What To Do If You Don’t Win The Lottery

In 2015 I was working as an AmeriCorps volunteer, which pays about $1k per month, and somebody graciously offered to teach my cohort how to budget and live on our meager salaries while also planning for the future.

As somebody who’d grown up talking about money, worked as a teller, and earned an accounting degree, I felt pretty confident about how I was managing my budget. I was also completely oblivious to the fact that a lot of people hadn’t passively learned all this stuff to begin with.

So, when one of my fellow AmeriCorps asked the instructor, “How much should we be budgeting to play the lottery?” I thought it was a joke, as did the instructor. It was late 2016, and Powerball was approaching its biggest jackpot ever.

It was not a joke, and she’s not alone in thinking that the lottery could be a legitimate strategy to gain wealth.

A 2008 study found that people who perceived their income as relatively lower than others were more likely to play the lottery. The study concluded that these people recognize the lottery as a uniquely fair system that doesn’t favor the rich or poor- therefore it might be their best shot at upward mobility.

Statistically, however, you’d be hard pressed to find a worse investment.

So if you aren’t going to win the lottery, how are you going to get to financial independence?

Live Below Your Means

Definitely not as sexy as winning the lottery. Living below your means is the gateway to financial independence. Practically, it means you spend less than you earn.


– Can you find a place to live that is cheaper than where you live right now? Can you get a roommate?
– Can you commit to not buying any new clothes for a season? For a year?
– Can you incorporate a very low-cost recipe, such as rice and beans, into your meal plan one day per week?
– Can you earn an extra $100 per month through a side hustle or part time job?

When you start living below your means, you start accumulating wealth. 

Caveat: because of the way that math works, it’s a lot easier for some people/families to live below their means than others. Some people will find that they’ve already cut every cost they can, and are still barely scraping by. I wish that I had an easy answer for those people, but my main answer is this: hang in there. Investigate what social benefits might be available to you, and take advantage of those programs. Look for any way you can to save a few dollars here and there, and put those dollars away in case of emergencies.

Which leads me to my next point…

Build an Emergency Fund

What would you do if your car broke down and you needed $1,000 to fix it? Or if you were fired and out of work for a month? An emergency fund is essential so that when life happens, you can focus on getting back on track without worrying how you’re going to pay for it.

Experts recommend you save a minimum of 3 month’s living expenses – think rent, food, insurance, phone bill, etc. If that seems too out of reach for you,  start with a smaller goal. $500 is perfectly respectable, as long as you know you’ll be adding to it eventually.

The most important thing about an emergency fund is that it’s for emergencies. Ideally, it would be in a savings account that’s separate from all of your other money so that you aren’t tempted to spend it unless you really need to.

Get Out Of Debt

It might shock you to realize that paying the minimum payment on student loans and credit card debt could mean it will take you forever to get out of debt. Once you have a healthy emergency fund, start putting as much as you can towards paying down your debt.

Start with the highest interest debt you have, and then move on to lower interest debt when that is paid off. This maximizes your savings on interest.

Focusing on paying down debt can be emotionally taxing, especially if there’s a lot of it. Try to connect with people who have the same money values as you (Rockstar Finance Forums are a great place to start). Surrounding yourself with a supportive community will help you stay on track.


Save, Save, Save

There are volumes to be written about how to save your money, but I’ll keep it simple: when your debt is paid off and you have a healthy emergency fund, save as much as you can while still enjoying your life.

Some disagree with me, but I don’t believe in living the first 60 years of your life with the primary goal to enjoy the last 20. Save for retirement, but save for other things too: vacations, celebrations, hobbies, or even a mini-retirement! 


You don’t need to win the lottery to live a good, stable life. Having a plan to live below your means, prepare for emergencies, pay off your debt, and save money will let you enjoy your life.