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I Won the Lottery and I Need Help. No, Really!

A customer purchases Powerball lottery tickets for a $700 million jackpot at a newsstand in New York City, August 23, 2017.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters
A customer purchases Powerball lottery tickets for a $700 million jackpot at a newsstand in New York City, August 23, 2017.

Winning the lottery can be a bolt of amazing luck. But whether the luck lasts depends on whether lottery winners fritter away their unexpected largess or manage to achieve financial security.

When Alcario and Carmen Castellano won $141 million in California more than a decade ago, they were fortunate enough to have a financial professional in the family to advise them. And one thing they learned early was to say no, said Mr. Castellano, now 83.

People were constantly calling their San Jose home after they won in 2001, and many even knocked on their door, trying to persuade them to lend or give money. Mr. Castellano said that not long ago, an acquaintance asked for a personal loan. "That's not our goal," he quickly told the person. "We don't do that."

Within months of winning, the couple had to buy a more secluded house because they did not feel safe. He said, joking, that it was also "because the Jaguar I gave my wife would have looked out of place in our old neighborhood."

The couple did spend on some indulgences, like new cars, but quickly set their spending priority, which was giving to Latino community organizations.

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Winners can display joyful exuberance at first, but then they often must deal with unanticipated stress. The psychologist Stephen Goldbart coined a phrase — sudden wealth syndrome — to describe symptoms, which include feeling isolated from friends, guilt over good fortune and extreme fear of losing newly gained money.

Prize winners face adjustments when their financial status shifts radically. Extravagant spending, bad investments and other perils facing lottery winners are common enough that most state lotteries take pains to advise winners to seek out professional accounting and financial advice.

"Nobody teaches you what to do with a large amount of money," said John Hagerty, a spokesman for the Virginia Lottery. "We give those who win $100,000 and up a video and a packet of information to help them prepare for their new financial lives."

Michelle and Robert Sutherland of Oregon, who won $7 million in the state's lottery last June, had lost a large portion of their retirement savings in the 2008 economic meltdown, then lost more money later when they opened a restaurant. The local economy stalled and they had to close the business.

The couple took their lottery winnings in a lump sum and turned to a financial adviser they knew. They bought a "nice, comfortable house but not a mansion" outside Springfield, Ore., said Ms. Sutherland, 54. "To have that title in your hands is an amazing feeling."

She said that they had been able to spend some money on their family, and to set up substantial college funds for their three grandchildren.

"It is very easy to fall into buying everyone the things they want," she said, "but we want to keep it the way it's been."

Winners say there is no plan that works for everyone.

"There is no one way when you win," said Amanda Spiller, 32, who claimed a $1 million Virginia Lottery prize in September 2015. Her 7-year-old daughter wanted to buy a helicopter and a yacht, Ms. Spiller said with a laugh, but "I put my foot down."

Ms. Spiller, who is self-employed, relied on a local accountant for advice and took a lump sum, which was about $688,000 before taxes. She paid off some student loans, invested in a mutual fund and began to nurture some of her passions. One is her website Stop Eating Like a Jerk, which features videos on topics like how to make better food choices.

"I definitely have a better quality of life now," she said. "I'd never been on an airplane so I've done a lot of traveling and taken my daughter places she was never able to go."

And she has not given up on the idea of winning again, she added. "I'm still playing the lottery every week. I won $2,000 last year, and I'm sure I'm going to win again so I invest about $30 every week."

Major prize winners like the Castellanos distribute some of their good fortune through foundations. The couple had volunteered in local Latino organizations before their win, and 16 years ago they set up the Castellano Family Foundation. For several years, Ms. Castellano, 78, who had worked as an administrative secretary for more than three decades at nearby San Jose City College, read and evaluated every application for funding.

"I was making a list of organizations as soon as Al told me we had won," she said. "By that December, I wrote the first foundation check."

The couple learned more about philanthropy by attending conferences, consulting with major donors and hiring a consultant. Their foundation focuses on arts and education groups, as well as on leadership and diversity issues.

"It's not to say that we don't have fun," she said. "We had a grand celebration on our 50th wedding anniversary. When we won, we had the means to help others, but it hasn't changed us.

"We still have the same friends," she continued. "The foundation has helped us to develop our spending ideas, and develop an intuition about how to handle people that we don't know."

Michael Moriarty, 56, a semiretired bartender from the Bronx, said he was using his windfall to "build my little kingdom." He won $7 million this year from a New York scratch-off ticket, and he bought property in the Florida Keys for his family — he has three daughters — and to rent.

"I love Florida because it's a laid-back way of life, and I wanted something that could be an investment and also used by the family," he said. "And I think it's a good investment to own property."

He gave $100,000 to his local Boys & Girls Club, where his brother is president, and treated his daughters to gifts, noting that they "have gotten their fill of wants, not needs." He still routinely puts flowers on his mother's grave and bought himself a new Jeep, a new Harley-Davidson and a modestly priced boat as well as two fishing reels.

"People say you don't have to worry about money," he said. "Well, that's all I worry about now."