Americans have plunked down an estimated $1.5 billion on the longest of long shots: an infinitesimally small chance to win what could end up being the single biggest lottery payout the world has ever seen.
The numbers drawn Friday night in Atlanta were 2-4-23-38-46, Mega Ball 23. Lottery officials expected to release details about possible winners a couple of hours after the 11 p.m. ET drawing.
But forget about how the $640-million Mega Millions jackpot could change the life of the winner. It's a collective wager that could fund a presidential campaign several times over, make a dent in struggling state budgets or take away the gas worries and grocery bills for thousands of middle-class citizens.
'Lottery and games of chance are a stupidity tax and the more we all buy into this, the less rational we are as a society.' —Lottery ticket buyer Peter Muiznieks
And it's a cheap investment for the chance of a big reward, no matter how long the odds — 1 in 176 million.
"Twenty to thirty dollars won't hurt," said Elvira Bakken of Las Vegas. "I think it just gives us a chance of maybe winning our dream."
So what exactly would happen if the country spent that $1.5 billion on something other than a distant dream?
How would you spend $640 million? Have your say.
For starters, it could cure the everyday worries of hundreds of thousands of American families hit by the Great Recession. It costs an average of $6,129 to feed the typical family for a year — meaning the cash spent on tickets could fill up the plates of 238,000 households.
As gas prices climb faster than stations can change the numbers on the signs, the money spent on tickets could fill the tanks of 685,000 households annually.
Or it could play politics. So far in this campaign, Republicans and President Barack Obama have spent $348.5 million. The amount spent on Mega Millions tickets could cover that tab four times over.
Could the money dig governments out of debt? That's a problem that even staggering ticket sales can't solve. It could trim this year's expected $1.3-trillion federal deficit by just over a tenth of one percent. In Illinois, the money would disappear just as fast into that state's $8 billion deficit.
On a personal level, that much money staggers. Giving $1.46 billion to a broker could purchase 2.4 million shares of Apple stock. (It would also be enough to buy about 2.4 million iPads at the starting price of $499. That's almost as many as the three million new iPads that Apple has already sold.)
For the states that participate, the money spent on lotto tickets is hardly a waste. It doesn't all end up as the winner's personal fortune — much of it is used by states to fund education and other social service programs, which is why advocates promote the lottery.
Though the specifics vary among the 42 participating states and the District of Columbia, only about half of ticket sales go into the actual jackpot. Another 35 per cent goes to support government services and programs, while the rest funds lottery operating costs.
On Friday, the lottery estimated that total ticket sales for this jackpot, which has been building up since Jan. 28, would be about $1.46 billion, said Kelly Cripe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Lottery Commission.
Long odds don't matter to many people
You're about 20,000 times more likely to die in a car crash than win the lottery, but that doesn't matter to most people.
"Part of it is hope.… The average person basically has no chance of making it really big, and buying a lottery ticket is a way of raising the ceiling on what could possibly happen to you, however unlikely it may be," said George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied how rich and poor consumers make a choice to buy lottery tickets.
The odds are much better that someone will begin their weekend a winner. Aaron Abrams, a mathematician at Emory University, said he calculated that there was only a six percent chance that no one would hold the winning numbers.
"Every time the jackpot gets higher, more and more people buy tickets, which makes it more and more likely that someone will win," Abrams said. "So the chance that it rolls over this many times in a row is very small. It's quite a rare event."
The estimated jackpot dwarfs the previous $390 million record, which was split in 2007 by two winners who bought tickets in Georgia and New Jersey.
The rarity of Friday's jackpot was fuelling the fervor. Lines formed at grocery stores, gas stations, liquor stops and other venues across the country.
In Arizona, a café worker reported selling $2,600 worth of tickets to one buyer. In Indiana, hundreds lined up for a giveaway of free tickets. Hundreds from Utah and Las Vegas streamed in to neighboring California or Arizona to buy tickets because their states don't participate.
Accountant Ray Lousteau, who bought 55 Mega Millions tickets Friday in New Orleans, knows buying that many tickets doesn't greatly increase his odds, and that his $55 could have gone elsewhere. He spent it anyway.
"Mathematically, it doesn't make a difference, and intellectually we know that. But for some reason buying more tickets makes you feel more lucky," Lousteau said. "Even people who know better are apt to feel that way."
In Chicago, Peter Muiznieks bought a ticket at a liquor store. He knows his chance of winning is a long shot, and that the money the country is spending on tickets could go elsewhere. He still couldn't help himself, and laughed as the apparent contradiction of his opinion and his actions.
"Lottery and games of chance are a stupidity tax and the more we all buy into this, the less rational we are as a society," he said.