M$M 004: How To Make Money Being A Mystery Shopper (Plus A Challenge)


fincon14This edition of Make Money Monday is by Mel who blogs at brokeGIRLrich where she explores topics like how to not totally panic over adulthood, working in the arts and retirement strategies that don’t involve living in a cardboard box under an overpass.

I don’t know if any of you out there in the personal finance field are aware, but there’s this little event coming up in September called FinCon ’14 that will be the mother of all fun a real nifty gathering of bloggers intent on better learning how to spread the good words of financial freedom to the people of the internet.

Honestly, I don’t know if it will be the mother all fun, but I’m hoping. Also, I am extremely excited about going to New Orleans. Problem is, it’s a little pricey. Because I was super on top of buying my ticket, admission only cost $205, but there’s still the little problem of airfare, a hotel and food. Oh, and did I mention it’s New Orleans? I’m going to have to listen to jazz and drink at some point too.

This all adds up, but I like to think that as a personal finance blogger, even a baby one like me, I’m not going to let a little speed bump stop me in pursuit of the bigger picture. So I dreamed up the “Side Hustle Your Way to FinCon” competition and if you’re headed to FinCon, you should totally sign up too.

Because you could win a free dinner. That’s right ladies and gentlemen, could it get any more exciting? The idea is that you just add your name to the spreadsheet and start tracking your side hustle income. The first person to $1500 is the winner and all the losers chip in to pick up the tab for their dinner one evening. As you can see, we’re off to a slow start, so you definitely won’t be far behind if you sign up now.

So, if you’re interested, sign up, check out the rest of Brent’s Make Money Mondays series, his post over at Budgets are $exy where he side hustled his way to $10,000 (!),  and get on it!

That leads us into today’s post. For the past three months I’ve been working my side hustles. I’ve definitely noticed that I’ve got two main sources of outside income and they are very turtle and the hare-like. I wrote a few weeks ago about doing prop building work and whenever I can pick up a little of that, my income seems to take a nice jump, but most of the time, I plod along, turtle like, with mystery shopping.

Disclaimer: You will probably not make millions as a mystery shopper.

Mystery shopping is ideal for people in urban and suburban areas. There don’t seem to be many opportunities for you rural folks out there unless you head into bigger towns regularly.

To really make the most of mystery shopping, I’ve found there are two methods that work best. The first method is just to check and see what’s nearby when you’re already planning to be out running errands and pick up those tasks. The second method is to just take a day, find the best paying ones and go for it.

So where can you even find these opportunities?

The four companies I shop with are:

I started by signing up with Sinclair Customer Metrics and I still get the most offers from them. The most common shop I do with them pays $7-15 and usually requires going into a store and purchasing a small item. Often, the $15 jobs require me to go back to the store an hour later and return the item.

To sign up, I simply filled out the form on the website and started getting offers the next day. Once you select a company that you want to shop for, you have to read a summary of the rules regarding what they want you to do and take a test. This takes 30-45 minutes; however, once you’ve taken the test once for a company, you don’t have to take it again.

For example, the first test I took was the Auntie Anne’s test. Since then, I’ve mystery shopped Auntie Anne’s at least a dozen times, but I never had to take the whole test again.

Sinclair Customer Metrics definitely seems to have the most intense briefing system of all the companies, but I also felt prepared for my first mystery shop after going through it.

Market Force has a regular mystery shopping option, but they also do a lot with movie theaters. While it’s the same as a regular mystery shop – they give you a task and you go in undercover and complete it (from checking what trailers are playing to counting the people in the lobby), you also get to see a movie for free.

Bestmark had the highest paying offers, but they often involve getting your oil changed in a specific type of car (and unfortunately, Toyota never seems to be the make they’re looking for). They do offer retail shops as well, which are also among the higher paid (they usually start at $15).

What does it take to be a mystery shopper?

You want to have a good eye for detail. Each shop will come with a list of questions the company wants answered – from the cashier’s name to whether or not samples were offered to how loud the music was in the store, you need to be able to remember all these things. You’re not so mysterious if you walk in with a clipboard and blatantly take notes!

On the plus side, smartphones do make this a little easier. I often keep my list of questions open in the Notepad app and just make it look like I’m texting while I walk around the store.

You also need to be comfortable with a little fibbing. You’re often asked to pretend you’re buying something for a specific reason – you need to go to a baby shower, you’re furnishing a new apartment, etc. Good salespeople are going to ask you questions about these events, so you need to have the answers ready!

