Money, Happiness, and the Debt Lottery

“Money often costs too much” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Imagine winning $1.6 billion in the lottery. I can’t. That’s just insane. I’ve never bought a lottery ticket, and I probably never will. But I had a few friends reach out to me earlier this week, mostly from Canada, encouraging me to go get one. There’s just something alluring about the idea of becoming an instant billionaire, especially when it means paying off all of your debt–something almost everyone told me they’d do first if they won.

As I went over some lottery news yesterday, I came across thisinteresting Time Magazine article about how winning the lottery has ended up making many people miserable, even ruining their lives. I was shocked to learn of the high incidence of suicide, bankruptcy, divorce, and all the other most awful things that people can go through. Hence the quote above by the poet Emerson.

“Money is the power to do,” a friend once told me. It means getting the car you want, not the one you have to. It means getting guacamole and sour cream on your burrito without worry about the extra $1.50 being charged. It means vacations, leisure, and getting your kids their educations. But would instantly having all of that that make us happy? I don’t think so.

It’s not good to have everything.

“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” – Epictetus

The above quote reminds me of what it means to be happy. Those of us who don’t live lives of great wealth are accustomed to not having everything we might dream of. We accept that we likely won’t ever have a mansion, a Ferrari, or a private island in Greece. And in general, we should be okay with that. We should be letting ourselves understand that happiness is in none of those things alone. And so I would change the above quote like this:

“Happiness consists not in having great possessions, but having few wants.”

That seems to be the proper interpretation of what Epictetus is saying. The lottery reminds me of the ability to have unlimited wants, and in truth, such a thing can bring out the very worst in us. Yet with that in mind, I think of getting out of debt itself, the answer most people told me they would first use their money for.

Debt is like a prison. Those of us who have it strive to at least have equity, like owing less on your house than it’s worth, but even then, it is something we owe and are locked into. And I think that the sudden relief from debt that lottery winnings would afford would be a good aspect of winning, perhaps the only truly good one–I exaggerate a little, but you see my point.

With that in mind, I have a different idea to suggest. I call it the debt lottery.

The Debt Lottery

Would it not be wonderful if the lottery were simply that, a way for hundreds of people to have their debts completely erased instead of one great winner?

Imagine the below structure.

Each ticket purchased for a given timeframe (maybe a week), would be entered into a sort of electronic drawing. Each ticket would get a ranking, from first to last. Now lets say that the pot was $100,000,000. What the committee would do is go through from the top number and pay off that person’s debt–debt accounts would be registered so that the money went straight to the debts, not to an impulsive shopping spree. The committee would do this from the top person all the way down until they ran out of money, the last person receiving a partial payment.

If the average debt of winners was $250,000, that would mean that 400 people would have their debts completely erased. How much better would the state of those lucky people be than having one person win it all?

It seems like a silly concept, but it would be much better than what we do now. We would be helping hundreds of people to overcome one of life’s biggest problems, instead of giving one person more problems than a lot of people can handle.

This might not be the sexiest idea, but day-to-day life isn’t supposed to be sexy. We find happiness in the small things, in the people we love, and in the freedom to pursue the activities that bring us the most joy.

Why not?

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