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They Spent Their Life Savings on Life Coaching

To an outsider, Billiejo Mullett is someone who has her head firmly screwed on. She’s smart and educated — a registered nurse who works for a medical insurance provider — and balances her career with a busy family life.

In many ways, Ms. Mullett, who lives in Minoa, N.Y., seems to have things figured out, which is why she is still reeling from a life-coaching experience she describes as a “pyramid scheme” that took tens of thousands of dollars from her.

“I’m an intelligent human being,” Ms. Mullett, 46, said. “We all think that it’ll never happen to us. That’s the really scary part.”

She is part of a growing cohort speaking out about the opaque underbelly of life coaching, an unregulated industry with an often-hefty price-tag, and a significant cost reaching far beyond funds spent.

With early roots in the late-20th-century pull toward self-improvement, life coaching broadly encompasses a program of goal-setting and talk-therapy-style sessions aimed at improving an individual’s circumstances and well-being.

Business is booming. The International Coaching Federation, the world’s largest nonprofit coaching association, estimated that the industry was worth $4.6 billion in 2022 and that the number of coaches increased 54 percent between 2019 and 2022. Because the industry lacks standardized accreditation, it’s most likely larger — one of the dangers of life coaching is that anyone can claim the title of life coach.

And while many operate with integrity, providing thoughtful and structured advice to their clients to help them through challenging times, the unregulated nature of the industry can make it easy to take advantage of people.

In 2018, Ms. Mullett was tiring of the grind of the corporate world and struggling to form a blended family with her now-husband when she discovered life coaching.

“My friend recommended a podcast, and I immediately felt that this was what I’d been looking for,” she said. “The host was talking about how our thoughts impact our emotions and our behaviors. I was hooked.”

Ms. Mullett started to watch videos on the host’s website. The host, a life coach whom Ms. Mullett asked not to be named for fear of retaliation and harassment, combined the language of successful businesswomen with the promise of a new career in which women could be in control of their own work and schedule, help others and improve themselves.

There were videos “talking about how your brain is the most valuable thing you can invest in,” Ms. Mullett said.

She withdrew $18,000 from her 401(k) to pay for her first course at a leading life coach school, hoping that it would lead to a much-needed career change.

The course wasn’t what she expected. Ms. Mullett described a confusing and low-quality program of online lessons — one hour per week for six months — in which aspiring coaches discussed chapters they had read outside of class and practiced coaching one another. She said that students were often belittled and that questioning the wisdom of the coaches who led the course was discouraged.

But Ms. Mullett remained hopeful and believed she had learned some valuable things, for example, that she had an ability to focus only on the things in her life that she could control. She had spent an extraordinary amount of money on the certification and clung to the dream that had been sold to her: earning good money while fulfilling her passion for helping others.

“It’s hard to let go of that dream,” she said.

After completing the program, Ms. Mullett was certified by the school and hoped to start coaching. But although she had initially been told that her certification would give her “everything I needed to make my first $100,000,” Ms. Mullett found herself short of clients and scrambling to make any income. The solution that she was offered? To spend more money on being coached.

“How can you sell someone on the value of coaching if you’re not paying for coaching yourself?” she said she was told.

Ms. Mullett felt pressured to increasingly spend substantial sums on coaching classes and business mentoring, supposedly to help bolster her fledgling career. She started with a $2,000 course and, when it seemed to elevate her business slightly, enrolled in a similar course that cost $5,000 and then spent an additional $10,000 on coaching.

“I wasn’t making money,” she said. “I was spending money.”

Máire O Sullivan, a lecturer in marketing at Munster Technological University in Ireland and an expert on multilevel marketing schemes, said schemes like the one that Ms. Mullett had been drawn into were part of the reason for the life-coaching industry’s rapid growth.

“The boom is being fueled by an appetite for life coaching, but it’s also being fueled by artificial means,” Ms. O Sullivan said. “There is a problem in the industry of coaches who coach coaches to become coaches.”

