Winning thousands — or millions — of dollars on a game show can change your life. Some of the biggest game show winners have used their funds to quit their jobs, travel the world, treat their friends and family, or buy new cars. Others have saved or invested their windfalls.
But contestants are also typically responsible for paying taxes on whatever they win. That can mean a high tax bill that winners often aren’t prepared for. Despite the potential drawbacks, it can still pay off to win big. Read on to see what these 23 game show contestants did with their major cash prizes.
Melody Akhtari: Won $68,000 on ‘Wheel of Fortune’
Melody Akhtari, a Los Angeles-based director of marketing in her 30s, won $68,000 worth of cash and prizes on “Wheel of Fortune” in 2014. The winnings included a trip to Hawaii and about $40,000 in cash after taxes.
What she did with the prize money: “I allowed myself two indulgences,” said Akhtari. “First, I treated my family to dinner immediately after the episode taping. I was engaged at the time and relatively early in my career, so it was my first time taking six people out to dinner at a nice restaurant — and I was feeling very proud to treat them! The other indulgence was tickets for me and my fiancé to see the hottest theater play at the time, ‘Book of Mormon.’ After that, I let the $40K sit in a savings account.”
Akhtari got married after winning on the show, and she and her fiancé stuck to the original budget they had set for their wedding and honeymoon.
“After about a year or so, we finally dusted off the money and used it towards a down payment on the home we live in today,” she said. “I’m glad I didn’t blow it on a sports car.”
Brad Rutter: Won $4.69 Million on ‘Jeopardy!’
Brad Rutter appeared on “Jeopardy!” several times between 2000 and 2003, and won a total of $4.69 million. He is the biggest all-time winner on the quiz show.
What he did with the prize money: Rutter is an aspiring actor, so he was able to use his winnings to pursue his dreams without having to take up shifts at a restaurant or bar.
“It’s really nice not to have to do that,” he told AOL in 2010.
His one splurge was a Porsche — which he totaled — and he gave the rest of his money to his father, a financial advisor, to invest.
“We joke that I am the only 32-year-old with an 82-year-old’s portfolio,” he told AOL at the time.
Aurora: Won $21,008 on ‘The Price Is Right’
Aurora of Aurora’s Blog won a new car, two camcorders and $96 in cash on “The Price Is Right” in 2013. The cash value of her prizes totaled $21,008.
What she did with the prize money: Even though Aurora “won” a car, she was the one responsible for paying the taxes on it. Aurora estimated that between sales tax — which alone was $2,067 — and federal and state taxes, she would have to pay nearly $9,000 just to keep the prize car.
“Taxes are very real,” she wrote on her blog. “Taxes definitely prohibit many people from keeping prizes they win (or going on trips they win).”
Aurora decided to sell the car and made “thousands of dollars” on the sale, she wrote. She hoped to sell off the camcorders she had won as well, but couldn’t find any buyers.
“I just donated them to charity, hoping that at least that write-off will help with my large tax bill,” Aurora wrote on her blog. “If I would’ve known more about the camcorders, I probably would’ve just forfeited them so they’re not taken into account in my prize total when it comes to taxes.”
As for the $96 in cash, Aurora said that she planned on using it to buy a piece of jewelry or another splurge for herself.
Ken Jennings: Won $3.37 Million on ‘Jeopardy!’
Ken Jennings was launched to celebrity status when he won 74 consecutive “Jeopardy!” games in 2004. His regular-season winnings totaled $2.52 million, and to this day he holds the records for most consecutive games won and highest winnings during regular-season play. Jennings also appeared on “Jeopardy!” tournaments, bringing his total winnings from the show to $3.37 million.
What he did with the prize money: “After taking care of the three essential T’s (taxes, tithing and new widescreen TV) it was a lot less than the three-million-plus you saw on ‘Jeopardy!,’ but it was still more money than I ever thought I’d have in my entire life,” Jennings wrote on his blog. “Most of that is invested in your usual boring places: stocks, bonds, real estate, etc. I don’t want to be one of these lottery winners you see bankrupt on TV a few years later, having already lost it all. Some has already gone to charity, and I plan to do a lot more of that. I don’t really have a pet crusade, but I can see quite a bit going to educational causes — scholarships and the like.”
