Weird Ways to Make Money: Mystery Shopping

Woman's legs, hands with lots of shopping bags.
Photo by gpointstudio / Shutterstock.com

Back in the early days of my marriage – the “we’ve got $50 to buy groceries for a month” days – I got tired of always being so darn broke. I tried everything from taking surveys (more on that in a future article) to selling on eBay to make extra cash, but the thing that made me the most money was mystery shopping.

For nearly six years, I worked as a mystery shopper. My job had me timing how long it would take to get a burger in the drive-thru and pretending I was deeply interested in buying a Prius, among other things. It was a consistent, reliable way to supplement our income. It could also be a lot of work for not a lot of pay.

If you’re interested in becoming a secret shopper extraordinaire, keep reading for all the basics to get started.

5 things to know about mystery shopping

There’s more to be said about mystery shopping than could possibly be put into one article. However, here are the five most essential things you should know.

You can’t just shop anywhere for anything: Mystery shoppers don’t wake up in the morning, decide to go grocery shopping and expect to get paid. No, mystery shoppers are assigned very specific scenarios that often dictate what they buy and, sometimes, even what they say. You may love the #3 meal at the fast food joint, but the mystery shopping company might insist you buy the #1 meal. At retail stores, you may be required to buy something and then turn right around and return it.

Client names are closely guarded secrets: Or at least, they’re supposed to be. This is a competitive business with mystery shopping companies always wary of other firms poaching their clients. Shoppers are strictly forbidden from sharing client details. Don’t expect to pop onto a message board to ask who shops Kroger or whatever other store you love and get a straight answer.

You need to be a decent writer: One aspect of mystery shopping that surprised me was the amount of writing involved. Many shopping assignments — “shops” for short — require a narrative of your experience, describing exactly what you saw and what was said. When I exited the secret shopper world, some companies were replacing narratives with videotaped shopping missions. However, it’s my understanding that narratives remain the mainstay in the industry.

Accurate record-keeping and timing is critical: If you want to be a mystery shopper, you need to have attention to detail. Some shops require to-the-second timing of how long you spent in line, how long before you were greeted and how long it took for service to begin. At some stores, worker bonuses – or even their jobs – might depend on your getting the timing right and accurately relaying other information.

You won’t get rich: While mystery shopping is a nice way to make extra money, no one is going to retire early this way. The most expensive shop I ever completed was for a high-end steakhouse that reimbursed $150 for a meal (note: we had to float that money for a month before getting paid), and the cheapest shops I did were $5 phone calls requiring little to no narrative. In my experience, $12-$15 was the norm for a shop, and if one paid $25 or more, you felt lucky. I eventually quit mystery shopping when gas prices hit $4 a gallon in our area. At that point, it didn’t make much sense to drive across town for $10.

Where to find mystery shopping jobs

So let’s assume you’re still interested in pursuing mystery shopping. You’re next question is probably: Where do I find all these amazing shopping opportunities?

Here are the two starting places I recommend:

Volition: Yes, this site looks totally Web 1.0, but Volition is a great source of information. To get started, I clicked on the mystery shopping company list and applied to them one by one. The forum is also an invaluable place to learn more from the pros. That said, I recommend newbies read rather than post on the forum. There are strict posting rules and very little compassion for those who break them.

MSPA –North America: Formerly known as the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, this is the industry group for secret shopper companies. If you’re really serious about mystery shopping, you can be certified by the MSPA, a process that has the potential to open the door to more lucrative jobs. Even if you’re not certified, you can visit the site to find a list of member companies.

Avoid mystery shopping scams

Finally, we can’t have a discussion about mystery shopping without talking about scams.

If a shopping company says they are sending a check and ask you to cash it so you can send a portion of the money to someone else, it’s a scam.

Anytime someone says you need to cash a check and wire money, giant red flags should be waving in your head. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mystery shopping company or your distant aunt in Nairobi: If someone sends you a check to cash, it’s a scam!

With that out of the way, there are some occasions when it might cost you money to mystery shop:

  • There is a fee for MSPA certification.
  • Some companies may require you purchase certain equipment, such as thermometers, scales or video recording devices.
  • You may need to make a purchase as part of the shop and wait for reimbursement.
  • Some shops require purchases that are not reimbursed.

No legitimate company will ask you to pay a fee as part of their application process, however. What’s more, no legitimate company will send you a random email out of the blue offering a princely sum to mystery shop for them.

