Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mystery Shopping 102: How to Find Shops

See previous:

Mystery Shopping: A Field Guide
Mystery Shopping 102: What You Need to Get Started

First of all, avoid any company that contacts YOU out of the blue, or advertises in slick flash ads. They might be legitimate, they might not be—but there are so many legitimate companies, you don’t need to find out.

Whatever you do, do not just type in "mystery shopping" into Google and enter your personal information into all the sites that pop up. You're asking to get scammed! A great way to find legitimate companies is to go to Volition.com's mystery shopping forums. If you find a company on the web that looks legitimate but you’re not sure, do a search or ask on Volition's forum--if someone else works for them, you'll get an answer pretty quick. Volition also provides a comprehensive list of legitimate companies.

When you’re registering with the companies, it’s a good idea to use Google Toolbar or a product like Roboform to help you keep your sanity as you fill out the same information over and over again. You’re asked for your contact information, demographic information, often a writing sample or two (save these in a word document and copy and paste them to save time), and frequently your social security number. These companies use encrypted software so it’s safe to send your SS# to them—and yes, you need to do so. They’re paying you to do work for them; it’s taxable income and they will report it. If you’re signing up with legitimate companies, your information is safe. (And you should be checking your credit report regularly anyway, so if something DID go wrong, you’d catch it).

When I get the registration email, I immediately set up a Gmail filter to catch all the emails I get from that point forward. This is also an easy way to figure out what my username and password is for the companies, since they’re often contained in that welcome email.

Once you're registered, the companies will email you shops in your area. Frequently, these shops are "self-assign", so by visiting the website and accepting the shop, you automatically get it. Other times, you will have to email a scheduler or apply and then wait to find out if you've been assigned the shop. Some companies will email to alert that there are shops available on their websites, which means you need to follow links and log in and search yourself. This is a bit of a hassle, but I'll do it for companies who have shops I know I like doing. Likewise, you can log into any companies site at any time regardless of whether you've received an email, to see what shops are available. It seems like most companies post new shops close to the end of the month. Since I'm registered with more than fifty companies, you could guess that I don't do this very often.

Another way to find shops is to search the job board at Volition.com. If I'm registered with the companies that are posting these shops, I've usually already been alerted to them, but I've found a few companies I was not registered with through this page. (This is basically a page where shops go to die, I think--there's a reason they haven't been assigned to the shoppers in a company's database. They pay badly, they're difficult to complete, they're in a remote or difficult area [like past airport security] or the company is somehow shady. Still, I've found legitimate companies to register with through this page, so I don't discount it.)

A word on scheduling companies. There are two major scheduling companies, Sassie and Prophet. These companies do not assign or pay for shops; they are merely scheduling software for other companies. Many of the registration links you follow will look identical, but they are not. If you are trying to register for a company that already has you in its database, they’ll let you know, so don’t worry about it looking the same.

As you receive shops, either by self-assigning or applying and being assigned by a scheduler, you'll need to keep track of a number of things: date, shop number, payment and reimbursement amounts, date and amount of final payment, confirmation numbers, and any other relevant information. It's very important to keep your own records, both for tax purposes and in case there's a discrepancy with the company about how much you should be paid. I do this in a spreadsheet, which I'll talk about in the next installment of Mystery Shopping 102.

Part 3: Completing the Shop, Submitting Paperwork, and Getting Paid

September Update/October Goals

September goals:
1. Spend less on food! Oh, snap. I was all over this like white on rice—last month I spent $425 alone ($785 combined with Peanut) and this month I spent $212 ($443 combined). We did this by eating out less (mostly only if it was a mystery shop and therefore reimbursed), taking our lunches to work every day but one, and finding some new cheap meals to make. We basically turned it into a game, so we won!

2. Extra cash, again. Ummm…well, I did quite a few mystery shops which I am just now getting reimbursed for. I settled up the dance account although I haven’t been paid for it. I did stash away some extra money in the Lasik fund, and I’m keeping my eyes open for ways to earn more cash all the time.

3. Christmas shopping. Nope…I didn’t do any. I also didn’t buy baby gifts for my two (very) pregnant friends and one who is definitely pregnant but not at the point that you’d say “WOW, she’s going to pop!” Need to revisit.

4. Start taking back my time. I think I did better. I’m not guilting myself over skipping dance class anymore. I just can’t do it on nights that I have school, and that’s ok—I have to set priorities. I also got way caught up on my reading last weekend, so I don’t feel pressure there.

5. Up the ante at work. Doing better. I want to keep focusing on this, and not just because my review is coming up. School came easy for me so I am not accustomed to pushing myself very hard and when things are easy I find myself procrastinating the projects I don’t like. I’m working on this.

