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This 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!

See The List of 15 Things I’ve Sold To Make Money. #12 Had A 600% Return on Investment.
None of these were "big ideas" but I made money from ALL of them and so can you.