My Life as a Mystery Shopper

Note: This post is the first in a new series of guest posts titled ‘My Life as a Mystery Shopper.’  Each featuring the real world story of a mystery shopper, told in their own words.

Hi. I’m Little Miss Moneybags, and I’m a mystery shopper.

I was interested in mystery shopping long before I was actually able to do it. I went to boarding school in high school and I didn’t have a car, but a friend of mine was mystery shopping at Blockbuster and would get free movies for me to watch on the weekends. I thought that was the coolest job I could think of. I liked the idea of getting paid to go shopping, free stuff, and frankly, the intrigue of pretending to be something I wasn’t (a normal customer) and the thrill of not getting caught.

A few years later, I was underemployed in an internship that didn’t quite cover my rent, much less anything else. I thought I’d give mystery shopping a shot. I was in a huge metropolitan area with lots of chain stores and restaurants, and just took a quick look to see what was available. I was soon hooked. Mystery shopping allowed me to supplement my income a LOT — to the tune of a couple hundred dollars a month after taxes, which made a big difference. I could set my own hours and pick the types of shops I wanted to do. Since my income was very limited, I didn’t do any reimbursement-based shops, just shops that paid a flat fee of around $10. I could do three in a day within walking distance of my apartment and would do that a few times a week.

When I got a “real” job with regular hours and a regular paycheck, I continued mystery shopping for fun (and profit!). I upgraded to better restaurant shops that required a cash outlay but reimbursed me and sometimes also paid a shop fee. Some of my friends made fun of my hobby until I took them along for a free meal that I got paid to eat. Many more friends were interested, so I wrote up an email for them that eventually became my post Mystery Shopping: A Field Guide.

I was a hard-core mystery shopper for four years. I did about eight shops per week, and even went to a few seminars about mystery shopping. (I never did get a MSPA certification, but I looked into it.) I got a lot more savvy about doing reimbursement-based shops to lower my tax liability. At the same time, I started getting pickier about the shops I’d accept — I wouldn’t go out of my way for a shop anymore. If it wasn’t really close to somewhere I was already going, I wouldn’t do it. I picked up some higher-end shops, including spa shops, health club shops, fine dining shops.

In the last year or so, I scaled back on mystery shopping a lot. I’ve in grad school and was writing my thesis during most of 2010. I planned a destination wedding. I started making what felt like a living wage (not to mention officially being part of a two-income household with my fiance). I also had a couple of less-than-stellar mystery shopping experiences — nothing terrible, just the realization that the meal I’d gotten paid to eat wasn’t that good and wasn’t worth the time I’d spent to do the report. The same company assigning those shops became rather cagey about paying, and I had to fight with them for every reimbursement and shop fee. I suddenly had more money than time, and with it, the desire to cut back on this side income stream.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about picking it back up again. I kind of miss the free stuff, the always-flush Paypal account, and yes, the rush. I resubscribed to a couple of companies whose shops I always liked, and have been waiting to see if something comes up that’s close by and sounds fun.

This is exactly one of the reasons I like mystery shopping. Shoppers completely set their own hours. You can supplement your income with cash money, or have almost no tax liability but get free restaurant meals every week. You can pick it up and set it down whenever you need to, depending on your life situation. I don’t think I’ll ever go back into hard-core shopper mode, but I expect I’ll continue flirting with mystery shopping indefinitely. It’ll be especially fun to see what kind of shops I get offered when I enter the mom demographic in a few years!

Little Miss Money Bags is a twenty something woman living in New York. She shares her thoughts on money and life on her blog, titled Little Miss Money Bags.