To the outside world, Yogeeta Mistry had it all.
A self-employed businesswoman, she enjoyed far-flung holidays, designer clothes and soirées in trendy wine bars.
But she was living a lie.
Yogeeta's homeware sales business was actually struggling and, due to numerous credit cards and loans, she was spiralling into debt.
After years of burying her head in the sand, she was jolted back into reality in March 2007 when a credit report landed on her doorstep. The true extent of her debt? Almost £33,000.
Within two years, she was living back at her mum's house, sleeping on the sofa surrounded by bin bags full of her possessions.
"I was living in a dreamworld," the 37-year-old says today. "I was 21 when I set up my own business and I tried to make it work, even though I knew my heart wasn't in it.
"Basically, it was a case of fake it until you make it. I tried to make out I was successful. I wanted people to think I was successful and I thought if I had the best clothes and was seen in the best places, it would eventually all come together. I was keeping up appearances."
This consisted of holidays in exotic destinations such as Rio de Janeiro, designer clothes labels and luxury food shopping in Waitrose.
"Back then, I was quite aggressive. I wasn't very positive, especially to my mum. I was hiding a lack of confidence. I had low self esteem – that was the underlying issue," Yogeeta says.
"All of this was a facade to mask something else. I had gained weight too, I had confidence issues. My mum would bring this up – she knew I wasn't happy – but I wouldn't say anything. I was stuck in a rut.
"At 18, I had dreamed of the perfect house, nice car, 2.4 children and a gorgeous husband. There is a lot of pressure for stuff like that. But here I was aged 31 living a lie.
"My pay was dropping and my debts were getting bigger. I was paying out £600 a month on debt repayments alone. The debt was all loans and credit cards. I had numerous credit cards. Then in March 2007 I got a credit report through and it said there in black and white that my total debt was nearly £33,000.
"Until then I was paying off a bit here, a bit there. I was robbing Peter to pay Paul. I had overdrafts on my overdrafts. I would get bank charges. Things hadn't been right for years.
"But I needed to see the exact mess I was in and face facts. I remember starring at that statement. It went down like a lead balloon."
As the grim reality began to sink in, Yogeeta knew drastic action had to be taken and she set about cleaning up her financial mess. The holidays and fancy clothes had already disappeared because, by now, the money was being spent simply on keeping her head above water on essentials such as rent, bills and petrol. She admits that, at that time, she was "struggling to live".
"After I got that report I did it all myself," she explains. "I researched so much stuff. I looked for low interest credit cards, figured out what I should pay off first. I didn't put anything else on credit. I really did my research. I could have just gone to one of those debt companies and said 'you sort it out' but I knew it was something I had to do myself. You have got to do your research and know how it affects you.
"I wanted to get control back over my life. It was a conscious decision. I started paying off more than I needed to. Say, instead of paying back the required £150, I would pay back £200.
"When my relationship broke down in 2009 I made the decision to move back in with my mum – at the age of 33.
"It was strange being back in my childhood bedroom. I remember on the first night back I didn't have a bed so I had to sleep on the sofa surrounded by black bags filled with my belongings. Then I just had a mattress on the floor. But you know what, it was actually quite positive. It was a sacrifice I had to make if I wanted things to change and it brought me and mum even closer together. I am an only child so she loved it."
It was also at this time that Yogeeta decided to join Avon.
It was a decision that would ultimately change her life because today she stands atop a £2 million-per-year franchise comprising more than 1,000 reps all over Shropshire, Staffordshire and the Black Country.
"I had researched the company for months prior to joining," she says from the living room of her Birmingham mews house, which contains her laptop, two mobile phone, how-to-succeed-in-business books and copies of Making Money magazine, for which she will soon be writing for. Awards from Avon also line her mantelpiece.
"I just had this gut feeling, I knew in my heart that I would be successful with it. I knew it was a business you could make good money from if you were willing to work hard. I knew I could build something. I started to work for Avon but then the people I was working with in my other business said there was a conflict of interest and they closed me down overnight – 10 years of work gone in an instant.