October goals:
1. Again, spend less on food. I would like to beat September’s spending and keep it at or below $200 for the month (my share). One way I might be able to do this is to start eating breakfast at home a day or two each week. In addition to my daily bagel at my desk being a bit unprofessional, I could probably stand to eat a little better (oatmeal, fruit, etc), and I’d save $.75 each day. It’s just the getting up earlier that I don’t like!

2. Christmas gifts. No excuses—I need to do this. It will be hanging over my head, and I need to be focused on school (projects and studying) in November. I’m aiming to get at least 50% of the shopping for my long-distance family and friends done in October. Actually, I need to add to that gifts for my pregnant friends as well as Peanut’s birthday and my mom’s birthday.

3. Do some paperwork decluttering. I started a folder for electrolysis pricing and research this weekend, and discovered that I still have paperwork from my legal battle with my apartment’s management company—from two apartments ago. Granted, this happened just over a year ago, but I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say I’m not going to need any of this documentation anymore. And I’m positive there are other files I can weed out, particularly mystery shopping and medical insurance. Peanut is going out of town for several days at the end of the month; I plan to tackle the project then.

4. Start thinking about MY Christmas list. Peanut asked me what I wanted and I thought about it and I’m not sure yet. This is our first gift-giving holiday (well, his birthday comes first, but I’ll worry about that at another time) so it’s fraught with stress—and while it feels weird to ask for things, many people appreciate it when you can point them to a list. Last year I asked my mom for inexpensive things that I like but don’t buy for myself, like Dr. Bronner’s magic soaps, and I got a slew of nice-smelling things that have made me happy all year long.

5. Spend a little money on things I’ve been putting off. I need to take two pairs of shoes to the cobbler. I need to take a pair of pants to the dry cleaner. They’re not big expenses but they’re easy to keep avoiding. And now they’re hanging over my head and irritating me.

Monday, September 29, 2008

End of the month--already?

Last Thursday, I lamented that I had to buy lunch and dinner but it ended up not being too bad. Lunch was less than $5 (Subway) and dinner wound up being free-ish--my friend (who makes quite a bit more than me and lives at home) picked up the bill and I picked up the tip, so spent only about $15 (I also paid for my drink at a happy hour going-away party).

I also talked myself out of going for sushi this weekend, on the premise that a) it would have been a bit disloyal to Peanut (he loves this place too, and was not able to go) and b) I'd have to report it in the spreadsheet and we're doing so well. We will finish the month at under $450 combined; last month, if you remember, we spent $785. I'm quite sure we can do better than this (I'm thinking between $250-300 if we do a little more meal planning and shop in bulk instead of swinging by the grocery store every night).

Tonight I might have to buy dinner--I have no school class due to Rosh Hoshanna so I'll want to make dance class, which means I don't know if poptarts will cut it. Days that I have school I usually have a poptart or granola bar brought from home, and then when I get home around 9 eat some ramen with frozen veggies or a sandwich when I'm famished. But dance class is too physically demanding to handle this way and I don't think I'll have time to run home and then come back. If I do end up eating out, I'll keep it under $5, which is all the cash I have on me until payday tomorrow.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

no tupperware thursday

I had to buy lunch today.

It's been a very hectic week and yesterday was my longest day--I simply don't have portable food in the house, so I will be buying lunch today. Worse, I am having dinner with a friend tonight, so I'll be buying dinner too.

And I was doing so well!

Combined, Peanut and I have spent $300 less this month compared to the same time last month. That kind of progress is hard to give up by buying meals! But I'm remind myself that, hey--I've spent nearly $200 less this month so far, I can afford to get a cheap (less than $5) lunch and a reasonable (less than $20 dinner) today. I don't want to use the excuse to go crazy the rest of the month, but for today, I'm not going to beat myself up over it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mystery Shopping 102: What You Need to Get Started

This is going to take several posts to cover, but I'm doing an in-depth study of what it takes to be a good, consistent mystery shopper earning several thousand dollars a year plus reimbursements. If you're interested in getting started with mystery shopping, this may seem like a lot of information, but mystery shopping is not worth it unless you plan to stick with it. It takes too long to be reimbursed and the fees are not high, but if you live in a large metro area and do shops that are only convenient to you (ie, places you would be shopping or eating anyway, or which are only a block or two out of your way), it can be a rewarding and fun way to bring in some extra cash. All it takes is some organization, dedication and consistency.

A Caveat:
If this is too much information or you're not sure if you'd like mystery shopping, sign up with one company that's active in your area and do a few shops to see if it's something you'd like to stick with. Also, check out my post Mystery Shopping: A Field Guide. If you want to make it a real part-time side gig, follow the advice below.

What you need
You do need some equipment. A time piece is important--a watch or a cell phone--because timing is one of the most important aspects of mystery shopping. Many shops require digital timing (hour:minute:second) so I just use that feature on my cell phone.