Although surveys suggest that coaches charge an average of $244 an hour, this fee is most likely skewed by a handful of top industry names who charge thousands for an hourly session. Some charge over $6,000 for a half-day session and $200,000 for 50-hour packages. A majority of coaches are also limited by demand — most report coaching for around 11 hours per week. This means that many coaches have to expand their businesses through other methods.

This may be by employing other life coaches and taking a cut of their profits, creating what is known as a downline, or by selling things like coaching certifications to their follower base.

Sunny Richards was first introduced to life coaching by a friend. Ms. Richards, 52, lives in Dallas and previously made six figures working as a project manager in information technology. She had been struggling with loneliness after being forced to relocate for her husband’s job and being laid off from two jobs within the span of 18 months. She said she was “in a state of depression” when she signed up for a life coaching course, which cost her $300 per month.

For Ms. Richards, this was the beginning of six “emotionally and financially devastating” years. She upgraded her course to one that cost around $3,000 per month in the hope of becoming certified as a life coach. Once she became certified, she said she was “bombarded” by other coaches trying to sell her additional courses or qualifications.

“The industry eats itself,” she said. “There were celebrity coaches, and then there were the rest of us, and the rest of us were competing for coaching space.”

Although Ms. Richards became skeptical of the industry, she said that her stubbornness made her stick with it. “I’m not a quitter,” she said. “I saw the issues a long time ago, but walking away was too difficult.”

Ms. O Sullivan said this experience was common among people who found themselves pulled into life coaching’s expensive offerings. “Life coaching attracts people who are vulnerable to exploitation,” she said.

The pinnacle of this exploitation has been exposed by recent high-profile legal battles and criminal charges against several coaching organizations. In the United States, the founder of Nxivm, a multilevel marketing scheme and sex cult that started as an executive success coaching program, was convicted of human trafficking, sex offenses and fraud in 2019.

In Britain, a life-coaching organization called Lighthouse was recently shut down after members said they were isolated from friends and family, told to cut down on mental health medications and encouraged to sell their houses to pay for mentoring.

“Coaching is a self-regulated industry, which means that anyone can establish a coaching practice regardless of their training or professional background,” said Carrie Abner, the vice president of credentials and standards at the International Coaching Federation, in a statement. She said that clients should make sure they were working with trained and experienced coaches who had credentials.

Ms. Abner said that coaches with credentials from the International Coaching Federation agreed to abide by a code of ethics. “If a client feels a coach has acted in a way that is out of alignment with professional or ethical standards, the client has a formal process available to them to hold the coach accountable,” she said.

Stories like Ms. Richards’s are familiar to Eva Collins, who found life coaching after she became heavily involved in yoga and self-improvement around 2010. Ms. Collins, 40, was a life coach for several years, and worked on the sales and marketing teams of some of the most prominent coaches in the industry. This is where she started to notice the “insidious pyramid scheme element” of many of these businesses.

“They bully people for money,” she said. “You’re not allowed to question the main coach. You’re not allowed to dissent.”

Ms. Collins, who lives in Sacramento, now runs an Instagram page that shares anonymous comments about some of the worst life-coaching offenders. She said she received dozens of messages per week from people who had been plunged into debt. Some even had to remortgage their houses to pay for coaching.

Ms. Collins believes that many trained life coaches are legitimate and are doing good work, but said the industry also had a serious issue with scammers.

“Most people get into life coaching because they love helping and supporting people,” she said. “They don’t start out thinking that they’re going to mess people up, or take all their money. But sometimes, that’s what happens.”

For Ms. Mullett and Ms. Richards, the process of removing themselves from the world of life coaching has been long and difficult.

Ms. Mullett said she had to seek therapy for financial and emotional damage. And after leaving the industry last year, she has struggled with the guilt and shame of having spent so much time and money on what she now views as an elaborate scam.

Ms. Richards estimated that she spent well over $30,000 on life coaching, and said that she was consistently spending more than she was making. Still, the decision to step away was not an easy one.

“Coming to terms with finally letting go is emotionally devastating,” she said. “This was going to be my dream. I went from six figures with benefits and a 401(k) to desperately trying to find a minimum wage job, at a time when I thought I would be at the pinnacle of my career. I didn’t think I would be trying to start over at 52. This was not how I saw the story ending.”

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