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How to Maximize Your FSA and Transit Benefit Before You Lose It

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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The end of the calendar year is generally an important time to pay attention to your workplace benefits accounts. You may already have gotten an email from the head of your workplace’s HR department about making your elections for the coming year and maybe even made them already. While you’re at it, take a look at the balances in your flexible spending accounts and transportation benefits accounts — they may need your attention.

Workplace benefit accounts like your health flexible spending account (FSA) and transportation benefits accounts help you save money on the important line items in your budget like your healthcare bills and getting yourself to and from work. Since the accounts are funded with pre-tax dollars, you could help your dollars go up to 40% further on common expenses — like getting a checkup or a bus pass — that help you keep and maintain your job. However, if you don’t quite know how to best use these accounts, you could actually end up losing the money you have socked away in your benefits accounts.

Read on or click ahead to learn the ins and outs of using these benefits accounts and what you can do, if anything, to save your money when you’re in danger of losing it.

Flexible spending accounts

What is a flexible spending account?

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A flexible spending account (FSA) is an employer sponsored reimbursement plan. It allows you to set aside pre-tax money and spend it on eligible medical expenses.

For 2018, you can contribute up to $2,650 to your health FSAs, up from the 2017’s limit of $2,600.

In an ideal world, you’ll avoid losing income by using up all your funds for eligible medical expenses by deadline. But the reality is that it’s tricky to budget for medical expenses for the next year (generally you can only adjust your contribution from each paycheck during open enrollment or during a qualifying life event, such as marriage or birth of a child). Many find themselves with excessive balance in their medical FSA at the end of the year.

It’s actually not that flexible given its “use it or lose it” rule — you have to use all the funds by the deadline, otherwise you lose the money. Several plan advisers confirmed to MagnifyMoney that many people underutilize their medical benefits. FSAStore.com, a one-stop-shop website stocked with FSA-eligible products, reported that each year, hundreds of millions of dollars was forfeited back to employers simply because consumers do not deplete the funds in their accounts.

So how can you make the best use of your medical FSA and avoid wasting money? We have done research and asked experts for you.

How can I use my health FSA funds?

First off, the medical FSA reimburses you for you or your dependent’s expenses that are not paid by your health insurance.

The eligible expenses include copayments, coinsurance and deductibles, prescription costs, vision and dental expenses and many over-the-counter (OTC) items — prescribed or unprescribed. But note that you cannot pay your monthly insurance premiums with the FSA.

If you have money left over in your FSA, you may want to consider getting new prescription glasses, prescription sunglasses and contact lenses. Those are some of the most common big-ticket items you can purchase with your FSA.

You can also stock up on things like first aid kits, contact solution, bandages and sunscreen that you may use year-round.

Your FSA plan provider will have a list of eligible over-the-counter items you can purchase at the pharmacy with your FSA, such as this one. Many of the pharmacy sites have sections of their sites that list all the FSA eligible items.

Another possible way to use the money would be scheduling check-ups with all your physicians. Your annual physicals and other preventative care are covered by your health plan, but if you need special medical treatment, you can use the remaining funds for copays, coinsurance or prescriptions.

Many FSA providers recommend you visit FSAStore.com.

How much should I contribute to my health FSA?

Becky Seefeldt, director of marketing at Benefit Resource, a benefits programs provider, said the average 2017 contribution was $1,250, based on the company’s 300,000 participants. That’s roughly half of the maximum amount one could contribute for the year. For those who over-contribute to their FSAs, by the end of the year, Seefeldt said, they usually have less than $100 left in their account.

Experts suggest you contribute conservatively because there is a chance that the unspent money might be forfeited. But everyone has a different situation; it’s hard to give a single guideline that fits all.

You really need to do the math when budgeting your contribution for the next plan year during open enrollment.

Nicole Wruck, a national health practice leader at Alight Solutions, told MagnifyMoney that most of the company’s clients over-contribute every year. She suggests consumers keep track of their health care expenses they had over the last year and plan accordingly for the coming year.

