Of all the possible paths to wealth, the last one to count on is winning the lottery. The first difficulty is beating the overwhelming odds and winning a huge payoff. The second difficulty is hanging onto the money.
Several studies and anecdotal evidence show that many lottery winners go broke within five to seven years. When one of our local newspapers recently ran a feature article about the South Dakota lottery, it briefly quoted me to that effect. One of the reasons I gave was that people may unconsciously believe they don’t deserve to have the money, and as a result they get rid of it and go back to whatever was the norm for them.
The responses to this were interesting. Several people apparently found it absurd that anyone would feel guilty about winning a lot of money. Most of those who commented seemed confident of their own ability to manage sudden wealth.
Of course, on a conscious level, these comments are exactly right. Hardly anyone who comes into a lot of money is going to deliberately choose to blow it. Very few of us would consciously feel guilty about winning the lottery or consciously not want the money. The problem is our beliefs about money that operate at a subconscious level—beliefs we have no idea we even hold. These can influence our financial decisions much more strongly than we ever realize.
The initial reaction of many lottery winners is, “This isn’t going to change me. I’m still the same person I always was.” True, suddenly having money doesn’t change who you are. What it does, though, is intensify the beliefs and emotions you have about money.
One unconscious belief very commonly held by those who are getting by from paycheck to paycheck is that rich people aren’t worthy of respect. “They” don’t know what it’s like to live in the real world and earn their own way. This attitude may be expressed or unspoken, but usually people are aware that it’s shared by their family, friends, and co-workers. It most likely doesn’t make much difference in their daily lives or come to their conscious attention, except perhaps through a contemptuous reaction to the latest news stories about the outrageous behavior of a few wealthy celebrities.
Suppose, though, that one of these ordinary people suddenly wins the lottery to the tune of several million dollars. Such a change brings with it a huge amount of discomfort and stress. All of a sudden, the “lucky” winner doesn’t fit in any more. His newfound wealth is bound to change his relationships with family and friends, no matter how sincerely glad they may be for his good fortune.
Yes, he’s still the same person, but his circumstances have changed drastically. All of a sudden, he’s gone from being one of “us”—people with middle-class incomes and lifestyles—to one of “them”—the despised rich that he and his peers hold in contempt.
This sets up a deep and often unconscious conflict for both the winner and the people around him. Does he adjust to having the money, thereby risking the loss of his friends and his accustomed place in the world? Or does he try to keep his life intact and ignore the money? It’s a lose-lose situation.
All too often, the unconscious mind comes up with what, to it, is an obvious solution. Want everything to be okay again? Simple—just get rid of the money. When you combine that unconscious pressure with a lack of knowledge about managing a large sum of money, it’s no wonder that so many lottery winners aren’t able to keep their wealth.