Hope is a wonderful thing. It causes us to keep going when times get tough. It helps us endure hardships and heartbreaks. It inspires us to live with integrity to earn heavenly rewards. It's also what compels us to enter contests and sweepstakes.

Isn't it a good thing that most humans simply refuse to accept their dreary lot in life and hope for a better world? The downside is that many of us ignorantly think we're going to win the lottery some day or strike it rich without much effort. Children love to win prizes, and entering fun contests can teach them several important life lessons. It's important to teach children that the lottery is a numbers game and the odds aren't much in your favor. It takes work to succeed financially, as well as persistence and timing.

1. Be sure you actually want to win the prize

Enter a contestonly if you are fully aware of how it might affect you and your taxes. Endless are the stories of lottery winners who ended up in financial ruin because they were neither prepared emotionally for the aftermath, nor had the education sufficient to manage such large sums of money.

Sweepstakesare so popular that there are nowfree membership sitesdedicated to entering and winning stuff in a safe environment online. Prizes are generally donated by vendors without a lot of strings attached. www.freecrapple.com

2. Not all sweepstakes are created equal

You stand a better chance of winning a small, local contest than a large, national sweepstakes. Likewise, you're more likely to win something if you enter sweepstakes that offer lots of prizes, rather than one single big one. You can use alisting of contests that offer multiple prizes online.

Blogshave become a popular place to enter "real" contests where the odds are actually pretty high that you can win something.

3. Increase your odds of winning by entering the maximum number of times allowed

Most people will only enter once. Fewer people are likely to enter if the contest guidelines are long and annoying. Your chances decrease, however, the longer the entry period is open. Helping your children not to get their hopes up too high and preparing them to be disappointed will give them tools for the future.

4. Make your entry stand out

Have you ever been in a small gathering where you had to simply put your business card in a bowl or write your name on a slip of paper to win? And you still didn't win? Next time, crinkle the paper or wad it up so that it's bulkier than the others and easier for the person who draws them out of the bowl to grab. Try an accordion style fold or a chunky origami shape, rather than just folding the paper in half down the middle. If you enter a mail-in contest form, decorate your envelope with stickers or use bright colored paper so it will be noticed. Being careful to follow the rules of the contest may help you win, as those who skip over the requirements are quickly disqualified.

5. The more contests you enter, the more likely you are to win

Remember, it's a numbers game. To speed up the entry process, serious "sweepers" use Roboform.

6. Those obnoxious pop-ups on your computer screen that say you're the 10,000,0000th visitor and claim you're a winner aren't really contests.

They're called marketing. More often than not, you have to make a purchase or complete trials of products and services, all while giving the site owner your contact information which they will then sell to even more annoying companies. Don't click. Move on. Help your children be wiser about what they see online.

7. Always read the rules carefully and print legibly

If you win and the sponsor can't even contact you, then you won't win. Duh.

8. Space out your entries

If the contest allows multiple entries, mail them out separately over weeks rather than all at once.

9. While most sweeps are done online nowadays, some still require snail mail entries

Save money by mailing out entries on postcards, rather than envelopes, if allowed. Make sure they're the exact size the guidelines call for. Never pay for overnight delivery or extra postage to make a deadline.

10. While serious "sweepers" create spreadsheets to stay organized and keep track of all entries, a true "must" is to open a separate email address to use when participating in contests.

The fact is, the volume of junk mail you receive will increase once you start entering contests and sweepstakes. The "free" prizes you win are really in exchange for your personal information. Consider using a password organizeror the manager included in your browser to help you keep track of passwords used for contests.

11. Beware of scams

One sure red flag is when you are notified that you have won, but need to send money first in order to claim your prize. Run. You should never have to pay a fee or give anyone your bank information to collect a prize. Another red flag is when you receive a notice that you won a contest that you don't even remember entering. Keep running. Teach your children to be cautious and smart online.

Finally, teach your children that entering sweepstakesand contests is a hobby, not a job. Counting on prize earnings as income to pay bills is not a wise financial strategy for your primary source of income.

The beloved Ed McMahan's famous words, "You may already have won," continue to create hope. Have fun.

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