Is Mystery Shopping Really Worth the Effort?

For those of you who may not have heard of mystery shopping, it is an information gathering and quality assurance tool used by market research companies on behalf of their commercial clients. Mystery shopping may also be used by watchdog organizations or even companies themselves to measure certain parameters such as customer service, product selection, agent fairness, etc. The mystery shoppers who are contraced by the market research company or other establishment do not (usually) disclose their identity to the surveyed shop but act as typical customers.

They are also sent to the surveyed shop with a specific set of instructions; for example, a mystery shopper surveying a restaurant may be asked to observe whether the hot items on the restaurant’s buffet table are actually hot. When the mystery shopper has finished surveying the assigned shop, he or she fills out a detailed questionnaire at home and submits receipts. Once that paperwork has been successfully filed, the mystery shopper is reimbursed.

There are many market research companies that offer mystery shopping to everyday folks like you and me as a way of making extra money. There is no special training required to become a mystery shopper; in most cases, you simply submit your personal and contact information to the company and then check for shops that fit your profile. However, some mystery shopping companies do ask that potential shoppers go through their certification program before those shoppers can receive assignments. This certification ensures that the shoppers know and understand the company’s guidelines before engaging in mystery shopping. In such cases, the certification program is specific to the hiring company and is free.

For mystery shoppers who would like to get immediate preference on assignments from mystery shopping companies, the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, or MSPA, provides two levels of certification, termed Silver and Gold. These certifications are not free. Keep in mind that no mystery shopping company should require you to have MSPA Silver or Gold certification before you can start accepting shop assignments; however, having one or both of these certificates helps you get more and better assignments.

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Mystery Shopping Scams

As with almost any work-at-home opportunity, there are mystery shopping scams out there too. “Middleman” sites that appear to be legitimate mystery shopping companies on the outside will ask you to pay an up-front or monthly membership fee before you receive mystery shopping assignments from them. Once you pay that fee, you receive the shopping assignments; however, these assignments would’ve been available for free had you gone to the mystery shopping companies directly instead of through the middleman site.

One of the best ways to ensure that you aren’t getting scammed is to check if the mystery shopping company is a member of the MSPA. Not every legitimate company belongs to the MSPA, but if it does, you can be assured that it is legitimate.

Is there money in mystery shopping?

So, how much money can you make through mystery shopping? Here is an example shop assignment that I completed not long ago:

We are currently looking for shoppers for great Italian restaurant shops in Madison WI.

Reimbursement amount is up to $70.

Shop must be performed with at least 2 adult diners.

We have lunch and dinner shops available in April and May. Shopper and guest must order two different entrees, a side dish and appetizer or dessert plus beverages. Children are welcome.

As you can see, this assignment did not make me money per se but I did get two free meals out of the deal. The shop report that had to be filled out within 24 hours of completing this assignment was rather lengthy and involved. Still- two free meals!

Here is another shop assignment that I applied for a few months ago (but was not assigned):

This batch of shops can be performed by a female or male shopper shopping alone or by a couple pretending to be getting married.

The main person doing this shop must be over 18.

Whether shopping alone or as a couple you need play the role as someone who is part of a committed couple looking for bridal sets. You can also perform the shop as though you are part of an established couple looking for “the set we couldn’t afford the first time.”

I need detail oriented shoppers between who are reliable and can write well.

These shops normally take between 15 and 20 minutes.

You are not required to make a purchase.

For this shop, you will be scheduled to go to a specific jewelry store. In order to complete this shop correctly, you will:

–Call ahead to the location ahead of time and ask their operating hours and confirm the address.
–You will visit the designated jewelry store, as a couple who is looking for engagement rings and wedding sets.
–Obtain a business card from the location.
–Submit your well written shop online within 24 hours.

Each shop pays $20 via Paypal.

As you can see, this assignment involves a call and visit to a jewelry store followed by a written evaluation of the shop. The compensation is only $20. Depending on where you live and how long it takes for you to visit and evaluate the shop, you could easily spend two hours on this assignment.

The Bottom Line With Mystery Shopping

To begin with, mystery shopping is not a scam but neither is it a full-time or even steady job. If you sign up with several mystery shopping companies, you will probably be doing 1-2 assignments per day at the rough equivalent of $10/hour. In some cases, your compensation will not be monetary and may include free meals, clothing, oil changes, product discounts, etc.

Personally, I’ve been able to do mystery shopping only because I’m now a full-time freelance writer and can therefore set my own work hours. Back when I was employed with an outside company, there was no way I could mystery shop around my work schedule. In many cases, the assigned shops had a completion hour assigned to them and that time typically occurred during business hours.

I’m not the biggest fan of mystery shopping but I’ve seen some of my friends “work it” and make several hundred bucks every month. As for me, I spend way too much effort on the assignments to really make them worth my time (which could be spent writing). Also, with gas prices rising ever higher, it’s hard to justify driving all over town for an extra $20.

Mystery Shopping Companies That I Have Worked With:

Here is a list of some legitimate mystery shopping companies that I have been associated with and some company reviews:

Confero Inc.

KSS International: This company offers shop assignments that pay anywhere from $5-$20 as well as high paying assignments like $40 oil changes. Payout is really slow though; my last assignment took almost two months to pay out by Paypal. I don’t do new shops with KSS until I’m paid, so I’ve done only three shops with them thus far.

NSite Inc.
SurfMerchants LLC
Synovate
Summit Scheduling

TrendSource: This site passes out a lot of easy-to-do mystery shops that pay $8-$20/each. However, I did have trouble with a Papa John’s assignment that was rejected on the basis of my photos- and similar complaints against PJ’s have been heard from other mystery shoppers. Payout is twice a month by direct deposit or check. Canada/UK payout is by Paypal only.

If you’d like to find mystery shopping companies in your geographic area, you can do an online search using keywords like “mystery shopping” and input your town or region. Alternately, you can peruse the mystery shopping member list published by MSPA and find out if any of the listed companies operate in your area.

How to Participate in Paid Clinical Trials in 2022

Do you want to make quick cash and don’t want the hassle of a minimum-wage job? Then joining paid clinical trials may be the best option for you.

Today, you’ll learn what clinical trials are, why they may be a good source of side cash, and some things to think about before you sign up for your first clinical trial.

You can also read about the details of my experiences with clinical trials, how much I’ve been paid, and the top 3 reputable sources you should consider (plus additional ones) when looking for clinical trials near you.

Things To Know About Clinical Trials

  • Inpatient vs. outpatient trials
    Inpatient clinical trials require that the subject (meaning you) stay at the facility for the length of the study, sometimes even overnight. Outpatient clinical trials require that the subject appear for the initial screening and trial start and then complete several follow-up visits.
  • Control vs. test group
    Study participants are categorized into control and test groups. The control group is typically not administered the intervention and usually receives the placebo. Participants may also be recruited for the direct purpose of being part of the control group; for example, a study may need participants who do not have diabetes so that their responses can be compared to those participants who do have diabetes.
  • Phase I, II, or III 
    If the clinical trial involves the development of a new drug or medical procedure, that intervention must pass through a series of tests, or phases, before being approved by the FDA. Phase I trials assess the safety of the intervention relative to placebo. Phase II trials assess intervention efficacy (i.e., does it work). Phase III trials fine-tune intervention dosing and confirm efficacy in a larger number of people.

Other Ways to Make a Little Extra Money from Home

If you’re looking for some easier, less intense ways to make money from home, I have the following recommendations:

How Much Can You Earn for Joining Paid Clinical Trials?

The amount a clinical study pays its participants vary depending on multiple factors, including, but not limited to the following:

  • Medical condition studied
  • Length of the study
  • Phase of the study
  • Number of in-person visits required
  • Duration of visits
  • Inpatient or outpatient studies
  • Distance and frequency of travel required
  • Number of phone calls or virtual check-ins required
  • Effort needed to track daily symptoms and insights in a patient diary
  • Number and complexity of examinations required

To give you a better idea, interview-only studies where you’re only required to answer questions and not undergo any medical examinations pay lower than studies that require in-person studies and medical tests.

Generally, Phase I trials pay more than Phase II to IV trials, as Phase I studies demand more time and effort from patients, in terms of longer durations of visits, more detailed symptom tracking, and more sample collections and tests than the latter phases of the study.

The range of payment thus can be between $50 to $500 per day/visit.

Benefits of Paid Clinical Trials

Aside from the money, however, there are some major benefits to participating in clinical trials.

For starters, clinical trials require that the subject undergo a physical examination, often for free.

If it’s been a while since your last physical check-up, this is a good way to find out about your health. Drug trials often require more extensive examinations; you might be required to undergo an EEG, EKG, MRI, or complete blood analysis.

The findings from such normally expensive tests can be invaluable for your personal health.

Assuming you have a condition that is being studied in a clinical trial, that trial can even end up saving your life.

For instance, thousands of cancer patients sign up annually for clinical trials in the hopes that such trials will cure or at least delay their cancer.

However, even if all you have is a simple allergy, it is an annoyance at best and life-threatening at worst. Participating in a clinical trial that attempts to treat your condition can go a long way towards ridding you of this disease.

Finally, there is the humanitarian aspect of participating in clinical trials.

Without human test subjects, many currently successful treatments for HIV and AIDS would not exist.

Likewise, many vaccines on the market today owe their realization to volunteers who willingly underwent testing.

Medicine does not advance without the altruism of human test subjects.

My Personal History With Paid Clinical Trials

Back when I was a struggling graduate student at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), I sought out and participated in a number of clinical trials.

The resource I used to find out about clinical trials was the website ClinicalTrials.gov.

It’s worth mentioning that NIH clinical trials are offered all over the United States and worldwide, not just at its main campus in Bethesda, Maryland.

