Winning the Lottery: Dream or Nightmare?

A house. A vacation. A thousand dollars a day for life. Who wouldn't want to win a huge prize or the lottery? Actually, a lot of people—once they realize these jackpots aren't free, as most prize winnings are taxed as income by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Key Takeaways

  • You are taxed on anything you win, whether it's a prize or cash.
  • Taxes are payable on any winnings at the federal and state levels.
  • Most tangible prizes like cars and homes are taxed at their fair market value.
  • Taxes on lottery winnings are based on whether you take a lump sum or decide to take annuities paid over a certain number of years.

Taxes and the ongoing costs of ownership can quickly turn some windfalls into major burdens. What follows is an analysis of some common prizes we've all dreamed of winning and how much it costs to win them.

You must report any and all of your winnings to the IRS regardless of their value.

The Cost of Winning a House

After winning a home, you'll be responsible for paying the federal income tax based on the value of the home. You may also be liable for state income tax, depending on your state of residence. And as with any prize, you'll be paying those taxes at the full marginal tax rate because the value of the prize is reported on Form 1040 as other income. This is, of course, on top of any other earnings from employment and investments.

Unless you already own a home you plan to sell; many people can't afford to pay such a significant sum all at once, even with several months of notice. Furthermore, consider that most prizes in the form of dream homes are worth more than $500,000 and are located in high-cost-of-living areas.

Of course, if you can afford the tax bill, you're getting a home for the price of a generous down payment. But the costs of this type of prize don't end there. On top of income taxes, you'll also have higher recurring expenses such as property taxes, homeowner's insurance, and utility bills, not to mention the cost of general maintenance and upkeep. You may have gained a rich new asset, but you could end up being house poor in the end.

A Brand New Car

Just like that dream home, you'll be responsible for federal and state income taxes on that brand new car you just won. This figure is based on its fair market value—you can estimate the authorities will collect about one-third of its value. This may 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 a sports car that retails for over $100,000, you may not consider yourself quite so lucky. Since the cars that are given away as prizes are often luxury models, the new wheels could boost your income quite a bit, maybe even into a new bracket.

Don't forget that you'll have to pay registration and licensing fees in order to get that car on the road. Then there are the ongoing costs associated with auto ownership. You can bet things like insurance premiums and maintenance are higher with a higher-class car. Oil changes on the cheapest Ferrari, for example, are pricey. And your shiny new 500-horsepower bullet probably doesn't get the gas mileage your current commuter car does.

A Vacation

When you win a trip, you are taxed on the fair market value of the trip, and, depending on the sort of holidays you take, the taxes might be as much as you'd normally spend on an entire vacation. As the winner, you'll be liable for taxes on the whole prize even if multiple people come along—unless you can get them to pitch in.

On the other hand, sometimes the fair market value is lower than you'd expect because the sweepstakes sponsor was able to get a special deal or discount, which will make your tax bill seem like a bargain. So, while it won't be a completely free trip, it'll probably be a pretty opulent experience.

In many cases, you will still be expected to cover some expenses on this supposedly free trip. Say you enter a contest in which the prize is a trip for two to Paris. It includes airfare from New York to Paris, hotel, ground transportation, and half a day of sightseeing. But if you don't live in New York, you are responsible for travel expenses to get there, all your food costs, sightseeing, tips, and all other spending money. Needless to say, these expenses could easily add up to the winnings the contest provider was shelling out.

A Dream Wedding

With a recent bridal survey pegging the average cost of a wedding in 2018 at $44,000, it's no wonder many couples jump at the chance to score stylish nuptials for free. But a contest-financed affair often comes with additional costs.

Take a wedding prize package offering a "designer wedding" worth more than $30,000, including a stay at a spa resort in Mexico and an engagement photoshoot in New York. However, only transportation to Mexico is covered. Bridesmaids' dresses and a designer wedding gown were included, but costs for alterations weren't.

Even if key parts of the trip are covered, and the contest is explicit about what's not included, it may not be a good deal. Such items can really add up for a cash-strapped couple (or their parents), and it's harder to budget when someone else is calling the shots.

A prize wedding can sometimes mean having the wedding the prize-giver wants instead of the one the soon-to-be-married couple dreams of. They may stipulate that the cake, the decor, and other details be chosen by the contest sponsor. Accepting a prize wedding may make having a wedding your way next to impossible—and for many people, that's worth something, too.

Gambling Jackpot

Uncle Sam wants to encourage the habit of gambling because the tax bill on any money you win from gambling can be offset by any money you have lost. However, you'll only get this benefit if you itemize your taxes rather than taking the standard deduction, and you can't deduct more than the amount you have won. Winnings from horse races, betting, and casinos are all considered gambling income by the IRS and must be reported as such on your return.

Depending on the type of game and the amount you win, you may have to fill out a payer-provided Form W-2G separately for an estimated tax when you receive the prize—gambling winnings are generally subject to a flat 24% tax—which the awarding entity will withhold and send to the IRS on your behalf.

The Lottery

Playing the lottery counts as gambling. So should you win big, the proceeds will be considered gambling income, with all the implications detailed above. Payouts of jackpots over $5,000 minus the wager automatically have 24% withheld for federal taxes. Most states charge taxes too, and depending on where you live; your total tax bill could be as high as 50% based on your other income.

