What can we learn from Lottery winners?

For a decade, for a prior employer, we were part of a team of advisers nominated by Camelot, the company that runs the National Lottery, to meet with anyone who won over £500,000. The format was a meeting, a fortnight after the cheque presentation, that would involve a Camelot employee (called a winners adviser), a solicitor and one of us. The winner’s advisers are the unsung heroes of the whole lottery endeavour as they provide an amazing service to winners from the initial meeting and cheque presentation to a lifetime telephone counselling service. They are to a person empathetic, emotionally intelligent, patient, kind and understanding. The idea behind these meetings was for Camelot to give their winners, access to financial and legal advice, mainly to protect them against making silly mistakes with their money.

We still advise some of these winners to this day and these are the winners that have takne advice and done all of the right things. These are not the winners that we are interested here, the interesting lessons come from the winners that didn’t become clients (and we wouldn’t talk about clients anyway). Our first example is one about what money can’t buy you.

It is a hot day, I am sitting in an office with poor air conditioning and opposite me is the most miserable client I have ever met. The cause of his misery? He has just won the lottery.

These meetings with lottery winners are supposed to be a joy and you are trained to always ask ‘tell me about when you found out that you had won?’. Most times this will elicit a wonderful story about how they first heard that their numbers had been chosen and then the lengths they had gone to either to keep quiet until partners were home from work or to get in touch with partners to give them the good news. Tales of immediate resignation to a hated boss, booking dream holidays to places only previously viewed in the pages of a magazine, taking career breaks to care for terminally ill children or the just the lifting of a lifetime of financial stress. It is a far too simplistic a view of human emotions though, to assume that it will always be a positive experience and these meetings often involve the full range of feelings and reactions, sometimes contradictory and often ranging back and forth in a single interaction.

The cause of his misery?

He has just won the lottery.

Back to our hot office in Devon and the poor man in front of me who has had his life turned upside down by the news that he has won three quarters of a million pounds. I can feel sweat soaking slowly into my collar which is already too tight, having had to walk in this heat from the train station. I am irritable, this is not my area (I am covering it for a colleague who is on holiday) and immediately I can tell that this is not going to be a happy meeting. It doesn’t start well as the winners information sheet (the single piece of A4 that is sent pre-meeting with scant, anonymised information) mentioned a married couple attending and yet here is the husband here by himself and looking unhappy.

The reason Tim is unhappy is a complex one, but it boils down to the fact that he is actually the model rationale human being, the Homo economicus of academic literature. He and his wife have spent a lifetime doing what society has advised, his mortgage has been recently paid off by saving two modest salaries, they have both contributed to pensions sufficiently that they were about to retire slightly earlier than planned, they live modestly and happily with their adult children nearby. In fact they had just reached the start of what should be a golden period of retirement and grandparenting. The problem is that the win has both made them realise what they value and endangered that very thing in one quick online check of random numbers. Having not had anything in abundance for a working lifetime, Tim & Sheryl have grown to value the community of people around them. They have a shared history with them and this win is dangerous to both friends and family.

Having started the meeting assuming that Tim is the least deserving of any winner I have ever met (and wondering why we wear suits and ties to meet people in 30 degree heat) as the meeting progresses I am starting to realise that actually Tim has an extraordinary ability to see the future of his delicate web of relationships and human connections in a way that most of my winners haven’t. Or at least, haven’t until the web has started to fray, as time passes post-win. Tim worries that the money either needs to remain a secret in which case he cannot enjoy it or it will come out in his small community (thank goodness he didn’t get Jim in the newsagents to check his ticket) ruin friendships, lead to family fall-out and cause him to move away to somewhere alien to him. It is easy to feel empathy evaporate for anyone who wins the lottery if it doesn’t make them happy and no doubt you think that you could do better with the money but it wouldn’t necessarily make you happier.

So our first lottery lesson is that money does not equal happiness. We know from all the research into end of life wishes, that people always end up regretting the time they didn’t spend with family and friends. Time is the most valuable commodity in life, not money. Money has a utility. Beyond the basic provision of daily needs, it can buy us more time to spend with people or it can buy us a more enjoyable experience with people.

Far too often we see financial planning start with money and work towards lifestyle goals. At worst it only focuses on the long-term and forgets to explore what the client needs in the here and now. The best planning should start with the lifestyle goals and work out the money that is needed to acheive them.

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