You should also have regular access to email and internet since shops need to be uploaded the same day they are completed. A digital camera or scanner (I just use my camera) is helpful for capturing a digital image of a receipt for uploading with your report--some companies only accept digital receipt images. Access to a fax machine is helpful but not required if you can digitally upload images. I also buy a box of envelopes and a roll of stamps two or three times a year only for mystery shopping (tax deduction!), since I work with a few companies that require I mail the physical receipt in.

Most shops that require additional equipment--a thermometer, a scale, video equipment--will provide it for you (you will need to post a deposit, or have it taken out of one of your checks--this is not paying for a shop, it's a deposit that you will get back when you return the equipment). Some shops do require photos of the location be taken, so this is another benefit of having a digital camera (unfortunately, you cannot write the camera off on your taxes unless you use it solely for shopping).

Financial and Digital
You need a dedicated checking account and a Paypal account. I recommend opening a separate bank account for mystery shopping--get a free one with a debit card and use this card for mystery shop expenses to make it easier to keep track of things. I also use it to pay off mystery shops that go on my credit card, since sometimes a credit rather than debit purchase is required. A few companies offer payment via direct deposit, and that money goes into this account.

However, the majority of companies pay by Paypal, and I already had an account so I did not open up a separate one. Likewise, I use my personal gmail account for all mystery shopping offers, but I have my emails heavily filtered--I get hundreds of offers a day (no exaggeration!). All these emails skip the inbox and go straight into company-specific folders, which I check at my leisure. This way I don't miss more important emails from friends and family. Be aware that most companies have different email addresses for different offers, so I usually make a filter "@companyname.com" to catch all of them.

You need to keep good records for tax purposes. I'll get to taxes in a later post, but for now, any spreadsheet software and a file folder will get you started. I will also detail a mystery shopping calendar/payment/tax spreadsheet in a later post, but for now, make sure to keep track of the company name, shop numbers, payment/reimbursement agreed to, anything spent above that amount, and the payment date and check number, if applicable. Keep receipts and any printed paperwork in the folder.

What you don't need: MSPA certification. Yes, some companies might offer better shops or higher pay or other perks to certified shoppers. Yes, it's a legitimate certification in the industry. No, it's not required. I have been mystery shopping for over five years and I am not certified. The Silver Certification is a $15 online test, and the Gold Certification is either a conference (omg, so expensive) or a $106 DVD course. The costs are tax-deductible, but it's probably not something I would ever look into. I get plenty of shops (and plenty of "good" shops) without it. I don't know of a single situation in which I was turned down for a shop because of a lack of certification.

You also should not ever have to pay for shops. There are a lot of ways to find shop offers, which I'll detail in my next post, and there a lot of scams out there. Be smart and do research on the companies you're signing up with--don't give your SS# to a company that looks shady. Don't agree to do any kind of money-wiring shop (there is no such thing! No. Such. Thing!) ever under any circumstances. Stay away from shop fees and reimbursements that seem too good to be true.

In the next post, I'll detail how to determine which companies are legitimate, how to register with them, and how to start getting assigned to shops.

Part 2: How to Find Shops

I need to whine

wwwwwwhhhhyyyyyyyyyyyy me?

I'm soooooooooooooooooo busy.

Ok, enough with the whining. I'm busy because I'm employed. Yay! Not only that, I like my job. I'm busy because I'm in grad school, which I'm able to afford, and which I also enjoy. I'm busy because I mystery shop for fun and profit. I'm busy becaue I am well-rounded, and have hobbies that require an investment of time (dancing and reading for book club meetings). I am busy because I maintain relationships with friends and am working on building something special with someone special. I am busy because I'm awesome.

I'm just cranky because I sort of overbooked myself this week and on top of that, I'm having to take charge of a group project for my marketing class. I guess I didn't have to, but no one else is, and I do not have time to be stressed about it. I know that I'm organized and a good leader, and I don't want to wait around for someone else to take the initiative if that means I will be worried about whether people are going to get their acts together. I'd rather be thought of as pushy or bossy than lay awake at night worrying about it.

And for the record, since this is the first MBA class that I've taken--I'm not sure I can go after an MBA after all. I find the people in the class pretentious, irritating and exactly the type of person who goes after an MBA. And given my behavior regarding this group project...what does that make me?

Monday, September 22, 2008

An almost-cheap weekend

I had such a great, relaxing, and fun weekend I was disappointed to come to work this morning, and that's pretty rare since I like my job.

Peanut and I made biscuits and gravy on Saturday morning, which I'd been craving. That was the first time I've ever had turkey sausage--the first time I've ever had turkey anything, actually. (For new readers, I have been a vegetarian all my life and am slowly trying meat to see if I still want to be a vegetarian.) To my surprise, the turkey sausage tastes exactly like the Morningstar Farms fake sausage, and the gravy I made from scratch was not bad.