You will need to do the math based on the factors below:

  • What did you spend on prescription drugs?
  • What did you spend at the doctor, or the dentist, or the eye doctor?
  • Do you have any upcoming things planned in the next year that might make you experience some additional costs? For example, are you or your dependent expecting a baby? Will you need new glasses?

To help yourself run the numbers, you will want to study your health care plans. Know your deductibles — the amount you pay for health care services before your health insurance begins to kick in — as well as your copays and coinsurance. Learn what your out-of-pocket maximum is — the most you have to pay for health care services in a plan year. After you hit your out-of-pocket max, your insurance company covers your healthcare costs for the rest of the year.

Visiting your doctors can also help. Sometimes your year-end doctor visits can help you estimate your next year’s out-of-pocket medical expense. For instance, if your dentist tells you that you will need orthodontic treatment in the near future, then consider maxing out your FSA for the next plan year to cover the big dentist bills your insurance company won’t pay.

What happens to leftover funds at the end of the plan year?

Traditionally, you would have to use up all your remaining funds by Dec. 31. But there are two options employers can adopt to make the rules more lenient now.

The roll-over option. It allows up to $500 in your FSA per year to roll over into the next plan year, so participants don’t have to rush to use the remaining funds. Seefeldt said about 40 percent of employers now adopt the roll-over option.

An extended grace period. This gives participants an additional two and half months — through March 15 — to use up the money from the previous year. At the end of the grace period, all unspent funds will be forfeited to the employer.

Depending on how your company decides to do with the FSAs, you may have a little bit more leeway to use your funds by the year end. Check with your human resource department and your FSA plan provider to find out which option is available to you.

What happens if I leave the company before I use all my FSA funds?

If your eligible expenses incurred before you left the company, you may be able to request reimbursement through your company’s claim submission deadline.

If you leave the company in the middle of the year but you have used more funds in your flexible spending account than contributed. You may not be required to pay back your company.

You have access to the total amount you have allocated for the year after your first medical FSA deposit, regardless of the balance in your flexible spending account. You are reimbursed based on your company’s pay schedule as you submit claims.

For example, if you elected to put $2,000 into your FSA throughout the year, and you have a $2,000 dental expense in May, your FSA would reimburse you for the whole $2,000, even though you’ve only contributed about $833 by then.

If you jump ship in August, you may not have to pay back the rest of your contribution. Your company will cover it: It agrees to take the potential financial risk when it signs up for the FSA program. Don’t feel too guilty just yet — your company may be able to offset the financial loss with the unspent funds forfeited from other employees.

Now, if you have money left unused in your FSA, first, try to use it as much as you can before you part ways. But If you can’t use it up by your last day, you may have a chance to extend your FSA benefits if you choose to enroll in COBRA.

COBRA allows former employees, retirees, spouses and dependents to get temporary continuation of health benefits at group rates. FSA is one of the COBRA-eligible benefits.

Generally, you have until the end of plan year to use up money left in your FSA through your prior employer, but it’s most common for someone to take their FSA COBRA for one or two months and use the funds quickly, Seefeldt said. Under COBRA, you can continue to make your health plan contributions (but pay an additional 2 percent administrative fee) before the new plan kicks in, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Say you leave your company in August but there is $400 left in your FSA, and you plan to continue your health insurance coverage through your previous employer for two months before your new insurance plan kicks in, you can keep submitting expenses up to $400 in that period of time but pay an administrative fee that’s 2 percent of your monthly premium. But you are not required to purchase the health coverage in order to use your FSA balance.

Again, money in your FSA cannot be used to pay your premiums. But you can use it to cover eligible medical costs.

If you’re not eligible to continue your FSA through COBRA, try to use up the money before your job ends so that you won’t leave it on the table.

Transportation benefit accounts

What are commuter benefits?

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Transportation benefit accounts, also known as commuter benefits accounts, let employees use pre-tax dollars to pay for the costs of commuting. The accounts are meant to act as an incentive for employees to use eco-friendly transportation options like carpools, mass transit or bikes on their commute to the workplace.

Commuter benefits help many workers save on their transportation costs. But, it’s possible just as many workers aren’t completely sure how their transit benefit account works, or how to make the most of it.

