A couple of weeks ago, the Times Free Press lunchroom was buzzing with lottery talk.
Like in many American workplaces, people here were dazzled by the world-record, $656 million Mega Millions jackpot, which was ultimately won on March 30 by some lucky ducks in Illinois, Kansas and Maryland.
Here at the newspaper, many of us had pooled our money for a chance at a small slice of the treasure. (Obviously, we didn't win, or the newspaper that landed in your driveway this morning would have blown away like a dry leaf.)
I chipped in $25 to be in two office lottery groups, mainly because the thought of being "left behind" as the only non-winner made my head throb. I could imagine hearing the whoops and high-fives as everyone -- except me -- bolted for the exits.
"Come back here, people," I can imagine shouting. "I'm not answering all these phones all by myself. People!"
Alas, we didn't win one cent of the big $656 million Mega Millions jackpot. Nor did anyone in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama or the entire southeastern United States for that matter.
This is a good thing. I sometimes watch the TV show the "Lottery Changed My Life" on TLC, and most of the winners have a wild look, like Kramer on "Seinfeld." My role model is the guy on a recent episode who spent all of his lottery winnings on pickup trucks for his friends and a bait store for himself.
Our office loss was entirely predictable, as the odds of a single ticket winning the multistate jackpot last month were said to be one in 173 million. Office pools carve down those odds some, but winning is still a wild long shot.
On the day before the drawing, I overheard one of our smartest reporters say, "I think we have a good shot at winning."
"No, we don't," I said incredulously.
Here's a sad fact: According to the Consumer Federation of America, about 40 percent of Americans with incomes between $25,000 and $35,000 believe winning the lottery is their best chance of funding a reasonable retirement.
Well, what if I told you there was a surefire, guaranteed way to win the lottery? And not just some little scratch-off $50 prize, but a nice, life-changing six-figure amount -- say, $156,400.
Would you go for that?
Take notes, then.
First, you must understand that any money you spend on multistate lottery tickets in the future will be deducted from your $156,400. On the other hand, any actual winnings would boost the total, obviously.
For this strategy to work, you also have to make some concessions. First, you must understand that the money will go to your children or grandchildren, not to you.
You'll also need to be good at delayed gratification because your children's lottery money will have to be spread across their entire work life, 40 years. This isn't a windfall; there's labor involved.
First, you'll have to make sure your kids study hard enough to make a B average in high school or to score at least 21 on the ACT (the national average is 22.1). That will qualify them for at least $4,000 a year from a lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship here if they attend a four-year college or university in Tennessee. (Georgia has similar lottery-based scholarship program.)
I'll use the University of Tennessee at Knoxville as an example of how this pays off. According to the school's own affordability calculator, the cost of tuition, room and board, books and supplies and personal expenses at the Knoxville campus is $23,498 a year. A $4,000 lottery scholarship will cover about 17 percent of that cost.
The U.S. Census Bureau, meanwhile, estimates that the median income for a person with a bachelor's degree is $55,000 a year, compared to $32,000 for a person with just a high school diploma. That $23,000 a year bachelor's degree bonus adds up to $920,000 over the course of a 40-year career.
Hang with me, now.
Seventeen percent of that $920,000 -- the proportional return on investment from the four-year lottery scholarship -- is $156,400.
With two sons, I hope to win the $156,400 jackpot twice, Lord willing.
Oh, minus that 25 bucks.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MarkKennedyTFP or on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST.