Feeling blue about losing the $656 million Mega Millions jackpot? Cheer up. Behind the lottery frenzy and hoopla, I've seen enough miserable winners over the years to conclude this: If you're not prepared to handle the pitfalls that follow a sudden windfall, you're probably better off without it.
First, if you become a winner, you should be prepared to gain a lot of new friends and lose others, especially if you chipped in with a group to buy the winning ticket. Witness the McDonald's employee in Maryland who claimed to hold a winning Mega Millions ticket as an individual, the New York Post reported, even though she also bought tickets for several other people as part of a restaurant pool.
Advice: If you play with friends, keep careful records. As filmmaker Samuel Goldwyn is said somewhat inaccurately to have stated, an oral contract is not worth more than the paper it's written on.
Another hazard: impulse buying. One legendary case was the late William "Bud" Post III, who died six years ago at age 66. He won $16.2 million in the Pennsylvania Lottery in 1988. Within three months, according to an obituary in the Washington Post, he was $500,000 in debt after buying a liquor license, a lease on a Florida restaurant for his brother and sister, a used-car lot and its fleet for another brother and a twin-engine plane, although he did not have a pilot's license.
Along the way, a brother tried to hire a contract murderer to kill him and his sixth wife; a landlady forced him to give her one-third of the jackpot; and he was convicted for assault at his dream house in northwestern Pennsylvania after he fired a shotgun at a debt collector. He went bankrupt, came out of it with only $1 million free and clear and reportedly spent most of that, too. Message: Invest wisely.
Excessive generosity also can be a hazard, judging by the widely reported story of Janite Lee, a Korean immigrant who won $18 million from the Missouri Lottery in 1993. Besides new houses and cars, she generously doled out dollars to educational programs, community services and political organizations and dined with President Bill Clinton and other VIPs. Alas, in 2001, she filed for bankruptcy.
Sad. So is another affliction commonly called "affluenza," the sad feelings of worthlessness and dissatisfaction that come, even after you already have become quite wealthy, from always wanting "a little bit more."
That's how Richard Watts, who manages the fortunes of some of the country's wealthiest families, describes the syndrome in his new book, "Fables of Fortune: What Rich People Have That You Don't Want." The biggest tragedy of the rich, he told me, falls on children who, because of their parents' overgenerosity, end up being "children of entitlement," woefully underequipped to face the decisions of normal life.
Yet, if this sounds like the sort of problems you'd like to have, there are important lessons to be learned.
One, catch your breath. Take a little time to employ competent advisers and figure out what to do with the new cash sensibly.
Second, do something nice. Some lottery winners have set up foundations to improve the lives of others. Then they maintained a very low profile to keep others, including the media, off their backs.
Also: Avoid impulse buying, which is good advice for all of us.
And remember: Wealth isn't everything. It's only better than its opposite, which is no money at all. What's more important than money, I realize as I grow older, is time. Time is, indeed, like money, as the old saying goes. Wisely use it -- or lose it.