How can I use my commuter benefits?

If you drive to a park-and-ride, catch mass transit or ride a bike to get to work, you may be able to use pre-tax dollars contributed to a commuter benefits account to cover some or all of the cost of your commute. However, if you ride solo to work or don’t use a bike or mass transit options available to you, you won’t be able to use commuter benefits to, let’s say, pay for the gas your personal vehicle burns during your bumper-to-bumper commute each morning.

However, you may be able to take advantage of parking benefits, which we’ll explain below.

You can use the money in a transportation benefits account to pay for any of the following eligible expenses:

  • A ride in a “commuter highway vehicle” to or from home and work.
    • This is another way of saying carpooling. Riding to work in a commuter highway vehicle counts if the vehicle can seat at least 6 passengers, according to the IRS. You might not have to go through the hassle of organizing a carpool with your coworkers or neighbors to use your transportation funds this way. Some commuter benefits programs allow you to carpool using rideshare apps like Lyft or Uber, too. All you’d need to do is use your commuter benefits card to pay for UberPOOL or Lyft Line rides and join the carpool when it arrives to pick you up.
  • A transit pass.
    • A transit pass is any pass, token or other tool that permits you to ride mass transit — like a train, ferry or bus — to work.
  • Qualified parking.
    • If you need to pay to park on or near your workplace, or you have to pay for parking in order to catch a ride on public transit for work or you pay for parking for any other work-related reason, you can use your transportation benefits to cover the charge.
  • Qualified bicycle commuting reimbursement.
    • You can use up to $20 per month in transportation benefits to purchase a bicycle, make improvements or repairs to the bike, and pay for bike storage as long as you use the bicycle for regular travel between home and your workplace. Be warned: If you use your transportation benefit to be reimbursed for commuting via bicycle at some point during the month, per IRS rule, you won’t be able to use the transportation funds for any of the three aforementioned eligible expenses in that particular month.

How much should I contribute to my transit benefit?

How much you contribute to your commuter benefits account will depend on how much you spend on transportation to and from work each month. Look at your monthly commuting expenses. Do the math to figure out what you would need to contribute from each paycheck to cover the cost of your commute to work. To avoid over-contributing to your transportation benefits account, be sure to to pull out a calculator.

Step 1: Estimate how much you spend on transportation expenses — monthly parking pass, bus pass, etc. — each pay period.

Estimating your commuter benefits should be easier than, say, trying to guess how many doctor’s visits or prescriptions you’ll need to cover in the coming year. “With a commuter benefit you are making an estimate,” says Joseph Priselac, Jr., CEO P&A Group, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based employee benefits administration company. “As long as you have a job and you know you’re going to keep going to it, you know how much you will spend.”

Step 2: Elect to contribute that amount for the year. The amount you elect will be divided by the total number of remaining pay periods for the year. The benefit will be deducted from each paycheck and placed in your transportation account for your use when you need it. If you change your annual contribution, the remaining number of deductions will be adjusted accordingly to reflect the change. If, for example, you elect $1,200 for the year and are paid monthly, $100 pre-tax will be deducted from your paycheck to your transportation account.

Beware of contribution limits

Commuter benefits: In 2017, the maximum monthly pre-tax contribution limit for commuter benefits is $255, or $3,060 in a year. Moving forward, the IRS may decide to change that limit. The federal agency reviews and sets the limit annually. If you bike to work, you max out at $20 per month.

Parking benefits: An additional $255 per month. If you’ve got to ride mass transit to get to work and pay for parking, Priselac says that limit is technically doubled, since you can max out $255 for parking and another $255 for mass transit passes each month.

Unless you are certain sure you will use up the maximum in transportation spending for the year, don’t simply contribute the maximum amount you can to your transportation benefits account.

What if I want to reduce my contribution?

If, for whatever reason, you decide you don’t need to contribute as much or you want to contribute more to your transit benefit fund during the year, that’s not a problem.

Unlike an FSA, for which your contribution election can’t be changed during the year, “you can change your election anytime you want,” says Priselac.

