6 Tips for Becoming a Successful Mystery Shopper

Guest post by Tanya at Little Life Improvements

I’m sure you’ve heard the ads that tell you how great mystery shopping can be: “Get paid to buy stuff and eat out!”

When I first heard about mystery shopping, I actually thought the whole idea sounded too good to be true — basically like a big scam. I decided to do some research because mystery shopping sounded like the perfect way to add a little extra money to our budget and I had to know for sure whether or not it was legit!

I did a lot of reading on the internet and found some legitimate companies who were actually paying people to shop for them.

What would you think if I told you that during my first two years of mystery shopping, I made over $10,000 (between paid compensation and being reimbursed for merchandise or food purchases that were required by the shops)?

My husband and I are living proof that it is possible to make a reasonable extra income through mystery shopping. It’s taken a lot of work and quite a bit of learning, but it’s been a worthwhile venture for us.

Before you start out on your own mystery shopping venture, I’d like to share some of what we’ve learned over the past 5+ years of mystery shopping:

1. Watch Out For Scams

I found this to be crucial when searching for companies to work with. You’ve probably heard about them and it’s true — there really are mystery shopping scams out there. A couple of things I’ve done to avoid the scammers are:

  • Don’t pay anyone to become a mystery shopper. Would you pay the local retail store to hire you? Mystery shopping is a job and we don’t pay to get jobs anywhere else. If they’re asking for your money in order to allow you to shop with them, beware!
  • Sign up with companies that offer a secure sign-up form. I have the policy that I will not sign up with a website whose registration form is not on a secure site. I figure that if they can’t go to the trouble to keep my information secure on the internet, they might not be the highest quality company to work for.

2. Prepare to Work

Like anything else in life, mystery shopping takes work. Each shop assignment will have specific instructions that need to be followed in order for the shop to be acceptable. And once the fun part of shopping is done, there is a report to complete. The effort that you put into the quality of your shops will help determine whether or not the company will assign you shops in the future.

3. Weigh the Costs

This point ties in with the previous one. When searching for mystery shopping assignments, carefully weigh the costs. Remember to take into account the time you will spend both completing the shop and filling out the report afterward. Remember to calculate your gas costs too — these days those can add up pretty quickly!

4. Save for Taxes

You’ll have to record your mystery shopping income as self-employment income when you file taxes each year. The amount of taxes that we have had taken out each year has varied. Sometimes we’ve saved too much and had a “bonus” at the end of the year. Other years, we haven’t set aside enough and have had to scrounge up more money to cover our self-employment taxes. I have found that setting aside 30-40% of my mystery shopping earnings to save toward paying taxes at the end of the year is a good amount.

5. Track Your Earnings

I keep a spreadsheet in Excel of all the shops that I complete, the company I complete them with, the shop fee amount, the amount I spend and will be reimbursed for my purchase and the date that I actually receive payment.

Most mystery shopping companies pay 30-60 days after the shop has been completed so it’s important to be able to know if you’re missing any payments or not. This spreadsheet is also key when it comes time to prepare our tax forms. I can tell at a quick glance how much we earned that year.

6. Know the Companies

As you work with different mystery shopping companies, you will find the ones that you like the best. Some are very strict with their requirements and will absolutely not pay you if any condition is unmet. Others are a bit more flexible and will try to work with your schedule and needs.

Some require lengthy survey forms to be completed after shops are completed, others only want a short description of your visit. Some companies specialize in upper class shops (like the Coach shop I completed or the $200 meal at an upscale restaurant), others are more ordinary (and less stressful — like gas stations and fast food chains).

Whichever mystery shopping companies you choose to go with, learn their requirements and strive to meet or exceed them. This will help you build a good reputation with that company and it improves your ability to receive future shops.

Is mystery shopping right for you?

I don’t think mystery shopping is a good fit for everyone. You have to decide how well it will fit into your own lifestyle.

My husband and I now have two little ones and we really don’t do a lot of mystery shopping these days because a lot of the shops require you to complete them alone, with no children in tow.

We have had to weigh how willing we are to give up the precious time that my husband has at home for me to go out and complete mystery shops while he watches the kids. We haven’t stopped mystery shopping altogether, we’ve just gotten more choosy about which shops we accept.

Tanya is the blessed wife of a very loving husband and mommy to two toddlers. She loves finding ways to improve the life of her family by budgeting, finding tips and tricks for around the house and looking for fun frugal ways to spend time together. You can check out her blog Little Life Improvements.

Interested in Becoming a Mystery Shopper?

If you’re interested in becoming a mystery shopper, be sure to check out the list Tanya has put together of her favorite companies to work for. In addition, check out my article on my experiences as a mystery shopper. -Crystal

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Comments

  1. Katie says

    Don’t ever respond to a mystery shopping offer where you have to cash a check and wire money, or anything else involving your bank account. At best, the check is fake and you will be held responsible for the entire amount. At worst, your account will be cleaned out and your credit ruined.

