MLMs Aren’t Just Bad For Your Finances — They’re Bad For Your Friendships

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
Henglein and Steets/Getty

Women who became SAHMs within the past 10-15 years, in my opinion, got screwed. Sure, we joined the motherhood circle as social media took off, making for easier connections than ’90s moms may have had. But we also began this new chapter — for many of us, the most challenging chapter — of our lives at a time when something else was taking off. Something our friends got sucked into, and many of us got sucked into as well. Something that ruined our finances, ruined our friendships, and left us feeling empty, defeated, and angry, rather than feeling like the “boss babe” we were promised to be.

You know what I’m talking about — the MLM industry. Leggings, spices, cooking oils, cleaning products, nail decals, candles, jewelry, makeup, face creams, diet pills, fat-shrinking wraps, detox teas, vitamin-infused patches that will make us feel “better than ever!”… There’s an MLM (multi-level marketing ploy) for everything these days, and most of us, I think, have caught on to the scam. But personally, back in 2013 when I was drowning in babies and desperate for a girls night out, desperate for something to focus on that wasn’t wiping butts or breastfeeding or cleaning crusty high chairs, I got scammed.

I can remember one friend inviting me to a presentation about “healthy living!” and as a breastfeeding mom who’d had three babies in five years, I was intrigued. Healthy recipes? Info about what the best vitamins were or how to get vegetables into my kids’ bellies? Meal-prep advice? Sure! Sign me up. (But honestly, I was just excited that my husband was going to handle bedtime and I could escape for the evening.)

It was, of course, a huge presentation encouraging everyone to buy some fruit-infused pills. There were no recipes. No advice for busy, exhausted moms. Just a pitch for us to spend hundreds of dollars on their product, or better yet, “join the team” and peddle them ourselves.

Then there were the intentionally vague “girls night” invites. “Come over for wine and snacks! MNO!” the text would read. I couldn’t hand off the babies fast enough. But time and time again, the MNO I had eagerly anticipated was really a ploy to get me in the door and get me to open my wallet. And, of course, the “host” was my friend, so I always felt obligated to purchase something, even though I didn’t need a $70 pair of leggings, nor could I afford them.

And it’s not just the obligatory purchase we make at this event we were duped into attending. We have to sit through the pitch that tells us we’re complete idiots if we, too, don’t hop on board. Join the team! Be our own boss! We have to hear about Gretchen, who rose to the top of the company — only working a few hours a month! — and just took a trip to the Caribbean and bought herself a shiny new Mercedes.

Don’t you want to be Gretchen? They’d ask us. Sign up here. Why wouldn’t you? Do you hate money? Do you hate trips to the Caribbean? Do you hate nice cars? Don’t you want to be your own boss?

Could we get up and leave once we realize we’ve been scammed? Sure. But these are our friends, our neighbors, moms from our kids’ school. Do we sever the friendship and isolate ourselves from the group, or do we sit through the bullshit for a couple hours, then go home with our new $30 spice packet we’ll never use, and stew in our anger?

The truth is, MLMs aren’t new. They’ve been around forever, and yes, there are success stories of the few who make it to the top. The few who truly make a viable income working from home, selling a product they may (or may not) believe in. But when social media exploded onto the scene, the old school method of seeing a Mary Kay flyer appear in your mailbox with a note that read, “Call me if you want to buy anything!” or the occasional Tupperware or Pampered Chef party invite appearing on your doorstep was replaced by relentless recruitment.

Now, everyone can be a boss babe! All you need is an IG account and the willingness to isolate all your real friends to make a buck. And, before, you knew what you were going into when you attended a Pampered Chef party — it wasn’t a trick. Now, MLM-ers are sneaky and disguise their sales pitch as a coffee date where the two of you can “catch up!” but really, 20 minutes in, you’re hearing about some face cream you need to have. (Thanks, my face is fine. Also, we’re not friends anymore.)

In reality, most MLMs don’t work. The boss babes don’t make much money at all, and sometimes are actually in debt after having to buy into the company at the beginning. They are so desperate to make a sale or recruit a team member that they’re willing to risk your friendship, likely because they are watching their bank account get drained.