To clarify, you can change your commuter benefits election as often as your company allows. For some, that may be once per pay period, for others, it may be once per quarter. It’s one of the few benefits you can change mid-year. Consult with your employer’s human resources department to find out how often you are able to change your election.

“If you’re not sure how much you will be spending, start by contributing a small amount,” says Caspar Yen, Senior Director of Product Management at Zenefits, a human resources software company. “There’s no need to over contribute to play it safe.”

That said, if you feel you’ve contributed too much to your commuter benefits account to use up within the period, you can stop the deductions and use up the balance you’ve accumulated until it runs out, then restart your contributions. Just be sure to keep an eye on your transportation benefits balance so you know when to restart your contributions.

What happens to leftover funds at the end of the year?

Transit benefits rollover each year so long as you are still with the company and the company still offers the benefit. That means you don’t have to rush to use leftover funds at the end of the year.

This is in contrast to a flexible spending account, which has a ‘use it or lose it’ rule, which we covered above.

In a sense, there is no ‘plan year’ for transportation benefits, although your company may ask that you confirm you’d like to stay enrolled in the program each year when you elect your annual benefit contributions. Transportation benefits accounts roll over each pay period and should roll over into the coming period at the end of the year. That means there’s no danger of losing any of the money you’ve contributed so far, as long as you remain employed with that particular employer.

What if I quit my job or get laid off?

“As long as you are still working there and you have work related transit expenses the money stays,” says Priselac.

But if you quit your job or are laid off you could lose some or all of the money remaining in your transportation benefits account. If you’ve been over-contributing, any money you don’t use up will be lost to you, and returned to your employer.

The good news is that some benefit programs will give employees a grace period to submit reimbursements requests for any transportation expenses incurred during their employment — even if they quit.

If you know you may no longer be with the company or the company is planning to terminate its program, there’s one thing you can do to save your money.

“Before leaving a company, employees can make a large eligible purchase,” says Yen.

In the Bay Area, for example, an employee can purchase a clipper card with up to $300 in credits. If the transit method you take offers individual tickets, you could purchase a large number. Or, if you are able to load your transit pass with cash, you could place a large amount on your pass.

For example, those in the New York City metro area might load a large amount of money onto their MetroCard and use it up until it’s depleted.

Whenever you’re making a decision about benefits, it helps to talk to your HR department or the benefit provider, just to be sure you understand the rules. Mistakes you make when choosing benefits can end up costing you a lot of money, so ask questions and avoid leaving your decisions to the last minute of open enrollment.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Brittney Laryea
Brittney Laryea |

Brittney Laryea is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brittney at [email protected]

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Shen Lu |

Shen Lu is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Shen Lu at [email protected]

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Cities with the Largest CO2 Output Per Household

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

A warming planet can really burn consumers…financially, at least. Climate change has cost U.S. taxpayers $350 billion over the past decade, according to one report from the Government Accountability Office, and that number is expected to swell to $35 billion per year by 2050.

So which households are to blame? We have found that the carbon footprints of households in different cities varies widely, with households in the West spewing more carbon emissions than ones in urban, denser areas.

For this study, we’ve defined carbon footprint as the combined total annual amount of carbon dioxide produced to support the lives of each member of a household. In other words, every time you drive your car, buy groceries or heat your home, you’re adding to your household’s carbon footprint.

The study analyzes the largest 200 metros in the U.S. by population, and measures the annual average annual metric tons of CO2 emitted, per household.

Take New York City, with a population of nearly 14 million. It’s consistently ranked as one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases among U.S. cities, but this study found it has the smallest carbon footprint on an emissions per household basis.

Key Findings

  • Among the top 200 cities that we looked at, Provo, Utah had the largest carbon footprint, spewing a whopping average of 10.55 metric tons of carbon dioxide per household a year.
  • The West dominated the ranking’s top three cities with the biggest carbon footprint, with Ogden, Utah ranking No. 2 — boasting an average annual 10.16 metric tons of CO2 per household. No. 3 was Greeley, Colo., with an annual average of 10.04 metric tons of CO2 per household.
  • In contrast, New York households had the smallest carbon footprint, emitting an annual average of just 5.38 metric tons of carbon dioxide.
  • California is quite climate-friendly. San Francisco had the second smallest carbon footprint, with an annual average of 7.12 metric tons of CO2 per household, followed by Los Angeles, with an annual average of 7.15 metric tons of CO2 per household.
  • In general, wealthier cities with more cars per household had larger carbon footprints, while denser cities had smaller footprints.

