Lot or Not?
Now, before we get too far into this, let me clarify something: I am not arguing that the lottery is, in and of itself, a good investment. The odds, as everyone should be aware, are extraordinary remote, and the argument that it is a kind of regressive taxation on the poor is a hard one to answer.
But here’s the thing: as wastes of money go, the lottery isn’t an especially horrible one. Sure, there a bunch of ill-informed dopes out there who spend too much money on it, but the real hardcore gambling addicts are more likely to gravitate to casinos and bookies than the Powerball machine at the grocery store. The odds of winning may be long, but at least the game is honest — you’re getting exactly what you pay for, unlike a vast number of ‘legitimate’ consumer purchases. The majority of the money goes to educational programs instead of organized criminals and/or corporate scumbags (and let’s not even address the fact that our schools depend on gambling money to keep going instead of being funded in a more straightforward way by the government). The total loss is only a dollar, while a bank is free to turn your one-dollar loss into hundreds through fees and penalties; and saving the dollar at current rates is about as likely to yield a profit as an actual lottery win. And if you look at the gargantuan wealth gap in America and the ever-slowing rate of class mobility, it takes a lot of stones to scold someone for spending a few bucks a month on the admittedly long odds of winning millions, because it’s just as unlikely they’ll get rich by working hard at a real job. It’s not overpriced, it’s not a hustle, and it isn’t pretending to be something it’s not; the lottery, while in mathematical terms a waste of money, at least isn’t a lie.
Which is what’s so galling about articles like this. What is presented as a sensible guide to spending money instead comes across as moral scolding, in the style of conservative prigs who complain about poor people who own color TV sets and cell phones. Scinto’s approach is more practically-minded than most such finger-waggings, at least allegedy — but its premise, that it gives you more reasonable, intelligent ways to spend money, is so badly botched by its execution that it’s worth notice. Let’s take a look.
There are lots of stupid ways to spend a dollar.
Actually, there are increasingly few ways to spend only a dollar, as we will see. But let it drift.
You could blow it on a bar of candy, which gives you a couple of minutes and gives you a bunch of empty calories.
Let’s ignore the atrocious copy editing in this sentence, but remember that candy bar bit.
You could buy a lottery ticket, which is in fact the equivalent of paying someone to take your money.
Banking and financial services, which no one writes scolding articles urging poor people not to bother with, are literally paying someone to take your money. And the lottery is unlikely to take your dollar and use it to commit fraud, fire you from your job, or destroy the economy.
Feed a Family in India for the Day: Instead of throwing your dollar to the wind with the lottery, you could give it to an organization like Opportunity International that helps women start businesses to support their children or Garden Harvest, which helps rural Indian families buy goats and other animals.
Okay, this one I have no issue with. These are fine organizations — I’ve been a supporter of Heifer International for years. Of course, a dollar is more likely to buy a couple of stamps than to actually help anyone in rural India, but the general idea is unimpeachable. However:
Prepare a Vegetable Meal — and Better Support Your Local Farmer Too: Visiting your local farmer’s markets is not only fun and free, but lets you buy locally-grown, farm fresh produce for cheap. Rogerk’s blog, a personal finance site, suggests you make a meal out of any one-dollar item you buy, and have some friends over try your “one-dollar menu.”
I’m not sure what state Rogerk lives in, but here in Texas — which is hardly an agriculturally impoverished region of the country — a buck isn’t going to get you very far, even at the farmer’s market. If I invited my friends over for a one-dollar vegetable menu, I would have to hope they enjoyed cucumbers and lemons, because $1 will buy one of each and nothing else.
Get Sweet Threads at a Thrift Store: Thrift stores offer great steals for super cheap, including fancy winter items like fur jackets and boots. The deals become even more appealing with merchandise that’s been sitting in the shop a while.
Unless this article is coming to us from 1987, this point is total nonsense. Even the days of a one-dollar t-shirt are long gone; you can’t buy underwear at a thrift store for a buck anymore, let alone fur jackets and boots. This is especially true in places like NY and LA. I dare the author of this article to appear in public wearing only clothing she purchased at Housing Works or Out of the Closet for a dollar or less.
