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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
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.


  • 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

  • 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

  • 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