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