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What not to do: Join a pyramid scheme

4 minute read

If you want to achieve financial freedom, you can get an education, invest in real estate, or buy into a business. But if you’re not careful, each of those things can drive you into debt.

That’s what happened to these three people — but they have since recovered and are now financially stable.

Use their experiences as a guide on what to avoid. And if you’re trapped in a similar situation, use them as a reminder that you can recover, too.

A portrait of J.R. Duren, who shared his debt story with

Mistake No. 1: A six-figure student loan

“My dumbest money mistake was taking out student loans for graduate school,” says J.R. Duren, a personal finance reporter with “When I graduated with my undergrad degree, I had very little student loan debt and very little debt in general.”

He felt that pursuing a graduate degree would give him the best chance of success, but had to take out federal loans to pay for it. Duren is now able to manage his six figures of student loan debt because of an income-based repayment plan.

Despite this, he still wishes he did things differently and avoided loans as much as possible:

As much as I try and stay positive about how my graduate degree helped me professionally and personally, I’m dead set on believing I should have worked full time before and during grad school to pay for my education out-of-pocket instead of through loans.

A portrait of Tina Willis, who shared her debt story with

Mistake No. 2: Real estate regret

Tina Willis is a personal injury lawyer from Orlando, Florida who was offered “a golden opportunity” in 2008 to work at a small yet elite law firm in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Because I felt sure that this would be a permanent move, and the opportunity of a lifetime, we took all of our savings, and purchased the biggest home we had ever owned — and one of our dreams,” Willis says.

Although Willis loved her new home, she quickly started to regret the move.

“…We absolutely hated living in Georgia for a bunch of reasons: the traffic, the weather (gray and cold way too long each year), having a long distance marriage, the fact that my husband had a well-established business in Orlando,” says Willis. “Within just a few months we knew that we couldn’t stay.”

She backed out of her new job at the law firm, where she was on a six-month trial basis, but no longer had a way to make her mortgage payments. She quickly found a renter for the house and moved back to Florida with no savings left in the bank.

Despite those setbacks, Willis built a small business from the ground up.

…I had to return home and develop my law firm with no budget, including doing my own marketing. I taught myself how to make a website, learned SEO and social media. There were lots of twists and turns but now I have a small but thriving boutique injury law practice. And we managed to buy another dream home along the way.

A portrait of Jennifer Asiaka, who shared her debt story with

Mistake No. 3: Investing in a pyramid scheme

“The biggest money mistake I ever made was joining a multi-level marketing business,” says Jennifer Aziaka, marketing director for Arbor Counseling Center.

Aziaka and her husband were forced to keep up with quotas by selling at least $500 worth of product every month, or they had to purchase the rest of it themselves.

“Then there was the quarterly big conferences. It would involve taking time off work, finding babysitters for an entire weekend, sometimes leaving Thursday night,” Aziaka says. “There was a bus ticket to go as a group on a chartered bus, costing about $150 each. Then the ticket for the weekend event itself was about $150-$250, maybe more.”

At the time, Aziaka stayed with the pyramid scheme because she believed in the dream that they were selling her.

“We didn’t scoff at it, because we wanted badly to succeed to build that dream for our family, to build a foundation for our future. We had seen those big successful people at the conferences do it, why couldn’t we?”

At the end of the year while she was doing her taxes, Aziaka counted all of the money they had invested into the MLM. It wasn’t pretty.

…It totaled up to about $30,000. I remember just staring at the amount on the spreadsheet, recalculating it, checking again… it was real. That was more than my first job paid in college. We could’ve changed many lives for the better with that money and helped a lot of people. Instead it went down the drain by us trying to get to someone else’s definition of success.

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About the Author

Thomas Chiles

Thomas Chiles

Chiles is a writer for

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