Unlike winning a house or car, there are no ongoing costs associated with winning the lottery. That is except, of course, for annual income taxes owed should you opt to take your winnings as an annuity–more on that below.

$1.586 billion

The value of the largest lottery jackpot in the world, split between three Powerball tickets in Jan. 2016.

Options for Dealing With Prizes

Now that you know the strings attached to a big win, what can do you do? With most prizes, you have five options:

  1. Keep the prize and pay the tax. This is the best option if you can afford the tax bill and can use the prize.
  2. Sell the prize and pay tax on the proceeds. If you don't want the prize or if you can't or don't want to pay the taxes on it, you can still benefit from your win by selling the prize.
  3. Receive a cash settlement instead of the prize. If you take money instead of a tangible object or amenity, at least you'll have the money to pay the tax that's due.
  4. Forfeit the prize. If the prize isn't worth the trouble to you, you can just refuse it.
  5. Donate the prize. In some cases, you can donate the prize to a government agency or tax-exempt charitable organization without paying tax on it.

Minimizing Lottery Jackpot Taxes

Obviously, winning the lottery is a tad different, and most of the above options don't quite apply. But you do have choices in handling the windfall.

The biggest one concerns how you'll actually get the money. As mentioned above, you'll have to decide whether to take the payment as a single lump sum or as an annuity (annual payments spread out over years or decades). Each choice has its financial implications, and you may want to consult with a tax attorney, certified public accountant (CPA), or certified financial planner (CFP) to discuss them before deciding.

Strictly from a tax viewpoint, the annuity has some advantages. Let's say you win a $1 million jackpot. If you take the lump sum today, your total federal income taxes are estimated at $370,000 figuring a tax bracket of 37%. Instead, let’s look at what happens if you take the million dollars as 20 payments of $50,000 a year, assuming for simplicity's sake that you have no other income and are only pushed up to the 22% bracket.

Your total federal income taxes are estimated at $11,000 per year or $220,000 after 20 years since we're assuming the tax rate for this example won't change. You have saved $150,000 over the 20-year period.

Total Winnings






Paid Out in Year 1



Taxes in Year 1



Total Taxes Paid 



Tax Savings



Winnings Received Over

20 Years



Other Odds to Consider

  • Being killed by a vending machine: 1 in 112 million
  • Having identical quadruplets: 1 in 15 million
  • Becoming a movie star: 1 in 1.5 million
  • Dying in a plane crash or being struck by lightning: 1 in 1 million
  • Dying in a car accident: 1 in 6,700

Even if you did win the lottery, you might not be able to hold onto the money. One of the first things a lot of people do after receiving their newfound financial freedom is to quit their job. It's also natural to go on a spending spree: a fancy new house, a new car, a luxury vacation. And then, maybe, help friends, family, colleagues—everyone you've ever known will come out of the woodwork asking for a handout. Drastically elevating expenditures, ceasing to earn income, gifts, and handouts—it's no small wonder so many lottery winners eventually end up in financial distress.

To avoid that, you will want to assemble a team of experts that may include an attorney for estate planning issues, a financial advisor, and a CPA or other tax specialist to help put a financial plan in place. Get the financial guidance you need, take the time to plan out what you want to do with your newfound wealth, and refrain from making rash decisions—economic or otherwise. Certainly, helping those close to you is a good thing, but you need to set limits and learn to say no.

Be Sure It's Legit

There's another way that winning a prize can hurt you: If it's a scam. Here are some things all legitimate prizes have in common:

  • You never have to pay any money to enter sweepstakes or pay shipping and handling charges if you win.
  • Bank information or a credit card number is never necessary to claim your prize.

The following are red flags indicating that a contest may be fraudulent:

  • Receiving a phone call or letter stating you have won a prize when you don't recall entering any sweepstakes.
  • Getting a tax form with an inflated approximate retail value on the item. You are required to pay taxes on the fair market value of the prize.
  • The organization offering the prize tries to talk you into taking advantage of dubious tax loopholes in order to convince you to claim the prize even though you may not be able to afford the tax.

Lottery and sweepstakes scams were the third most common type of fraud reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

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. Remember, when you win something, you are responsible for paying taxes on it. Generally, you'll pay taxes in the year you receive the prize, which may not be the same year you win the prize.

If you get a big cash windfall from the lottery or other types of gambling, avoid the common mistakes: Don't do anything rash or go on a spending spree before you've hammered out an overall wealth management plan and done some long-term thinking and goal-setting. With lotteries, this includes determining how you want to receive the jackpot, which will impact how much you will actually get, and when you will get it.

Before accepting any prize, consider the financial implications of keeping it and make the decision that will have the most positive impact on your long-term finances. Otherwise, your big win could turn into a losing proposition.

Article Sources

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  1. Internal Revenue Service. "Instructions for Forms W-2G and 5754 (2020)." Accessed Feb. 15, 2021.

  2. Brides. "This Is What American Weddings Look Like Today." Accessed Feb. 15, 2021.

  3. Powerball. "Powerball Numbers for January 13, 2016." Accessed Feb. 15, 2021.

  4. MIT Press Journals. "The Ticket to Easy Street? The Financial Consequences of Winning the Lottery." Accessed Feb. 15, 2021.

  5. Federal Trade Commission. "Winners are losers in lottery & sweepstakes scams." Accessed Feb. 15, 2021.