The first paycheck I ever received was from a multilevel marketing scheme.
The employer: my mom, who’d hired an 11-year-old me as a tax write-off, one of the “secrets to wealth” in the program she’d been sucked into, and that she now sold for a living.
Spoiler: She is not now, nor ever was, wealthy as a result of living by this program.
In the late 80s, when I was in elementary school, and my parents’ marriage was still amiable, they attended a seminar by the best-selling author and self-appointed wealth guru Charles Givens, a mustachioed Floridian who promised to share the many tax loopholes he’d discovered that could make an ordinary person into a millionaire if you paid several hundred dollars, and later a few thousand dollars, to attend his seminars and become a member of his organization. My parents found the information they learned compelling and motivating, and went home and made some changes to their finances and taxes as a result.
A few weeks later, they got a call from someone in the Charles Givens Organization who asked if they’d be interested in helping to spread the word about the program. “I wasn’t interested,” my dad told me recently. “It seemed a little bit like a multilevel marketing scheme.” (It was not “like” a multilevel marketing scheme. It was a multilevel marketing scheme.)
But, my dad later realized, there was what looked to him like a loophole in their system, and they didn’t prohibit piggybacking off the Organization’s own marketing. So my parents began their pyramid scheme journey by following where the seminars would be held, calling the TV stations in those markets to find out if the Organization was running ads, and then place their own ads that ran immediately after the official ads with their own phone number to call for more info about the seminar. They collected the names and turned them in, and if any of those people showed up to the seminar, my parents got the commission. My dad says he didn’t want to push the program, which he did not actually think “anyone” could do, but just wanted to get a cut of the fees paid by those already interested in attending. I can’t help but wonder if that “loophole” was deliberate, enticing people like my parents to put their own money into amplifying the Organization’s ads while also getting to feel clever.
Of course, at the same time, there was the heavy pressure to attend ever more seminars and buy every new program themselves, and our house gradually filled with slick cases full of VHS tapes of the wealth guru himself sharing his “secrets.” Though I was young, it quickly became clear to me that this felt like more than financial advice to them. Givens was clearly a motivational pitchman selling a whole lifestyle, promising that anyone could be their best and achieve it.
As my parents’ marriage went south, my mom took sole possession of the work, and she was thinking bigger: we’d spend evenings and weekends going to every bookstore in town, putting postage paid response cards into every book by Charles Givens, encouraging people to get in touch with my mom to learn more about the exciting opportunities available to them. And she began to do the actual multilevel part of it, recruiting others to work below her, so she’d get a portion of all of their sales. We’d attend Givens seminars all over the Midwest and set up a table outside of them, encouraging people to sign up to sell the program.
All of that work gave my parents and later my mom some modest but steady income, and my mom often ranked on the list of top performers the Organization posted quarterly, recognition she relished, and which was likely more motivating for her than the actual money. And it sent my mom and me on a free cruise, which we went on when I was in eighth grade, and on it I tasted my first alcohol, bought for me by a much older man, something that only felt a little creepy at the time, but which feels much worse in retrospect. That cruise was also when I played my first slot machine and won my first money gambling.
When we went to those seminars, and especially on the cruise, we were around all these people I now recognize as lost souls. Of course the easy money promise was enticing, but those who got in deep were clearly seeking something, and being a member of the Organization felt like belonging to something big and important. My dad insists they made enough off the Organization to justify the effort and expense, which is different from most participants in multilevel marketing schemes, who spend more than they earn and are continually pressured to buy things to get started or to move up. But of course I wonder how many others followed them down the path, especially after my mom took over, and ended up losing money. Some of the stories from people who later sued the Organization are heartbreaking: the woman whose husband died after cancelling his life insurance to save money at the behest of Givens, the people who ran up credit card debt to pay for courses and membership, the elderly folks who spent down their life savings on bad investments.
Because while a lot of the advice the program offered was harmless and even helpful to people, there was a lot of bad advice in there, too, beyond the constant pressure to spend more money on courses, money a lot of people didn’t have.
It had been snake oil all along.
Fortunately, it didn’t last long. We went on that cruise in late 1992, and by 1993, Charles Givens’ empire was beginning to collapse. There were lawsuits, fraud claims and eventually Chapter 11. One of the lawsuits accused him of fraud for claiming that he made his wealth by using his secrets, and not by selling the programs, which is what he’d actually done. He’d manufactured his origin story just to sell books, and when he got the approval of people like Larry King and the TODAY Show, he broadened his sights, selling seminars and memberships and creating a company built on bilking people who just wanted a better life for themselves or their families. He died in 1998, leaving little money behind to pay those he’d harmed.
For a long time after, I assumed that anyone giving financial advice was a scammer, and was rich from selling empty promises, not from actually practicing what they preached. It’s why I’m especially afraid of tax audits and never claimed deductions like home office that we were entitled to, but which would have increased our audit risk. I know it’s why I didn’t start this blog until we were only three years from early retirement, and not two or three years earlier, when we’d formalized our goal, because I didn’t want to be associated with people promising a magical path to wealth. It’s why I’ve never monetized the blog, and make only a few dollars a month (which all go to expenses) when people buy books I recommend. It’s why I refuse to make Cents Positive and other events I do about me, because the notion of holding people up as gurus feels so dangerous. And it’s absolutely why I’ve always made a point to tell the truth about the hard parts of the journey, the mistakes, the pitfalls of early retirement itself, and all the rest. I don’t want to lead anyone down a path that might make things worse for them.
For many years, I never thought about Charles Givens or how the first dollars I made were in service of promoting his fraud. It didn’t occur to me that it had been a pyramid scheme and a scam, it was just a thing my parents did that gave me a little spending money. It had all seemed a little odd – my parents weren’t big wealth chasers, so it felt like a mismatch – but I didn’t question it. The whole experience made me wary of financial gurus in particular and scammers in general, but I filed it away in my memory. Then, listening to The Dream podcast last year, it hit me: I’d been a part of a multilevel marketing scheme, and the very worst kind: a fraudulent one that sold empty or dangerous promises to trusting people.
I’ve been thinking about all of it more lately, especially as Work Optional was coming out. I wondered if the book did well, if my publisher would want to put my face on the cover of the next one, to me a deep and incontrovertible signifier of the author being a huckster. I wondered if Charles Givens was always a fraud, or if he started out with sound ideas, and then enough people around him told him how wonderful he was that he gradually lost his grounding, and it barely felt like a lie when he wrote his fake origin story. I thought a lot about blogs that make money by convincing you that you should start a blog, a practice that feels only slightly less bad to me than multilevel marketing.
I’m telling this story today not because it has anything to do with early retirement – and certainly not for April Fools (this is not a joke) – but because I’m finally processing all these years later how that experience colored the ways I think about money and those who give financial advice, and perhaps my world view overall. I’m coming to understand that a big part of achieving financial independence was reducing my own susceptibility to tantalizing promises like the ones that first drew my parents in. If you’re vulnerable financially, there are a lot of people ready to exploit you.
It’s not always pleasant, but it’s absolutely worthwhile to do a little digging into your own past to figure out how your upbringing and past experiences have shaped your money mindset today, and whether there’s anything in there that you want to address or change. I’m certainly glad that I have.
As always, I love reading your comments, but no pressure to respond to this one. But if you have any MLM stories you feel comfortable sharing, I’m sure seeing them would bring comfort to others who’ve been victimized by schemes and scams.
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