I was in a panic. I didn’t have an idea for a Thanksgiving column. I could share my long list of things I was grateful for, but nothing listed was especially unique and column-worthy. Then a woman stopped me after church. She mentioned that she still thought about a column I’d written several years ago that explained that I didn’t play the lottery because I did not want to win. I didn’t want my life disrupted, and I worried the winnings could ruin lives. I still feel this way.
Imagine giving a grandchild enough money to buy the car of his or her dreams and having them show it off to friends and get into a fatal car accident. Or imagine worrying about someone kidnapping a grandchild. Or imagine giving someone enough cash that they lose all motivation to work, lowering their sense of purpose and self-concept. My mind whirled.
Of course, not all winners end up with tragic stories. Several years ago, I interviewed a woman who won one million dollars for choosing a name and new flavor for a Frito Lay contest. She invested the money, refused to give in to her children’s requests for cars and things, and her life has remained happy.
Just a few weeks ago, the bus driver of the coach my husband and I were on while touring Utah told us he’d won over $350,000 several years ago in Las Vegas. His picture is still framed and hanging on the casino wall. He was retirement age, yet he was still driving bus. His personality was such that he seemed to enjoy his job, so he might have worked for the pleasure of it. Since he also mentioned a recent visit to a casino, he may have gambled some of it away. The possibilities set my mind spinning more.
After mentioning my column idea to a friend, she gave me contact information for a couple who won $350,000 in the lottery. I called them and spoke to the wife who said their life hadn’t changed much. Similar to the Frito Lay winner, they didn’t give in to frivolous requests and invested the money. They use the interest to splurge occasionally and are generous when they see people in need. They feel fortunate that they have a nest egg and are financially secure.
My research, however, shows that big money has brought many people the opposite of security. According to Brian Benham, president of Benharm Advisory Group, seventy percent of people who win big money end up losing it within several years. People aren’t prepared for such a dramatic change and don’t have the skills to set a budget. This was true of Evelyn Basehore who won the lottery twice in the 80s for a total of $5.4 million. Nicole Spector of nbcnews.com reported on January 13, 2016, that Evelyn had gambled it all away. At the time of the article, Evelyn was broke, living in a trailer park, and working two jobs to keep her head above water.
Winning big money can be deadly. The same reporter cites the example of Ibi Roncailoli who won $5 million in 1991. Ibi gave $2 million to a son she’d secretly had with another man. Her husband found out and poisoned her.
Billy Bob Harrell, Jr., who won the Texas Lottery Lotto jackpot of $31 million in 1997, was another unfortunate winner. He quit his job, used his winnings to make huge donations, and bought a ranch and several homes for other people. Just 20 months after winning, he was broke. Desperately unhappy, he put a shotgun to his chest and pulled the trigger.
The November 30, 2012 New York Times article by Joe Nocera entitled “The Bad Luck of Winning” lists several tragedies. Jack Whittaker from West Virginia won the $315 million Powerball jackpot in 2002. Ten years later, his wife had divorced him, he’d been sued several times, and he’d been drugged. While at a strip club, someone slipped something in his drink so they could take the cash, $545,000, he had left in his car. He later told reporters, “I wish I’d torn that ticket up.”
Even though some big winners have positive experiences, this Thanksgiving you won’t see me buying lottery tickets or sitting at a casino. My family is planning our traditional gathering of family for a meal followed by a hike. As I walk under a favorite canopy of catalpa trees, I’ll silently go through the items on my gratitude list. I’ll include thanks to my readers who share their thoughts, and I’ll give a long sigh while including how blessed I am to have a simple and happy life.
Thanks to all the people who assisted with this column either through inspiration, help with research, or sharing your story. You’re all winners in my book.