Tuesday, December 31

Mystery Shopping: 2013 Year in Review

2013 was my best year yet for mystery shopping.  I thought it would be harder to earn a living with all the competition I have in Florida; I dealt with that by taking on more and more out of state routes.

2013 Mystery Shopping Income:  $32,453
2013 Meaningful Reimbursements:  $6,952
Total Miles Driven in 2013:  38,429

In addition to the reimbursements I can report, I received value that I never had to be reimbursed for.  Many of the hotel charges, including all my timeshare vacations, never show up on my credit card (or are quickly reversed).  The most mundane work I did was either the Dollar General DVD route in Alabama, which I have given up, or the 10 days I spent parked in front of Sam Ash counting customers.  Easily the most exciting would be the timeshares and resort hotels.  I like these "lifestyle shops" even if the pay is low.

Next year I am concentrating on routes and experiences.  I will do fewer "one-off" shops around town because they don't move the needle enough to be worth their time.  The goal here is to value my time more appropriately and increase my overall hourly income or, since I love to travel, partake in shops that offset vacation expenses.

Friday, December 27

Planning, Pulling Through and Personal Drama

This has been a slow week; blame the holidays.  I arrived home late Monday night, having pulled off a highly successful week and a day of service shops.  With 2013 property taxes coming due, the cash injection from that work could not come at a better time.

I haven't had any work this week.  Nada.  I've spent a fair amount of time preparing for next year.  I signed up for a massive recurring route of gas station audits.  There are slightly more than 150 locations throughout portions of Florida that I will shop 3 times next year.  The pay is mediocre, but the recurring nature means I can be more efficient and hopefully plan other jobs in the areas I'll be working.  Each round will bring in roughly $1,500, but I'll earn every cent of that.

I've also created my 2014 templates for the rental properties and shopping.  There is a substantial amount of mostly tax-related information I have to keep up with so my spreadsheets are crucial to my survival.

Lastly, there's been some pretty serious personal shit I've been dealing with the last few days.  It's not something I want to talk about, but I've lost a good bit of sleep over it.  My health is fine, it's not that.  Last night I slept less than two hours.  I was in bed for twelve; you do the math!

I've always believed things happen for a reason, and while day to day I am dealing with something I would never wish on my worst enemy, I know I'll pull through the other side a better person.

Thursday, December 19

Happily Shopping

I woke up at 4 AM this morning in Guntersville, AL.  Unfortunately, my first dealership doesn't open until 7 AM.  With so much opportunity this week I am finding it hard to sleep.  Sort of like a kid on Christmas morning... except every morning I wake up with the gift of more shops to do.

Yesterday I set a new record.  I earned over $600 from mystery shopping in a single day.  Does that help explain my inability to sleep?  I'm ready for more!  I am picking up random shops along my route since there are some good bonus opportunities.  Yesterday I did a gas station audit for $50 and a Lowe's for $30.  These were early morning and evening shops when the dealerships were closed (the dealerships pay more than that; I don't want anything to slow my down from getting to those!).

I'm keeping it frugal on this trip.  I was able to book a Hampton Inn for tonight for 5,000 points.  There are very few Hilton properties available for 5,000 points - these are special "opportunity" level redemptions.  I don't think they have a single property in Florida for that level.  What's even better is that I am spending even less than 5,000 points on my hotel.  Even on free stays I earn 500 points for reserving with my AMEX card and 250 points for being a Diamond member.  This is a cheap stay!

Last night I stayed in a Super 8, as it was the cheapest hotel in the area.  I have only paid for one meal so far this week.  Mystery shopping has fed me the rest of the time.  This is an amazing week!


Sunday, December 15

The Eviction that Wasn't

Last week I sent my tenant a text.  I told him I would file the unlawful detainer unless he deposited at least $1,000 cash in my bank account.  That's cash, not a check, because he's written me a bad check before.  Well, surprise, surprise... he called Friday night to let me know he made the deposit.

Few things surprise me anymore.  I shouldn't have to threaten my tenants with lawsuits in order to get them to pay their rent.  But, I really am happy that I don't have to deal with this next week.  Filing the eviction with the court is expensive, plus I am on a tight schedule with all these mystery shops I have scheduled.  Not having to go to the courthouse frees up a lot of time.  Not to mention, I didn't want to deal with another vacant property and the costs associated with getting it ready to rent.  This townhouse is part of the same complex where I still have two empty units, so the vacancy issue would have been an expensive one.

I am leaving tomorrow morning by 3 AM.  It is about 6 hours to Panama City and I want to arrive at the dealership around 8 AM (thankfully I gain an hour with the time zone change).  This is going to be a ridiculously profitable week for me.  True, the hours will be long, and the weather is so much colder where I'm headed, but in just over a week I'll be back home and be almost $3,000 richer.

Friday, December 13

26 Miles, Evictions and Tire Rotations

I've been riding my bike a good bit over the last several days, and yesterday was the longest I have gone.  I broke it up into two trips, but in all, I rode the length of a marathon.  Maybe one day I'll be able to run that length rather than just ride my bike.

My mystery shopping this week has been limited mostly to casual restaurants, what I refer to as "lifestyle shopping" since it is more for the experience than the income.  I've done a few other jobs, including two dealer service shops that paid $97 each.  Fortunately, next week I may set a record.  I am shopping 31 dealer service shops between Monday, 12/16 and Monday, 12/23.  I will leave around 2 AM Monday morning to avoid an extra night in a hotel and my first stop is in Panama City, FL.  I have two shops in Florida; the other 29 are spread across Alabama and Georgia.

How does a frugal miser keep his travel expenses low?  I will spend one night in my vacant townhouse - again, to avoid hotel expenses.  I don't have the gas turned on, so there won't be any heat or hot water.  I brought some cleansing towels I got free at Walgreens to take a bird bath and will bring extra sheets to stay warm.  Since it is a townhouse I am hoping the radiant heat from the two adjacent units will help stabilize the temperature.  I also prepaid two nights for next weekend, saving an extra 10% off the lowest rate (would you believe I am spending $58/night for a Hampton Inn!).  The other nights I am staying in crappy motels.

I eagerly accepted this route because there were two side errands I wanted to do in Alabama.  If my tenant at Townhouse #3 doesn't come up with at least $1,000, I am filing an eviction at the courthouse.  Second, the S-10's registration is way overdue as it is still in my grandfather's name.  I am hopefully going to get the title in my name as one of the shops is in the town where the estate is being probated.

I've been in good spirits lately.  2013 has been a stressful year and I've been dealing with an anxiety whose source is most likely rooted in financial worries.  That should all be resolved soon.

Thursday, December 5

My Frugal Miser - November Income: $10,342



I sound like a broken record.  Once again I am reporting two vacancies.  I think one of those properties may finally be occupied, but I haven't received any income yet so we shall see.  I also began the eviction process on another tenant.  Unless he makes a payment this week, he is out.  One tenant paid two months' rent in November, so I am still reporting a decent figure.

Mystery shopping income is usually paid the month after the work was performed.  I did relatively little in November, but that won't show up until I post for December.



November Income
$3,164 Mystery Shopping
$7,077 Rental Income
$101 Other Sources
$10,342 Total Income for November

Notes:.  
  • I don't include transactions in my retirement accounts.  This includes rental income, dividends and capital gains and losses.
  • I include merchandising and hospitality work in the mystery shopping category since the companies that I shop for provide this extra side work. 

