottery is a form of gambling where numbers are drawn at random to determine winners. While most people think of the financial lottery where participants pay a small amount of money for the chance to win big, other kinds of lotteries exist. These include drawing lots for subsidized housing units or kindergarten placements. In the latter case, winning can help a child avoid being exposed to more dangerous classmates.

Historically, people have used the lottery to allocate land or property, to determine rights to war booty, and to give away slaves. Modern lotteries typically have two elements: a centralized database of all bettors; and a method for recording and shuffling the bettor’s tickets or receipts for selection in a drawing.

A bettor may rationally purchase a lottery ticket if the expected utility of non-monetary benefits, such as entertainment value, outweighs the disutility of a monetary loss. However, most of the time, buying a lottery ticket is a losing proposition, and savvy bettor’s should choose games with smaller number fields, which offer better odds.