Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mystery Shopping: Get Paid to Shop! Seriously. Not even kidding.

I have a lot of articles about ways to make money while at school, when you're too busy for a real job but need some extra cash. In addition to paid-to sites, paid research studies, donating plasma and the other suggestions I've made, I'd like to add one powerful new weapon to your money-making arsenal: Mystery Shopping!

What is mystery shopping? Mystery Shopping is a tool that companies use to evaluate their performance from a customer's perspective.  A mystery shopper goes into an establishment with a situation provided by the company, in order to evaluate what ACTUALLY happens to a real customer on an ordinary day. They will evaluate everything from customer service, to cleanliness, to whether the correct signage is being used. Then they report their findings back to the company so that the company can see where they need improvements. If you've ever worked anywhere, you know that the day the district managers come to visit calls for a week of deep-cleaning and everyone using their best behavior to make it seem like that's how things always are. Management caught onto this awhile ago, and got sneaky: hence, mystery shopping..  The process of mystery shopping goes like this: Search for job. Sign up for job. Complete job at specified time. Fill out shop report and submit proof of receipts/documentation (to prove you actually did the shop). Receive payment 30-60 days later. (Some payment is sooner, but most is on a delay.) 

As a mystery shopper, you are truly getting paid to shop. Or eat. Or get your brakes looked at. Or get a spray tan, or go to the movies, or talk to someone. If it sounds too good to be true, that's because it kind of has a bad reputation as a huge scam. You know, you see those ads like "Mystery Shopper Wanted: make a bazillion dollars by doing absolutely nothing!!! No catch!" which reeks of scam (not even convincing scam, either). While those companies ARE scams, mystery shopping in general is 100% legit. I was skeptical myself when I signed up for a few mystery shopping companies this summer, and I decided not to report back on the blog until I'd gotten paid from these companies to prove that they were actually legit. Several months later, and I'm here to tell you that THEY ARE SO LEGIT YOU GUYS OMG. This is hands-down the best way to make extra cash in college. I've actually resorted to mystery shopping as my primary source of income this semester. I'm in a small town, which means less companies to shop, so I'm making about $30/month on average, but when I was in a big city this summer, I was making MUCH more than that. If you live in a large city with a mystery shopping company located in that city (Louisville, KY is a great example of this - there are TONNSSSSS of mystery shops in Louisville!) it is perfectly doable to turn this into a part-time job, making several hundred a month. If you're willing to travel for a shop, you can potentially turn this into a full-time job. This IS possible, but you also will need to have a lot of mystery shopping equipment, like hidden video recorders, and pay extra to get certified for some higher-pay shops - but it CAN be done!

Still feeling skeptical? To the right is a pay
statement from one of my first months of mystery shopping. It adds up QUICK, guys. Some shops pay you just to go and talk to someone, some shops require you to make a purchase and then reimburse you later. So far, I've mystery shopped at banks, car dealerships, fast food restaurants, electronics stores, cell phone stores, and even an adult store (Indiana University Students: it was College Books. I totally got paid to shop at College Books.). It's fun, it's easy, and I end up making more per hour than most of the jobs I've had so far.

So, ready to give it a try? First, you need to find some mystery shopping companies to sign up with, or see if there are opportunities in your area. (Bigger cities are the best locations to be a mystery shopper.) The availability of the shops depends on the companies located near you and how many companies are employing their services. There are hundreds of mystery shopping companies located all over! To find out what's available near you, search using this handy little website. The sites I linked to are both on the MSPA site - the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. They're essentially a regulating certification board. To be on their site, you have to be a LEGIT mystery shopping company - no scammers allowed. Signing up with a company from their site ensures that you won't get scammed - they do a thorough check of each of their listed companies before certifying them.
So, found a few shops in your area? Interested in giving it a try? The next thing to do is to sign up with the companies that are providing shops in your location. Once you click on a description of a shop you're interested in, it will list which company is providing the shop, usually with a link. Click on that provided link to go to the website of the mystery shop company. Now, you need to sign up for that Mystery Shopping company. It will ask you a lot of information about yourself. Don't be scared - the more personal information they have about you, the better they can match you up for certain shops that are targeted at specific customers. Some companies may also ask you for writing samples, for example, writing about an experience at a store. Just try to give complete unbiased details, and use proper grammar and spelling.