We ate at home for almost every meal, and I must confess, I'm getting a little sick of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We intended to make some other meals too, but got caught up in video games and never really went grocery shopping.

We also finally went to see The Dark Knight, in Imax--for $32! We enjoyed it but Peanut definitely thought it wasn't worth paying extra for Imax and I agree. Oh well--we had a lot of fun wandering through a street fair on the way to the theater and I restrained from buying a weird dress that I've been wanting. Knowing that all my extra money is going to Lasik really has me ignoring spending opportunities right and left.

I did laundry on Sunday, the first time since May that I didn't do it on a summer Friday afternoon, and I noticed something really disturbing--the big washers cost $4 a load. Sure, that's expensive...but I'm pretty sure that when I was doing laundry on Friday afternoons, those same washers were $2.75. Is it possible that the 'mat jacks up the price on the weekends, when more people have to do laundry? If so...if so, I'm really irritated by them. I have to drop off a pair of pants at the dry cleaners associated with them, so I'm going to make a point of doing that during the week and checking the cost of the washers then. If they DO raise the price on the weekends, I think I might complain to the management. That's pretty nasty of them. I probably wouldn't quit going there, though...it's by far the closest one to my apartment and they're open 24 hours, so I could do my laundry in the evenings at the cheaper price.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Rewards for doing well

Peanut and I have been diligent this week about bringing our lunches to work every day, and we get gold stars! Five days of homemade lunches means we are ok with going out to eat with his roommate tonight.

I know, I know--we said we weren't going out to eat unless it was a mystery shop. Oh, well--we're planning on it on purpose (planned since Wednesday) because his roommate is kind of having a rough time (long distance girlfriend) and Peanut hasn't spent much time with him lately, mostly because the roommate likes to go to semi-expensive restaurants and doesn't get the whole budgeting concept that we're working.

I'm looking forward to it--I've never been to this place before and have wanted to go, and I understand the food is great and the prices are very reasonable. Plus, I have had a hell of a week, and need something to drink!

2008 has been a year in which I'm trying to automate and digitize as much of my life as possible. That said, I still carry a check register around. Not a checkbook--I only write a few checks a month and don't want to risk losing it. Just a checkbook cover with two check registers in it, one for each bank account (personal and "business"--another personal account at a different bank to be used solely for mystery shopping and dance expenses). But it occurred to me this week that I could totally digitize those registers and have one less thing to carry around with me in hard copy. So I've been working on transferring the last month of expenses to spread sheets and saving them to my thumb drive. I'm also hoping to (this weekend) get a program or write a script or something that will automatically back up the sheets on my thumb drive to my laptop's hard drive every time I plug it in, so it will be almost like syncing my smartphone and computer. I'd put the spreadsheets on my smartphone, but they're too big and make the phone run other features sluggishly.

This weekend looks to be another frugal one--aside from our dinner out and a possible movie, we'll be cooking and eating in, playing video games, doing laundry/cleaning house, reading, and maybe free yoga in the park. I'd hoped to book a job this weekend, but that didn't happen--maybe next weekend.

Oh, I also booked Spa Week appointments already--for those of you in major metropolitan areas, you are CRAZY if you don't take advantage of these deals.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Auction Sniper

I don't usually post referral links, but I just found out about this one, and it's really something I can support.


I've been using Auction Sniper for a few years, and it's pretty much the only way I can stand to deal with eBay anymore. I just enter the item number of the thing I want to buy and the highest price I'm willing to pay, and the program attempts to make me the high bidder at the very last moment of the auction. I don't always win, because other people might snipe at a higher price or a closer interval, but it works about 50% of the time, and it's 100% more accurate than me trying to sit in at the last minute and outbid everyone else (mostly because I simply don't have TIME to be at the computer when an auction is ending).

So far, I have only used my free snipes, and if you click on the link above and sign up using me as a referral, I'll get more free snipes. You'll get free snipes for signing up too, and I think it's a great service (or I wouldn't suggest you sign up and ask that if you do, you give me free snipes). :)

Is the economy affecting me?

It seems like the recent fallout with Lehman Brothers and AIG (along with a 500-point dorp in the stock market this week) suddenly has individual personal finance bloggers getting scared. People who are already pretty frugal or at least actively manage their money are starting to be nervous.

Am I nervous? Have the events of this year (the price of gas, the stock market, the grocery shrink ray) affected my life?

Not really. I'm still keeping to a budget. I'm still sticking money into short term savings as well as retirement accounts (although those accounts are losing money each month). I'm not cutting down on purchases or cancelling plans due to finances.

It could appear that I'm reacting to the news. My friend and I were planning to go on a cruise this summer with our tax rebate, and we cancelled that--but it was because she had just moved and realized she needed to be a little more responsible with her money, and I was glad to support that. I would totally have gone if she'd wanted to; it's probably a great time to find deals because everyone else is cancelling their plans.