I actually have a best friend who is featured in all my imaginary tales. Little does Michelle know that she has anywhere between one and six children (depending on the mystery shop), been married repeatedly and moves to a new apartment on a monthly basis. She also has a five year old daughter that’s feeling a little left out with the new kid on the way… that’s why after spending 20 minutes talking to a Pottery Barn kids employee about what the perfect gift for a baby shower would be, I’m only picking up a $3 set of bookmarks.

Once you’ve completed all the tasks, you head home, log onto the company website and answer their questionnaire. You also upload a picture of any receipts you obtained during your visit too. If there are any issues with your answer, you’ll usually be contacted within 24 hours asking for clarification, if not, you’re done.

Most companies pay for all of your shops and any reimbursements at the end of the month following your mystery shop. So if you go buy a pretzel at Auntie Anne’s on February 13, you’ll get your money for the shop and the reimbursement for the pretzel in a check around March 31st.

Because of the payment delay, mystery shopping money always feels like “found” money to me. I’ve usually already forgotten about the cost of any purchase I had to make, so the payout seems even higher than expected. Additionally, a few of those purchases I had to make did double nicely as gifts for people who just had a baby, moved into a new apartment, etc.

A final warning to any of you interested in mystery shopping. A lot of companies will offer to “certify” you or ask for money to become a mystery shopper. Those companies are scams! You can absolutely start mystery shopping for free.

There is one company called Mystery Shopping Providers Association that offers the MSPA Certification. This certification is legitimate and I have heard a few other mystery shoppers say it helped them to get higher paying gigs; however, I have not experienced this, so take the course at your own risk.

Honestly, I’d just give it a complete pass, sign up for the free websites and start side hustling that way!

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  1. says

    I’ve used BestMark for a year now but switched over to mobile. Find it easier with building Phroogal to do shops in areas I’m already in. Check out Gigwalk, Field Agent and Mobee mobile apps.

  2. says

    Thanks for this awesome breakdown Mel! My husband is currently dabbling in being a mystery shopper to fill any down time he has as a personal chef. I showed him your article and he found it really helpful. He already signed up for two of the websites you listed, but is checking out the other two. He also really appreciates the mention about the certification because he wasn’t sure if that was legit or not. Really appreciate you taking the time to share your experience!

    • says

      Good luck to him! I remember my first mystery shop I felt almost nauseous that I would forget all the things I had to check for or that the cashier would figure me out somehow. It definitely gets easier the more you do it.

  3. Mark says

    So cool. I’m going to become a mystery shopper. This sounds like a great way to make money and also have fun. Awesome post!

  4. says

    I mystery shopped for about a year. Of the companies you listed above the only one I worked with was Bestmark. I think I just got burnt out on it. No matter how I hard I tried to sign up for jobs that would accommodate my schedule I would end up with zero jobs one day and ten the next all in different areas of town. After my car needed major work I decided all the extra mileage was not worth the $5 Hardees sandwich. Or the stress of having to make up data when my stop watch wouldn’t work or I forgot to notice how tall someone was – I’m 5’1″ – so everyone seems tall to me – then having to stay up late submitting my reports which had a ridiculously tight deadline. On the positive side I did make more than I do blogging and I did get to try some fun restaurants I wouldn’t normally have visited.

    • says

      You’re definitely right about it being difficult to balance sometimes. I also hate when I sign up for a shop and realize it has a return aspect, so you have to figure out how to kill at least an hour wandering around near the shop till you can go make the return. Williams-Sonoma is pretty infamous for that one.

  5. says

    I have a love/hate relationship with Mystery Shopping. It’s a slow way to earn extra cash, but sometimes a nice perk to get paid for going shopping. Thanks for the links!

  6. says

    I used to do this. In the end, it’s not a great way to make much money. But it’s a great way to have experiences for free (and make a little money). Of course, I have problems with fatigue, so that kept me from doing a ton of shops.

    Still, mystery shopping helped my husband and I go out. Plenty of restaurant shops, hotel stays, visits to Gameworks and even a small amusement park. Twice I got to go to a small casino in the area (reimbursed up to $100 of losses) and once we went to Ruth Chris.

    My favorite resource was Volition. It has a ridiculously thorough list of companies with brief overviews.

  7. says

    Oops, forgot to say: They do feed you at FinCon. Brings snacks for the room, and you may still want a meal or two out. But your food expenses are mainly covered. And at the functions you generally get two drink tickets, good for soda or booze. So that’ll help cut your costs.

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