Here’s the hard truth: the percentage of women who truly succeed in an MLM business is low — extremely low. As in 1%. ONE. PERCENT. That’s right, folks. Remember those horror stories about women who’d been duped into buying hoards of LulaRoe leggings and then couldn’t sell them and were out the money they’d invested? Their story isn’t unique! That’s the MLM model — trick people into joining “the team,” get them to invest their time and their money, and then let them sink (or be the 1% who swim.)

This percentage isn’t a made-up fairytale number for dramatics. A study conducted by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) revealed that 99% of MLMs fail and end in a loss of revenue, not a gain.

And, on top of losing money, MLM-ers also drive away all the authentic friendships they had by pushing their product on everyone, so now they’re broke and alone. No Mercedes. No trip to the Caribbean. Not even a girlfriend they can call.

A recent Reddit post, in fact, highlights this exact reality that so many of us have experienced — the end of a friendship because of an MLM.

The post tells an all too familiar tale. You know the one — a friend you trust, giving you some pitch about how her product “will make you feel so much better. Gives energy, helps with depression. It’ll make your back pain go away & the bonus of losing weight…”

Only when the person on the other end of that spiel says, “No thanks. I’ll seek advice about my health from a medical doctor,” rather than lighting money on fire to purchase whatever patch or vitamin or shake or pill the “friend” is peddling, the friendship is forever changed. In this case, it was a 25-year long one.

The Reddit post says that after responding several times that she “was not interested” in all the parties her “friend” kept inviting her to without her permission, the MLM-er “replied with a bunch of hunbot ‘I’m too busy building my empire for your negativity # byefelicia.'”

Your empire?! Umm sure.

The original post ends by saying that there should be a support group for those who have lost a friendship because of an MLM. A support group many of us need.

So why do so many do it if it ruins decades-long friendships? An article on Washington Post digs into the MLM phenomenon — which is dominated by women. One primary reason is that it remains challenging, even in 2021, for mothers to make an income while still managing their endless motherhood responsibilities. MLMs supposedly offer a way to do the impossible.

“These women are not setting out to annoy their friends,” the article explains. “Many want and need flexible work options because of family or other responsibilities, but it’s challenging to find a standard job that fits within school hours or an unusual schedule, especially if you’ve been out of the workforce a few years to care for a child or relative.”

Also, the article touches on the fact that also well into the 21st century, women still struggle to be respected in leadership roles and to earn equal pay. MLMs market themselves as a way for women to “be their own bosses!” and that can be very appealing to a woman who has been underpaid, talked over, and mansplained to her entire career. Also, those same women who fought sexism in the workforce also often struggle to find validation as SAHMs—validation that is promised by sneaky campaigns telling moms they can “do it all” while staying home and working from their living room couch. What’s not to love, right?

“MLMs promise instant success, camaraderie with other women in a ‘team’ environment and a career identity, trappings that standard jobs typically require years to develop,” Washington Post explains. “The lure of an MLM increases further when it says you’ll make loads of money working from home in your pajamas while drinking wine and being your own ‘boss babe,’ as your friends post pictures doing just that.”

And boom. You’re hooked. And your downward spiral has begun.

The MLM industry now has become so toxic and has ruined so many relationships that women are hesitant to even make new friends, fearing that the person seeking them out has ulterior motives. Case in point: I moved to a new state three years ago and desperately needed a few mom friends. I felt a connection with one mom and invited her to lunch. We eventually went, but she confessed to me that even though she, too, felt like we had a lot in common, she was afraid I was going to “try to sell her something.” This is what we’ve done to mom-friendships. We can’t even invite a friend to coffee or lunch or a MNO anymore, because we’re all afraid of being scammed into a MLM.

So to sum it up, MLMs are toxic. Don’t join the team. Don’t try to get your friends to join the team. You’ll end up more broke than you were before and all your friends will block you. It’s not worth it to try to sell some candles, boss babe. It’s really not.

This article was originally published on