Peanut and I are making an active effort to do more grocery shopping instead of eating in restaurants. But that decision didn't evolve out of a discussion about the economy, it was more about what we were doing with our time and money. Without saying in so many words, our values place homecooked meals (including the time spent preparing them together) above eating in restaurants, but we weren't living our values. Now we are--and we're eating better, having fun cooking and packing lunches together, having more time to play computer games together, and also saving money, as a bonus.

The biggest areas of concern I have are for the future: the true cost of food is going to continue going up, so I will have to change my budget, and my landlord may decide to raise my rent in the face of rising energy costs--which might mean I'd have to move. I love my place, and moving is very expensive, but that's six months off and I can't worry about it now.

So I'm not really afraid of what's going on in the economy. I belive it's a correction that's overdue, and I believe that things will work themselves out. My job is stable and if the worst should happen, I have an emergency fund in cash and am willing to work in fast food or wherever I can find a job to bring in some income. My student loans will not be due for a while yet, and that's the only debt I have. My retirement accounts are not going to be touched for another 30 or 40 years, so they'll have time to recover from recent losses. All in all, the biggest change I've seen is that people are no longer looking askance at me for using coupons or paying cash or saving up for purchases like I've done all along.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

10 Things to Do Before 30

As borrowed from Fabulously Broke in the City

10 Things to Do Before 30

1. Get Lasik surgery. I'm aiming to do this next year and I'm actually about halfway there in terms of saving for it. The more I think about what it will be like to wake up and be able to SEE instead of needing glasses to find my glasses...geez, it makes me tear up. I've worn corrective lenses since I was about six (more than twenty years!) and I can't wear contacts anymore.

2. Get electrolysis (underarms and bikini line). This is a totally frivolous thing that I really want to do for myself. I'm planning to do this with part of the reimbursement money from Lasik. I have incredibly tender skin and shaving or depilating really irritates, so in the long run I could argue that I'm saving money on creams, waxing, razors, etc...

3. Develop a regular fitness routine that I will actually keep up with. I will not be a dancer forever, but I want to hang on to the strength that I've developed over the last four years. I don't want to be a body builder, nor do I want to join a gym, but a simple routine incorporating yoga and resistance training and maybe some jogging would be great.

4. Finish grad school to get my master's degree. I'm on track to do this by December 2009 or May 2010!

5. Pay off my student loans from grad school. This would mean paying off all my loans in about a year. I will be able to pay off about half immediately with reimbursement from my company, and all extra money will get funneled into the highest payments I can manage.

6. Develop a wardrobe that protrays me well. This post over at Wardrobe Oxygen really struck a chord with me. I am committing at least half of her fashion faux-pas (ironic tee-shirts, miniskirts, cheap bras, cheap polyester skirts, club tops and suiting, only I have no suits instead of cheap suits). According to her chart, I have a few more years to get away with these style mishaps, but I'd like to start correcting them sooner than later. As I clothes shop going forward, I'm going to keep her suggestions in mind.

7. Get my retirement contributions up to a full 15% AND fund a Roth IRA. I think now I'm at 9 or 10% with a 6% company match which is definitely a good start. With each raise I'm going to add at least 1% to that total until I reach 15%, and as soon as my student loans are paid off, I'll start a category to fully fund a Roth each year. I'm going to retire rich, dammit.

8. Work out my issues. I've been going to therapy for about 9 months now, and it's done me a world of good. I still have a ways to go, but I'm committed to following through on this. I'm sure I seem normal, and I'm certainly able to cope, but I have a history of depression and anxiety related to my parents' divorce and being raised in a very strict, almost cult-like religious atmosphere. Nothing a little couch-time can't handle, I just have to stick it through this time instead of quitting when it gets uncomfortable.

9. Take a real vacation
. I want to take a cruise, or go to Europe, or something...something fabulous that doesn't involve going to visit family (not that I don't love them, but it's not very relaxing!). I'd like to find a last-minute cruise deal for dirt cheap or something like that.

10. Develop some perspective. Sometimes I feel so old...thirty is not all that far away, and the years keep speeding up as I get older. I feel left behind since most of my friends are married and having children, even though I don't want that for myself rightthisminute. Other times, I feel like I'm still just getting the hang of it all, and that I'm getting away with something when I get carded at a bar. I'm only in my twenties! I have my whole life ahead of me! It can get exhausting to swing between these two (and a zillion other) extremes, so I want to work on developing some perspective and awareness that will keep me from freaking out about things that are not freak-out-worthy.

There is no way I have enough income to accomplish all these goals. Perhaps number 10a should be learning to prioritize.