Bonus: If you donate items to one of these organizations, you’ll earn yourself a nice tax deduction.
You sure will! If “practically nonexistent” counts as “nice”!
Support Your Favorite Artist: Piracy takes an incredible toll on the music industry, from songwriters to producers and so on. A study by the Institute for Policy Innovation estimates piracy can be blamed for $12.5 billion in annual loses for the U.S. economy and $2 billion on American wage workers. If you don’t sympathize with the music industry — it still makes an incredible profit regardless of piracy — think about at least spending a dollar to support your favorite artist. It might encourage him/her to produce more music and could even reduce ticket prices for their shows.
Yes, by all means, let’s use our precious earnings to help poor struggling Americans like Beyonce Knowles and Dr. Luke. And here’s another challenge for Scinto: please provide the name of a single major-label recording artist who has reduced ticket prices for their shows, for any reason whatsoever, in the last decade.
Spring for a Small Gift: In Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, one of his major points is showing sympathy for people. Giving a gift like candy proves you went out of your way to show you care, and candy is always affordable, especially after the holidays.
Wait! I thought candy was a waste of money, just a bunch of empty calories that did nothing more than give you a few minutes of something! Now it’s a Dale-Carnegie-approved alternative to the lottery? If you can’t sustain your premise five paragraphs into your article, maybe you shouldn’t have written it in the first place.
Share a Glass of Wine With a Friend (Two Buck Chuck): Go to Trader Joe’s and split a Charles Shaw bottle of wine with a friend; each one goes for $1.99 a pop.
Now, I say this as a proud and determined alcoholic: if you are arguing that getting sloppy on wine is morally and financially superior to buying a lottery ticket, you are on some seriously shifting sands, rhetorically speaking.
Reach Out and Touch Someone: Buy an international calling card. You can call Mexico for five minutes using one for a buck versus if you phone using AT&T, even if you have an international plan, which will cost you $1 per minute. You can also have fun with it, as Rogerk’s Pick Blog suggests, by leaving 20 one-minute messages.
Rogerk, having already suggested you can feed more than one person on vegetables alone for a dollar, now expects us to believe that annoying the shit out of those same friends by leaving nearly two dozen one-minute messages on their phones is actually more sensible, profitable, or reasonable than buying a lottery ticket. I think we can write off anything else he has to say for the foreseeable future.
Put It in the Bank: You know the saying “a penny saved is a penny earned,” so if you normally buy a lotto ticket once a week, put that buck into savings instead. By the end of the year you’ll have saved $52, which is 52 times more than you would’ve had.
Let’s say you actually do this — put your weekly $1 lottery money in savings. What will this mean for you? Well, if you go to, say, Bank of America, it means that if you open a bank account for the money you would have otherwise spent on the lottery, you will pay them $5 a month, because they require you to have at least $300 in your saving account simply for the privilege of giving them your money. If you don’t, they charge you money. That means that by the end of the year, you will not actually have saved $52, but rather spent $60 on fees, leaving you $8 in the hole. In other words, you will end up losing more money by putting your money in the bank than you would have done by spending it on the lottery, or, for that matter, setting it on fire. But let’s pretend that you went to a magical unicorn bank that did not require minimum balances for savings accounts, and did not charge you for not transferring additional money into the account every month, and did not charge you for savings account withdrawals, as almost all banks do. By going to this mystical hobbit wizard bank, you will not only have your $52 left over at the end of the year, but they will pay you interest! That’s right — they will, theoretically at least, pay you more money! How much more? Again using BofA as a baseline, you might end up with as much as 0.05% interest on your money! Well, half of it, anyway, because they only pay interest on what’s in your account beyond the $25 minimum. So that means that after a year, you may have twelve and a half cents more than you started with! Amazing! Spread that out over a century, and you have almost thirteen dollars! Certainly we can all agree, even those of us who routinely win more than that in six months from scratch tickets, that $13 dollars over a hundred years is morally, financially, and logically superior to spending a dollar on the off chance of winning millions. After all, the money you lose will go to an upstanding Bank of America executive, and not some stupid school kid.