The winnings did allow Jennings to quit his day job as a programmer, and he now works from home as a freelance writer.
“That’s really the only major purchase I’ve earmarked from the ‘Jeopardy!’ millions: more time with my family,” he wrote.
Kevin Olmstead: Won $2.18 Million on ‘Who Wants To Be a Millionaire’ and $27,000 on ‘Jeopardy!’
Kevin Olmstead won $27,000 on “Jeopardy!” in the early ’90s — which is nothing to scoff at — but he won really big on “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.” In 2001, Olmstead won $2.18 million on the show, AOL reported.
What he did with the prize money: “With the winnings, I got into a luxury condo with renovations and many new furnishings, and I bought the vehicle of my dreams — a fully loaded minivan,” Olmstead told AOL.
He opted for a Chrysler Town & Country over a Corvette or a Porsche “because such are frankly impractical in the Midwest,” he said.
As of his 2010 interview with AOL, he was still working his day job as an environmental engineer.
David Legler: Won $1.76 Million on ‘Twenty One’
David Legler was an MBA student at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business when he won $1.76 million on “Twenty One” in 2000, AOL reported.
What he did with the prize money: “Shortly after winning, we did splurge a little,” Legler told AOL. “My wife and I spent a month in Europe, spending a good portion of that time touring Scandinavia, which was wonderful. A bit was used to help out the family — [I] got my parents a new car and [helped] them pay some debt, helped my sister fund her college education, etc. But most of the money was invested. […] It’s certainly helped to have a little nest egg, making it easier to weather the 2001 recession when I was unable to find work post-MBA.”
Ed Toutant: Won $1.86 Million on ‘Who Wants To Be a Millionaire’ and $11,401 on ‘Jeopardy!’
Like Olmstead, Ed Toutant won big money on multiple game shows. He won $11,401 on “Jeopardy!” in 1989, and won $1.86 million on “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” in 2001, AOL reported.
What he did with the prize money: Toutant eventually retired from his job at IBM four years after his win on “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire,” but he didn’t drastically change his lifestyle otherwise.
“I tried not to let my windfall change my life very much,” he told AOL. “I was already happy with who I was before I won and I didn’t want people to think that the money had changed me.”
Toutant donated some of his winnings to charity and also used some of his funds to help support his friends’ passion projects. He bought a modest house, but he kept the same pick-up truck he was driving before his “Millionaire” win. Toutant also invested in a brewpub, AOL reported.
Michelle Loewenstein Moore: Won $1 Million on ‘Wheel of Fortune’
In 2008, Michelle Loewenstein Moore became the first “Wheel of Fortune” contestant to win the $1 million prize, AOL reported.
What she did with the prize money: Moore — who told AOL that “the taxes were awful” — kept her job as a floral designer. She said she’s saving most of the money she won for a rainy day. But she did splurge a little.
“Don’t get me wrong, I did go on a few shopping trips,” Moore said.
Kathy Cox: Won $1 Million on ‘Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?’
In 2008, Georgia superintendent of schools Kathy Cox became the first-ever contestant on “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” to win the $1 million first prize, AOL reported.
What she did with the prize money: Cox had always planned on donating her winnings to charity. She donated $500,000 to three schools for deaf and blind children. But she had to give the remainder of the prize money to a bankruptcy trustee after her husband’s construction business went south and the couple was forced to declare bankruptcy, AOL reported.
Julia Collins: Won $428,100 on ‘Jeopardy!’
Julia Collins was 30 years old and out of work when she appeared on “Jeopardy!” She won 20 games in a row and $428,100 — the most a woman has ever won on the show during regular-season play.
What she did with the prize money: Because Collins wasn’t working when she won on the show, she used the money to fund time living in Europe.
“I went to Paris for a month and spent a week in London,” she told Kiplinger. “How often do you have time and money at the same time? When you’re working, you can never take time off like that.”
Collins planned to save and invest the rest of her winnings.
Tomorrow Rodriguez: Won $1 Million on ‘Deal or No Deal’
Tomorrow Rodriguez, who works with at-risk youth at the University of Texas at Austin, won $1 million in 2008 when she appeared on the show “Deal or No Deal,” CNBC reported.