Cities with the largest carbon footprints

Our study revealed that cities in the West have the largest carbon footprints. The top five cities with the highest average CO2 emissions per household are:

  • Provo, Utah (10.55 metric tons)
  • Ogden, Utah (10.16 metric tons)
  • Greeley, Colo. (10.04 metric tons)
  • Appleton, Wis. (9.86 metric tons)
  • McAllen, Texas (9.81 metric tons)

Not surprisingly, we found that cities with larger carbon footprints tended to have more cars per household. Transportation is a major factor when calculating a household’s carbon footprint—one study even found that housing and transportation are responsible for more than half of all U.S. household carbon emissions.

Households in Provo which have the biggest average household carbon footprint in our study, own an average of 2.1 cars and travel approximately 25,000 miles annually by car, while only 2% of commuters take public transit. Ogden, with the second-largest carbon footprint, touted similar statistics: Households own an average 2.04 cars and travel approximately 24,000 miles in them annually, while only 2% of commuters use public transit.

Cities with the smallest carbon footprints

In general, dense, urban cities have the smallest average carbon footprints. We found that the top five cities with the lowest average CO2 footprints per household are:

  • New York (5.38 metric tons)
  • San Francisco (7.12 metric tons)
  • Los Angeles, Calif. (7.15 metric tons)
  • Miami (7.65 metric tons)
  • Chicago (7.65 metric tons)

One factor that is likely responsible for cities with relatively small carbon footprints is the widespread use of public transit. Our study found that households in New York City have 1.27 cars and travel 13,000 miles annually (compared to Provo’s household average of 2.1 cars and 25,000 miles of travel). Meanwhile, an impressive 31% of New York City commuters take public transit (compared to Provo’s 2%). The average San Francisco household has 1.66 cars and travels 17,000 miles annually, while only 15% of commuters take public transit.

Another reason for the smaller carbon footprint in big cities can be chalked up to urban density. New York City has the highest residential density score, likely due to the low number of single-family, detached homes in the city. We found that 37% of New York City households were single-family, detached homes, while that number was 67% in Provo and 75% in Ogden. Buildings with multiple apartment units have been known to use significantly less energy than single-family homes.

Why being eco-friendly is financially smart

Going green isn’t just good for Mother Earth. It can actually save you some green, too. Residents in the cities with the largest carbon footprints spent significantly more money on annual transportation costs than those in cities with the smallest carbon footprints. Residents in Provo, for example, spend nearly $16,000 annually on transportation costs, according to our study. In contrast, New Yorkers spend around $10,000 annually on transportation.

Indeed, making the switch from commuting by car to public transit can result in substantial savings. A household can save $10,000 by taking public transit and living with one less car, according to the American Public Transportation Association. It’s also beneficial for the planet; the organization claims that if communities invest in public transit systems, they can cut the country’s carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons annually.

An environmentally cleaner commute isn’t the only way going green can save you money. Cutting down on the energy you use in your home can help, too. Assess how your home is using (and wasting) energy. Sealing uncontrolled air leaks, for example, can save you 10% to 20% annually on your heating and cooling bills, according to the Department of Energy, while replacing your five most-used light fixtures with bulbs that have earned ENERGY STAR status can save you 9% annually on your electric bill.

Other simple steps you can take to reel in your energy bill include regularly examining your HVAC system air filter, reducing the temperature of your water heater to 120 degrees and shutting off lights when you are not using them.

Tips on being more eco-friendly while saving money

There are easy ways you can cut back on the amount of money you spend on energy, while also shrinking your carbon footprint. For transportation, you can:

  • Switch your commute from driving to taking public transit.
  • Bike or walk to work.
  • Carpool with a co-worker.
  • Consider switching to an energy-efficient car.

