The seedy underbelly of the life coaching industry

(Image credit: Alamy)

Unhappy young woman in group session

By Katie Bishop7th February 2024

Many people turn to life coaches in moments of crisis. Some find what they’re looking for in these programmes – but others find disappointment, even scams.

Can a coach guide you to succeed? A growing cohort of people believe so. They are turning to professionals who promise self-improvement to change attitudes and habits, and set them on a course for personal and professional wins.

Life coaching is a sprawling, multi-faceted industry that can include career coaches, financial coaches, happiness coaches and empowerment coaches. It’s worth billions, and only growing: the International Coaching Federation estimates that the industry is worth $4.56bn (£3.64bn); and between 2019 and 2022, the number of life coaches rose by 54%, making it one of the fastest-growing careers in the US. This boom is happening alongside the “people development” industry that’s emerged throughout the past 15 years, say experts.

The pandemic catalysed two major shifts that provided a business opportunity for would-be life coaches. First, throughout the past several years, many people have struggled with mental health; additionally, many have also found themselves re-evaluating their priorities, goals and values.  

“The mental health fallout from the pandemic has left many people feeling lost and in need of guidance,” says Emily Maguire, who works as a career consultant and life coach. “If you look at trends in internet searches regarding life coaches, you’ll find that the most common topics that people search for are those that specialise in career coaching, ADHD, confidence, relationships and anxiety.”

Maguire also adds that social media has allowed life coaching to boom. It’s now common to see individuals selling not just their professional coaching services, but also their lifestyles on platforms including Instagram and TikTok. They promise their course is the route to a similarly ideal life.

For plenty of people, life coaching gives them the push and clarity they need, whether they’re tackling adversity, pivoting careers or looking for a kickstart. Yet with rising concerns about the opaque and unregulated nature of the industry, some experts and clients alike say this system leaves people vulnerable to fraudulent practices, when anyone can call themselves a “life coach”.

In the first year alone, I spent $14,000 working with my life coach, and in the years that followed I probably spent $100,000. I got sucked into it – Angela Lauria

Although some accrediting bodies exist for life coaches, such as the International Coaching Federation, there are no legal standards to enter the profession. (Plus, it doesn’t cost much to announce you’re open for business.) With most life coaches charging between $75 to $200 (£60 too £160) per hour, there are few jobs that promise such high financial reward with such low entry requirements.

Many people report their life coaches earn these fees by providing a great service. But the field is something of a Wild West, which has left an opening for less qualified, even predatory, practitioners to find their way into the industry.

“A life coach may or may not have a psychology degree, they may or may not have done any official training and they may not have expertise in the thing they’re claiming to,” says Jane Marie, a journalist whose podcast The Dream explores the reasons why people get caught up in multi-level marketing scams, pyramid schemes and cults of personality. She’s also covered the dark side of life coaching. Marie says lack of regulation in the industry means many people seeking life coaches end up falling victim to scams.

Angela Lauria, 50, discovered life coaching when she was struggling with postnatal depression and had been recently fired from her job. Initially interested in a coaching programme focusing primarily on weight loss, Lauria signed up for a $2,000 (£1,595) retreat. “In the first year alone, I spent $14,000 working with my life coach, and in the years that followed I probably spent $100,000,” she says. She also spent thousands of dollars on additional courses and mentorships with other life coaches that her primary coach recommended. “I got sucked into it.”Some people who've hired life coaches report spending thousands on courses that aren't beneficial (Credit: Alamy)

Some people who’ve hired life coaches report spending thousands on courses that aren’t beneficial (Credit: Alamy)

Marie says Lauria’s story is common among people who are scammed by unqualified coaches, adding that the nature of the industry can lead to people being preyed on. Lauria also believes that her life coach exploited the fact that many of her clients were women going through big transitions.

“I think any time a business is specifically targeting a customer base that is desperate, a scam can be perpetrated,” says Marie. “Nine times out of 10, it isn’t, and that’s great. But if you’re a bad actor, you could easily become a life coach or relationship coach, and convince people to spend thousands of dollars to achieve an unattainable goal.”

Unscrupulous coaches charging high amounts for substandard service doesn’t just impact individuals like Lauria. Life-coach Maguire says it also harms the reputation of professionals trying to do good within the industry.

“Unfortunately, I’ve found this happening numerous times. Someone calls themself a professional… gives bad advice and sadly takes advantage of members of the public,” she says. “These individuals are the ones who providing the industry with a bad name.”

I think any time a business is specifically targeting a customer base that is desperate, a scam can be perpetrated – Jane Marie

This shouldn’t discourage people from seeking a life coach’s services – especially when many clients report they’ve benefitted from the process.

Tierney Pretzer, 27, is one such individual. Pretzer, who lives in San Francisco, recently found her life at a crossroads. She was working in a sales and marketing role at a start-up, and was struggling to decide what she wanted to do with her career – and her life. “I had a general feeling of being ‘stuck’,” she says. Pretzer had heard from others that working with a life coach might be the solution. She did – and found the support she’d hoped for. Pretzer moved jobs and says she now has a new way of thinking about big life decisions. She sees a benefit to “working with a specialist on the most important thing we’re doing: living”.

Although there’s no standardised degree or required credentials for labelling oneself a life coach, Mcguire says organisations such as The Association of Coaching require their members to undertake a certain number of hours of training, while other groups such as the European Mentoring and Coaching Council have ethics standards their members must uphold when practicing.

Still, a healthy dose of scepticism will go a long way, and Lauria recommends proceeding with caution. “Ask the coach how much of their business is referral, call at least three former clients and don’t buy from anyone who won’t do a call with you directly beforehand,” she says. “And don’t buy from anyone who needs an answer now – scarcity and urgency is made up.”

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