Just pencil in your birthday plus your high school locker combination, plunk down a buck or maybe 50, cross your fingers and…next thing you know you’re sipping mai tais in the Jacuzzi of your stretch Mercedes SUV. Never mind that you’re 10 times more likely to be killed by a bee sting—winning a whopping lottery jackpot is still the quickest, easiest way to realizing the American Dream.
Or is it? Sure, today’s lottery jackpots are growing faster than Tobey Maguire’s asking price, producing some gargantuan payouts. Just look at 20-year-old inventory clerk Erika Greene, who last month pulled up to the Georgia lottery office in a limousine to cash her $58.9 million Big Game lottery ticket. “People used to get excited about $20 or $30 million,” says Chuck Strutt, executive director of the Multi-State Lottery Association, which created the first Power-ball jackpot in 1992. “Now it takes $50 to $100 million before we get national attention.” But with massive windfalls can come major headaches, such as needy, distant relatives who suddenly remember your phone number. “You get bombarded with some outrageous requests, like ‘Uncle Ray needs a new leg,'” says Bob Hainey, a Washington, D.C., lottery manager. “You’ve got to put up a firewall, or you can get cash-poor pretty quick.”
Your best bet: Hire a good financial planner, take a deep breath before buying that minor-league baseball team and listen to what the following big winners have to say about what happens after you hit the jackpot.
Amount won: $27 million
In March 1992 Haggarty stopped at a Boulder, Colo., convenience store to pick up frosting for a cake her mother had sent her. As she paid, she decided to buy three tickets for the Colorado lottery. Good choice: Her impulse buy turned out to be the real icing on the cake.
Today that fateful canister of frosting sits like a lucky charm in her freezer—which in turn sits inside her $2.3 million, 6,000-sq.-ft. mansion in Steamboat Springs, Colo. With an annual after-tax income of $530,000, “everything accelerated in our life,” says Haggarty, 33. Unmarried when she won, she was working as a $6.14-an-hour physical-therapy assistant and dating her future husband, Dan, 43, a hockey coach who was making ends meet as a waiter. Haggarty credits her winnings with fast-tracking marriage and kids. “We didn’t have to save for the wedding; didn’t have to establish careers before we started a family,” she says.
And what a wedding it was. Married three months after Haggarty’s win, they brought 25 family members along on their honeymoon, a week-long Caribbean cruise.
That kind of indulgence has been rare, in part because of Haggarty’s decision to choose yearly payments instead of a whopping onetime lump sum. “I’m really glad we didn’t take the cash,” she says. “Think about it: If we messed up the first year, you learn from that. You know you have another check coming, and you can get your act together.”
Now the parents of daughters Hanna and Kayla, the couple relish their home, complete with 200 windows from which to view Rocky Mountain sunsets. No ultraflashy cars here, though: An Audi station wagon and a Lincoln Navigator occupy their two-car garage. After some early financial missteps involving loans to friends—Haggarty estimates they lost some $200,000—the couple now keep a tight rein on their investments. “The one thing we learned is, we’re not a bank,” says Haggarty. “It doesn’t work.” She has even arranged a system to keep family members happy. “Every year I give out $5,000 to everybody,” she says. “Seems to work for me. Works for them.”
A competitive teenage figure skater whose career was cut short in 1986 when a car accident left her in a body brace for four months, Haggarty has since helped fund a children’s figure-skating school in Steamboat Springs, where she now teaches 20 hours a week. She knows she has been extraordinarily lucky and says she doesn’t hanker for gaudier displays of wealth. “At a certain point in your life you have to say, ‘Okay, I’m happy with what I have,'” says Haggarty, “because there’s always bigger, there’s always better, and there’s always more.”
Amount won: $6.6 million
For a few years Mary Champaine suffered an epic streak of misfortune: In April 1997 a stray bullet from warring Los Angeles gangs killed her 24-year-old stepson Al; a year later she lost her mother-in-law and father; in August 1999 the firm where she had worked as a personnel trainer folded; a month later her husband, Albert, 50, succumbed to cancer. Recalls Champaine, now 55, who found work as a Starbucks manager weeks after her husband’s death: “I was too busy surviving to grieve over my losses.”
Then, in October 2000, one of the 13 tickets Champaine had bought for herself and her employees in the California Super Lotto Plus won an $87 million pot. Although Champaine’s windfall made her an overnight celebrity, she continued at her $32,000-a-year job until December 2000. “It just got crazy,” she says. “I heard so many sales pitches, it made me tremble.”
She kept her head, though: Her first purchases were a glass doorknob and a dimmer switch (she installed them herself) for her modest home in East L.A. Next year she plans to build a house for her daughter Michelle Brandon, 30, and two grandchildren. Champaine, who had heart surgery last July, now walks every day at dawn and takes belly-dancing lessons with a friend. “Money doesn’t make you happy,” Champaine says. “What makes me happy is that my granddaughters are going to be able to go to college.”
