DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The jackpot for the Mega Millions lottery game has grown to nearly $1 billion ahead of Friday night's drawing after more than four months without a winner thanks to bad luck, poor odds and reduced play partially blamed on the coronavirus pandemic.
It's only the third time a lottery jackpot has grown so large, but much has changed since the last time such a big prize was up for grabs in 2018. The odds of winning a jackpot remain the same — incredibly small — but for a variety of reasons fewer people are playing Mega Millions or Powerball, the two lottery games offered in most of the country.
And even as the huge Mega Millions prize and a $731.1 million Powerball jackpot won Wednesday by a single ticket sold in Maryland have juiced sales for the games, Maryland lottery director Gordon Medenica noted: "We're not out of the woods yet."
Medenica acknowledged sales were dramatically lower before the pandemic, and they tanked even further in the spring and summer.
After a peak in October 2018, Medenica said sales of the big lottery games dropped about 50%, prompting talk among lottery officials about jackpot fatigue. Sales of Mega Millions and Powerball continued to decline after the virus hit along with other lottery games, but while scratch tickets and other instant games rebounded strongly later in the year, national game sales remained moribund.
In response to falling sales, officials updated the national games to reduce starting jackpots from $40 million to $20 million and changed rules about guaranteed minimum increases between drawings. The moves made fiscal sense but they caused jackpots to grow more slowly, further tamping down sales, as demonstrated by the record 37 draws without a winner it took to reach the current Mega Millions jackpot that's still far less than the all-time highs.
"That's why it takes so many rolls to get up to a high jackpot level," Medenica said.
What hasn't changed are the odds.
By design, Mega Millions and Powerball are relatively generous in awarding small dollar prizes and lottery officials boast there is a roughly one in 24 chance of winning something. But to generate huge jackpots, officials must be absolutely miserly about paying jackpots.
It's hard to fathom how unlikely it is to beat odds of one in 292.2 million for Powerball or one in 302.5 million for Mega Millions.
To get a sense of your chances, Steven Bleiler, a mathematics and statistics professor at Portland State University, said people should imagine a swimming pool 40 feet (12.2 meters) wide, 120 feet (36.6 meters) long and 5 feet (1.5 meters) deep, filled to the brim with M&Ms, only one of which is green. To win, all a player must do is jump in blindfolded and wade around until finding that single green candy.
Andrew Swift, a mathematics professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, put it this way: Your chances of picking up two oysters and finding a pearl in both is about twice as likely as winning either lottery jackpot.
Still, someone always ultimately wins, and it happened again after Wednesday night's Powerball drawing when a single ticket sold at a convenience store in the small community of Lonaconing, Maryland, hit all six numbers. The winner can take a $716.3 annuity paid over 30 years or a cash prize of $546.8 million.
What comes next is unclear. Some states are banking on growth in online games, but while the 10 states that allow purchases on computers and phone apps are seeing rising sales, such purchases remain a relatively small percentage of overall revenue.
"The current roll has revived the game as it's been designed," Medenica said. "Whether we continue to consider making changes or not is to be seen."
RELATED: 10 financial resolutions for 2021 and how to fulfill them
10 financial resolutions for 2021 and how to fulfill them
Refinance your loans
While the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on many parts of life this past year, it has also prompted record low mortgage rates, making this a prime time to refinance and lower your monthly payments. As for student loan refinancing, federal student loans are in forbearance until Jan. 31, meaning interest is suspended and payments are not required. However, this does not apply to private student loans and you may want to consider refinancing these types of loans to lock in lower rates.
Pay down credit card debt
If you have credit card debt, consider making it a goal to pay it off. There are a few approaches you can take, but two common strategies are:
- Paying off your highest debt first (the debt avalanche method)
- Paying off your smallest amount of debt first (the debt snowball method).
If you’re struggling with payments, consider credit counseling, a low-interest balance transfer, a personal loan or even debt settlement.
Automate your savings
One of the easiest ways to build your savings is automating your contributions. Most employers allow you to divide your paycheck into different accounts. If not, you can likely set up automatic transfers with your bank.
Start an emergency fund
In general, experts recommend saving three to six months of living expenses. Start by opening a separate and dedicated high-yield savings account. After that, consider these four tips:
- Evaluate your spending and look for areas where you can save.
- Set a savings goal.
- Set up automatic contributions.
- Increase contributions over time.
Boost retirement savings
Saving for retirement is one of the most important aspects of sound financial planning.
“Use 2021 to boost or maximize contributions to 401(k)s or HSAs, plot out holistic retirement goals and, no matter your age or life stage, take meaningful steps to boost your financial wellness,” says Lorna Sabbia, head of retirement and personal wealth solutions at Bank of America.
If your employer offers a 401(k) match, be sure you’re contributing enough to get the full match since it’s essentially free money. Also look at where your money is being invested. Many experts recommend investing in a diverse portfolio of assets to reduce your risk but still achieve attractive returns.
Don’t limit your investing to retirement contributions. If you already have an emergency savings account, consider setting up another account to invest for goals with specific time horizons, like early retirement or saving for a house.
If you’re just getting started, you may want to look into a robo-adviser, which will do the investing for you after taking your risk tolerance and ideal earnings into consideration.
Improve your credit score
Your credit score plays a critical role in determining whether you get financial services you need. It can influence your car insurance rates in some states, as well as how much you pay in interest when you get a loan.
Visit annualcreditreport.com to get a free copy of your credit report. You’re typically able to access only one free report a year, but it’s been increased to once a month until April 2021 as a result of COVID-19.
Paying all bills on time and in full and lowering your credit utilization ratio will increase your credit score. Consider taking advantage of score-boosting programs, like ExperianBoost, and don’t apply for new accounts too often.
Cook more meals at home
This may be something you’ve already begun to do with many restaurants around the U.S. being limited to takeout.
Keep it going into 2021. You can make it fun (and easy) with meal subscription services that deliver perfectly measured ingredients straight to your door.
On the other hand, if you’ve turned to takeout during this time, give cooking a try and see how much you save. Put those savings toward debt or your emergency fund.
Update your beneficiaries
Have you experienced a life-changing situation recently? If you have, your beneficiaries might be out of date.
This includes your retirement and bank accounts, insurance policy and other financial accounts to make sure your beneficiaries are accurate.
Adding a beneficiary to your accounts is critical to ensure your assets will go to the person you intended them to. Additionally, it’s important to note that beneficiaries trump wills, so make sure the two documents are aligned in their directives.
Diversify your income
“People are realizing that self-employment is not inherently more risky than traditional employment because there’s built-in income diversification when you have multiple clients or customers,” says Laura Gariepy, business coach and founder of Before You Go Freelance, a blog that offers advice for aspiring freelancers.
There’s a variety of ways you can diversify your revenue streams. Freelance work is great for those who have a specific skill to offer others.
There are also less technical side hustles, like dog walking. If you have a bit more money to front, consider investing in rental properties.