What she did with the prize money: Before the show, Rodriguez was living paycheck to paycheck and had $100,000 worth of student loans. Winning on “Deal or No Deal” enabled her to pay off those loans and break out of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle, CNBC reported. She also donated money to causes within her community, put money away to help fund her daughter’s dream of attending medical school, went on vacations with her family and began saving and investing. Rodriguez said that she still sticks to a budget and is very conscientious about her spending.
“I have a Plan A, B, a back-up and an extra job,” she told CNBC. And she also resists meaningless purchases.
“If I want to buy it, I can buy it,” said Rodriguez. “But I won’t. That’s frivolous spending.”
Austin Rogers: Won $461,000 on ‘Jeopardy!’
New York City-based bartender Austin Rogers became a social media sensation thanks to his unique personality when he appeared on “Jeopardy!” in 2017. Rogers ended up winning $411,000 over 12 games ($461,000 including tournaments), putting him in sixth place for all-time regular season winnings.
What he did with the prize money: Rogers planned to save the money rather than spend it.
“I don’t have any real need for that much money,” he told the Associated Press. “I live a happy life, I’ve got a nice apartment, I don’t have a girlfriend that I need to spend money on right now, I don’t like fancy clothing, I don’t have a car.”
Matt McMahan: Won $31,700 on ‘Wheel of Fortune’
Matt McMahan appeared on “Wheel of Fortune” in 2017 and won $31,700 in cash and prizes. His winnings included a trip to Chile and a cruise down the Danube River, which together were valued at $15,300. He also won $16,400 in cash, MarketWatch reported.
What he did with the prize money: Because McMahan had to pay taxes on his winnings, he asked for downgraded versions of the trips that totaled $10,800 instead of $15,300. He used some of his cash winnings to pay for the taxes on the trips and ended up with about $6,000 left in cash after taxes.
“Experiences are worth more than money right now,” he told MarketWatch.
Pictured: Set of “Wheel of Fortune”
Arthur Chu: Won $297,200 on ‘Jeopardy!’
Arthur Chu won 11 games and $297,200 during his appearance on “Jeopardy!” in 2014. The writer, actor and voice-over artist became known as the “Jeopardy! villain” during his time on the show because of his unconventional demeanor and way of playing the game.
What he did with the prize money: Chu “invested aggressively” in Vanguard’s Target Retirement 2050 Fund, he told Money. But aside from upping his investments, Chu didn’t make any major lifestyle changes or any big purchases.
“I have no intention of quitting my job in the near future but just knowing that you don’t need a job is profoundly freeing,” he said. “Knowing that I could buy almost anything I wanted if I really wanted to is profoundly freeing — and, paradoxically, having this knowledge means I no longer think about things I want but can’t have nearly as much.”
Reddit User Laleonaenojada: Won $22,500 on ‘Jeopardy!’
Reddit user laleonaenojada won $22,500 after appearing on two episodes of ‘Jeopardy!’ in 2011.
What they did with the prize money: Laleonaenojada put most of their money into an IRA, but they also had some fun with the winnings.
“I used a good portion to go on a trip to Peru with my husband,” they said.
Reddit User Nyctourguide: Won $50,000 on ‘Million Dollar Password’
Reddit user Nyctourguide won $50,000 when they appeared on “Million Dollar Password” in 2008.
“I was very nervous but played well,” they said. “The two [celebrities] on there with me were Rosie O’Donnell and Tony Hawk.”
What they did with the prize money: Nyctourguide used their winnings to purchase a 2004 Toyota Camry.
“[It’s] still going strong,” they wrote in 2014. “It’s a great car.”
Caitlin Burke: Won $53,618 on ‘Wheel of Fortune’
Fashion stylist Caitlin Burke was able to solve a “Wheel of Fortune” puzzle with just one letter revealed when she appeared on the show in 2010, the New York Post reported. Burke took home a total of $53,618 in cash and prizes, including a trip to Grenada.
What she did with the prize money: Burke originally wanted to give her prize money away, but her boyfriend at the time talked her out of it. Instead, she used $20,000 of her winnings to pay down her student loans, bought a designer handbag and took a friend on a vacation to Budapest and Prague.
Jay Rogers: Won $25,000 on ‘Who Wants To Be a Millionaire’
Jay Rogers was a contestant on “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” in 2011. Although he didn’t win $1 million, he did walk away with $25,000.