Now, some things that will make you nervous. Every mystery shopping company will ask you for your Social Security Number. This is because mystery shopping is a legitimate form of income - read: job - and as such, they are required to report to the government if you make over a certain amount per year using their company (I think it's $600/yr) for tax purposes. It's no different than giving your SSN to a job in-person. If you look at the browser, it should read https:// instead of http://, which means your information is secure and encripted. I have yet to have a problem giving out my SSN to any of these sites, and I've signed up for about 10 of them. Second nervous-making thing: some mystery shop companies will ask you for your bank account information, to direct deposit your income into your account. Again, this is just like handing over a voided check at a job - just because they have your account number DOESN'T mean they can steal your money. It'd be like giving a check in your name along with a filled out deposit slip to a friend to deposit in your bank for you - all they'll be able to do is deposit that money. If that company is direct deposit only, that's how you will get paid. Many companies pay via paypal or mailed check, but I've also received direct deposit income with no problems at all.

Ok, now you've signed up with a mystery shopping company! You're all ready to find that shop you signed up for and get going! Before you request or self-assign that shop, you'll need to have a good understanding of how to complete a mystery shop properly. It's not rocket science, but if you mess everything up your first time, the site may not let you sign up for anything else, so you want to make sure you get it right (or at least, mostly right). First, read this detailed overview of what you need to know about being a good mystery shopper. It's long, but very informative and worth reading. Here are the most important points to remember:

1. Mystery Shopping requires acting - aka lying. If you're not good at acting or lying, Mystery Shopping may not be the right job for you. You'll be given a situation to memorize and you must stick to that situation and make it seem convincing - this may require making up additional details on the spot.

 2. Mystery Shopping requires attention to details. Details may include things like, "How many seconds before you were greeted? How many TVs were turned off in the electronics department? Was there a coffee machine in the waiting room? What was the featured item on the drive-through menu? Did the sales associate mention the Supreme Extra Special Deal? What did the sales associate look like?" You will need to be able to remember what details you are looking for, AND remember exactly what you saw. I always take notes as soon as I leave a mystery shop so I don't forget them. These details are extremely important, and you must be hyper observant - in some cases, you have to sneak in observations while also talking to a sales associate and trying to remember your made-up situation, which can get tricky.

 3. Mystery Shopping requires timeliness. Some shops must be completed at a certain time and on a certain day, and all shops require a report to be filled out and submitted within 24 hours of completing a shop. This is a REAL JOB, so treat it as such. If you turn in a mystery shop report late, you WILL be penalized.

Ok. Ready to get started? Sign up with as many mystery shopping companies as you like (I'm signed up with about 10). Make sure you keep a list of these somewhere and keep track of which shops are assigned for which companies. Select a job, and either request or self-assign it (every company is different). Complete the job, submit your report, and sit back and wait for payment. It sucks that there's a time delay, but after the first couple of months, you'll have income on the regular coming in monthly. It's fun, it's easy, and anyone can do it! What are you waiting for?? Go get paid to shop!!
As a quick reminder, here's where to start finding shops in your area:

Get Started

1. MSPA lists all of their verified (aka not a scam) mystery shopping companies, and you can  search for available shops near you to find which companies to sign up with.

2. Jobslinger is a database for multiple companies using the Sassie user interface system. You'll be able to search multiple companies in your area using your zip code, and sign up for the ones offering shops near you. You'll need to sign up for each individual company offering the shops - Jobslinger is NOT a mystery shopping company, just a search engine!

3. Mystery Shopping Job Board is another site like Jobslinger - it's a search engine for a variety of different mystery shopping companies. Use it to find shops near you and sign up for those companies.

4. Mystery Shop Forum is a great place for mystery shoppers to talk about companies and jobs, as well as find out about more companies to sign up with. If you're curious about Mystery Shopping, check out this forum and browse some of the posts!

As always, contact me with any questions!

Want to know about new freebies, samples, deals and money-saving as soon as they happen? Follow The Broke Student's Guide on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

How to get everything free: a useful guide (pt. 2)

If you've been reading the blog for a while, you know that I post up a list of freebies each week. These are usually mail-in samples of random things - everything
from shampoo to peanut butter - and, while they absolutely come in handy and can save you money, they're still small samples, take a while to come in the mail, and you don't get much of a choice about what's available. Luckily, there are a myriad of ways to get free stuff outside of mail-in samples. The following is a useful guide about ways to get a large amount of things for free (legally). Enjoy! (Note: if you missed part one, you can find it right here.)