Tuesday, December 3

My Frugal Miser - November Expenses: $7,927



My Personal Expenses in November were higher than I need them to be.  If I am going to spend $20,000 in 2014, I have to average $1,667 per month.  Last month I bought a new computer and paid for the 2014 version of Quicken.  I tried to make Mint work for me but it is not robust enough.  I also bought over $400 worth of restaurant gift cards that we will redeem over time.  Since the registration on the S-10 is expired, I rented a car for a week to attend a conference in Orlando.  I won't be able to renew the registration until my grandfather's estate is settled.  Finally, I had to have a root canal retreated, which cost more than $500.

Business expenses were high because I began paying 2013 property taxes.  I spent nearly $3,000 on them.  In December it will be even higher.


November Personal Expenses:  $2,806


$285 Auto ($161 for rental, $27 for accessory, $51 for service, $46 for fuel)
$0 Bank Fees
$46 Clothing
$354 Computer
$85 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$659 Food
$66 Gifts Given
$514 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$159 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expenses
$546 Medical/Dental
$7 Miscellaneous
$45 Personal Care
$10 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$31 Utilities
$0 Vacation and Recreation

November Business Expenses:  $5,120

$895 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
$198 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
$4027 Rental Properties - Maintenance and Repairs


Total November Expenses : $7,927

Notes
  • I spent over $400 on restaurant gift cards (Food Category) that we will use over time.  The holidays usher in generous bonus offers so I loaded up in November.
  • I don't include principal payments in my expenses, only the interest portion of the monthly mortgage bills.

Monday, December 2

My Frugal Miser's 2014 Goals

Once again it's time to lay out the annual roadmap.  Publishing my goals this way keeps me accountable:  it's a constant reminder of what is important to me.


  • Lose 12 pounds

I've never met my weight loss goals, so this year I'm keeping it simple:  I want to lose at least one pound each month.
  • Increase my net worth $75,000
I can manipulate my net worth by either increasing income or decreasing expenses.  
  • Spend less than $20,000
Non-business spending for 2014 will be less than $20,000, or about $1,667 on a monthly basis.
  • Take one international trip
People tell me I need more balance in my life.  For several months I have thought about visiting Ecuador.  I want to see if I could live there, and a two week trip would help me decide.


That's it.  I have four primary goals, and I'm going to reach or surpass each of them next year.

Wednesday, November 27

Holiday Gift Card Deals Orgy

The holidays have become the time of year when retailers hand out free money.  It all has to do with the incentives they offer to entice shoppers to purchase gift cards.  Even if you don't need to buy gifts for others (which is presumably what most people are doing when they purchase gift cards),  it's not a bad idea to take advantage of some of these offers if you plan to spend money at the retailer in the future.  Basically, you are prepaying for future spending.  I have found some incredible offers this year:


  • Chili's is offering a $10 bonus card when you buy a $50 gift card.  I purchased mine through Mypoints.com, where I earned 1,000 MyPoints (20 per dollar spent), which is worth an extra $7.29 towards the $50 Regal gift card I am saving for.  We will only eat at Chili's when we have a free appetizer coupon, which are emailed out almost on a weekly basis.
  • Outback, Bonefish, Carraba's... all the Bloomin Brands restaurants... are offering $20 bonus cards when you buy a $100 gift card.  We use Outback coupons along with the gift cards.
  • One of my favorite deals is Papa John's.  Buy a $25 gift card, get a free large one topping pizza.
  • Another deal is the 2 free tacos and large drink you get at Taco Bell for buying a $20 gift card.
  • The deal ends today, but if you purchase a Paypal Mastercard at CVS and load it with $150, you receive $50 in Extra Care Bucks.  It costs $4.95 to buy the card, and I paid another $1.95 to withdraw the funds from an ATM machine.  You can avoid the $1.95 fee by using the card to charge things, but then you have to worry about paying another $4.95 monthly fee for using the card, which is charged soon after you activate the card.  I withdrew the funds right away and avoided that extra fee.  I've heard this is a regional deal.  It wasn't in my Sunday paper ad but I did find it in my online ad.
  • Ruby Tuesday is offering a $15 bonus card with the purchase of a $50 gift card.  On top of that, American Express is offering a $10 statement credit if you spend $30 or more at Ruby Tuesday (you have to register for the offer first).  I am getting $65 in gift cards for $40 - sweet!
Besides gift card deals, there are plenty of other opportunities you can take advantage of.  I mentioned the American Express statement credit.  I just discovered the deals at American Express - not sure how long they have been around.  I received a $5 statement credit for buying $5 gas at Murphy USA and another $5 credit for buying $25 gas at BP.   When I bought the $100 gift card at Bonefish Grill, I received a $10 credit.  I have found other deals at Shopdiscover, Ebates and the aforementioned Mypoints.

Wednesday, November 20

New Brakes and Bonefish

This morning I finally got around to installing new brake pads.  The first set turned out to be the wrong size.  I ended up making two trips to Advance Auto Parts, first to check out a loaner kit that had all the tools I needed and then to exchange the pads for the proper ones.  If I keep posting to this blog, it means I have survived my first attempt at doing a brake job.  Thus far they appear to be working properly.

It's a slow week.  Last weekend I attended the AAII Conference in Orlando.  It wasn't as educational as I had hoped it would be.  Older people (I was about the youngest attendee present) don't want to learn new things; they are interested in stock recommendations.  I have had a few mystery shops but there is barely anything posted on the boards.  November is going to be a slow month.

I also heard some good news regarding one of my vacant properties.  The management company emailed this morning to find out if I was okay renting to someone with a small dog.  Since this property has no carpet I was less concerned with the damage a dog could do and more concerned with getting it rented.  I still have two empty properties, but it looks as though both will be occupied before the end of the year.

I am also stocking up on gift cards.  During the holidays, retailers offer bonuses to get you to purchase them.  As an example yesterday I purchased a $100 card at Bonefish Grill.  The card is valid at several brands including Outback Steakhouse, but in order to get the bonus I had to purchase it at Bonefish Grill.  American Expess was offering a $10 statement credit if I spent $25 there.  Then, the restaurant gave a $20 bonus card for purchasing the gift card.  Basically I paid $90 for $120 in gift cards.  Outback sends BOGO coupons regularly in my area, so this will be a great deal when we have the urge to eat out.


Monday, November 11

The Week Ahead

Last week I was planning to put new brake pads on the S-10.  Instead, I exercised more than usual, did some things around the house, but mostly procrastinated.  I did purchase the brake pads, so now all I have to do is learn how to install them.  That's at the top of my list.

This week I will find out if a HUD foreclosure I placed a bid on is awarded to me.  I found a tiny duplex located in a fairly desirable area.  It's in rough shape (I love ugly houses), so if I buy it I will definitely have my hands full.  The plan will be to move into it once the biggest repairs are made and then to continue updating it from there.  More to come if I get good news.

On Friday I am heading to the AAII Investor's Conference in Orlando.  I will be driving back and forth on Friday and Saturday; on Sunday night I am shopping a hotel and will return home Monday morning.   There are some interesting speakers (the keynote will be Robert Shiller, Yale economist and co-creator of the Case-Schiller Home Price Index, who just won the nobel prize).  I hope to learn a few things.

