‘Wheel of Fortune’: How Many People Have Won $1 Million?

Chances are, as a child, you walked across your living room in a fancy dress and wobbly heals, pretending to be Wheel of Fortune hostess, Vanna White. Who hasn’t? The popular game show had a big impact on American culture, with many captivated by its huge cash prizes. But how many people have actually brought home the fortune?

Pat Sajak and contestants on 'Wheel of Fortune'
Pat Sajak and contestants on Wheel of Fortune | Gerardo Mora/Getty Images

What is Wheel of Fortune?

Wheel of Fortune has been on the air since 1975 and is one of the longest-running game shows in American history. Similar to Hangman, the show has contestants solve word puzzles, using a giant spinning wheel to determine prizes. Most people recognize its hosts, Pat Sajak and Vanna White, who have been on the show since the nightly syndicated edition began in 1983. 

According to a calculation by fans via Buy a Vowel, in the last two decades of Wheel of Fortune history, the show has given away an average of $46,000 to $50,000 in cash and prizes per show. However, there are some who win much more.

How much do contestants actually win?

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Although there have been some huge prizes over the history of Wheel of Fortune, contestants don’t necessarily get to take home the entire amount. They have to pay taxes on their earnings, including the worth of any additional prizes such as vacations and cars. 

For example, in 2016 Matt McMahan won $16,400 in cash and two vacations, a cruise down the Danube River, and a trip to Chile. Altogether, his earnings totaled around $31,700, but the actual amount McMahan was able to take home was far less. 

According to Cinema Blend, after all the taxes were paid, McMahan was only about $6,000 richer. Of course, he was also able to take those vacations, and you can’t really put a price on great experiences, but it’s still surprising how small the amount of cash he left with was.

How many people have won $1 million?

With over 7,000 episodes filmed since Wheel of Fortune began, you’d think that there would be lots of big prize winners. However, in reality, only three contestants have ever won over $1 million, and they have all been in the last two decades, according to Gazette Review. Before season 26, there was a $100,000 cap on winnings, preventing a million-dollar win from being possible. 

The first million-dollar prize happened in 2008. Michelle Loewenstein, a teacher from New Jersey, had just returned from her honeymoon when she appeared on the game show. After solving the final puzzle with “Leaky Faucet,” Loewenstein won a total of $1,026,080. She attributes her good luck to numerology. “I’ve had some really good luck,” she told the New York Post. “I got engaged on 7/7/07 and the show was filmed on 8/8/08. I can’t wait until 9/9/09.”

The second millionaire winner still holds the record for the highest winnings ever on the show. Five years after Loewenstein’s win, in 2013, Autumn Erhard solved the puzzle with only four letters on the board. She guessed the correct phrase, “tough workout” and won $1,030,340.  This was in addition to the $30,000 that she’d won earlier in the show. 

The most recent Wheel of Fortune million-dollar prize was given to Sarah Manchester in 2014. A math teacher from Maryland, Manchester completed the puzzle with the phrase “loud laughter,” and won $1,017,490. 

Wheel of Fortune is still on the air, so there could be another million-dollar winner in the future. However, because of the coronavirus (COVID-19), filming of new episodes has been put on hold until further notice. But once the world returns to normal, there will be plenty of contestants ready to take their shot at becoming the next million-dollar winner.