Americans’ lack of savings has become a crisis. Our confidence that we’ve got enough saved for retirement is at historically low levels, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s annual Retirement Confidence Survey. More than a quarter of Americans have saved less than $1,000 for retirement. Only half of those surveyed say they could definitely find $2,000 if an emergency arose in the next month.
Our society tries to push people to save. Various incentives make it less painful. But since they largely rely on the tax code or employer-based savings plans, they don’t reach a large percentage of Americans — the very people who need to save most and find it the most difficult.
There is a financial product, however, that Americans use enthusiastically, especially the people who most need to save: we buy lottery tickets.
Lotteries aren’t usually considered part of the solution to our savings crisis. They’re usually cited as a big part of the problem. Lotteries offer the worst odds in legal gambling — about 55 percent of what people pay for tickets is paid out in prizes. Yet we spend an average of $540 per household on lottery tickets every year — about $100 more than we spend on milk or beer. That is disproportionately spent by African-Americans, who spend five times as much on lottery tickets per person than whites, and the very poor. People with a household income of less than $10,000 a year who play the lottery spend $597 a year on tickets.
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