Scratch off lottery tickets are like candy that melts your bank account.
If you’re not careful with your scratch off lottery tickets budget, you’ll develop a habit you cannot afford. And I’ve seen people standing beside scratch off machines, putting in all their money and scratching frantically, looking for a jackpot prize. It’s a frightening thought to know that could be you one day.
I don’t want to become like that.
But I do want to win more money from scratch off games, and I’ve been paying attention to what real winners and probability experts have to say about how to improve your chances of winning.
In this post, I’m going to break down the economics of scratch off lottery tickets and offer you advice about winning.
Which Scratch Off Tickets Have the Best Odds?
You probably just want me to answer the question, which scratch off tickets have the best odds?
That way you can run down to the gas station, buy those tickets, cash in, and retire.
Would that it were so easy.
Here’s what you need to know about scratch off tickets and how the odds work:
- There’s no strategy.Scratch off games award prizes on a random basis.
- Most of the money taken in by scratch off games is paid back as prizes.
- The more expensive a scratch off, the higher the “small” prizes tend to be.
- The higher the odds of winning, the better the prizes tend to be.
- The lower the odds of winning, the more prizes there tend to be.
- The higher the largest prize or jackpot, the fewer real winners there will be.
The first thing you have to understand is that there is no right or best strategy for playing scratch off games.
Some people tell you to “buy in bulk” or “stagger your ticket buying”.
But that’s just nonsense. One roll of 200 tickets could contain half as many prizes as the next roll of 200 tickets.
And most of the winners could be in the first half of a roll, or they could be spread about evenly throughout a roll.
Your chances of winning don’t change based on how you buy the tickets.
In other words, whether you buy tickets in bulk or wait for 3-4 other people to buy tickets does not change the probabilities of any given roll of tickets paying a prize.
The second thing you have to understand is that all those prizes, including the free tickets, are paid for by the people buying the tickets.
There’s no secret, magical lottery prize fund that pumps out more prize money than there are ticket sales. The system is designed to turn a profit for the state government running the lottery. The states tend to keep anywhere from 10% to 25% of all ticket sales. That means all the prizes come out of the remaining 75% to 90% of ticket sales, less the commissions paid to the various stores that sell lottery tickets.
Some experts estimate that for every dollar you pay for lottery tickets, no more than 50 cents is paid back in prizes. This is called “return to player,” and it’s not a good return at all.Even the worst slot machines offer better than a 50% payback percentage (which is the same thing as “return to player”).
But don’t tell the public that, because they’ll just ignore you and keep buying scratch off lottery tickets.
So what do you really need to know about buying lottery tickets?
1- Play within a Strict Budget
No matter what the purchase price of your favorite lottery game, you should play with the assumption that the next 100 tickets you buy will pay nothing.
How many losing tickets in a row can you afford to buy without feeling guilty, ashamed, frustrated, or angry at the world?
That’s the best budget for your scratch off games.
If you don’t mind losing $50 in between paychecks, then you have a $50 scratch off budget. That’s all you should give yourself to play with from one paycheck to the next.
But what do you do with the “winnings”?
Research says that if you spend $50 on scratch offs, you should get back (on average) about $25.
You could take that money and buy more scratch offs. Sooner or later, you may get a nice prize. I’ve known people who won $500, $100, $30,000 and more.
But all those winning tickets had to be paid for by people who bought thousands of tickets that didn’t pay nice prizes.
Stop yourself before you spend everything. If you get back half your money, set it aside in a special “lottery pot” that you’ll use later in the year for a big splurge (like when the Powerball or Mega Millions jackpots start getting big).
2- Pay Attention to the Odds Estimates
Scratch off lottery tickets will tell you approximately how often the tickets are winners. They might say “odds of winning are 1:4.3”. That means that out of every 43 tickets sold, approximately 10 will pay prizes. In other words, in a game with 1:4.3 odds about 3 out of 4 tickets pay no prizes.
You might think, Well, then I just need to find a 1:3 game.
And I say, “Good luck with that.”
Some games have worse odds than 1:43, but that’s about average in my experience. I just assume that 3 out of 4 tickets that I buy won’t pay anything.
And that remaining ticket should pay me about 50% of what I paid for the four tickets.
And here’s where the fun begins.
Sometimes you’re the lucky person. You buy a $1 ticket and it pays you $5. What should you do with that money?
I skim the extra money off the top. I might buy another four tickets, but I keep the dollar in my lottery pot.
Reading the odds shouldn’t be depressing. You should do this to keep your feet on the ground. Keep your expectations low. Don’t start expecting for a big prize.
3- Where You Buy the Tickets Does Not Matter
There’s a popular idea that if a certain store or zip code has a lot of winners then everyone should buy their tickets at that location.
This type of circular logic only works some of the time.
The reason why you see a lot of winners coming out of a specific zip code is that more tickets are being sold there. The stores in that area order more scratch off lottery tickets than stores in other areas.
So it might make sense to go join the crowd and buy even more tickets in that location.
But the hard reality of the situation is that you’re not improving your chances of winning by doing so. You’re only improving the stores’ chances of winning a bonus prize (they get a cut from any big jackpot) because they’re selling more tickets.
Your odds of winning remain the same regardless of where you buy your tickets.
4- Buying More Tickets Does Give You More Winners But …
Remember that every winning ticket has to be paid for by several other losing tickets.
So you may be thinking, If I buy 20 tickets instead of 5, I should get (on average) 4 times as many winners.
But you’ll get (on average) four times as many losers.
You have to play as if every ticket you ever buy from now on is a loser.
Still, what if you could get more tickets for less money, legally, and keep the prize money for yourself? Wouldn’t that be great?
That’s not a pipe dream. There is a way to improve your chances of winning prizes with scratch offs.
In fact, there are 2 ways to do this, and I’ll share them both with you.
1. Only Play Games with Second Chance Drawings
This is something you’ll occasionally find experts talking about. If you pay for a scratch off ticket that’s a loser, look at the back and see if there is a second chance drawing for that game. If there is, enter the ticket into the drawing. You’re getting two chances to win a prize for the price of one ticket.
But you can increase your chances another way with these second chance drawings. Some people don’t look at the backs of the tickets.
Ask your friends to give you all their losing lottery tickets.
You don’t have to tell them why, although if you do, some of them will still give you their tickets.
If you’re not paying for the losers, you can still benefit from the second chance drawings.
Is that fair?
Sure, it’s fair.
Everyone who buys the ticket is supposed to know what the game rules are. They’re printed on the card.
Some people go dumpster diving (or trash can diving) for second chance tickets. Sorry, but I am not going to do that. Still, at least one lottery millionaire was doing exactly that when he got the call saying he had won a second chance drawing. He didn’t know if the winning ticket was one he bought (and lost on) or one he got from the trash.
2. Only Play Old Games that Still Offer Large Prizes
This is the only legitimate way to “change the odds” of winning a big prize in a scratch off game.
Here’s how it works.
Let’s say the game offers a jackpot of $10,000,000. The price of the tickets is $5. That means the jackpot prize will have to be paid for by about 2.67 million tickets. The game may sell a total of 40 million tickets. So you watch the big prizes every week, and you see which games have paid off their jackpots.
As the game gets older (sells more tickets) without awarding that jackpot prize, the pool of possible winners shrinks. Whereas at the beginning of our hypothetical game the pool of possible winners is 40,000,000 tickets, after half the tickets are sold without a jackpot winner, the pool of possible winners has shrunk to 20,000,000 tickets. So instead of having a chance of 1-in-40,000,000 of winning the jackpot, you now have a chance of 1-in-20,000,000 of winning the jackpot.
You won’t be able to time all the games well. You’ll miss some opportunities, to be sure.
But if you really want to improve your chances of winning those big prizes, wait as long as you can before you start buying tickets in a given game.
5- Other Mistakes to Avoid
Some experts tell you to “hang with the losers”. Their thinking is that if someone buys several losing tickets in a row, your chances of buying a winning ticket right after them are better. That’s not true. Your chances of buying a winning or losing ticket don’t change because someone won or lost ahead of you.
What IS true, but you have no way of using this information, is that the “pool of winners” per roll or book is fixed for every batch of tickets. One batch may have 20 winners out of 200 tickets and another batch may have 100 winners out of 200 tickets. For each batch, there is a statistical probability of winning that changes as each ticket is sold, but unless you know how many winners are in the batch to begin with, you cannot compute the probability.
Some scratch off players look at the ticket numbers from the batch and try to estimate their chances of winning. For example, if you buy ticket number 1, you might assume you have a 1-in-50 chance of winning. But the fallacy here is that you still don’t know how many winners are in the batch.
Some players only buy tickets from the newest games. After 1-2 weeks they stop buying tickets from those games on the assumption that the first few batches have more winners. It would be illegal for a lottery game company to stack an unusual amount of winners in the early batches. They might do this on a random basis, but that means most games won’t have extra winners in the early batches.
If you take away one way of winning from this post about how to win at scratch off lottery tickets, it’s this:
Most people do not track what they spend on scratch offs and that is the worst mistake of all. You really should keep a diary. Yes, it will show you just how much money you lose over time, but that will help you stay within your budget. Regardless of whether you set aside any of your winnings for future use or just plow them right back into new tickets, you should keep track of every dollar you spend and win.
At least this way you won’t accidentally cut into the mortgage payment when you’re on a losing streak.