  2. Jeni says

    I’ve been a mystery shopper, too, for about 10 years or so. It’s lovely to be able to go to those upscale restaurants that you wouldn’t normally be able to take advantage of on a budget!

  3. says

    Thanks so much for posting this, Crystal!

    Great input, Katie – there have been a lot of those scams going around – thanks for pointing that out!

    And, I agree completely, Jeni! My hubby and I have been able to eat at a couple restaurants where we spent almost $200 on our meals – definitely NOT something we would be doing otherwise!

  4. Emily says

    I’ve been wanting to get into Mystery Shopping ever since I started reading Crystal’s blog last fall and I read a post about it. I’m nervous to get started because I’m not sure who is legit and who isn’t. I did join one company and completed a shop at a chain restaurant. I’d love to find more legitimate companies, especially ones that have restaurant shops, as we LOVE to eat out but there just isn’t much room in our budget for it. Does anyone have any companies that specifically offer restaurant shops that they would recommend? Thanks.

  5. Marcy says

    My mother is a branch manager at a bank and has warned me about falling for mystery shopping scams. She says she sees fake checks for this on a regular basis.

  6. Beth says

    I have been mystery shopping for 6 years and LOVE it! In fact, my hubby and I just went out this evening to celebrate our anniversary. We went to a casual steakhouse and a movie and will only be spending $4.75 out of pocket. You just have to be smart with who you sign up with. Usually if it sounds too good to be true, it is. It’s a good idea to check out the companies on BBB.com to see what they have to say about them. And, yes, NEVER pay to mystery shop.

  7. says

    Thank you for posting this! I recently quit my full time job to be home with my son. My husband and I are struggling to make ends meet now. This will be perfect! Thank you. I really believe that God uses you to speak to people! Yay Crystal!

    • Megan says

      @Joy@Frugal Menu Mamas, No. This is a common myth. You must report ALL of your earnings to the IRS, even if you only make $50 in a year mystery shopping. It’s true that most companies will only send you a W2 if you earn more than $600 with them per year, but that just means that if you earn LESS than $600 you have to keep track of those earnings on your own. The whole $600 thing confuses a lot of people – myself included – but when I did some more research I found out that I have to report everything on my taxes. Hope that helps!

      • Emily says

        @Megan,
        What about reimbersement for meals through Mystery Shopping? You don’t have to claim and pay taxes on that, right? But if a company “paid” me an extra $10 for getting my survey in on time, I’d have to pay taxes on that?

        • Megan says

          @Emily, That’s right. Reimbursements are not taxed; they are treated almost like a coupon. You only have to report actual earnings (like that $10 payment for conducting a shop) on your taxes. A lot of shops provide both a shopper’s fee and reimbursement (i.e. $5 to make a grocery store purchase and $10 to do the shop). You pay taxes on the $10, but the $5 worth of groceries is yours to keep with no taxes/penalties. Hope that clarifies!

  8. says

    I love mystery shopping! I have been doing it for a few years and if you are looking for some companies to join I’ve reviewed some at my blog.

    Corporate Research International (they have shops like Bed Bath Beyond, Gas stations, Aeropostale, Lowe’s etc):
    http://www.myfavedeals.com/2010/03/mystery-shopping-with-corporate.html

    Shopper’s View (they have shops for grocery stores, banks, etc)
    http://www.myfavedeals.com/2010/02/mystery-shopping-with-shoppers-view.html

    Also there’s a site (jobslinger.com) where you can search all the mystery shopping opportunities in your area:
    http://www.myfavedeals.com/2010/02/find-mystery-shopping-in-your-area.html

    And an intro on mystery shopping:
    http://www.myfavedeals.com/2010/02/mystery-shopping.html

    Happy shopping and please leave a comment at my blog if you have any questions!

  9. Sarah :) says

    I love mystery shopping…. except that you have to HAVE money initially to shop. If you’re almost flat broke after the bills (like us), it’s really hard, because you get REIMBURSED for everything you do. So if you don’t have any money to begin with, it’s hard to make money.

    That being said, I have found these legit mystery shopping sites:

    bestmark.com
    secretshopper.com
    bareinternational.com
    serviceevaluation.com
    nationalshoppingservice.com

    Also, I haven’t done any shops for these companies, but here are two more sites:

    second-to-none.com
    experienceexchange.com

  10. Megan says

    I’d encourage folks to check out Volition.com They have forums on mystery shopping and a whole list of legitimate mystery shopping companies (tons of them!). There are also threads discussing each company and how their shoppers feel about them. I’ve been mystery shopping for 18 months now and have found it really helpful!