Sunday, November 10

Crumbs

November is turning out to be a crappy month for mystery shopping work.  I had a small gas station route that I wrapped up on the 1st.  I also had 16 gas station mystery shops.  That provided me a huge reserve of extra gas - I have over 30 gallons stored in the shed - but the pay on these simple shops is just $6, so they don't move the needle.  After that, I've been picking up the crumbs in one or two shop increments.

The months of November and December are unique in the mystery shopping world.  Companies put more effort into scheduling shops earlier in the month because of Thanksgiving and Christmas.  The nice thing about this is that you can usually find decent bonuses on shops early on; the downside is that if you don't scoop up the jobs when offered, the second half of the month is going to be slow.  For example, I don't normally shop McDonald's, as the fee hardly goes over $7.50 in my area.  But this month I already found a shop paying $15, so I took it.  Another walk-in only location that I biked to was paying $10.  In fact, the vast majority of my work the past several days has been restaurant shops.

This week is no different.  Monday I have two restaurants to shop.  Wednesday and Thursday I have one each.  I am attending a conference this weekend and Sunday night I am shopping a hotel in the Orlando area.  On one hand, I hope I find more work.  I like being able to pay down my debts (plus these deadbeat tenants aren't helping things).  On the other hand, I have so many projects around the house that I want to tackle that it isn't so bad if I have some free time in my schedule.

Wednesday, November 6

My Frugal Miser - October Income: $7,459



Once again I am reporting two vacancies.  Even though I was told in September that one of those properties is now rented, the tenant has yet to move in.  Rental income was even lower because one of my tenants paid his October rent in November.

Mystery shopping income is net of expenses, including hotel stays.  It is low this month because I received a substantial check on November 1st which was for work I completed in October.  The expenses related to that income are reported here, but the actual income will be in my November report.



October Income
$2,257 Mystery Shopping
$5,188 Rental Income
$14 Other Sources
$7,459 Total Income for October

Notes:.  
  • I don't include transactions in my retirement accounts.  This includes rental income, dividends and capital gains and losses.
  • I include merchandising and hospitality work in the mystery shopping category since the companies that I shop for provide this extra side work. 

Tuesday, November 5

My Frugal Miser - October Expenses: $2,824



My auto expenses in October stand out as ridiculously high.  However, I used the S-10 to earn money mystery shopping, so I wasn't aimlessly driving about!  In October I drove thousands of miles.  I also had to make some repairs:  in St. George, UT I replaced several steering components and shocks; in Abilene, TX I replaced the wheels.  

Entertainment:  I spent $320 gambling over the 2 days in Vegas and 4 days in Tunica.  Another way to consider this expense:  all 6 nights I had free hotel rooms as well as free food.  I had to stay and eat somewhere, so my average $53 per day in spending isn't bad.  In addition to gambling, I paid $201 for tickets to the musical Book of Mormon, which we will be attending on the 14th in Tampa.  The $40 balance in this category was for movies and Netflix.

Vacation was the other big category.  During the first week of October we went on a cruise.


October Personal Expenses ($1,258) - $4,024 before Miscellaneous Reimbursement

$1897 Auto ($100 for AAA renewal, $1,130 for service, $667 for fuel)
$1 Bank Fees
$0 Clothing
$561 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$160 Food
$0 Gifts Given
$507 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$159 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expenses
$0 Medical/Dental
($2,764) Miscellaneous (income!)
$4 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$31 Utilities
$704 Vacation and Recreation

October Business Expenses ($1,566)

$902 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
$243 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
$421 Rental Properties - Maintenance and Repairs


Total October Expenses : $2,824

Notes
  • I don't include principal payments in my expenses, only the interest portion of the monthly mortgage bills.
  • I don't drive around aimlessly.  Almost all of my auto expenses were incurred in the course of completing mystery shops. 
  • $2,764 Miscellaneous was income this month.  The executor of my grandfather's estate reimbursed my out of pocket expenses, which were incurred in previous months.

Monday, November 4

The Week Ahead

I thought I would have more time last week to work on my to-do list, but I loaded up on mystery shops and when I was home I was not very motivated to do anything other than watch Netflix.  Three months on the road drained my energy!

So this week I want to check some things off my list.  I am starting today with 12 mystery shops.  I am nervous about the new car shop I am completing this morning.  I am supposed to shop an uber luxury vehicle and my budget is $150,000-$200,000.  There will be some serious role play to pull that off.  In preparation, I trimmed my nails, cut my hair and am wearing a nicer than normal outfit.  I also looked on Google Maps to find a place nearby to park the S-10.  It would not be wise to drive to the dealership in a 2002 pickup.  The nice part about high end mystery shopping is that the pay is higher, and that is the only reason I agreed to do this shop.  The other 11 shops I am doing today are easy gas station mystery shops that take 10 minutes each.

After today I only have 7 gas stations and a takeout pizza shop scheduled.  I am sure there will be more that comes up, so I am not worried.  A light workweek leaves time for everything else.  On Wednesday I have to have a root canal retreated.  It's been a couple of years since my root canal, but when I had my teeth cleaned in September the dentist noticed a problem that has to be corrected.  I also want to replace my brake pads.  I have never done that but my brother says it is easy to I'll be learning via Youtube.

The rest of my week will be filled with boring but necessary tasks.  Things like paying bills and figuring out whether I can live without Quicken:  I do most of my work on a Chromebook, but Quicken has to run on a PC or Mac.  My PC is on its last legs.


Saturday, October 26

Mystery Shopping Road Trip: Post Mortem

Back when I worked at the software company, my sales director required an occasional review of a "deal" that was either won or lost to break down the effort involved during the sales process.  We called that meeting a post mortem, and it was an opportunity to look at the big picture and learn from what transpired.

Since early August I have been traveling the country on perhaps the longest mystery shopping road trip anyone has taken, ever.

Total Gross Income:  $13,118
Total Expenses:  $7,434
Total Net Income:  $5,684

Total Miles Driven:  13,428

Fringe Benefits

Hilton Honors:  earned 48,048 points, net of redemptions (valued at app. $151).
Choice Hotels:  earned 59,090 points, net of 8,000 point promotional redemption for $50 gas card (valued at app. $457).
Value of hotel points calculated based on information provided at http://hotel-rewards-programs.findthebest.com/.
I also earned a handful of points earned with other loyalty programs, maybe $25 worth.

Credit Card Rewards:  I earned roughly $185 in rewards by charging everything.

Value of Rewards Earned:  $818

I did much better in the earlier weeks of my trip.  Several of the hotels were free because they were mystery shops.  I also did not have any large vehicle repairs until Week 6 of the trip.  As the trip progressed, I noticed hotels in parts of Oklahoma and Texas were crazy expensive, generally because of the demand created by the oil field workers in the area.  Also, I knew before I accepted this route that I had two prior commitments that would require me to return to Florida.  Absent this expense, my net income would have been about $1,000 more and I would have completed the route faster (probably in 6 weeks).

Thursday, October 24

Mystery Shopping Road Trip: Week 8 and 9 Recap

I have completed all shops on this route.  This last post covers 6 days of shopping and the weekend in between weeks 8 and 9.

