Have ever dreamed of winning a big prize like a new home, car or vacation? What could be wrong with getting something expensive for free? Unfortunately, many of the biggest prizes come with major consequences that could leave you poorer than before you hit the jackpot. Here we look at some high-profile prizes that may cost more than they're worth. (To learn more about common financial fantasies that get people in trouble, see 4 Fatal Financial Fantasies.)
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ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" has hugely popularized dramatic home makeovers since it first hit the air in 2003. And if yours is the struggling family who gets to replace a modest and perhaps somewhat dilapidated home with an ultra-hip designer house, this show's story line plays out like the American dream, except for one thing: a big house costs a lot more money.
Technically, most prize winnings are taxed as income by the IRS. Interestingly, Extreme Makeover has reportedly been able to avoid this thanks to a legal loophole. However, if you win a home makeover or new home through a different route, the IRS will expect you to report it on your Form 1040 as "other" income. It will be taxed at your regular marginal tax rate. And even if you're avoiding tax from a contest thanks to a loophole, don't necessarily count on the fact that the IRS will always allow this.
Unfortunately, the costs of this type of prize don't end there. a recent story in The Wall Street Journal detailed the less-than-fairy-tale endings of some of Extreme Home Makeover's earliest contestants, many of whom reportedly struggled with paying the upkeep on homes that in many cases were three or four times the size of their original homes. For many, a bigger house meant higher property taxes, maintenance costs and insurance.
Many homeowners were also unable to resist tapping into their new home equity, strapping themselves with bigger mortgage payments in the process. In the end, several winners of the contest have been forced to sell their homes or have gone into foreclosure. (For more insight on how to reduce costs with a smaller home, see Downsize Your Home To Downsize Expenses.)
Although Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is only one example, for those who score this rich prize, taxes and increased ownership expenses may leave them house poor.
A Luxury Car
Maybe you couldn't resist putting your name in the sweepstakes draw for a new luxury sports car. However, if you win a new car, you can estimate that the IRS will collect about one-third of its value in taxes. This might not be so bad if you win a $15,000 Ford Fiesta (you get a brand new car by paying $5,000 to the IRS!), but if you win, say, a 2010 Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet, which retails for $143,000, you might not call yourself quite so lucky.
Plus, you can bet the insurance (and gas mileage) on this 500 horsepower bullet will be significantly more than your current daily driver. Otherwise, you'd be buying yourself a Porsche, rather than trying to win one, right? (To learn more about the costs of your commute, see The True Cost Of Owning A Car.)
If you can't afford to go on vacation, this may be the case even if the trip is "free". In many cases, you will still be expected to cover some expenses on a free tip. Besides having to claim any trip over $600 on your tax return, you may end up footing a larger share of your vacation bill than you imagined.
For example, April 30th is the closing date for a contest by Wall Street Journal Travel, in which the prize is a trip for two to Paris. The trip includes airfare from New York to Paris, hotel and ground transportation and half a day of sightseeing. But don't assume you could afford this trip; if you don't live in New York, you will be responsible for travel expenses to get there, all your food costs (which will be sizeable in this city of gourmands!), sightseeing, tips and all other spending money. Needless to say, these expenses could easily add up to the $4,200 the contest provider is shelling out. (Find out how to get a good deal on a great vacation in 7 Ways To Save On Summer Getaways.)
A Dream Wedding
With most surveys pegging the average cost of a wedding at $20,000, it's no wonder that many couples scramble at the chance to score a stylish wedding for free. That said, a contest win often comes with additional costs - in this case perhaps both to you and your pocketbook.
Take the upcoming wedding prize package being offered by Harper's Bazaar. It's a designer wedding worth more than $33,000, which includes a stay at a spa resort in Mexico. To be fair, the contest appears to pay for the key expenses, and the publication is very straightforward about what isn't covered - which could really add up for a cash-strapped bride and groom.
For example, the package comes complete with a $2,000 engagement photo shoot in New York - but transportation to and from New York is not provided. Bridesmaids' dresses and a designer wedding gown come with the package, but the cost of alterations don't. This isn't to say that the wedding won't be cheaper than if you'd done something similar yourself, but it's also going to be harder to budget when someone else is calling the shots.
Plus, for picky brides (and possibly grooms), a prize wedding can sometimes mean having the wedding the prize sponsor wants. The Harper's Bazaar package stipulates a cake, decor and other details to be chosen by the sponsor. Accepting a prize wedding may make having a wedding your way next to impossible - and for many people, that's worth something too. (Want to plan (and pay) for your own wedding? Read Have A Princess Wedding On A Pauper Budget for tips.)
The Bottom Line
Many people dream of winning a big prize in a lottery, contest or sweepstakes. The problem is, when the prize isn't cash, the tax burden and additional expenses associated with your winnings can really add up. Before you accept any prize, find out what it's worth - and what it will cost you - before you accept it. Turning down a prize can be hard to swallow, but in some cases you'll find it much more palatable than the dent it could make in your savings.
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