It’s… a lot, I know. The facts are grim, and they’re only getting grimmer.
But if you’re feeling like all of this death, economic destruction, and tragedy came out of nowhere, I have even worse news for you: it didn’t. For the sad effects of the pandemic are neither sudden, isolated, nor unpredictable.
Rather, they are the results of a system that has been balancing on a precipice for decades. A global pandemic was simply the last push needed to send this car over the cliff and hurtling spectacularly to the rocks below.
The coronavirus has singlehandedly revealed the pre-existing conditions our country has been ignoring, denying, and dismissing since dinosaurs Ronald Reagan roamed the Earth White House.
I’m used to pretty Insta-people hawking all sorts of things that will never, ever make my face more symmetrical—but what’s the deal with the recent trend of influencers selling financial products?
This week’s question comes from Patreon Donor Mara. Their question prompted a lot of deep thought about the aspirational nature of wealth, and our complicity in that paradigm. It’s self-recriminatory af, you’re gonna love it.
I’m writing to ask if you guys had any thoughts on all these Personal Finance Flavored MLMs that are popping up like crazy on social media.
I work in the entertainment industry. Recently I’ve noticed that a lot of young actors are selling “classes” and the like on their Instagram pages. It seems like they really target young artists/musicians/models and tell them that selling Forex or Bitcoin is the key to intergenerational wealth and stability.
It seems super sketchy and predatory to me, but I would love y’alls thoughts.
– Patron Mara
What’s an MLM?
Wait. Have we truly never talked about this?! How is this possible?
Okay, clearly we need to make that right—please expect a deeper dive on MLMs in the future. But for now, let’s keep it quick and dirty.
All you really need to know is that MLMs are life-ruining scams run by soulless, scum-sucking bottom feeders, kept alive on a steady diet of the misplaced hopes and dreams of sad dupes you went to high school with who suddenly wanna “reconnect” and get you involved in their exciting new “business opportunity.” UGH fml.
But here’s a moar properer definition: multi-level marketing (also called “network marketing,” “direct sales,” or “network sales”) is an unstable, predatory business model where a few people at the top of the company take money from a lot of people at the bottom of the company. They support themselves by pressuring their members to vampiristically infect new rubes for unsustainable, empty growth.
Like one of those good Christian gals who clings to the technicality of her virginity by limiting herself to premarital *anal* intercourse, these companies narrowly avoid the definition of an illegal pyramid scheme by throwing in some kind of actual merchandise. Shitty makeup (Avon), worthless nutritional supplements (Herbalife), and random overpriced knickknacks (Amway) are popular choices. It’s all crap, but it’s real crap! They sucker desperate people into buying the crap, but the real financial titty-twister is the host of expensive courses and classes and conferences and guides on how to resell the crap. It’s all centered on recruiting more and more people into the cult family!
John Oliver has an excellent longer overview, for any interested parties.
So what are these financial MLMs?
There are some big financial services companies that fit the textbook definition of an MLM. Primerica, Transamerica, World Financial Group, and Xifra are among them.
But overall, the more popular breed has become exactly what Mara describes: budding investment gurus selling financial education of dubious origin and quality. They’re pretty easy to spot.
Influencers are fresh-faced smoke shows.
Always seem to be lounging beside a pool, leaning against a nice car, or tapping thoughtfully at a laptop in the lobby of a very swanky hotel. (It is unclear how they got to those places, or if they actually own any of those things.)
They’re selling courses on vague topics involving personal finance, investing, and entrepreneurship.
They use a lot of the same aspirational, goal-oriented language employed by MLMs about “becoming your own boss” or “finally taking control of your life.”
They make it sound like whatever they’re doing is a wonderful, accessible secret shortcut to wealth.
Top comments are from clumsy, obviously inauthentic bot accounts citing insane ROIs and praising their amazing investment know-how.
The hashtags probably include some combination #bitcoin, #cryptocurrency, #forex, #daytrading, #digitalcurrency, #investor, and DEFINITELY #girlboss. (Also big fans of adding -life and -lifestyle to the end of all their hashtags.)
So what gives? What are these?
I’m actually pretty interested to know. Thanks to our Patreon donors, we have a small budget set aside for research. I considered using it to explore the upper warren of the rabbit hole. But I ultimately decided it wasn’t worth it to perpetuate the practice, and potentially invite a dog pile on just one influencer when it’s truly an endemic problem.
They’re selling someone else’s product, which makes them an affiliate. For every X people who sign up using their link, they get Y dollars (or Bitcoins) back.
They’re selling their own product, which is likely to be some kind of program or course.
A lot of influencers make their bread by selling courses. And that’s fine! Low-cost, non-collegiate education rocks, and good teachers are worth their weight in precious gemstones.
But there’s definitely a dark side to the whole enterprise.
Piggy and I went to the same arts and communications-focused college. So we have an unusual number of close friends who are (or were) professional actors and models. Every single one of them—even the super successful ones—has to support themselves with a side hustle. Or three. Being beautiful people who know exactly how to ride the aspirationally-confident-yet-relatably-vulnerable line, they’re naturals at selling yoga instruction, skincare products, and the like. Blessings upon them for figuring out how to make a living in an industry that’s so unforgiving.
… But my respect for that hustle evaporates the second those people use their talents to knowingly peddle snake oil, or pretend at having expertise when their ignorance puts others at risk.
I’m fine with people selling courses that pertain to their areas of skill. Beyond fine, actually—I think it’s fantastic. But only the morally bankrupt would accept money to misrepresent themselves or mislead others. Which is exactly what I think is happening here.
The seedy underbelly of personal financial courses
Now, here’s where it gets tricky…
In some areas—including personal finance—you see people make and sell courses on *how to make and sell courses.* There’s a lot of popular bloggers who will charge you thousands of dollars to learn the secrets of blogging. Same goes for podcasters and social media influencers.
We have subtweeted this practice extensively, but we haven’t spoken about it directly, because in this particular area, we’re kinda being big fucking cowards! A lot of people we really respect and like personally sell courses, and we don’t want them to think we’re dropping trou’ to take a big wet dump on them. We’re really not!
There’s a responsible way to frame, package, and price truly valuable, wanted entrepreneurial advice. Several of our best Judys in the industry do it! They have the original voices, unique perspectives, and deep expertise to actually connect learners with financial topics so dry they’re mummified. They work really hard to make their courses targeted and helpful, with a price tag that doesn’t ask too much of their audience.
But there’s an irresponsible way to do it, with advice that’s unoriginal, un-insightful, overpriced, and more aspirational than anything else. Our industry is full of ’em. That’s why we’ve avoided it. But Mara’s question inspired us to state our perspective more clearly.
Are there any good personal finance courses?
Yes. Absolutely. And we plug the good ones fairly frequently on the sosh meeds. (Hint hint, give us a follow!)
It’s pretty easy to tell if a course is gonna be good.
Does your educator have a large body of work you can read through to get a feel for their general philosophy and knowledge base?
Have they offered previews of the course, or a free introductory module?
Do they recommend practical, conservative approaches firmly grounded in the realities of this ugly world we live in?
Have they built your personal confidence in making independent choices, rather than blindly following one rigid system?
Do they encourage diversification at every opportunity?
Are there comments from satisfied customers? (And are those customers actual non-bot humans?)
Can you afford it? And is the price fair for the knowledge you expect to receive?
Do they offer low-cost or no-cost scholarships to deserving folks?
There are a lot of people who tick most or all of those boxes.
Are y’all ever going to offer courses?
Sure. We’ve considered it.
It’s likely something we will do, if Piggy remains self-employed and our Patreon donor base doesn’t grow as quickly as we need it to. Although so far y’all are COMING THROUUUUUGH! We can’t thank you enough for the support, donors!
Regardless, we’ve done a ton of thinking about how we would do it in a way that feels fair. After all: if our motive is to help poor people, doesn’t charging money work against that? Sure, our advice is good, and our time is valuable… but our passion burns brightest when we’re arming vulnerable people against financial ignorance and exploitation. And we’re wise enough to understand that unless you’re starving, true passion’s rarer and more valuable than money.
If we were to ever offer courses, we’ve decided it would be on topics that only interest people who already have pretty good financial stability, such as buying your first home, or making strategic late-career moves. With topics like that, the right piece of advice can save you tens of thousands of dollars and years of heartache, so we wouldn’t feel ashamed to attach an affordable price tag. And it would appeal to our more established fans only, so there wouldn’t be any pressure on The Young And The Broke to cough up money they don’t have.
We will never, ever put up a paywall between our most vulnerable readers and our best possible advice to them.
So as someone who’s thought A LOT about the ethics of a product we *haven’t made and don’t even sell yet,* I guess I have high expectations from others! I don’t understand how someone could not know they’re taking advantage of people—or know it, and be okay with it. Which is all I see with these cryptocurrency jabronis.
The secret is there is no secret
If someone you follow on social media is trying to sell you “one cool trick” to wealth, I urge you to smash that unsubscribe button. Especially if they’re weirdly focused on just one vehicle—like cryptocurrency, forex, or life insurance.
Because I haven’t taken any such “courses” myself, I cannot say with 100% certainty that these courses are worthless self-serving garbage only a morally bankrupt degenerate would leverage their beauty and popularity to sell. But feel free to read intent into my strategic use of bolded fonts!
Here’s what I do know: ain’t no Konami Code for making money. The whole point of wealth is that it’s hard to accumulate. There’s no easy mode, no exploitable glitch, no secret path hidden behind the waterfall.
The whole point of acquiring wealth is that it’s hard. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be such a singular obsession in our culture. We wouldn’t dedicate half our waking hours to it. There’s a reason there are thousands of personal finance blogs, and not many breathing, blinking, or chewing blogs. This shit is rough!
The easiest way to tell
Don’t trust anyone who says they have special secrets, foolproof systems, or proven processes to building wealth—especially when those people are also achingly beautiful, tastefully slutty 23-year-old artists.
Nothing against that demographic! After all, Piggy and I were once achingly beautiful, tastefully slutty 23-year-old artists—and we were pretty great with money then too! But it was all relevant to our experiences. Less “here’s a blueprint to decentralize currency,” more “here’s a cheap brand of toilet paper that won’t tear up your bunghole.”
If someone is selling ideas they didn’t create, you have to ask yourself why. There’s almost certainly someone standing outside the frame, using someone else’s good looks and compelling personality to sock-puppet a product that wouldn’t stand on its own merits.
Thanks again to Mara for asking this great question!
We’d love to write more about MLMs in the future. We’re curious to hear about what you would find helpful.
Do you wanna know how they work? “Work” being a loose term, of course.
How do you avoid them, or deflect uncomfortable invitations?
What can you say to a friend or family member who’s been sucked in?
Tell us what you’d like to know in the comments below!
Here at Our Lady of Financial Solvency (AKA the church we definitely didn’t start exclusively for that sweet, sweet tax-exempt dark money), there are two ways to be Saved:
Having some kind of emergency fund.
Having multiple streams of income.
An emergency fund is, of course, a lump sum of cash you set aside for emergencies. Break your leg? BOOM, emergency funded. Break your phone? BOOM, emergency funded. Break your heart? Sorry kid, no amount of money can fix that break. But you’ll still be glad you saved an emergency fund if your brokenhearted ice cream binge cuts into your rent payment for next month!
Having multiple streams of income means that in addition to your day job, you’re making extra money on the side. Whether it’s through a second job, selling shit on Craigslist, or passive income from investments, having that extra income stream means that you won’t be left high and dry if your primary source of income goes away. And in the meantime, you can do with that sweet, sweet extra money whatever you damn well please.
Our church is built upon these cornerstones for the literal reason that they will save your fucking ass in the event of an unforeseen disaster. For without them, you will have nothing to save you if you wind up with an expensive emergency, landing yourself squarely in the Ninth Circle of Debt (if I may stretch this recovering Catholic’s metaphor to its absolute breaking point).
So I am here to testify to the importance of emergency funds and side gigs! Bow your heads and listen as I tell you my tales of being grateful af that I had an emergency fund and an extra stream of income at hand.
Friends, does this sound familiar?: You’re describing the crushing emotional and financial burden of student loan debt, and the grown-up you’re speaking to says something like, “Wow, that sounds really rough, have you thought about *refinancing* and also ma’am this is a Wendy’s??”
And having no idea what the fuck that actually meant, you drove forward to the next window, dabbing at your eyes with the crumpled receipt for your vanilla Frosty, weeping in confusion and sadness and brain freeze?
I knew it. I KNEW it wasn’t just me!
Yes that’s right, my lambs: we’re talking about student loans again. This time we’re discussing your options for refinancing or consolidating student loans.
What the fuck do these mysterious terms even mean? What’s the difference between the two? How do you know if one is right for you—and if it is, how do you actually do it? Be amazed as we reveal the secrets!
IT’S THE SEASON FINALE! And we’re ending it with a bang. Obviously by “bang” I mean a meditative quest to free oneself from the bitterness of resentment as we navigate this unjust and inequitable world. Because come on, it’s us!
The tl;dr of today’s episode is: comparison is the thief of joy.
If you’re constantly comparing yourself to your seemingly more successful, productive, and flush with cash peers, it can be majorly discouraging. We’ve talked before about why you shouldn’t hold yourself to the standard of the uber-successful, or why you shouldn’t long to splurge before you’re ready.
But one of the many, many horrible features of this global pandemic is that it’s becoming harder to avoid comparison. The internet—where we’ve all been forced to work and play while social distancing—is chock full of productivity porn and highly edited content specifically designed to make you feel like you’re not doing enough. Like you’ll never be enough.
So today on the podcast, we’re addressing how frustrating and hard it can be to stay motivated and encouraged when your peers seem to be crushing it… and you feel left behind in the dirt.
If you’re new here, let me get you up to speed: personal finance is personal. And as a result, it’s also often complicated—a Choose Your Own Adventure with multiple right answers and mitigating circumstances.
Which is why it is so easy to feel stuck in your career or financial journey. What do you do when you’re just fine… but you want more? How do you overcome crippling stagnation? How do you justify leaving the safety of your established, safe career… and risk everything to leap headlong toward your dreams?
Alternatively: when is the safe and not-super-fulfilling job sometimes exactly what you need? What could you do with the excess creative mental energy that a boring day job affords?
All these questions (and much talk of Spiderman!) on this week’s episode.
How much does your college major matter? The answer varies a lot, depending on which industry you’re trying to break into.
For example, I’m a white collar worker, and work alongside folks with undergraduate degrees in history, finance, literature, and psychology. Yet I’ve noticed among medical professionals, it is generally frowned upon to dispense medical wisdom under the mighty authority of a BA in Film Criticism. Hmm. Curious!
I spend a lot of time working with recent graduates in the course of my Clark Kent day job. And I’ve noticed that a lot of them seem apologetic or insecure about their majors, especially when those majors don’t relate directly to the assigned task.
Just the other day, I was getting sloppy with my speech in a one-on-one meeting with a mentee, using too many unnecessary bits of industry jargon. “I’m so sorry,” she said, “but could you please explain what that means? I love marketing, but I only found that out about myself once I started doing internships in my senior year. It was too late to change my major, so I’m really behind.”
It kinda broke my heart! (And was totally my bad. I didn’t need to say “stakeholder feedback needs to be strategically leveraged against known best practices” when I could’ve just said “clients are ignorant babies, ignore them whenever possible.”) There’s a learning curve for every new job, no matter how familiar you are with the industry; no reasonable person expects you to instantaneously intuit absolutely everything.
I think a lot of our readers could benefit from a healthy reminder that you bring great value to your job role just by being you, regardless of what you studied in school or learned in internships. In my observation, technical know-how and industry experience are far less important than the “soft skills” of managing people, priorities, time, data, and (most importantly) yourself.
Piggy and I have our own observations, but they’re based on the narrow experiences we’ve lived or observed firsthand. So I thought I’d float this discussion in our Patreon community. I asked donors for their insights into skills and habits they learned in their majors, and how it serves them in the job role they perform today. And like the dedicated employees of the United States Postal Service, they delivered!
The best advice comes from real, lived experiences—and the more diverse, the better. Here’s hoping this advice will inspire younger readers who are still deciding on this issue, as well as more established folks who may be questioning the feasibility of a major career shift.
… Omg, a “major” career shift! Get it??
Here are some things that your “off-topic” major might teach you…
The financial lessons we received from our parents are problematic for many reasons.
For one thing, they’re often out of date, as the economic atmosphere of the 1970s and 1980s is a far cry from what we’ve experienced in a post-2008 world. We’re long past the quaint advice to pay for college by “getting a summer job” and to start a career by “walking into a business and asking for a job in the mailroom.” Heckin precious.
But there’s also the way an assumption of background knowledge can lead to further confusion. For if you don’t understand basic financial principles, the sweet knowledge nuggets your beloved Boomer dad drops on you might go down like lead balloons. Just as you can’t understand where Beyoncé came from without Destiny’s Child, you can’t talk about getting loans until you understand how interest works!
This week we’re dealing with just this issue. Petey is one of my oldest and strangest friends. I made him walk down the aisle with Kitty at my wedding in the hopes that those two weirdos would have a vulgar joke-off (alas, they conducted themselves with the decorum expected of a bridesmaid and a groomsman and saved the nasty shit for the dance floor).
Petey has his head all in a tizzy over his dad’s vague and incomplete financial advice. So we decided to set the poor boy straight!
As I write this, it’s six o’clock on a Saturday morning. I’ve been up since five. This isn’t normal for me. Normally, I sleep in till the decadent hours of seven or eight on weekends. (Ya jelly?)
Not today. Today I found my eyes springing open from dreams about wasting time and all the things I should be doing to… waking thoughts about wasting time and all the things I should be doing. So I got up. Because working on my goals is far more productive and important than sleeping, right?
Recently—actually, let’s be real—years ago I internalized the message, seared into me from intellectually stimulating op-eds, social media, self-improvement gurus, and our culture at large, that I could be “more productive.” As a result, I hate wasting time. I despise goal-lessness. Every year I brazenly make a New Year’s Resolution to better myself and the world around me and by god I get that shit done. I rarely spend a weekend sans plans and a rigid to-do list.
Dale Carnegie wishes he were me!
I’m bitch enough to admit this isn’t healthy. I can’t take a break from working without seeing the window trim I need to refinish or the herbs I need to dry or the hangboard where I should be doing pull-ups. And I can’t pursue those personal goals without thinking of the work I need to do, the money I need to make. I can’t even be lazy without being bombarded by evidence of how productive and accomplished my friends and idols are through their carefully curated social media.
I could be so much more productive! I should be so much more productive. Sleep? Relaxation? These look more and more like indulgent wastes of time.
Recently it’s only gotten worse. And I know, with damning clarity, that I am not alone.