Saturday, January 9

Sanity Savers IV: Mystery shopping

This "Sanity Savers" series is designed to explore the many ways that we frugalites avoid feeling deprived while we save up and pay down debt.

For me, one of the best ways to get out on a budget is mystery shopping. By and large, these shops don't pay much. However, you can get reimbursed for a night out with a friend or partner. I've gotten free meals, movies, gaming centers and even stays in hotels.

But maybe you don't feel like giving up potential debt snowflakes for a night of fun. You could argue that the money is better served going to debt now, rather than wait one to two months for reimbursement -- which could then go to debt.

Mystery shopping can still be for you. You can get a lot of normal, necessary expenses partially (or fully) reimbursed. You can also get normal expenses reimbursed. There are oil change shops, vision shops (up to $100 off), vet visits and plenty others.

The one caveat here -- as always -- is that you have to be willing to fork over the cash upfront. It will take 1-2 months to get the money back. (Most companies process payments on the last day of the month following the one in which you shop. The one exception I've found: hotels. You use a credit card, and the charges are reversed once your shop form has been reviewed and accepted.) And if you don't adhere to the rules, there is the risk of not being reimbursed at all.

It's not hard, though, to be sure you get your money back. I've always gotten reimbursed. The important part is simply reading through the requirements several times to be sure you don't miss anything.

So how do you do get started? I have two simple rules:

  1. Never, EVER, pay for mystery shopping information.
  2. Go to

Volition is a terrific site for anyone interested in extra income. It has information on paid emails, paid surfing and, of course, mystery shopping. There is an extensive list -- so extensive, in fact, that it has to be broken into several sections.

But that's not the only resource. There's a board for up-and-coming shops. You can even search by geographic area, so you don't have to wade through listings that are too far away. And there's even a forum, where people report on their experiences with various companies. This is a great way to get a feel for which organizations you want to work with.

Before you start to fill out applications, though, sit down and write about your most recent shopping experience. Most applications ask for a writing sample, and so you can cut and paste that sample into each profile you fill out. Be sure to mention things like eye contact, smiling, greeting, etc. Most companies provide a sample, so that you can get a feel for the overall style of what they are looking for.

Have you ever mystery shopped before? What was your experience? Any fun shops you've gotten?


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