In part 2, you'll learn how to get the following things for free (legally):

Makeup and Beauty Products

First, there are a few sites it would be helpful for you to join before I begin, because I'll be referencing those sites frequently as sources of free stuff. First, you'll need to find your local Freecycle chapter. Freecycling, also known as Free Recycling, is the act of giving away usable unwanted items to others instead of disposing of them in landfills. The Freecycle network connects people locally so that they may give away unwanted items to each other, for free. To find your local Freecycle chapter, you can search the Freecycle site itself, or just google "Freecycle [my location]." You can use Freecycle to ask for absolutely ANYTHING that you want, and there's usually a pretty good chance someone will have some they are willing to give away. Think of it like the last resort for all of the categories below.

The other sites to be familiar with that I will frequently reference are:
1. Craiglist's Free section (find it in For Sale)
2. Swagbucks where you can earn points and redeem them for Amazon gift cards - I get at LEAST $25 in gift cards per MONTH from this site.
3. HauteLook because if you can refer a few people who make a purchase, it's a great place to get high-quality stuff for free using referral credits. Try spreading your link on every social media network you have available - you're bound to get at least one or two referrals!

All signed up? Now, let's begin.

How To Get Free Clothing
First, a disclaimer: most free clothing is not going to be top-quality, unless you're purchasing it and using something other than your own money to pay. That said, here are the best ways to get free clothing.

1. HauteLook referral credits. I know, it takes a while to build up enough credits for anything really good (though, thinking in $10 increments, you really only need about 5 referrals to get something good.) However, this is the best way to get high-quality, brand-name or even designer goods for free. If you don't like HauteLook, Gilt Group offers $25 credits for referrals - but their stuff is much higher-end, and thus, more expensive. If you know some rich people, try referring them to Gilt! The downside of Gilt is that the $25 credits expire after about a year, while HauteLook credits do not. So if you get one, make sure to USE IT! (I'm still kicking myself over not using the ONE $25 credit I managed to get on Gilt before it expired. Clearly, I need to befriend more rich people. Hopefully you have better luck).

2. Use those Amazon gift cards you get from Swagbucks! You can also get Amazon gift cards from MyPoints (post a comment to be referred to MyPoints, it's email-only invitations). Amazon has EVERYTHING EVER, and most brands have stores set up on Amazon. For example, the American Apparel Store. Click here and scroll down to see the brands you can get at Amazon. Kinda makes you wanna go earn some Swagbucks, huh? (Here's an entry on how to earn Swagbucks! Hint: start using their search engine!!) Sidenote: Mypoints also offers gift cards to a TON of clothes retailers, like Kohl's, Target, Gap, TJ Maxx, and even Sak's 5th Avenue! Read more about MyPoints here.

3. Let's say that you don't have time to build up referrals or Swagbucks, or you just don't care enough to try (I don't blame you. At all.) Don't worry, you can STILL get free clothes! Depending on where you live, your local Freecycle might have some awesome gems for you. Make a post on your Freecycle board asking for clothing (ex: WANTED: Women's Jackets/Blazers size 8 petite) and I guarantee you will get responses. We all have clothing hanging in our closets that we just don't want anymore, or don't have the heart to give to a thrift store. Sure, you might end up with some really ugly stuff, but then you can just go donate it to Goodwill and get a couple of extra dollars on your tax return, so everyone's a winner.

4. If asking people individually for their old clothes isn't your thing, why not try to find a local Swap Meet or Free Market? Check if the Really Really Free Market  is coming to your area. If it's not, why not organize one? Even on a small scale - creating a Facebook event, inviting all of your friends to come over with their unwanted clothing and "shop"  - you'll probably end up with some great "new" stuff, and it's tons of fun, too! Who knows what your best friend's neighbor has hanging in her closet that fits you perfectly but is too big/small/not the right color for her? Don't be scared! Show them the link to this post so it's not weird or anything, though. (Kidding, but do tell all of your friends about my blog for realz.)

How To Get Free Makeup and Beauty Products
Unlike clothing, "gently used" makeup is REALLY not as A-OK as "gently worn" clothing. It tends to be super unhygienic, and besides, makeup EXPIRES. So making a post on Freecycle or having a Free Market really won't cut it when it comes to makeup and beauty products. That said, there are ~ways.~ Read on.