At home, you can:

  • Adjust your thermostat for when you’re not in the house.
  • Seal uncontrolled air leaks.
  • Switch to LED lightbulbs.
  • Insulate your water heater tank.
  • Fix leaky faucets.

Another way you can have a positive impact on the earth — while also doing yourself a favor financially — is taking a close look at socially-responsible investing.

Methodology

MagnifyMoney analyzed 2017 data from the Center for Neighborhood Technology Housing and Transportation Index.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Sarah Berger
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Sarah Berger is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Sarah here

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Multi-Level Marketing and Military Families: How to Spot a Scam

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

Being a military spouse isn’t an easy job. Non-enlisted spouses deal with difficult realities that many Americans don’t understand, from frequent relocation to defacto single parenting during deployment periods. That makes earning an income while caring for a family — especially one with young children — extremely difficult.

With challenges like these, it’s no wonder the unemployment rate among military spouses is 13%. That’s more than three times as high as the unemployment rate among civilian men and women.

Enter multilevel marketing businesses, or MLMs for short, that promote the opportunity to make money selling products directly to others. On the surface, their flexibility and built-in community may seem like a godsend to military spouses looking to bring in some extra cash. But are they all they’re cracked up to be?

How MLMs work

Besides selling your own products, MLMs involve recruiting others to join your team and sell products to the people in their circles as well. With most MLMs, you get a portion of your team member’s profits when someone joins your sales network. As the process repeats itself and your team members recruit sales networks of their own, you may continue to get a piece of the profit from everyone who signs up underneath you.

You can probably name several MLMs, also called network marketing companies, off the top of your head. There are the classics, like Tupperware, Amway, Avon and Mary Kay, along with newcomers like Beachbody, LuLaRoe and Rodan + Fields.

Yet although MLMs have been around for decades (or centuries — Avon was founded in 1886), they’re often a poor investment of your time and money. An AARP Foundation study reveals that 74% of people reported making no money or losing money as a result of their involvement with an MLM. (Investing your cash in a high-yield online savings account would actually be a safer bet, statistically.)

Why MLMs are so popular with military families

Military families in particular are often targeted by direct-selling consultants. Sometimes, this comes from a genuine desire to help military families that are looking for an additional source of income, suggested Anthony Kirlew, financial coach at Fiscally Sound.

Yet others believe the intentions of MLM recruiters may be more sinister. “Military wives are an easy target [for MLMs],” said Melissa Blevins, founder of Perfection Hangover, a small business website geared toward women, “because they’re seeking community, purpose and ways to stay busy and make money while their husbands are deployed.”

MLM recruiters often approach women (military wives or otherwise) with promises to solve the problems they’re facing. For example, a recruiter may show you a flexible way to earn extra cash (often lots of it) with a work schedule that fits your busy life. Plus, if you move, you don’t have to start over. You can take your direct-selling business with you.

The targeting of military families has a lot to do with the transient nature of military service, said Peter Marinello, vice president of the Direct Selling Self-Regulatory Council for Better Business Bureau (BBB) National Programs. “I think the military community is very vulnerable to direct-selling opportunities and a lot of different kinds of scams.”

This frequent relocation can also lead to loneliness among military spouses, and MLMs offer to help those who are seeking new friendships. But Blevins, who had her own negative experience selling for Beachbody, warned the friendships you make when you join an MLM may not last once you stop participating, and you run the risk of losing your existing friends if you start bombarding them with sales pitches.

The difference between a legitimate opportunity and a scam

You’ll find people who are superfans of multilevel marketing programs and others who despise MLMs as a whole. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.

Marinello confirmed, “There are a lot of good MLM opportunities out there. They are not all scams.” But they require due diligence before signing up. To properly vet an MLM, Marinello suggests reading income disclosures to “see who’s making money [and] at what level.” You should also review compensation plans and rely on outside resources to help shape your decision.

