Why Retirement Is Like Winning the Lottery

Powerball winners
Powerball winners

By Tom Sightings

Last week, two lucky ticketholders -- one from Missouri and one from Arizona -- found out they won a huge Powerball lottery. The payout was advertised at $587.5 million. The family from Missouri had their picture splashed across the media, holding a big check for their half of the proceeds, or $293.75 million.

Of course, the lottery is just a fantasy for most people, certainly for the many millions of other players who lost last week. But even for the winners, the check for $293.75 million is not real. Those winners will never see anything close to $293.75 million. Instead, they'll likely opt to receive an annual payment consisting of just a small fraction of that amount, doled out over a period of 30 years. Or, if they really want the money now, the "cash option" is discounted by more than $100 million-and even after that, the government takes out more in income taxes.

It's still a lot of money. So how is winning the lottery like collecting the proverbial gold watch?

You're kind of lucky. The odds of winning last week's Powerball lottery were 1 in 175 million. That's less than the odds of drawing a straight flush in poker twice in a row. But in this day and age, you're also kind of lucky if you can afford to retire. The percentage of American workers in the private sector who enjoy a defined-benefit retirement plan has declined from about 40 percent in the 1970s to 20 percent today. The rest of us who are not so lucky are left to our own devices.

You gotta be in it to win it. If you don't buy a lottery ticket, the odds of winning are zero. Buy a few tickets and your chances are slightly better. At least in one respect, the same goes for retirement. If you don't play, the odds of a comfortable retirement are zero. To enjoy a winning retirement you need to buy some tickets in the form of contributions to your 401(k) plan, your IRA account, or one of the other retirement options sanctioned by the U.S. government.

You suddenly have a lot of money. The day you cash in your lottery ticket, you qualify for the 1 percent. The day you retire you also take responsibility for a substantial sum of money. It's not $293 million. But it could amount to $1 million, which is what many experts recommend you accumulate before you leave your job. The majority of that money is likely invested in one or more retirement accounts. But now you realize, this is not just a bunch of numbers that have been slowly accumulating over the years. It's real money. It really belongs to you, and it's all you have to live on.

You're on your own. Now you've got the money. But what do you do with it? The stories are legion about lottery winners who go broke buying houses, cars, and vacations. One West Virginia man won $315 million, and a decade later blamed the lottery for his divorce, his daughter's drug addiction, several lawsuits, and an absence of any real friends.

Most retirees don't have problems that dramatic. But like lottery winners, if they're going to live successfully for the next 20 or 30 years, they have to be reasonable, disciplined, and careful not to squander their savings on ill-conceived pipe dreams. Retirees, like all people who come into a lump sum, need to develop a financial plan, either on their own or with the help of a trusted adviser, then stick to the plan so it works over an extended period of time.

You can't forget the taxes. Like the lottery winners who think they have a check for $293.75 million, but really have a lot less, retirees might think they have access to all that money in their retirement plan. But a regular IRA is subject to income tax, as are other retirement plans that accumulate pre-tax money. Even Social Security benefits are subject to federal income tax under certain circumstances, and some states tax retirement benefits as well.

You have to adapt to a new lifestyle. Lottery winners typically quit their job, move to a nicer neighborhood, and realize they suddenly have a lot of new "best friends." Retirees also must adapt to a new life without a job, possibly in a new neighborhood where they have to make new friends, and work to keep up relationships with family and old friends.

The new retiree has a lot in common with a lottery winner. But there is at least one major difference. If you buy a lottery ticket, you have a miniscule chance of winning. If you contribute to your retirement account, you're bound to win.

Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement, and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.

See more on U.S. News: