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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


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


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


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.

Sunday, August 11

Mystery Shopping Road Trip: Week One Recap

This first week was short.  My first dealership shop was Thursday.  I have now completed 10 of the 157 shops on this route.

Financially I did well.  Before my service shops I completed 17 gas stations, so I have only paid out of pocket for one tank of gas.  I have now been out of town since Tuesday night (5 nights) but have only had to pay for one hotel.  Two hotel stays were shops, one night was at my mom's and one night was free.

Free?  Yes.  I confess, I was so close to Tunica that I couldn't resist a quick getaway, compliments of Boyd Gaming.  I am taking advantage of two free nights in the hotel and two buffets.  Tomorrow morning I drive back to the Memphis area to resume my shops.

Week One Gross:  $922
Week One Expenses:  $140
Week One Net Income:  $782

Friday, August 9

The Budget: How I am Maximizing my Route Pay

This mystery shopping route should be very lucrative as long as I keep my costs down.  When I negotiated with the mystery shopping company, we settled on a per shop fee that was inclusive of my travel expenses.  This keeps everything nice and easy on the accounting side.

I have set a weekly budget for my trip.  Most weeks, this budget should work just fine.  In the latter part of my trip, my expenses will be higher because the shops are more sparse.  Towards the end I may only be able to complete 1 or 2 shops per day.

My Frugal Miser Road Trip:  Weekly Budget

  • Income:  $1,804
  • Expenses:  $925
    • 7 nights hotel, $500
    • Gas, $150
    • Meals, $75
    • Miscellaneous, $200
  • Net Weekly Income:  $879
Notes About Expenses:
  • These shops cannot be completed on Sundays, and many cannot be done on Saturdays, either.   I would like to supplement my income on the weekends since I won't have much else to do.
  • I am budgeting $71 per night for hotels.  Any opportunity I have to shop a hotel will turn that night's expense into pure profit.
  • I am probably too conservative on meals, but I am going to try to eat healthy AND cheap.

Wednesday, August 7

My Frugal Miser - July Income: $8,773

If I didn't know my business better, I would have begun to give up the hope of having a month  where my income exceeds my expenses.  Alas, I know better than to throw in the towel.  Very soon, my finances will be headed back in the right direction.

July was a mediocre month for income, as I still have two empty townhouses.  My mystery shopping income bounced back nicely.  That category should contribute nicely to my monthly numbers through the rest of the year thanks to the mystery shopping route I am beginning this week.

Last month I reported that five properties were underperforming.  One of my tenants who was behind on his rent paid me $1,000 the day after I posted the 7 Day Notice on his door.  That doesn't get him current but it goes far so I am giving him a little more time to get caught up.  Of the two vacant properties, one is ready to rent and the other will be very soon.  I did lower the asking price on the first townhouse from $750/mo. to $650/mo. in hopes of getting a tenant before school starts.

July Income
$2,547 Mystery Shopping
$6,134 Rental Income
$92 Other Sources
$8,773 Total Income for July

  • 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, August 6

Bon Voyage: My Mystery Shopping Adventure Starts Today

This afternoon I am leaving on the first leg of my mystery shopping trip.  I will complete 54 of my 157 service shops.  On Saturday, August 24th I will fly home from New Orleans, leaving the S-10 behind.  I have a timeshare resort shop in Florida on the 24th.  I return to New Orleans on September 1st to begin the next round of shops.

I should point out that I am doing more than 157 shops.  That is just the base for my route.  Along the way I am free to add to the route.  I have already signed up for several hotel shops for this first round to help reduce some of my travel costs.

I am spending the night in Tallahassee.  Tomorrow I have several gas station shops (see, these are in addition to the 157 shops!).  I will spend Wednesday night in Birmingham and visit my first dealership in the Nashville area on Thursday.

Monday, August 5

My Frugal Miser - July Expenses: $14,597

The month of July was the third month this year where I spent more than I brought in.  Most of my spending was to maintain and repair my rental properties.  Among other things, in July I installed a new HVAC system ($3,950) and added laminate floors and fresh paint to Townhouse #2.  Much of my Personal Expense spending is in pursuit of income.  Mystery shopping requires a lot of gas, and when I am on the road I am usually spending more on food.

July Personal Expenses ($3,744)

$791 Auto ($162 for service/parts, $629 for fuel)
$0 Bank Fees
$24 Clothing
$1225 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$337 Food
$4 Gifts Given
$514 Household/Housing/Home Repair
$159 Health and Dental Insurance
$0 Investment Expenses
$0 Medical/Dental
$180 Miscellaneous
$0 Personal Care
$20 Subscriptions
$0 Taxes
$122 Utilities
$367 Vacation and Recreation

July Business Expenses ($10,853)

$924 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
$338 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
$9,591 Rental Properties - Maintenance and Repairs

Total July Expenses : $14,597

  • 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, including the repairs.  When you have your tires rotated so many times (which is the scenario I use for most shops), it wears out the threads on the studs that secure the tire to the wheel base.
  • During our vacation I had some early gambling losses.  Fortunately after 7/31 I had some luck, which will show in my August figures.
  • My rental properties cost me more than they brought in.  I don't think that will happen again this year.
  • $180 Miscellaneous:  reimbursable expense related to my grandfather's estate.

Saturday, August 3

Scratching an Itch

Okay, so someone asked me how I ended up with a 157-stop mystery shopping route.  I have a confession.  One item on my bucket list has been to drive cross-country.  I want to mystery shop my way to the Nevada line.  One of the best parts of mystery shopping is mitigating the cost of travel.  For example, my annual mecca to the Berkshire Hathaway meeting in Omaha has lately been all-expenses paid (or close to it) when you factor in the work I did while there or en route.  Same with my trips to Birmingham.  Why not earn some cash in the process?

So, I started letting out feelers to my schedulers letting them know I was up for a trip.  Do you have any hard to assign locations you would like to get filled?  It took no time at all for one scheduler to let me know they had an offer.  The total value of the route is in the low five figures.  Seriously.

I also want this to be a quasi-sabbatical of sorts:  just me, driving solo, with plenty of windshield time to do some long-term planning and to clear away the cobwebs in my brain.  I leave August 6th.