My week began when I left Las Vegas and drove 500 miles to Farmington, NM.  I completed shops in New Mexico and Texas in this final stretch, ending in Athens, TX, which is about 75 miles southeast of Dallas.  I spent the weekend in Abilene, TX.  That was a most uneventful weekend as there is little reason for one to visit that town (no offense, Abileners).  I saw Captain Phillips and Carrie while there and dined at a restaurant I discovered while in Texas, Rosa's Tortilla Factory.  I love that place.  The prices for the Tex-Mex flavors are comparable to Taco Bell, but the food is so much better.   If you dine in, your food is served on real plates and there is a salsa bar.  Plus, every meal comes with piping hot, freshly made tortillas on the side.

While in Abilene I did replace my wheels.  I bought four aluminum wheels from a junkyard and had them installed at Wal-Mart.  I don't like investing money in the S-10, but the holes in the wheels where the lug nuts attach to the studs (basically what holds the wheels onto the truck) were worn out.

After I left Athens I drove to Tunica, where I am spending four nights before driving to Nashville for the time share shop.  In my expenses below I am including all my travel up to arrival in Tunica.  My accommodations and food in Tunica are free.  Thus far I have won a little cash so hopefully I don't spend too much on gambling while here.

Week Eight/Nine Gross:  $1886
Week Eight/Nine Expenses:  $1374
Week Eight/Nine Net Income:  $512

All my expenses are being tracked through four categories:  hotel, food, gas and other.  I spent $66 on food.  Hotel expenses were $583, just under $73 per night.  I spent $320 on gas, $11 on movies and $394 on repairs.  Hotels are much more expensive in certain parts of Texas (and Oklahoma) because of the oil boom.  It's interesting that I paid $119 for a Comfort Suites in Midland, TX when a nearly comparable room at the Quality Inn in Farmington, NM was only $47.

Soon I will post a recap of my entire trip.


Monday, October 21

Wrapping Up

I'm in my hotel room in Waco.  It's hard to believe, but tomorrow I finish my dealership service route.  I have been reflecting on my adventures this summer:

  • late-night blackjack at the Harrah's in New Orleans.  What a night.  I met some interesting people, won a little money, and somehow made it back to my hotel without getting arrested.
  • sleeping in a ghetto hotel in Orangeburg, SC.  That Super 8 was the worst hotel I visited during my route.
  • spending an evening in Durham with my brother and his wife.  We went barhopping and reflected on our messed up childhood.
  • driving hundreds of miles in the Wyoming nothingness.  No phone signal and no gas stations for miles and miles.
  • weekend in Vegas.  I had a wonderful debate with a Canadian about Obamacare while playing hours of blackjack at Binion's downtown.
  • sticking my finger in the service advisor's pastry in suburban Salt Lake City.  I thought it was Play Doh!
  • meeting up with Andy from Tight Fisted Miser for lunch in Kansas City.  He showed me how he converted his hatchback into a rather comfortable bed.
  • visiting several Breaking Bad filming sites in Albuquerque.

Alas, all good things come to an end.  I have three stops tomorrow, the last one being Athens, Texas.  From there I am driving to Tunica, where I will crash for four nights.  Then I have a timeshare shop in Nashville, some gas stations in Birmingham, AL and Dothan, AL, and, finally... home!

Monday, October 14

Mystery Shopping Road Trip: Week Eight Kick-Off

One lesson I will share with aspiring full-time mystery shoppers:  learn to grind it out.  When I committed to this route, I had other obligations already.  The friction (and cost) from flying home twice has kept me from really cashing in on this route, plus I'm in my 8th week (longer when you consider home-time) when I probably could have compressed this into 7 weeks if I had really wanted to.  Time is money when you consider the extra hotels and gas.

I am leaving Las Vegas this morning for the 500 mile drive to Farmington, New Mexico.  That means I will only have 4 days of income this week.  Fortunately I will end the week within spitting distance of the finish line.  My weekend will be spent in Abilene, TX, with an easy two days of work remaining next week before I finish the dealer service shops.  Of course, I don't get to head home quite yet.  I am committed to a time share shop in Nashville on the 26th and have some time to kill before then.  But, by Halloween I will be back in sunny Florida.

Sunday, October 13

Mystery Shopping Road Trip: Week Seven Recap

I have completed all but 23 of the 157 shops on this route.

My week began on Sunday when I flew back to Kansas City.  I ended in Las Vegas on Saturday afternoon.  Now, had I driven from Point A to Point B, that distance alone is about 1,400 miles.  Alas, my trip included stunning scenic stops in Nebraska, a two day zig-zagging through the nothingness that is Wyoming, and two days in friendly Utah.  There is a point in western Nebraska where civilization ceases to exist until you reach Salt Lake City, or so it seemed.  In fact, I experienced an anxious 50 mile drive with the Low Fuel light on in Nebraska.  That was the first time I realized gas stations are hard to come by in those parts.  I probably did more driving this week than any other week of this trip.

To make matters worse, I barely broke even, thanks to a hefty repair bill.  A general guideline I use regarding auto repairs is that I make a note the first time someone tells me about an issue that needs to be addressed.   I have trust issues when it comes to repair shops, borne out of ignorance about what's under the hood.  I am sure anyone who has been overcharged for a repair or been told they need a repair that they don't can relate to my concerns.  So, the second time I am told about needing the same repair, I will usually get the work done.  Some of the steering components on the S-10 were "loose" and apparently could cause a violent crash were they to fail.  The front shocks also needed to be replaced.  Less the oil change I will be reimbursed for, I spent $685 on vehicle repairs on Saturday.

Week Seven Gross:  $1618
Week Seven Expenses:  $1356
Week Seven Net Income:  $262

I set a goal of having $879 in weekly net income.  Were in not for the repairs I had done on Saturday, I would have made it.

All my expenses are being tracked through four categories:  hotel, food, gas and other.  Last week I spent $48 on food.  Hotel expenses were $348, just under $58 per night.  I spent $274 on gas and $685 on repairs.

Thursday, October 10

Hello Great Salt Lake, Goodbye Wyoming

Generally I find many good things to say about a place, but all I can say about Wyoming is that I'm glad I'm not there anymore.  I'm not made for such a place.  Don't get me wrong - most of the people I encountered were decent people.  They held the door for me at gas stations and didn't honk their horns like they do in Florida.

Why-NO-Wyoming?

  • No Cell Coverage.  Not with my provider, anyhow.  In a state where you drive miles without seeing life, it's scary not having a lifeline in case something happens.
  • Empty-tank Anxiety.  If my gas tank dropped below half a tank, I started to sweat.  Seriously.  This place is desolate.  I drove 80 miles without seeing ONE SINGLE GAS STATION.  How is this possible?
  • It's all Blue Collar.  Nothing wrong with that, but as a mystery shopper having my tires rotated in several small towns, I need a good excuse for being there.  I was asked if I was there to hunt three different times.  I guess people from other places only come to Wyoming to shoot animals, look at wind turbines or drill for oil.
  • It's all White.  Just about, anyway.  Diversity is refreshing.  You don't appreciate this until you visit somewhere that lacks it.
  • I Like Tropical.  Wyoming was cold and gray, and the wind blew a lot.  There's only like 3 trees in the entire state.

Needless to say, when I passed the Utah state line this evening, I was overjoyed.  Soon I saw a Super Target, and a mall, and...traffic!  I know that if I break down here, eventually help will arrive.

Wednesday, October 9

Random: Matthew Shepard Murder Site


I realize I've posted very few photos while on this massive road trip.

While visiting Laramie, WY today I had some time on my hands.  I searched out the Matthew Shepard murder site.  It happened somewhere near this intersection.


