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I Won $28 Million in the Lottery When I Was 21. It Changed Everything. Here's how he's managed his money (and what he's bought) since 1999.

By Kitti Palmai

Key Takeaways

  • Tim Schultz won the lottery in 1999 while working as a gas station attendant when he was 21.
  • Schultz put himself through college and retired immediately, but some of his relationships suffered.
  • He said money doesn't buy you happiness, but it can buy you time, opportunities and reduce stress.
Tim Schultz via Business Insider
Tim Schultz won a $28 million Powerball jackpot in February 1999.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider.

This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Timothy Schultz, who won the Powerball Lottery in 1999. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

A few months before I won the $28 million Powerball jackpot, I had a vivid dream that I'd already won. It felt so real that it convinced me it was going to happen.

It was 1999, and I was a gas station attendant studying part-time at a liberal arts university in Iowa. I lived in my parents' basement, making minimum wage.

I started playing the lottery once or twice weekly, buying a single ticket. I visualized winning and told people about it. They said, "Well if anyone's going to win, you're going to win."

Then I did.

After I won, I was walking on cloud nine

I woke up to my father banging on my bedroom door on February 10, 1999, screaming that someone won the Powerball lottery. He asked whether I purchased a ticket. I immediately remembered telling several people I had the winning ticket the night before.

I was frantic, rummaging through papers, and eventually found the ticket crumpled in a little ball. After unraveling it, I ran upstairs to the kitchen and compared the numbers to those in the newspaper.

When they matched, it felt like I was still dreaming. My father hugged me, and we jumped up and down like kids in a candy store.

I called my mom, who initially thought I was joking. We also called financial advisors and attorneys. They said to put the ticket somewhere secure and set up a time to redeem it at the lottery office; I felt like I was walking on cloud nine.

A press conference announced I had won the $28 million Powerball lottery. After that, our phone was inundated with messages. People I knew congratulated me, but there were stacks of letters from strangers, some of whom asked for money.

At the press conference itself, I felt like a deer in headlights. It was exhilarating and terrifying. I'd never been the center of attention for millions of people. However, part of me enjoyed it. I think it helped inspire my pursuit of broadcast news and podcasting.

I'd always imagined what I'd do if I ever won: pay off debt and put myself through college, but I'd never thought about how it would change my life.

From gas attendant to millionaire

Suddenly, I'd gone from a gas station attendant to retired at 21. I felt like I was holding a magic wand. Everything was possible, but I also wanted to be financially responsible.

Before turning in the ticket, I consulted with wealth professionals to understand how much I could afford to spend and give to others. I helped many people but also wanted to live within my means.

Before I received the money, I set up a plan with advisors to invest it. We invested conservatively so the returns could last me over a lifetime.

But as a 21-year-old, the first thing I bought was the latest video game system. A luxury I couldn't afford before winning.

I mostly invested in stocks, bonds, and mutual funds with my money. I helped my family, bought vehicles, and traveled. I went back to college to study film and broadcast journalism, a dream come true.

How it impacted my relationships

I was a struggling college student, just like my peers, and then I became an outlier: the rich kid. At the time, I felt obligated to pay for friends' vacations, meals, or anything we did together.

Most people didn't ask for money, but I felt that I could and, perhaps morally, should pay for them because I had won the lottery.

People were supportive, but some treated me differently. Some tried to get closer to me, which made me feel like a walking, talking ATM. I constantly feared people who didn't want to be friends with me for the right reasons. When people didn't change how they behaved around me, I knew I could trust them. I also had family and friends who seemed concerned about how wealth would impact me, which further cemented my trust.

When you win the lottery, people don't view the money as something you've earned. A family member explicitly told me I got something for nothing by winning the lottery and should keep giving them and others money.

I had to learn to say no to stay fiscally responsible. When I put my foot down, it damaged my relationships with some family members who I loved very much.

After winning, I initially felt isolated and lonely. I had a really hard time opening up to new people. My dating life was better before I won the lottery. I moved to a different house in a new state because so many people knew my story, and I felt uncomfortable.

It was a steep learning curve navigating the social aspect of winning the lottery.

How I spent the money

Within the first year of winning, for fun, my friends and I threw a dart at a map and said we'd go wherever the dart landed. It landed in the middle of Canada, so we went on an outdoor adventure trip north.

I retired instantaneously, but I've kept working on passion projects.

After winning the lottery, I thought hard about what makes me happy. Sitting on a beach drinking margaritas is fun, but the novelty wears off.

I needed a reason to wake up in the morning and a goal to achieve. That is why I went back to college to earn a degree, work on several productions, and pursue my desire to entertain and inspire people positively; I love it, and it drives me.

I produced a documentary and a couple of animations, helped with other people's independent films, and created a film festival. I also started my "Lottery, Dreams and Fortune" podcast where I interview other major prize and lottery winners. It's very cathartic for me to meet and interview people and understand their lottery journeys.

These days, I spend most of my free time working on my podcast and YouTube channel or exercising. I'm typically running, lifting weights, or training if I'm not producing a video. YouTube brings in some money, but I can live off my investments.

Reflecting on his win

People ask all the time, "Does money buy happiness?" Money doesn't necessarily change who you are. It can affect happiness by buying time, providing opportunities, and alleviating stress about debt. But it doesn't change who you are. Some very wealthy people are very unhappy as well.

I wish I had invested in bitcoin a few years ago, but that's my only regret about how I've spent the winnings. Shortly after winning, I purchased new vehicles and other big purchases.

These days, I don't buy anything too crazy. Like many people, I live within a budget. If you win hundreds of millions, your budget could be quite different. It's all relative. I am just grateful for what I got.

At 21, I had no idea what to do with that kind of money and was lucky I sought professional guidance. I didn't want to become a statistic of lottery winners going broke within a few years.

While I didn't have a choice in 1999 whether I wanted to claim the prize publicly, knowing where I am now, I wouldn't do it differently. I have spoken to media outlets and can talk about my experiences publicly.

But if I were 21 now and had the option, I would consider claiming the prize anonymously, especially if it was a large prize. You never know what impact that would have on your life.

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