And as a total aside, Lise's post on coupon vs. generics is a great study in unit pricing and whether generics are a better value than name brands with a coupon (assuming quality is exactly the same, which as we all know, USUALLY is true but not always). I recommend it.

Monday, September 15, 2008

alternative income

I've had quite a few people ask me recently what all I do to bring in extra money, so I thought I'd address it here.

To start off, yes, I have a full-time job. It's an entry level position in publishing, which is known for not paying terribly well. I love my job. I feel it's a true calling, and I enjoy every day that I'm at work. However, I also live in my own apartment in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and this means my budget is very tight. So there are a number of things I can do to bring in extra money.

First, the one that's probably least relevant: I am a member of a dance company and I perform with them at paid events. I could probably do restaurant work if I were willing to market myself, but I'm not. This is an amazingly fun opportunity that fell into my lap, but I will not be a professional dancer all my life. I started out just wanting to take classes for fun, then was invited to join a company, and then was given checks to dress up and dance! I can also work off the cost of costumes, classes, and accessories.

The underlying principle is this: Find something you enjoy that people will pay you to do. Perform something, create something, teach something. The best hobbies are self-sustaining, because then you don't feel guilty spending time or money on them! You do have to run such hobbies like a business (taking tax law into account, for example) but that doesn't make me enjoy dancing any less.

The second way I bring in extra money is by doing focus groups. The availability for this largely depends on where you live--large urban areas are a better bet for finding focus groups than rural areas or small towns. To find them, look on your local Craigslist or check with any universities in your area. I apply for all the focus groups I find, but I don't qualify for very many. I'm limited in how many I can do with a particular company in a time frame (anywhere from three months to one year) and sometimes I just don't meet their requirements. There is a weird cycle that I've noticed, where I won't get any focus groups for months and then I'll have six in four weeks, even though I didn't change my application process.

Focus groups pay pretty well (between $75-125 for an hour), and all you have to do is give your opinion on a product or service. The only drawback is how infrequent they wind up being.

Third, and accessible to more people, is mystery shopping. I will do a very detailed mystery shopping post soon, but for now I'll say that casting a wide net and consistency are the most important. It's important to sign up with lots and lots of legitimate companies, apply only for shops that are worth it (which means they are not terribly out of your way or are worth a trip for some reason), and shop regularly and consistently since the payment or reimbursement can take up to two months (I do 3-4 shops per week at minimum, so I always have money coming in). It is NOT quick, easy money. So far in 2008, I've netted less than $1,000, but I've also had some really nice restaurant meals that I wouldn't have had otherwise, and that makes it worth it for me. If you're not highly organized, extremely detail-oriented, and very patient, mystery shopping is NOT for you.

As I said, I'll write more about that in a separate, upcoming post, but here are a few takeaways:

  • If your budget it too tight and you're unable or unwilling to spend less, bringing in additional money doesn't mean taking on a part-time job in the evenings or on weekends. Be creative and find other ways to bring in cash. Have a landline? Do LiveOps or similar call center work. Can you bake, cook, craft, or otherwise make something people will pay for? Can you perform or teach something people will pay for? Do you have a hobby that's currently costing you money but could be earning you money?
  • Find a way to get money or services from companies. They are willing to pay for your opinions or your time spent observing their employees. Websites like MySurvey and SurveySpot pay for surveys as well (I do these too, but the pay is abysmal compared to my other options).
There are a lot of ways to make money or get free stuff, but you can't get anything if you don't go looking for it!

Weekend update and some meal planning

Saving Diva posted her meal plans for the week--since accountability seems to be working so well for me, I'm going to do that this week, too, including lunches and dinners. We'll see how much I stick with it; most of my meals involve Peanut so we might compromise quite a bit.

Lunch--provided by work (book club meeting)
Dinner--bean burrito, left over from last night

Lunch--I don't know! I'm getting home very late tonight (around 11) and have no food in my apartment, where we're staying. Maybe Peanut will make me a pb&j or another burrito since all the food's at his place right now. Otherwise, I can buy a cheap subway lunch ($4).
Dinner--mystery shop at a burger joint

Lunch--probably another burrito, if we still have stuff leftover. Otherwise, pb&j, chips and grapes or an apple.
Dinner--likely a granola bar because of school, and then ramen with frozen veggies when I get home from class.

Lunch--another sandwich with grapes and chips, maybe meeting Peanut for lunch in a park if it's nice out.
Dinner--Peanut and his roommate have been talking about doing steaks. Maybe they'll do it this night, and I'll have my vegetarian substitute (I have been eating chicken a little at a time, but I still can't face red meat). We'll make mashed potatoes and some side veggie too--yum!

Lunch--if we do steaks on Thursday night, that'll give me leftovers for Friday lunch.
Dinner--more of the same? Or maybe fried rice.