1. HauteLook referral credits. Ok, maybe I'm getting redundant
here, but this site is seriously the best. Every couple of months they have Urban Decay, LORAC, NYX and Stila sales, plus tons of other brands  - 100% Pure, Oscar Blandi, Mirabella, GOSMiLE, Smashbox and Vincent Longo, to name a few. And unlike clothing, it takes a LOT less credits to get these goodies for free. The LORAC and Urban Decay makeup is usually under $10, meaning you only need ONE REFERRAL to get those goodies for free! A good 75% of my current makeup/beauty/hair care collection came from HauteLook. There's a picture of it to the right if you're curious.  HauteLook is my faves.

2. Again with the redundancy, but Amazon Gift cards from Swagbucks are KILLER in this category!! You can get just about ANY beauty product on Amazon. (Remember, you can get Amazon gift cards from MyPoints, too -as well as gift cards to a variety of other beauty-selling retailers, like Macy's, CVS, Target or Kohl's). Did you know that Sephora has an entire store on Amazon? And don't forget - if you buy something from Sephora and don't like it, they'll let you return it even without a receipt, so even if you purchase it on Amazon and have a store near you, you can return it in-store for a merchandise credit.

3. Speaking of Sephora, they are great for free makeup/beauty goodies. Over on the left is an example of one trip to Sephora with a couple of their email printable coupons. This past year, they sent out coupons for several Bare Minerals kits (including primer, cleaner, foundation, mineral veil and a brush!); free kits for your birthday including mascara, eyeliner and eyeshadow; Ojon hair-care samples; and Clinique acne-cleaning cream. If you aren't a Beauty Insider, you need to be! It's AMAZING.They are also VERY generous with free samples. Once I went in-store and mentioned that I was looking for some new hair products, and they sent me home with a stack of sample packets! They often have sample bins near the registers if you're making a purchase, but as long as you have a coupon like the ones they email you, you don't need to make a purchase to get free goodies or samples of products. The downside, of course, is that this is all useless if you don't have a Sephora near you, which I currently don't. :(. 

How To Get Free Furniture
Everyone knows that Craiglist is the place to go for CHEAP furniture, but did you know that most people are so desperate to get rid of their unwanted furniture that they are happy to give it away for FREE? It's true! Read on to find out how to furnish your apartment like a boss. (And make sure you have access to a pick-up truck of some sort so you can haul your goodies home!)

1. Craigslist > For Sale > Free.  There is so much stuff to be discovered here. I won't even say much about it, just go discover it for yourself! The downside of Craigslist, of course, is that you are at the mercy of what's being OFFERED. So, moving on:

2. Freecycle!  Freecycle is the bomb dot com for free furniture. Everyone wants to clear out their garage or whatever. (I wouldn't know, I just upgraded from a dorm room, but ~Grown Ups~ always seem to have accumulated lots of unwanted furniture.) Say you're looking for an end table, or a recliner, or a TV stand, etc. Make a post about it on your local Freecycle. Bam - tons of people who want you to come haul away their junk, aka your new furniture, for free! Everyone wins in this situation. (Note: you may want to look up some tutorials on re-upholstering or painting or sanding, if you care very much how your furniture looks/feels.)

3. Picking up stuff on the side of the road. This sounds gross, but it's really not. Sure, on an average day the mattress and couch you see on the curb look like they might be flea infested and date back to the 50s, but the key to a successful curb pick-up is the TIMING. At the end of the school year and at the end of the summer is the KEY to picking up furniture on the curb - that's when the most leases are ending, and people are moving out. And this stuff isn't junk. Imagine for a moment that you go to school out of state, and you have to fly every time you want to go home. Then imagine that you had to buy a brand-new couch or a mini-fridge or a table or something because, you know, you lived here for 8 months, but now you're flying home or wherever and you have this couch/fridge/table that you don't want. And it was probably finals week, and selling it somewhere probably sounded like too much work, but you have a plane ticket for tomorrow you don't know what to do about this damn couch/fridge/table! What do you do? You put it on the curb, hoping someone will pick it up and give it a new home. (This may or may not be the story of my mini-fridge from freshman year.) Anyway, if you can manage to stick around for a week or so after the semester ends, or get there a week or so before the semester begins, you can find the BEST stuff. And if you don't, guess where it ends up? Probably the landfill (what a freaking waste!) or, best-case scenario, your school might do something like IU's Hoosier to Hoosier sale, where they collect all that left over stuff and then sell it for charity or whatever. Which is great, but it doesn't end up as a free couch in your living room, which is the goal. So get your timing right, and you can furnish your apartment/house/dorm for nothing! (Dorm room furnishing? What? Maybe someone left behind a microwave or something, idk. Good luck with that.)