If you want to learn more about a specific direct selling organization, the following ideas may help:

  • Check with your state attorney general for complaints before signing up for any networking marketing opportunity.
  • Search online to see if any lawsuits have been filed against an MLM before joining — such as the FTC’s settlement with Herbalife or the more recent lawsuit brought against LuLaRoe by the Washington state attorney general.
  • Talk to former consultants or search online for the opinions of people who once joined a particular MLM but ultimately left.
  • The BBB Institute for Marketplace Trust sponsors the Military & Veterans Initiative — a program designed to help veterans, servicemembers and their families avoid scams.
  • The Direct Selling Self-Regulatory Council (DSSRC), a collaboration between the BBB and the Direct Selling Association (DSA), is another solid resource to use when vetting MLMs.

How to spot a pyramid scheme

Some MLMs are pyramid schemes in disguise. A pyramid scheme may look like a legitimate network marketing opportunity on the outside. But there are key distinctions that could waste both your time and your money if you fall for it.

  • You don’t earn money by selling a legitimate product or service.
  • You’re trained to focus primarily on recruiting new team members underneath you.
  • Financial statements from the company either (a) are not available or (b) show that the MLM earns most of its money from recruitment instead of sales.
  • The commissions you earn come primarily from money paid by new team members themselves, not outside sales.

Working for an MLM is not a quick fix to your financial struggles

The reality doesn’t always live up to the hype where MLMs are concerned. Some MLM participants are quick to over-promise your chances of success in an effort to add a new team member to their network.

In reality, most people who join MLMs don’t earn the enormous sums of money often advertised by salespeople. AARP’s study found that nearly 21 million Americans have participated in an MLM. Yet only 7% earned over $10,000. Fewer than 1% earned more than $100,000.

Even those who do manage to make some money through MLMs may have to work much harder to earn that income when compared with other jobs. A MagnifyMoney survey finds that the vast majority of multilevel marketing participants earn less than 70 cents an hour.

Kirlew also advised approaching MLMs with the right mindset. “While MLM’s are pitched as a great way to earn extra income, people should know it’s not like a part-time job, but rather a part-time business.”

“If someone has a need for immediate income,” he continued, “I would recommend a part-time job and not an MLM.”

Most businesses don’t succeed — including MLMs — Kirlew pointed out. “The extra added pressure of trying to meet short-term financial goals is usually not a good combination with starting a new business.”

If you’re already in debt because of an MLM investment or other financial missteps, there are a number of tools you can use to improve your situation. This guide detailing financial resources for veterans in debt is a great place to start.

Seven red flags to look for before joining a multilevel marketing team

  1. Beware of MLMs that require a hefty buy-in. If you’re asked to put up a large upfront amount to join, Kirlew said it could be a sign of a scam.
  2. An aggressive sign-up pitch is cause for concern. Kirlew advised looking out for “high-pressure sales tactics to get you to sign up” when you’re considering an MLM. If someone tells you to “act now” or lose out on an opportunity, you should probably walk away.
  3. Proceed with caution if a company won’t buy back unused products. If you purchase product to stock your inventory and don’t sell it all, some MLMs offer to buy your unused product back. Mary Kay, for example, will repurchase product at 90% of the original cost for up to one year after purchase. MLMs that won’t rebuy your unused products should be avoided.
  4. Watch out for companies that require you to continue purchasing inventory after your sign up. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns if you have to buy more products than you can sell in order to stay active in an MLM, you should hang on to your money.
  5. When an MLM focuses on recruitment, not sales, it could be a sign of trouble. Marinello said, “Anytime you hear a sales pitch that’s recruitment heavy and not focused on selling the product, I’d be very wary.”
  6. If a company promises a huge return on your investment, be on guard. Extravagant income claims made by a salesperson, particularly in the social media space, may be a warning sign, Marinello advised.
  7. You should also be on guard if an MLM company promises “miracle cures” for buyers. The FTC recommends avoiding any companies that make claims of “miracle ingredients” or “guaranteed results” where health products are concerned.

The bottom line

While some MLMs may offer the flexibility and community military spouses crave, don’t make any rash decisions and do your homework. Kirlew also advised that you trust your gut instincts before signing up.

“If something doesn’t feel right,” Kirlew said, “it is either not right or not right for you.”

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Michelle Black
Michelle Black |

Michelle Black is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Michelle here