“I used to be known as the coupon lady,” says Lauren Cobello, 43, who commanded $5,000 per YouTube video as a personal finance influencer. “I was a regular on the Today show and Good Morning America, I was blogging, working with newspapers. I had no financial background but I’d got my family out of $40,000 debt by couponing and budgeting and people wanted to know how I did it.”

Friends invited her to church groups and seminars to share her financial wisdom. From there, she was invited on local TV, and influencing followed. By 2016, she was a mother of four posting several times a day; she employed two staff, had written three books under her married name, Lauren Greutman, and launched a family budgeting podcast with her then husband, Mark.

“Life revolved around it. I was engrossed. The last Sunday of every month was ‘budget night’ where I’d share everything I’d spent in a Facebook Live. It became a family thing, too. The kids were in my YouTube videos, I did family finance videos and I’d lay out all my groceries on the table, take a picture and break down costs. My kids thought that was normal. It became my image, who I was, and it was very hard to detach.”

Lauren Cobello grappling with budgets on Instagram. Photograph: Instagram/@lauren_cobello

When her marriage fell apart in 2017, her financial view changed. “Our divorce felt quite public, but after our split and financial settlement, I was so in debt I didn’t want to talk about my finances any more,” she says. “I was offering all this great advice, and behind the scenes I wasn’t heeding it. I was a single mom providing for four kids. Everything was falling apart and I felt trapped. I was sick of budgeting and talking about it, and I didn’t want to do another TikTok because I didn’t care any more.”

She continued posting to her 350,000-plus social media followers until, last September, she made a decision to switch direction and go public with her debt, at a personal finance conference. “I spoke about what had been going on behind the scenes, and people were crying. I told them that, honestly, I wanted to kill myself but the only thing I was good at was being an influencer, being on TV and playing a role.”

I live within my means and have a good idea of what I spend, but I can breathe

Earlier this year, she came clean on Instagram, too. “It was very hard to post that video. I got a lot of amazing comments from people who had followed me for a while. After all, I’d provided amazing advice, but I didn’t want to be the one giving it any more. I was scared about hanging up that hat, but I wasn’t scared about what people would say or think about me.”

She announced that her content would focus on her new business, a PR agency for authors, posting about her clients instead of herself. “My followers were surprised, but I didn’t lose them,” she says from New York. Offline, she is out of debt but no longer budgeting.

“I’m a totally different person than I was five years ago,” she says. “I don’t even set a budget. I break all the ‘rules’. I sold my house and I’m renting, because that finally lifted me out of debt. I’m leasing a car because I’m a single mom and I don’t want to have to fix anything. I get groceries delivered, have someone do my laundry and have a house cleaner, all of which I would have felt guilt about. I live within my means and have a good idea of what I spend, but I can breathe. And I spend money on things that bring me joy, like getting my nails done and going away with my kids.”

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Before she switched, Cobello earned $1,500 for an Instagram reel and $2,500 per YouTube video. Now, she runs a business employing five people instead. “I felt I was stuck in this frugal mom role, like there were two Laurens, and this whole past year has been about trying to mesh them back together. To this day people come up to me and ask how to do something with their budget. The truth is, I don’t care what kind of money you spend. That’s not my identity any more.”

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email [email protected] or [email protected]. In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on 988lifeline.org, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counsellor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org

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