"By then, I was up to my eyeballs in debt, my business was gone and it was a real fight-or-flight moment.
"I could have declared myself bankrupt and have that land on my head. But I would have been completely broken by that. Or I could just carry on and make it work.
"Slowly but surely the Avon money started to come in. I just got my head down and got on with it and within 10 months I was earning between £400 and £500 a week.
"I started off in Avon with 100 brochures and I just went door to door in my local area and got in contact with my family and friends. I collected business cards and spoke to as many people as possible. I started recruiting pretty much straight away and began with 30 reps. Now I have more than 1,000.
"I recruit them and teach them about the products and how to sell them. They are self-employed but I get them started and show them how to make the amount of money they're after. They are mainly around here but I have people as far afield as Doncaster, Liverpool and Bristol. My best reps are in Stafford and Bewdley. It gives me a sense of pride to see my ladies doing well. Many are mums who have perhaps lost confidence after being away from the world of work. But Avon is that first step to confidence and speaking with new people. I'm almost like a talent spotter. I am there to encourage them in their business."
Yogeeta paid off her last penny of debt in the summer of 2010 and celebrated by taking her mum on a five-star trip to Egypt as a way of saying thank you.
"It was great to have that freedom again," she says. "To be able to go out and buy things and know it wasn't going to come back and haunt you later on. But you know what, I'm now completely the opposite to how I was before. I'm frugal now. I live within my means. I live sensibly.
"I was lost before. I was keeping up appearances. This is quite cathartic, to stop following the crowd. It was a huge huge relief.
"I don't want to live beyond my means. I could have bought a house twice the size of this one but I would have been stretching myself. I wanted to be sensible and get this modest mews house but be able to live in and enjoy it. The other side of Yogeeta would never have done that. But I like this and having money for treats like my Karen Millen obsession, personal trainer or private flamenco lessons.
"Life teaches you lessons – the main one being: be yourself. You see these programmes like The Only Way Is Essex and they are just awful. They promote materialism and that you have to have a certain bag or £200 hair extensions to make it in life. People judge you by what you have. But I say, go at your own pace and don't follow the crowd. I shop in Aldi now and I'm not ashamed by that. Just be yourself and be happy with what you have got. That's not to say don't be aspirational but don't always think 'me me me'."
As well as Avon, Yogeeta has just penned her first book and begun a career in public speaking.
"I only really started speaking about my story last year. Until then, I did feel shame and I didn't speak about it," she says. "But I didn't realise the impact it would have. Once you share it, you realise there is nothing to be ashamed of. There are others out there in that same situation. And if there is one person in that situation that I can help by telling my story then it's worth it."
Her future plans include more writing, more public speaking and roles as a debt advisor/life coach. She would also like to see changes made to the education system to stop others from making the same mistakes.
"People are naive, they don't always understand what they are getting themselves into. I mean, I got my first credit card because there was a goldfish on the front and I thought it looked nice. I also liked the power I felt when I walked into a shop with it, I almost didn't treat it as cash. I think education is vital. We need to give kids proper life skills. I think money management should be on the curriculum. We need to teach children about things like APR, interest rates and mortgages.
"But it's a two-way thing. I would like to see the lenders also be a little more careful and responsible but I don't think they care. After all, a bank is a business. It's there to make money and if they can offer a £200,000 mortgage or a credit card to make money, then they will. But I mainly believe in self responsibility," she says.
These days, life couldn't be more different for Yogeeta from the dark days of her debt problems. But, despite it all, would she do anything different?
"People always say they wouldn't change things but you know what, I would," she concludes. "If I could do it all again I probably would have gone to uni, listened more to my mum and got on the property ladder when I was in my early 20s.
"But I would still be in the business world. I always knew I didn't want a 9-5 office job. This was still the path I would have followed but I would have listened more on the way and not follow the crowd. Just be yourself and believe in your gut instinct – that is the best advice I could give anyone."
By Elizabeth Joyce
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