The lottery can offer harmless fun - or financial ruin.

As Brigham Young University math professor Tyler Jarvis once pointed out: "The chances of winning the California Lotto Jackpot are approximately one in 18 million. If you have to drive 10 miles to buy this ticket, you are three times more likely to be killed in an automobile accident on the way than to win the jackpot." He added that if you stood all the losers of this lottery in a line, it would be 6,800 miles long, more than the distance from Manhattan to Tokyo. Here's another way to think about it: If you bought 50 tickets per week, you ought to win once every 6,923 years. So you should have won by now - if you'd started playing around 5000 B.C.

McMaster University professor Fred Hoppe asked this question: "Would you pay $1 to bet on 24 'heads' in a row? The chances of that happening, as anyone who flips coins knows, is virtually impossible." Yet millions play lotteries, pinning hopes on similar odds. Hoppe has explained that if you spend $25 on lottery tickets each week for 20 years (total: $26,000), you can expect to lose $13,000. The Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance reported that "If a person bought 100 $1 lottery tickets every week for his entire adult life from age 18 to 75, that $296,400 investment will still only give him less than one chance in 100 of hitting the jackpot."

Payout rates for lotteries stink. Lotteries often keep about 50 percent of gambled money, while slot machines keep 5 percent to 25 percent, roulette games keep 5 percent, and horse racing keeps 13 percent to 17 percent.

The biggest lottery losers are the poor, who are much more likely to play the lottery, heavily, than wealthier folks. As many have quipped, lotteries are "a tax on people who aren't good at math."

Don't buy more than occasional tickets for fun. As humorist Fran Lebowitz has reportedly noted, "I figure you have the same chance of winning the lottery whether you play or not."