Once you start applying for companies and see what their job offer emails look like, you’ll quickly be able to spot the fakes. The real players will have a website where you can sign up for the job and view the details.

If you ever have a doubt about whether a company is on the up and up, check to see if it’s a MSPA member or search for the company on the Volition forums. And never, ever, respond to an email with your personal information unless it’s a scheduler or company you’re familiar with.

So who’s going to give it a go? Let us know if mystery shopping is in your future by leaving a comment below or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
Avoiding These 5 Foods Could Save Your Vision as You Age
Avoiding These 5 Foods Could Save Your Vision as You Age

Millions of Americans may be able to prevent an incurable cause of blindness by making a basic change.

How Much of My Social Security Benefit Can My Ex Take From Me?
How Much of My Social Security Benefit Can My Ex Take From Me?

A man wonders if his ex-wife will siphon away his Social Security benefit.

Never Put These 8 Things in a Microwave Oven
Never Put These 8 Things in a Microwave Oven

A microwave can be a busy cook’s best friend. But heating certain things in a microwave can cause disaster.

70% of Older Adults Botch This Basic Retirement Question
70% of Older Adults Botch This Basic Retirement Question

Can you answer this fundamental retirement income question?

9 Affordable Ways to Make Your Home Look Expensive
9 Affordable Ways to Make Your Home Look Expensive

These products from Amazon add elegance to your home without the expense.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
9 Mistakes Everyone Makes When Shopping on Amazon
9 Mistakes Everyone Makes When Shopping on Amazon

Are you losing money due to any of these missteps?

Can a Divorced Widow Claim Her First Husband’s Social Security Benefits?
Can a Divorced Widow Claim Her First Husband’s Social Security Benefits?

The rules are complicated when it comes to eligibility for survivors benefits.

Can a Twice-Divorced Woman Claim Social Security Survivors Benefits?
Can a Twice-Divorced Woman Claim Social Security Survivors Benefits?

Understanding survivors benefits rules is the key to getting the most from your benefit.

10 Things I Always Buy at Trader Joe’s
10 Things I Always Buy at Trader Joe’s

From snacks to sweets to side dishes, stock your cart with these time-tested favorites on your next TJ’s run.

9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again
9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again

The warehouse store offers an enormous selection, but these products aren’t coming back.

5 Ways Social Security Will Change in 2021
5 Ways Social Security Will Change in 2021

These adjustments will affect both workers and retirees in the new year.

11 ‘Disposable’ Items You Should Be Reusing
These Are the 10 Worst Cars for Depreciation
These Are the 10 Worst Cars for Depreciation

Two types of vehicles are especially likely to see steep plunges in value.

8 Things You Should Buy at Restaurant Supply Stores
8 Things You Should Buy at Restaurant Supply Stores

You don’t have to be a chef or a restaurant owner to shop here.

15 Free Streaming Services to Watch While Stuck at Home
15 Free Streaming Services to Watch While Stuck at Home

These free movie streaming sites offer thousands of movies and TV shows, including recent releases and beloved classics. If you love free movies, online sites are where you need to look for the best list of features that are just one easy click away.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree
19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree

There are easy high-paying majors available in the U.S. — and no bachelor’s degree is required. We’re here to help you find easy degrees that pay well.

Stop Buying These 19 Things Online
Stop Buying These 19 Things Online

The internet has changed how we shop. But for some things, you’re still better off buying the old-fashioned way.

Cut These 11 Expenses Now If You Hope to Retire Early
Cut These 11 Expenses Now If You Hope to Retire Early

Like the idea of financial independence? Part of the FIRE equation is cutting costs.

27 Things You Should Never Pay For — and How to Get Them for Free
27 Things You Should Never Pay For — and How to Get Them for Free

When you know the tricks, you can save big on all kinds of useful things that others pay for.

4 Tax Credits That Will Be More Generous in 2021
4 Tax Credits That Will Be More Generous in 2021

If you are eligible for these tax breaks, they will slash your federal income tax bill — dollar for dollar.

7 Reasons to Carry Mortgage Debt Into Retirement
7 Reasons to Carry Mortgage Debt Into Retirement

It often makes financial sense to not pay off your mortgage before retiring.

These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020
These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020

Medicare Advantage customers themselves rate these plans highest.

5 Secrets of Seniors Who Keep Their Minds ‘Young’
5 Secrets of Seniors Who Keep Their Minds ‘Young’

Here is why some seniors’ brains work as well as those of people who are decades younger.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.