I had a pretty cheap weekend--I was determined to take some time for myself, so I did. I slept in late, played a lot of video games, watched most of the first season of Scrubs, did some homework, and spent lots of quality time with Peanut. I didn't get laundry done, which is about the only thing that could have made it better. (Although, if I'd done laundry, I would have had to give up something else, so I guess it evens out).

Friday, September 12, 2008

Food, glorious food!

This week has been all lunches, all the time. Peanut and I have been working hard to take our lunches to work every day, and we also agreed to eat out only when it's a mystery shop. We've been doing very well with the first, and sort of okay with the second.

We did manage to bring our lunches every day this month, aside from the exceptions I'll talk about below. It's much easier when someone else is helping me be accountable! And it's fun for us to plan and make them together or for each other. When we take sandwiches, we can sometimes meet in a park for lunch, and that's nice too.

We did agree not to go out to eat unless it was for a mystery shop, since I'm getting nice restaurant shops about once a week. However, I already had a planned lunch out (yesterday) and dinner out (tonight) and I said I was going to keep those dates. I think he felt a little left out of the eating-out, so he's buying lunch for himself today too. I think that's fine--we're doing this to save money and as a challenge, and I think it's important to not be so strict about it that we'll get bitter and give it up.

However, yesterday's lunch was at Olive Garden and I spent $30. OUCH. Granted, it's Olive Garden in New York, but still. A soft drink, an appetizer split three ways, and a low-priced entree...that hurt. I did eat sparingly so I'll have the leftovers for lunch today. That one meal cost about what my lunch groceries for two weeks cost.

Tonight I'll be eating out and I'll have to decide whether to order wine. I'm betting my friends do, and we always split the bill evenly by long-standing agreement, so I might as well. But that raises the price...it's tough being strict.

However, after tonight, it's back to sandwiches and chips, grapes and carrots, leftover pasta and breakfast-for-dinner. Cooking together has drawn Peanut and I closer and is a lot of fun for us. Gentlemen, it's true--you definitely look your best with a spatula in one hand and a potholder on the other. :)

I think this weekend I'm going to push for a Costco trip. While our groceries have been fairly cheap from the regular grocery store, I bet we can get more varied snacks for cheaper--and I think this kick is going to last a while.

My other spending surprises have been for school. I've been careful to bring snacks and a water bottle for my evening classes, but the rooms are COLD and I've been getting a little drained, so both nights this week I paid $.75 for a demitasse of coffee. I could be getting free coffee from work if I had a travel mug so...I'm going to look for one to pick up this weekend. It would pay for itself in less than a month.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Dress up edition

I'm sitting at my desk at work in a Tudor-era dress. This happens to me sometimes.

We're presenting a marketing plan for our best-selling historical fiction author, and we've had four Tudor-era dresses made up to accompany her on the tour for her stops, so me and three coworkers get to model them for the sales and marketing departments. It's a little goofy, but I like to play dress-up, and this dress is truly stunning (and only a bit too big for me).

Yesterday was my first day back at school for the fall semester. The class is in finance/accounting and...wow, I might have found a new calling. I love books, and I love words, but I also love seeing budgets balance and finding economical ways to do things. I think working in the finance or accounting department of a publishing house might really fulfill a lot of my interests. Of course, I have time to decide on this still, but I'm looking forward to the class for the rest of the semester.

At the beginning of August, Peanut created a shared spreadsheet on Google docs for us to track all of our food spending, which is how I know exactly how much we spent. Now, I already keep a spreadsheet of all of my spending and I'm not going to give that up. It really helps me keep track of things for tax purposes, and my tax situation is really wonky. So I'm entering information into two places, but for the first time I have accountability.

Now, Peanut and I are not sharing expenses. We do not live together, and we don't have any joint accounts--we've only been dating a few months. But we're on the same page financially and we have a lot of the same financial goals (get out of debt, including student loan debt, save up emergency funds, save for big purchases, invest and get rich!) so it makes sense for us to do these challenges together, and the accountability has been GREAT for me.

Last night in class, I really wanted a Dr. Pepper. But I knew if I drank it (at 8 p.m.) I'd be up late at night. I also knew that I'd have to record the $1.35-$2 it would cost in the spreadsheet...so I didn't buy one. Success!

Peanut and I have also discussed eating out only when it's for a mystery shop. I've been getting a lot of higher-end restaurant shops lately (where the meals are $80-100 for two) so it's not like we'll be stuck eating at McDonalds once a month. We'll get the chance to have a date at a nice restaurant, for free! And if we don't eat out anytime the mood strikes us, it'll make it all the more special.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

August Recap/September Goals

Hard to believe Labor Day has come and gone! Summer's basically over...and actually, I'm happy about that. I'm ready for the weather to cool down.

I updated my net worth yesterday, which is showing in my sidebar--a massive dip thanks to another $4,000 in student loan disbursements. Ouch! However, even with $12,000 in loans, I still have a positive net worth, and that pleases me quite a bit.