Tuesday, October 8

3Q Update on 2013 Goals

Publicly posting my intentions helps me stay accountable.  I list my goals, past and present, here.  Let's review my plans for 2013:
  • Lose 30 pounds. Start: 230 Current: 233

 My weight was the same when I checked it in June.  I guess one way to look at it is that I have managed to maintain my weight while traveling the country this summer.  Many people gain weight when away from home.

  • Increase net worth $75,000. 

My net worth is up by over $20,000 year to date.  I never anticipated the expenses I would have at my rental properties.  Two long-term vacancies haven't helped, either.

  • Reduce utilities expense 10%.

I am not going to meet this goal and I have decided not to track it for now.  It doesn't move the needle enough to dwell on it.  I do see value in controlling all my expenses, but I haven't even been home, which makes it kind of hard to control things like the thermostat and television.  

  • Reduce debt to $350,000 (or $300,000 if my tenants exercise their lease-purchase option.

When I last updated my goals in June, my total debt was $366,334.  I've reduced it by another $10,000 since then and by over $40,000 since the beginning of the year.  

  • Purchase one piece of real estate. 

After I accepted my latest mystery shopping route I all but stopped looking at houses.

2013 is on track to be a solid year for me on many accounts.  But my pesky weight problem is absolutely what keeps me up at night.  I need to find a better way to stay away from overeating.









Monday, October 7

My Frugal Miser - September Income: $8,560



Once again I am reporting two vacancies.  The good news is that it appears one of those properties is now rented.  Mystery shopping income is net of expenses, including hotel stays.  If I stayed in a hotel while traveling, I deducted the cost from the income I brought in.  I prepaid several hotels that I will be occupying in October; otherwise the amount would be higher.



September Income
$3,275 Mystery Shopping
$5,040 Rental Income
$244 Other Sources
$8,560 Total Income for September

Notes:.  
  • I don't include transactions in my retirement accounts.  This includes rental income, dividends and capital gains and losses.
  • I include merchandising and hospitality work in the mystery shopping category since the companies that I shop for provide this extra side work. 

Sunday, October 6

Mystery Shopping Road Trip: Cold Weather Edition

I've been enjoying my visit home the last two weeks.  We took a 5 night cruise, but this woman named Karen followed out boat around the entire week and both stops - Grand Cayman and Cozumel - were soakers.  On the income side, I completed a number of mystery shops and worked two days as a greeter at the Tampa Convention Center.  On the other side of the ledger, I had some help mitigating my expenses.  On our way to return the rental car before the cruise, our car broke down in the middle of the road.  After describing the harrowing incident to the manager, he discounted my rental by almost half.

Week Seven kicks off Monday in Manhattan.  Kansas.  Where it's cold, relatively speaking.  It is approaching 90 degrees in Tampa today (it hit 94 yesterday), but when I touch down in Kansas City it will be a brisk 50 degrees or so.

I will do a huge amount of driving this week.  Besides Kansas, the S-10 travels through Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada.  That's right, I am spending the weekend in Vegas.  My last stop on Saturday is only two hours from Las Vegas, and who can complain about a free room for a couple of nights?

This week is somewhat light on shops, but only because of the distance between each stop.  Originally that was a good thing.  I had plans to visit Mount Rushmore, maybe even Yellowstone.  Our fine government had other plans, as the shutdown means I won't be visiting any National Parks for the time being.

This mega route will conclude at the end of the month.  I have just 42 dealership shops to do, but have added several gas stations to help with my fuel costs.  Things wrap up near the end of October with a recorded timeshare presentation.

Saturday, October 5

My Frugal Miser - September Expenses: $3,364



In September I did okay.  I kept my rental property expenses low, mostly because I spent so much earlier in the year.  My personal expenses are even lower than it looks because almost all the $561 I spent on gas was to do the mystery shopping route I am on.




September Personal Expenses ($1,880)

$561 Auto (all for fuel)
$0 Bank Fees (for August, listed under Business Expenses - Interest as I took out a loan to fund repairs)
$13 Clothing
$233 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$120 Food
$0 Gifts Given
$604 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$159 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expenses
$0 Medical/Dental
$160 Miscellaneous
$0 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$31 Utilities
$0 Vacation and Recreation

September Business Expenses ($1,484)

$909 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
$317 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
$258 Rental Properties - Maintenance and Repairs


Total September Expenses : $3,364

Notes
  • I don't include principal payments in my expenses, only the interest portion of the monthly mortgage bills.
  • I don't drive around aimlessly.  Almost all of my auto expenses were incurred in the course of completing mystery shops. 
  • $160 Miscellaneous:  $90 reimbursable expense related to my grandfather's estate; $70 parking at the Kansas City airport

Wednesday, September 25

Mystery Shopping Road Trip: Week Six Recap

I have completed all but 42 of the 157 shops on this route.

My week began south of Oklahoma City.  I spent most of the week in Oklahoma, but also visited several towns in Kansas including Wichita and Topeka.  It was all about work last week - since I was heading home Thursday night I focused on making money.  The trip home was eventful.  I arrived at the Kansas City airport early because I was hoping to change to an earlier, non-stop flight.  The airline said I would have to pay $341 so I stuck with my original flight.  After sitting on the tarmac over two hours due to storms, we returned to the airport to refuel.  More than an hour later we took off for Atlanta.  Since I missed my connection, I spent the night in a hotel and arrived home on Friday.

Week Six Gross:  $1312
Week Six Expenses:  $497
Week Six Net Income:  $815

I set a goal of having $879 in weekly net income.  I came close, which is good since this was a short week.

All my expenses are being tracked through four categories:  hotel, food, gas and other.  Last week I spent $21 on food.  Hotel expenses were very reasonable, $247.  I spent $148 on gas and $81 on airport parking.

Thursday, September 19

Sleepless in Wichita

The Oklahoma Plains:  Wind Farms Galore
In about 15 hours I fly home from Kansas City.  It's hard to believe I started this leg of my route in New Orleans less than three weeks ago.  It feels like much more time has passed.  All in all I am enjoying the travel; my only real frustration is with the high cost of hotel rooms.  I was lucky tonight to have a decent room for $41.99.  In Woodward, OK I had to pay $114 plus tax.  That's too much for a place to lay my head.  Blame the oil and gas boom in Oklahoma for the fierce competition for hotel rooms.

Today I have three stops on my way to the Kansas City airport:  Augusta, Emporia and Topeka.  It's one of the easier days of this journey and is a relatively straight shot to my destination.  Once I wrap up, I will have 42 shops remaining in this 157 shop route.  I am getting close to needing new wheels due to the constant tire rotations.  Never realized that having my wheels torqued over 100 times would slowly warp those five holes where the wheels attach to the vehicle.  Eventually the lug nuts won't be able to hold the wheels to my vehicle.  I'm crossing my fingers I make it to the end of this route without having to purchase new wheels.

The last stretch of my route takes me out West to places I've never been.  I'm considering making a few detours along the way to experience the sites.  Within a reasonable drive of my next stops are Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Las Vegas, and the filming locations for my current favorite show, Breaking Bad.  I have time to make these stops, so it's really a matter of deciding to spend a little extra for gas and hotels.  It's hard for me to let go of the job at hand to have a little fun.  My brain is wired to keep grinding whenever I have an opportunity to make money to maximize my earnings; it's hard to tell myself that it's okay to play tourist every now and then.

