Way back in 1997, my friend Marty and I, both just a couple of years out of college, were hanging out at a bar by his apartment. Over the course of the evening, the conversation drifted to the lottery. And before the end of the night, we decided — for reasons I cannot remember — to get an annual New York Lottery subscription. It would be a good laugh, we thought, and of course we dreamed about winning the jackpot.
We picked our numbers (six out of 59), Marty took the initiative to fill out the paperwork, and I paid for my half of our new venture. Little did we know that we'd still be playing in 2018.
Over the past 21 years, Marty and I have both gotten married and each of us has had three children. We've bought homes, changed jobs and progressed in our careers. The Lotto subscription has gone from pen, paper and mail to a smartphone app, of course. Through all of that change, there has been one constant — every spring, I send Marty a check for $50, and he renews our subscription.
As a result, we have had our chance to hit it big every Wednesday and Saturday night over a little more than two decades — 2,184 drawings. I'm sure you're excited to hear about our winnings, so here you go . . . since 1997, we have won $114. In aggregate. Our biggest year was 2012 when we took home $21. Pretty dismal.
Often when we touch base via text, Marty will write something like, “I have a feeling that this is our year — we're due!”
If only the numbers proved that out. According to the New York Lottery's website, the overall odds of winning — that means winning any prize — is 1 in 46. However, the odds of hitting the jackpot, are 1 in 45,057,474. We get two entries per week, so technically, we'd be “due” — every number combination would hit — if we played for another 433,235 years.
I was thinking about how ridiculous these odds are, and what else we could have done with this money, when I remembered that 1997 wasn't just the year that we started this quest. It was also the year that Amazon.com — currently the world's second-largest company — went public. So I did a little math. What if, instead of throwing money at the lottery (and, admittedly, doing our small part to support our state's education program) we had bought a little bit of AMZN each May.
The numbers are staggering. If we had put $100 into Amazon each May for the past 21 years, as the stock has gone from a split-adjusted $1.50 to more than $1,800 last week, we'd currently have 86 shares, with a value of about $162,000. That is a lot better than our current $114 bounty.
But that's easy to say now, with 20/20 hindsight. Back then, many of us were asking, “Who needs to go online to buy books?” Even Barron's, the weekly finance magazine, famously published a 1999 cover story, titled “Amazon Dot Bomb,” doubting the future of the online juggernaut. And more than 650 companies went public in 1997, many of them all-hype, tech-bubble legends that went bust shortly thereafter. If we had gone the stock route, Amazon wasn't a no-brainer.
So, knowing all this, why do we still play the lottery? I never check the numbers, so it's not like I'm getting a twice-weekly thrill. I think that it is a worry that when we stop, our numbers will hit (even though we'd never know). That and bullheadedness.
We're also holding onto an old running joke and a fond friendship. Marty and I met when we were waiting tables at the Hicksville Ground Round in 1989, and we became great friends at SUNY Albany over the next couple of years.
Unfortunately, we don't see each other very often anymore. We have demanding jobs and families that keep us busy — we're both in the thick of our children's driver's ed classes and college tours. But that $50 I send him each year has evolved into an inside joke, our connection. This year, though, I will make sure we also go out for a drink.