Update [Dec 18 2013]: Two tickets won the $636 million Mega Millions jackpot on Tuesday -- one ticket was sold at Jennifer's Gift Shop on Tully Road in San Jose, CA; the other was sold at Gateway Newstands on Lenox Road in Atlanta, GA. Each winning jackpot will get half the pot, or $318 million. The winning numbers were: 8, 14, 17, 20, and 39, with a mega number of 7. After a winning ticket, the jackpot for Friday December 20 starts at $15 million.
[article originally published December 14]
No one won Friday's Mega Millions, so the jackpot will grow to an estimated $586 million dollars for Tuesday's drawing, the second largest jackpot in Mega Millions history.
The standard financial advice is not to play the lottery -- the odds are astronomically difficult (1 in 259 million) -- but the fact is that millions of people do play, so we've decided to list tips on how one should play the lottery to maximize their odds, if they choose to do so.
How to Play the Lottery
1. Wait for a Large Jackpot, Ideally, For a Jackpot That's Big But Not Too Big
Every time you buy a Quick Pick ticket, your odds of winning are the same, whether the jackpot is $10 million or $100 million. More people buy tickets for large jackpots because players' losses from previous drawings have grown the pot which someone can now swoop in and win. That's the ideal time to play. But be mindful that it can be a bad thing if the jackpot is too big -- the largest Mega Millions jackpot with only 1 ticket matching was for $319 million on March 25, 2011. The 5 larger jackpots were split between 2-4 winning tickets -- so think of it this way, if the jackpot gets so appealing -- like the record jackpot of $656 million -- that 800 million tickets are purchased, the expected value would be 3 winning tickets, which effectively makes each winning ticket like winning a $218 million jackpot. Although, that still wouldn't be such a terrible outcome, would it?
2. Take Into Account the Cost and Odds
In California, there are 3 draw games available -- the multi-state Powerball, the multi-state Mega Millions, and the SuperLotto Plus. Right now, the Mega Millions is the most attractive game -- but it's even more attractive relative to the Powerball when you consider the prices of the tickets. The odds of winning the Mega Millions are 1 in 259 million and it costs $1 to play. The Powerball, on the other hand, costs $2 to play, though the odds of winning are a little easier -- 1 in 175 million. The odds of winning SuperLotto Plus are the best -- 1 in 41 million and it costs $1 to play. Taking only the jackpots into account, if the SuperLotto has a jackpot of $10 million, the Mega Millions jackpot would need to be $63 million to be equally attractive, and the Powerball jackpot would need to be $85 million to be equally attractive. So the Mega Millions is currently the most attractive game, but the SuperLotto Plus is currently a closer second than you might've originally thought.
3. Don't Overplay Common Numbers
It's been well-documented that way too many people pick the numbers 1-2-3-4-5-6 and a powerball or mega number of either lucky 7 or lucky 21. That means, if you did win with popular numbers, you can expect to be sharing it with a lot more people than someone who wins using Quick Pick numbers. Some people go out of their way to pick large numbers over 31 because many people use birth months and days, but a reasonable shortcut would be to use Quick Pick numbers.
4. Play Within Your Entertainment Budget
A reasonably responsible way to play the lottery is to determine what your annual entertainment budget ought to be, and consider playing the lottery as part of that budget. Sometimes, a lottery will keep growing, and you'll want to keep playing, which can make budgeting a little more difficult, but then make sure you find other ways to stick to the budget you feel comfortable with.
5. Play All Your Second Chances
The California lottery recently launched a 2nd Chance for the SuperLotto Plus -- you need to register on their website, then enter a code on the bottom of your ticket to be one of 5 second chance tickets winning $15,000. Somewhat surprisingly, during the first drawing, there were only about 500,000 entries -- or about a 1 in 100,000 chance of winning a second chance prize. It's a smaller prize than winning the overall jackpot, but the odds were 400 times better. Not bad for a free extra.
6. Don't Lose Your Tickets!
I know I am sometimes guilty of this, but it's a total waste. Just because you didn't win the jackpot, it doesn't mean the ticket is worthless -- the odds of winning some sort of prize in the Mega Millions is about 1 in 15. Even if your dreams of quitting your job or travelling around the world are dashed -- for now -- think of cashing in even those $1 tickets as part of sticking to your lotto budget. A good practice is to make yourself scan your previous tickets before you buy another one.