Monday, September 16

Mystery Shopping Road Trip: Week Six Kick-Off

This will be a shortened week. I am enjoying this road trip, but I am so excited to be going home this week. Today I start in Duncan, Oklahoma. It's a small town about 75 miles south of Oklahoma City. I continue shopping Oklahoma on Tuesday and part of Wednesday. Wednesday night I am staying in Wichita. Then, after a full day of work on Thursday, I am flying home from Kansas City on Thursday evening.

Friday we are attending Russell Brand's Messiah Complex tour in Tampa. While in town I have I route of gas station audits, but little else in terms of work. The big item on the agenda - the very reason I am boarding a plane - is the 5 day cruise we embark on September 30th. Our itinerary includes stops in Grand Cayman and Cozumel.

Sunday, September 15

Mystery Shopping Road Trip: Week Five Recap

I have now completed 99 of the 157 shops on this route, including 20 last week.

Last week I started in Myrtle Beach, moving north through marshlands to North Carolina.  Then I headed west, visiting my brother and his wife in Durham before heading through the Smoky Mountains.  Then I made the very long journey to Oklahoma, where my week begins tomorrow morning.   I enjoyed the opportunity to hang out with my brother since we only see each other once or twice a year.  Also, the drive through the mountains was serene.

Week Four Gross:  $1669
Week Four Expenses:  $1163
Week Four Net Income:  $506

I set a goal of having $879 in weekly net income.  I failed at this, mostly because of my spending on hotels.  Also, there were no shops on Saturday last week.

All my expenses are being tracked through four categories:  hotel, food, gas and other.  Last week I spent $30 on food.  Hotel expenses remained the highest cost, $855.  I spent $278 on gas.

Thursday, September 12

Morristown, TN

It's been a fast week.  I'm spending the night at a Super 8 in Morristown, TN.  I managed to do an extra shop today so I only have three to do tomorrow.  One of those is in Sevierville, which is a town with so many memories for me.  My best friend in the world from grade school moved there in the 5th grade.  We stayed in touch and visited often; I attended his wedding, and now we are Facebook friends.  Unfortunately, Sevierville is my "middle" stop and my last stop is a long drive from there, so I won't be able to visit.

Tomorrow night I check-in to Sam's Town in Tunica.  I look forward to having a relaxing Saturday playing video poker and blackjack and partaking in some red grapes.

I will post my earnings and expenses for the week on Sunday.  Just 61 shops left in this route!

Monday, September 9

Mystery Shopping Road Trip: Week Five Kick-Off

The weekend was decent. I stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn, Myrtle Beach. The hotel was by a mall and on Saturday afternoon I saw a movie and did a wing shop. Sunday morning I completed 8 gas station audits and then did a fast casual burger shop for lunch. My tank is full and, besides the hotel, I spent hardly anything over the weekend that wasn't reimbursed.  

This week I travel through North Carolina and Tennessee, including the Smoky Mountains. There are no Saturday shops available so I am only working five days, so it is a fairly easy week. Friday night I am driving to Tunica for two free nights at Sam's Town. Hopefully I control myself better than my last gambling trip. Then, Sunday I drive to Norman, Oklahoma, where my next week begins. On the 20th I fly back home for a couple of weeks.

Sunday, September 8

Mystery Shopping Road Trip: Week Four Recap

I have now completed 79 of the 157 shops on this route, including 19 last week.  With only 78 shops to go, I am now at the halfway mark!

Last week I started in New Orleans, worked along the Mississippi and Florida Gulf Coast, and then skipped over to the Georgia Coast.  I ended my week in Myrtle Beach.

Week Four Gross:  $1574
Week Four Expenses:  $611
Week Four Net Income:  $963
Net of Trip Home:  $496

I set a goal of having $879 in weekly net income.  I did better than this last week excluding my trip home the week prior.  I spent $467 including roundtrip air, rental car and airport parking.

It was a slower week because I was unable to work on Labor Day and on Saturday I was only able to complete one shop (many dealerships are closed on Saturday).  I kept my food expenses low by mystery shopping three restaurants.  I have only been eating out at dinner every day.  Breakfast is provided by the hotel and lunch I snack on fruit or granola bars.

All my expenses are being tracked through four categories:  hotel, food, gas and other.  I don't worry too much about gas - the only way I control that is by driving the speed limit and filling up when I see lower prices.  Once again I find my food spending surprisingly low.  Last week I spent $22 on food.  Hotel expenses remained the highest cost, $425.  I spent $151 on gas and $13 on clothes.

Wednesday, September 4

Perks: Earning Loyalty Bonuses on my Mystery Shopping Route

I love taking advantage of incentives when I spend money.  Those incentives come primarily from two sources:  hotel points and credit card rewards.  When I began planning this route, I looked at all my credit cards as well as all my hotel loyalty programs to find out what promotions were being offered.

Hotel Loyalty Programs

The first week of my route, Choice Hotels was offering a $50 gas card for every two stays.  Four nights at Choice brands landed me $100 in gas cards, nearly cutting in half the cost of those rooms.  Now, Wyndham is offering double points and Hilton Honors is offering double points on weekday stays and triple points on weekends.  The HHonors promotion is enabling me to stay at higher end hotels over the next few weeks.  

For example, this weekend I am spending three nights at a Hilton Garden Inn. I analyzed my options in a spreadsheet:



Hotel
Total Cost
Reward Points Earned
How I Could Redeem Those Points
Approximate Value of Reward Points Under Best Circumstances
Net Total Cost of Stay
Net Total Cost per Night For Stay
Hilton Garden Inn
$319
13694
3 nights @ points + dollars (4,000+$35) Hampton Inn, normally $89/night; 1,694 points leftover
$137
$182
$61
Days Inn
$159
2280
41% towards a free night at the lowest end Wyndham properties
$23
$136
$45



Bottom line:  I can spend $45/night for the crappiest hotel in the area, or $61/night for the nicest.

Credit Card Reward Points
Another way to reward myself is with the points I earn by using credit cards.  Gone are those boring days when you could only expect 1% back.  I carry a handwritten card in my wallet that lists the bonus categories for each of my credit cards.  Some of these are seasonal bonuses.  Right now my Discover and Chase cards are earning 5% back on gasoline, which is a huge benefit with all the driving I am doing.  And, my Hilton Honors card gives extra points for gas, groceries and restaurants.  During this route, I will easily earn $150 or more in rewards by using my credit cards to pay for everything.

One last way I am saving money is with my AAA discount.  As I am driving a 2002 vehicle, it makes sense to take advantage of a AAA membership, but even more so because of the extra discount I receive at hotels, which is usually around 10% off the best available rate.

More About My Weekend in Myrtle Beach
The three nights are costing $282 + tax.  Because I have reached Diamond Status with Hilton Honors, combined with the Triple Points Bonus, I will receive 11,780 points for that stay (2,820 base points, 1,410 Diamond Bonus Points, 1,410 “Points plus Points” preference, 5,640 Triple Points Bonus and 500 bonus points for booking online with my Hilton Honors American Express Card).  BUT, it doesn't stop there.  Since I am using my Hilton Honors American Express, I receive 6 points per dollar spent with Hilton, including taxes.  My total stay, with taxes, is $318.66, so I will receive 1,914 HHonors points by using my AMEX.  In total, I will receive 13,694 points on this one stay.  The HIlton Garden Inn is ranked #5 of 226 hotels, with 94% of guests recommending it.  It received a 4.5 out of 5 star rating and received Trip Advisor’s 2013 Certificate of Excellence.