And there you have it: now you, my fellow broke student, can look gorgeous while laying on your brand new couch surfing the interwebz while wearing all your sweet new clothes. Tune in next week (ish, I have homework and stuff) for Part 3, where we'll learn how to get FREE  School Supplies and Entrance to Disney World .... and something else, because I need a 3rd thing. Any suggestions?  Hit me up on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Freebie Roundup for the week!

Here's this weeks extra large roundup of freebies! Note: Please assume that these are US-only freebies, unless otherwise marked. Did I miss anything good? Comment and let me know!

 FREE Waffle at Waffle House! Expires Sept. 30. Print the Coupon

FREE coffee, cappuccino, hot chocolate or hot tea. Expires October 31/11 "Like" the Facebook Page

The CVS Magic Coupon Machine is apparently giving out coupons for a FREE Milky Way or Dove chocolate bar! Stop by any CVS and scan your rewards club card at the bright red machine to get your coupon.

FREE box of John Frieda Precision Foam Hair Colour! Just fill out the survey here to see if you qualify for a FREE Box of Precision Foam Hair Colour! Not everyone will qualify for a free box, but if you color your hair at all, you probably will. Click Here

FREE Lacoste perfume samples! For males & females: Click Here (International)

FREE Dove Self Tanning lotion sample! The form is all in Spanish, but you can use a translator: Click Here

FREE sample of Trilipiderm, an all body moisture retention creme. International. Click Here ‘Like’ Pilot Travel Centers on Facebook and click on their coupon tab on the left for a

FREE Wet Platinum personal lubrication sample (US & Canada): Click Here

FREE cosmetics bag at Nordstrom Rack! Bring the coupon to any NR location and recieve a free cosmetics bag. Click Here

FREE Poise Hourglass Shape Pads or Liners! Includes two Poise pads (or liners, your choice) and a coupon. Click Here

2 FREE Quest All-Natural Low-Carb Protein Bars! Click Here

FREE Chewable Fiber Choice supplements sample. Click Here 

FREE Sample of Shout Color Catcher! Click Here

FREE Sample of Minty Strips breath freshener! Us & Canada. Click Here

FREE Kashi bar of your choice! (Canada only) Click Here

FREE Gimi Gourmet Swiss Chocolate! You can choose between four different kinds of chocolate. (US & Canada) (Note: of all the "free chocolate" samples I've filled out, I've never received a single one, so this may or may not be legit.) Click Here

FREE Gluten Relief Digestive Enzymes Sample! "Like" the Facebook Page

FREE Sample of Maven Multi-Mineral Relaxer and Styling System. Click Here

Potential FREE stuff from American Apparel! When you sign up for the newsletter, it says "Include your mailing address below and we may send you a sample of a new item before it's available in stores. We'll also add you to our catalog mailing list." I've gotten free stuff from AA before (on April Fools Day!) so I'm crossing my fingers for this. International. Click Here

Gmail is making it completely FREE for or all uniformed military personnel  to call the United States through 2011! Must have valid United States Military (.mil) email address. More Information

Get 4% cash back when you shop at Forever21 using All you have to do is to click on "go to deal" and shop and complete your transaction. Your cash back will appear on your cash back account within 24-48 hours. Also, 10% off codes! Click Here
AT&T Users: Text YES to 11113020 and receive 1,000 FREE bonus rollover minutes. A confirmation text will come through shortly after. Allow up to 4 weeks for bonus minutes to reflect on your bill. (Confirmed legit!)

ReycleBank has a new point-earning opportunity out for 110 POINTS! That's enough for a FREE McDonald's ice cream cone or smoothie, or a FREE 1-year magazine subscription! Sign up here and visit the Green Your School Year page to start earning your 110 points.

My favorite paid-to site is Swagbucks. I earn at least $25 in Amazon Gift cards each and every month! Read mo about Swagbucks in this entry.

Want to know about new freebies, samples, deals and money-saving as soon as they happen? Follow The Broke Student's Guide on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.
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