Amount won: $87 million
Single and eight months pregnant when she scored big in the ’95 Powerball lottery, Gabriel summed up her new spending philosophy thusly: “If I want it, I’ll buy it.” At the time the former Army clerk, now 33, was attending college in Boise, Idaho, while holding down two jobs. Suddenly, post lottery, she found herself appearing on David Letterman and receiving marriage proposals from guys across the country. Sorry, fellas: In ’99 Gabriel wed boyfriend Todd, 32, with whom she had had Nicholas, now 7. (They now have another son, Corban, 5, and daughter McKenna, 20 months.) “We worked through the tough times,” she says of their long-gestating marriage. Her biggest splurge has been a Hawaiian vacation and a 10,000-sq.-ft. home in Boise. So, does Gabriel still stand by her “want it, buy it” mantra? “Well, I made macaroni and cheese and hamburgers for dinner tonight,” she says with a laugh. “And pretty soon it will be time to go throw in another laundry. But that’s how I like it.”
Amount won: $3.3 million
Vacationing at the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.Dak., last summer, Charles Tabet decided to skip the crowded hotels and instead curled up for the night in the cab of his Ford pickup. He was awakened by a rapping on the window. “You,” declared his pal Al Garcia, “suck as a millionaire.”
But life as a millionaire is still pretty grand for the frugal Tabet, 38, one of 14 security guards at Albuquerque’s Sandia National Laboratory who shared a $131 million Powerball prize in ’00. He’s done his splurging—on a 4,000-sq.-ft. home in Bosque Farms, N.Mex., a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy, a Ford F-250 pickup and a Ford Expedition. And he quit his job (though his wife, Laura, 35, still works as a teacher). Now he pitches in at the local volunteer fire department and spends more time with sons Jeremy and Jason. He has also discovered a whole new flavor of worry: “Now that I have this much money,” he says, “I think I need more money to be secure.”
Amount won: $28 million
He won a Super Bowl as a linebacker with the Dallas Cowboys in 1978, but Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson beat even bigger odds when he bought 20 Lotto Texas tickets in an Austin pharmacy in March 2000 and wound up with a $10.4 million lump payment. “I was already worth maybe $2 million when I won,” says Henderson, 49. “So I splurged on my family.”
He bought new homes for his two ex-wives and daughter Thomesa, 23, and gave $10,000 to each of 50 friends and relatives. Active in several charities and anti-substance-abuse projects (he’s a former drug addict), Henderson also sold his condo in an upscale Austin neighborhood and built a bungalow in the low-income, high-crime part of town where he grew up. “Something deep inside was telling me to go home,” he says. “Go all the way home.”
Amount won: $45 million
Since winning Ohio’s Super Lotto game six years ago, Ed Himes has been living large. He’s indulged his taste for luxe by stocking his custom-built dream house outside Youngstown, Ohio, with multiple big-screen TVs, a hot tub and a fully stocked bar seating 12. Even so, the 3,000-sq.-ft. basement of the $1.5 million spread he shares with his wife and three kids may not prove spacious enough to showcase the former electrician’s proudest purchases: some 50,000 to 60,000 items of Dale Earnhardt memorabilia. Boxes full of shirts and photos autographed by the late NASCAR champ are stacked next to a leather couch, chair and love seat sporting giant white 3s—Earnhardt’s number—and the racer’s signature embossed in red. Nearby lies the front bumper of a car Earnhardt drove in a race in 2000, and “the Intimidator” himself beams from the front of a vending machine. “I’ve probably gone overboard,” allows Himes, 36, who in many other respects has shown restraint. “I’m not going to fly to Paris for lunch or nothing,” he explains. “I like Burger King.”
Amount won: $20.7 million
Attention, future lottery winners: Before spending a penny, consider the cautionary tale of Paul Cooney. Since scoring $20.7 million in the Florida lottery in ’89, Cooney—a former dispatcher at a Georgia Ford dealership—has racked up a collection of missteps almost as formidable as his fortune. Among them: purchasing a failing Chrysler dealership; investing in a now-shuttered Italian restaurant; divorcing his wife of nearly 11 years; remarrying in ’96 and divorcing his second wife in ’97; and, finally, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in ’99. Looking back, Cooney, 39, says, “I was 26, what I did was too soft-hearted.” After repaying most of his debts, Cooney is about to break even, though he continues to shell out half his annual $1,035,000 lottery award in alimony to his first ex-wife Donna, 40. Despite his mistakes, he notes, things could be worse: After all, “I still get my checks. I get $517,000 a year gross.”