What he did with the prize money: “I quit my job working at a faceless, corporate gym,” he told the New York Post. “I hated the job, and the ‘Millionaire’ money was a get-out-of-jail-free card. I knew I could make the money stretch for five or six months.”
Although Rogers did eventually go back to work at a new job, he was able to enjoy his winnings. He took a trip to the U.K. and paid for driving lessons.
Jade Greene-Grant: Won $55,000 and Prizes on ‘Wheel of Fortune’
School teacher Jade Greene-Grant won $55,000, a trip to Mexico and a new car when she was a contestant on “Wheel of Fortune” in 2016.
What she did with the prize money: “Most people go on to win a car or money or a trip. To win all three was incredible,” Greene-Grant told the New York Post.
She upgraded the car she won from a Ford Fiesta to a Ford Explorer and took her husband on the Mexico trip. She used the cash to pay off debt and save for a down payment on a house.
Andrea Schwartz: Won $33,000 on ‘The Price Is Right’
Andrea Schwartz appeared on “The Price Is Right” in March 2012 and ended up winning $1,200 in cash, a Mazda2, a pool table, a shuffleboard table and a pair of earrings. Her total winnings were valued at $33,000.
What she did with the prize money: Schwartz told AV Club that she had to pay California state income taxes upfront on her prizes before she actually received them. She was also responsible for paying the taxes and registration on the Mazda2 she won.
“It was more like an investment, really,” she said. “I was lucky to have had a little money in savings, plus the $1,200 I won in Plinko.”
Schwartz ended up selling the car, pool table and shuffleboard table, though she sold the two game tables for much less than their actual value.
“I paid taxes on $14,000 for those two tables and sold them for $4,500,” she said. “I took a bite on that one.”
Fortunately, Schwartz still walked away with thousands in winnings, which she used to invest in her mobile food business.
“I had a tiny bit of cash to start this business, but I don’t think I would have done it without the stuff I won on ‘The Price Is Right,'” she told AV Club. “Now I own a small mobile food business on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe.”
Kirk and Brooke Spangler: Won $1.4 Million on ‘The Wall’
Father-daughter duo Kirk and Brooke Spangler took home $1.4 million on an episode of NBC’s “The Wall” that aired in February 2018. They were the show’s biggest winners at the time, according to the New York radio station Big Frog 104.
What they did with the prize money: Brooke told the radio station that her father, who is a single dad of two and a 25-year employee at the State University of New York at Geneseo, would not be leaving his job despite the windfall.
“He’s not going to retire as many thought he would,” she said. “He’s probably going to work the two years he has left and then buy himself a new vehicle since his has 290,000 miles on it. It’s on its last legs. He’s ready for a new car.”
Christina Porcelli and Steve Lester: Won $1 Million on ‘Beat Shazam’
On a June 2017 episode, Nashville, Tennessee-based couple Christina Porcelli and Steve Lester became the first contestants to win the $1 million prize on “Beat Shazam,” The Wrap reported.
What they did with the prize money: The couple told The Wrap they would be using some of the money to pay for their wedding, giving some to family members and using more of the money to buy a car for Porcelli.
Pictured: Jamie Foxx, host of “Beat Shazam”
James Holzhauer: Won $2.46 Million on ‘Jeopardy!’
Jame Holzhauer holds the record for highest single-game “Jeopardy!” winnings, with $131,127 won on an episode that aired in April 2019. In fact, Holzhauer holds the “Jeopardy!” records for all of the top 10 single-game winnings. He also has the second-highest number of consecutive games won with 32 and the second-highest total winnings during regular-season play with $2.46 million.
What he did with the prize money: Holzhauer said that he planned to spend some of his winnings traveling the world with his wife.
“I’d love to visit Sicily,” he told Money. “Of places I’ve already been, my favorites are Spain and Japan, and I’d go back to both in a heartbeat.”
He also planned to treat his family members.
“I’d like to finally send my old man and his missus to the U.S. Open this summer,” he told CNBC.
Holzhauer also gave some of his winnings to charities in his home of Las Vegas, including a $10,000 donation to the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District Foundation, a $10,000 donation to the Las Vegas Natural History Museum and an additional donation to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Las Vegas, CNBC reported.
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