What’s the alternative?  On the low end, I could have booked a Days Inn for $47 per night.  On Trip Advisor, only 15% of guests recommend the hotel, and it is ranked #199 out of 226 hotels in the area with a 2 out of 5 star rating.  The most recent reviews are titled, “Disgusting”, “Holy”, “Worst Hotel Ever” and “Don’t Bother.”  I would spend $141 plus tax for three nights.

Tuesday, September 3

My Frugal Miser - August Income: $12,581



August was mediocre, as I still have two empty townhouses.  However, one tenant paid his September rent in the month of August, which balances everything out.  My tenant at Townhouse #3 paid nothing in August after making a decent rent payment at the end of July.  I'm very close to evicting him.  My mystery shopping income bounced back nicely, even better than I am reporting.  I decided for simplicity's sake to post my hotel expenses against my MS income, so what you see below is net of my lodging expenses.

I am pretty frustrated with my rental property portfolio.  Of the 10 properties I have in the Birmingham area, only 6 tenants were current at the end of August.  Two of the ten are vacant and two are falling more behind every day.  Something's gotta give!


August Income
$5,567 Mystery Shopping
$6,908 Rental Income
$106 Other Sources
$12,581 Total Income for August

Notes:.  
  • I don't include transactions in my retirement accounts.  This includes rental income, dividends and capital gains and losses.
  • I include merchandising and hospitality work in the mystery shopping category since the companies that I shop for provide this extra side work. 

Monday, September 2

My Frugal Miser - August Expenses: $9,770



I finally turned the corner in August.  The last three months, heavy spending on my rental properties meant that my expenses exceeded my income.  In August I returned to a positive cash flow situation.  I expect September to be an even better improvement in the income to expense ratio.  Again this month, most of my spending was to maintain and repair my rental properties.  Among other things, I installed a new HVAC system ($3,700 - the second in two months!) and replaced dishwashers in two properties.  Much of my Personal Expense spending was in pursuit of income last month.  Mystery shopping requires a lot of gas, and when I am on the road I am usually spending more on food.


August Personal Expenses ($2,425)


$778 Auto ($227 for 6 months insurance, $551 for fuel)
$0 Bank Fees (for August, listed under Business Expenses - Interest as I took out a loan to fund repairs)
$0 Clothing
$391 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$264 Food
$0 Gifts Given
$500 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$159 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expenses
$0 Medical/Dental
$254 Miscellaneous
$0 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$56 Taxes
$148 Utilities
($124) Vacation and Recreation (refund of car rental deposit from Vegas trip)

August Business Expenses ($7,345)

$917 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
$388 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
$6,040 Rental Properties - Maintenance and Repairs


Total August Expenses : $9,770

Notes
  • I don't include principal payments in my expenses, only the interest portion of the monthly mortgage bills.
  • I don't drive around aimlessly.  Almost all of my auto expenses were incurred in the course of completing mystery shops. 
  • $254 Miscellaneous:  $90 reimbursable expense related to my grandfather's estate; $164 to renew mailbox for one year

Saturday, August 31

Mystery Shopping Road Trip: Week Four Kick Off

On Sunday I am flying back to New Orleans to resume my route.  It was nice going home for a few days.  I completed a timeshare shop Saturday - Monday.  The fee and reimbursement for mileage just about pays for the rental car I am using while in Clearwater.  I managed to pick up a few shops while in Florida, mostly what I refer to as “lifestyle shops.”  By that I mean shops I do not for the fee but instead mostly for fun.  We had lunch at a tapas bar one day, went to the movies another day, and had a free dinner one night.  In addition to the lifestyle shops, I did three grocery store audits and shopped a bonused college bookstore.  The bookstore paid $50 and took 20 minutes.  Sweet!


This next week I will travel east from New Orleans along the Gulf Coast, then to the Atlantic coast of Georgia and South Carolina.  Next weekend I am in Myrtle Beach.  I added several gas station audits for Sunday since I can’t shop the dealer service centers on Sunday.  Not realizing at the time that Monday was a holiday, I will only be shopping 4 full days and one half day (Saturday) this week.  On Sunday night I am staying at the IP in Biloxi.  It’s a Boyd casino.  I am loyal to Boyd and concentrate my spending there when convenient.

It looks like this second leg of my route is going to cost more, at least for hotels.  I have booked all my hotels through September 19th, which is when I go home again.  I was disappointed at the prices I found most nights.  As an example, one night there were four hotels in the town where I needed to stay.  The cheapest, a Super 8, was $81 plus tax, so close to $90.  For a Super 8!  The Hampton Inn was $30 more, tax included.  Hilton is doing a double point bonus on weekdays and trip bonus on weekends through September, plus I would much prefer a Hampton over a Super 8, so that’s what I booked.

Monday, August 26

Mystery Shopping Road Trip: Week Three Recap

My second full week is in the books.  I have now completed 60 of the 157 shops on this route, including 26 in Week 3.

Last week I started east of Dallas, working my way through rural Texas.  I spent a day in the Beaumont area before following I-10 to New Orleans.  My car  (AKA the Magical ATM Machine) is currently parked at the New Orleans airport as I flew home to complete a time share mystery shop.

Week Three Gross:  $2132
Week Three Expenses:  $594
Week Three Net Income:  $1538

I set a goal of having $879 in weekly net income.  I did even better last week.  I kept my expenses low by mystery shopping two of my 7 hotels and by calling up Delta Downs (owned by Boyd Gaming) and asking for a free stay.  The old adage, "It never hurts to ask" was proven true by that little experiment.  Of course, the $200 contribution I made to the one-armed bandit hardly justified my free hotel, buffet and glass of wine, but it didn't hurt too bad.  So, three hotels were free and two were under $40 (using points + dollars rewards redemptions with Hilton Honors).  I only paid the going rate for one hotel night last week.  Using my AAA discount, that room was $71.

All my expenses are being tracked through four categories:  hotel, food, gas and other.  I don't worry too much about gas - the only way I control that is by driving the speed limit and filling up when I see lower prices.  Once again I find my food spending intriguing.  Last week I spent $68 on food.  What I have discovered is that I only need to spend money on the last meal of the day.  Grabbing a banana or box of cereal at the free hotel breakfast sustains me through lunch.  Some nights I "splurge" on a decent meal; others I spend $3 on fast food.

The route picks back up in New Orleans on September 1st.

Saturday, August 24

MSY to TPA

I woke up this morning in New Orleans.  After a lukewarm shower in a slow draining tub, I ate a waffle in observance of National Waffle Day.  I'm not sure why they consider that food.  The good news is that I fly home this afternoon!

I left Clearwater on August 6th.  Eighteen days later I will have completed 60 of the 157 dealership shops on my route.  That includes the two I complete this morning en route to the airport.  Tonight I drive to Pompano Beach to shop a timeshare resort.  It's a whirlwind!

Fortunately, on Tuesday I really do make it home for a few days of low key living.  I need to get my Florida license so that I can renew the tag on my car, which is expiring.  Besides that I don't have much planned.  I imagine I will find some local shops to pass the time.