On to the recap:
August goals
1. Do some serious catching up on my reading. Done! I read quite a bit this month, and some of the books (A Handmaid's Tale, Middlesex, and a to-be-published manuscript) were very good.

2. Bring my lunch to work at least two days a week for the entire month. That’s 8 days. I think I did this--twice there were frozen dinners on sale at the grocery store and I stocked up. I'm still not doing as well as I'd like to (4 days a week, sometimes all 5 days), but I did start thinking ahead and remembering to bring lunches with me.

3. Bring in some extra cash, dammit. Um...not really. I did a LOT of mystery shops this month, including many dinner shops which will take a while to reimburse me. I did get paid out for some shops, and I've got my Lasik fund to about $1,000. When it hits $3,000 I'll start shopping around for a doctor and schedule the appointment.

4. Fix my student loan situation. Taken care of. They recalculated to include my scholarship and reduced the loan amount, then forgot to actually apply the scholarship. It's all worked out now, though.

5. Get tuition reimbursement for the summer sessions. No--my grades weren't posted until this week, but I'm taking care of the paperwork now. I should get the reimbursement in my last paycheck of the month, or possibly in October. That will use up the annual $5,000 cap on tuition reimbursement for 2008, so I will fill out paperwork for the Spring 2009 semester sometime in December.

September goals:
1. Spend less on food! I spent $424.69 on food and drink last month. Unacceptable. I went out a lot, I travelled, I bought a gazillion Dr. Peppers. No more excuses--my grocery budget is supposed to be $160 for the month, with maybe another $150 blow/entertainment--this is out of control. I'm aiming for less than $350 (less than $12 per day) for this month, hoping to cut it even more in October. Between Peanut and myself, we spent $785 on food this month, and Trent at The Simple Dollar talks about feeding a family of FOUR for less than that. Geez oh man.

2. Extra cash, again. Settle up the dance account (that will be taken care of on Sunday for sure). Put money away for Lasik. Even up my mystery shopping checking account--I've done such a huge number of reimbursement shops, I will have to borrow from a personal sinking fund to pay my credit card bill this month ($400 in restaurant shops! These are nice restaurants that I would not normally go to, and if I did, I wouldn't order wine and dessert, but it's all required and reimbursed...except the reimbursement never comes before the credit card bill does. Oh, well--I'm earning points on my card!). I also need to set aside money for Spa Week, which comes in about six short weeks.

3. Christmas shopping. I know, I know, it's early. I hate seeing Christmas displays in stores until after Halloween, if not Thanksgiving. But since I will be travelling this Christmas, I need to start thinking about shopping and shipping now--I hate being stressed right before Christmas, and I will have big exams this semester. It won't hurt to start making a list of who to shop for and keeping my eyes open for the perfect present now. (Oh, and I need to start thinking about the gift situation with Peanut's family--do I bring them anything, aside from a standard guest gift, if so how much do I spend, what do I buy, etc. The ticket thing sort of worked itself out--we found an amazing deal on tickets, so it was cheaper for both than what we expected to spend each so he bought them. I told him I would pay for it myself if he wanted, but he said not to worry about it since he spent only what he was expecting to pay for his own ticket so...yay! And we're still getting gifts for each other, but limited the price to $100.)

4. Start taking back my time. I want to be a little more organized. My classes so far have not been difficult or required much in the way of homework (aside from term papers). But this semester, I am taking accounting and a marketing elective as opposed to publishing courses which are basically a review of what I do at work all day--these classes are going to require me to stay on top of things, keep up with the readings, and contribute to group projects. I can't slack off. I want to plan my days well enough to bring lunch AND dinner (or a healthy, high-protein snack) each day, preferably eat breakfast at home, have homework done early, keep on top of class readings as well as book club readings, and not feel overwhelmed. I might be pushing it, but that's my goal.

5. Up the ante at work. My annual review is in two months. The economy has affected my company--not in terms of actual problems (i.e., I'm not at risk of being fired or laid off) but there is a hiring freeze and I know that money for raises and bonuses is tight. I want to make it clear to my boss that I'm valuable, and that I deserve another good-sized raise. Actually, it's not so much convincing her as it is convincing her bosses--so I want to accomplish quantifiable things to make that easier for her. I'm going to sharply limit my time on blogging and email (which I should be doing anyway) and focus on projects that have verifiable results (like coming up with a new marketing piece that everyone loves, rather than reorganizing the files. Not to say the filing wasn't a great accomplishment, because it WAS, and it makes day-to-day work so much easier, but it's harder to point to it and say, "She's a wizard file-maven, let's give her $$$!" than it is to say "Little Miss Moneybags put together the kit that got us a 6,000-copy order, let's give her $$$!").

That's it from me for today!