It's been a great run.  It starts all over again next Sunday when I fly back to New Orleans.  The second leg of my trip takes me along the Gulf Coast, then to the Georgia Coast and north, before I cut across somewhere in North Carolina.  I break again when I get to Oklahoma City.

Wednesday, August 21

$492

People often ask, "Can mystery shopping replace a full-time income?"  I am here to say that it can.  On Monday, I set a new one-day record:

In under 8 hours, I grossed $492.

True, I have some expenses; I didn't net $500.  But those expenses were minimal:  I used a cash + points redemption for a night at Hampton Inn ($39 with tax), I spent $10 for Mexican food for dinner, and I drove nearly 200 miles.

Any time I post figures like this, the naysayers email me or post comments telling me why they could never achieve this.  But you can.  It's called persistence.  I'm not working a $13,000 mystery shopping route because I got lucky.  I'm doing it because I worked hard to show I do good work, and built relationships with schedulers.  I also found a niche:  it's because of the specific car I drive that I qualify for these shops.  But I am only shopping 157 out of over 3,000 dealerships, and that is for just one manufacturer.  So many other vehicles also qualify for similar shops.

Really, the qualifications needed to make mystery shopping work are basically the same as with any career:

  • Hunger.  You've got to want to make money.
  • Passion.  You have to find a bigger purpose than just the money.  
  • Consistency.  You have to be reliable.  Give 100% every time.  Take no shortcuts (unless they are allowed).
  • Be Professional.  Trust me, there are days when I want to tell an editor what I really think.  They can get annoying.  But that is self-destructive.  I treat them with respect, and thank them for their feedback (no matter how mean they are!).

Tuesday, August 20

Busted

Sunday morning I was identified as a mystery shopper.  Fortunately it was for a hotel and not one of the service shops.  I do not know how my cover was blown, but the scenario does put me at risk.  One requirement for this hotel (a low end property - I only took it for the free night) was that I take exterior photos of the property.  I took every precaution:  there were two entrances, so my photos were taken from the back entrance.  I did not see security cameras so I can't figure out how they would have known.  Plus, it was a simple shop.  Other than check-in and check-out, I only had to have one interaction with an employee.  

It was interesting how I "discovered" that I had been outed.  When I checked out I requested a copy of my folio.  There, next to my payment information, was a note:  "DB Ref PO# Possible Mystery Shopper!! Use His Name!!".  If DB stands for database, I wonder if the company-wide system is now annotated with this.  Let's hope not - I am checking into another hotel for this company tomorrow.

Unfortunately, this also meant I had to cancel my Sunday night reservation.  When I contacted the mystery shopping company to let them know I was discovered, they agreed that a second shop in the Dallas area was risky.

Monday, August 19

Mystery Shopping Road Trip: Week Three Kick Off

I'm leaving Dallas this morning.  My first stop is two hours away, but I chose to backtrack to Dallas for two hotel mystery shops.  Besides, I prefer having access to big city amenities when I am not working.

This week I am shopping east Texas and the Louisiana coast.  Saturday I am parking my vehicle at the New Orleans airport and flying home for a week.  I can't wait to go home for a few days.

I scored a free room for Wednesday at Delta Downs, a Boyd property.  All it took was a call to the property and a request to speak with a host.  I really am not a heavy gambler, I promise!  I am also doing some hotel mystery shops.  I should only be out of pocket for two hotel nights this week.  Sweet!

Overall my pace is working.  Most days I complete 4 service shops.  On Saturdays I try to do two (most shops close early on Saturdays if they are open at all).  There have been a couple of tight days.  Today is one of them.  I can't leave my hotel until after 7 AM (the mystery shop requires it) and I have a 2+ hour drive to my first shop.

I return to New Orleans on Sunday, September 1st.  The next leg of my trip is somewhat awkward.  I continue eastward, then north along the east coast to North Carolina.  Then I work my way west near Chattanooga, TN.  From there I drive past all the places I just shopped.  One reason I did this was to give myself a second chance to visit any shops I may have missed, but fortunately I didn't miss any.  I continue for a couple days in Oklahoma.  Then, on September 19th, I fly back home from Oklahoma City.  We are going on a cruise at the end of September and I have some other commitments the week before we leave.

Sunday, August 18

Mystery Shopping Road Trip: Week Two Recap

My first full week is complete.  I have now completed 34 of the 157 shops on this route.

Last week I started in the Memphis area, worked through Arkansas, Oklahoma, and finally east of Dallas.  The weather was amazing:  low humidity and most days were in the 70s or 80s.  Much of the drive took me through rural parts of the country I have never seen.

If I had stopped myself at Sam's Town, I would have done really well this week.  I almost stopped while I was about $500 ahead, but then I started drinking and got stupid.  Fortunately I was still ahead for the week. I only paid for 5 nights in hotels and my spending on food - for the entire week (!), was just $27.  I rarely ate restaurant meals, opting for food at supermarkets.  I authorized two small repairs on the truck that are not reimbursed by the mystery shopping company.

Week One Gross:  $2005
Week One Expenses:  $1232
Week One Net Income:  $773

I set a goal of having $879 in weekly net income.  I narrowed the what would have been an even larger gap by doing two more shops last week than planned and by keeping my other expenses down.

Tuesday, August 13

Low Cost Diversions for the Traveling Shopper

Someone asked me what I do in my downtime.  Let me start by saying I have a good bit of experience traveling for work.  Before turning to mystery shopping full-time I was an Account Executive at a software company.  I traveled a fair amount in that position, and being mostly an introvert, I don't get lonely like many people.

So far my entertainment options have cost little.  Since I don't have cable at home, I watch a fair amount of television in the hotel.  I also go on walks.  One night last week I walked to Dollar General's corporate headquarters complex.  It was huge.  Since I am fascinated with corporate offices, it was an adventure for me.  I also gambled a little last weekend while I was in Tunica.  I love to gamble - mostly video poker and blackjack - and imagine that won't be my last visit to a casino during this trip.  Finally, I brought a book and some magazines and always pick up the paper at the front desk.  If the opportunity arises, I might go see a movie.  I'l like to see We're the Millers.

Many people spend more money when they are traveling.  I make a game out of seeing how frugal I can be.

Monday, August 12

Mystery Shopping Road Trip: Week 2 Kick Off

I'm leaving Sam's Town in Tunica this morning.  It was a fun weekend and I was doing well until late last night.  I had too much to drink and lost at Blackjack.  Funny, Boyd upgraded me back to Sapphire level, the second of three tiers in their BConnected loyalty program.  I am surprised that just a few days a year gambling is enough to get upgraded. The free room and free food helped numb the pain of losing some money.

This will be my first full week of mystery shopping for this trip.  I plan to complete 22 of the 157 service shops during Week Two.  I have to come out of pocket for my hotel stays.  Choice Hotels is offering a $50 gas card with every two stays, so I am taking advantage of that deal as it ends next week.  This weekend I have two hotel shops lined up.  My week begins in the Memphis, TN area and ends in Dallas.  Then I work my way along the Gulf Coast towards New Orleans.  This means I will be doing some backtracking later on (the route extends to Utah), but I planned it this way.  Doing so gives me the chance to go home for a few days; backtracking lets me pick up any shops that I missed for whatever reason.

A fair amount of my week will be in Arkansas.  I don't know much at all about Arkansas.  I drove through it once or twice during my annual pilgrimage to Omaha, and I think I have stayed overnight in Little Rock during one of those trips.