One of the major clinical trials that I participated in was at the National Institute for Mental Health.

There, I underwent a series of fMRI scans as the control (or so they told me) in a gambling study.

This trial was actually quite fun because I got to gamble while lying inside of the scanner. If I placed my bets just right, I actually won money in addition to the pay I was making from the study. I made roughly $100 for every hour I spent inside of the fMRI.

By the time my gambling study was done, I’d accumulated roughly $1550, with $50 of that money coming from my winnings from gambling.

After this study closed, I was asked if I wanted to undergo a PET scan for a Parkinson’s disease drug study.

The only hitch here was that the medication was radioactive. I made sure to ask every question I could think of before agreeing to participate in this study.

When I was done, I had $500 in my pocket.

Once I graduated and moved to Madison, I looked up clinical trials at the University of Wisconsin.

I located a Phase III allergy study and qualified for it once a skin prick test confirmed that I had a ragweed allergy.

For the next six months, I took a daily sublingual dose of ragweed extract in order to desensitize my body to ragweed. I also recorded any allergy symptoms that I experienced.

For this study, I was required to show up at the lab once a month and give an update of my condition (which included an annoying pregnancy test every single time).

At each of these follow-up visits, I was paid $75. By the time the study was complete, I was $675 richer and hopefully allergy-free.

A year later, the UW allergy study coordinator informed me that I had previously been assigned to the placebo group.

This meant that I had not been taking the study medication at all. Although this sounded disappointing, it also qualified me to do the allergy study again.

I agreed to a repeat study and by the end of another 6 months had amassed another $675 (and was truly allergy-free. Maybe).

I also signed up for two clinical trials conducted by Covance (now Labcorp), a company that performs thousands of drug trials for pharmaceutical companies and other labs.

Covance pays extremely well for participation in clinical trials; however, the physical criteria for its studies can be difficult to achieve. Also, because the studies pay so well, there is an overabundance of volunteers. Some people actually earn a good living (up to $60,000/year) by participating in Covance trials.

I signed up for a $4,200 HIV drug trial with Covance and spent nearly a day there getting qualified. In the end, the techs didn’t like the results of my EKG very much and disqualified me. I still made $100 for my time, though.

The second time I showed up at Covance, it was for a $1,700 fat absorption drug study.

This time, I probably would’ve physically qualified; however, due to the large turnout of volunteers, a lottery had to be conducted. Needless to say, I didn’t win—though I did make $50 for my time.

Things to Consider

In the United States, the FDA regulates paid clinical trials through what’s known as its principles of Good Clinical Practice (GCP) that focus on human subject protection (HSP).

However, some clinical trials still manage to slip under the FDA radar and violate basic GCP principles. Protect yourself from undue harm by doing the following:

  • Always read the research protocol and ask questions. If there is something in the protocol that you don’t understand, don’t be shy about requesting more information. The study coordinator should know the answers to your questions; if not, he should know who to ask for clarification.
  • You have the right to end your participation in the study at any time. If you become uncomfortable continuing with the study, then you have the right to quit it without losing the compensation you have received thus far. Furthermore, a good study coordinator should ask you at every follow-up visit if you wish to continue the study.
  • Remember that not all clinical trials are safe. Clinical trials test drugs and therapies whose side effects are still unknown. Some test medications are dissolved in compounds to which you could have an allergy or other reaction. If your gut tells you that a particular study isn’t safe, don’t do it! There are plenty of other paid clinical trials through which you can participate and make money.

Where to Find Paid Clinical Trials

Trials can impact your life severely, so make sure you stick with the most reputable sources.

1. ClinicalTrials.gov

If you can’t find a clinical trial here, you’re unlikely to find one anywhere.

ClinicalTrials.gov houses the largest database of approved trials around the world, both privately and publicly funded.

As of this posting, there were 357,662 available studies within the database. You can search by symptom, medication, body part, location, etc. Use the search form to find a study that best suits you.

2. National Cancer Institute

NCI publishes its list of cancer-related approved trials directly on their website.

Those at risk, currently treating cancer, or those in remission are the targets for these trials.

Search by location to get the best list nearest you.

3. PhRMA.org

This one requires a little more work.

PhRMA.org publishes its full list of approved pharmaceutical companies. You can click through each member on that list to find available trials.

The list does include location. Your odds of finding an approved clinical trial increase by picking locations nearest you.

4. Labcorp

As I mentioned above, Labcorp, formerly Covance, executes clinical research studies on behalf of the world’s pharmaceutical and biotechnology organizations.

They conduct over 100 drug trials every year and have been involved in the development of the top 50 drugs currently on the market.

You can search for ongoing and upcoming clinical trials in the US and in the UK.

5. IQVIA

IQVIA is another clinical research company that performs paid clinical trials for various pharmaceutical and biochemistry organizations.

Their clinical trials are mostly in the US, though, so if you live outside of the US you might want to look elsewhere.

6. Syneos Health

Syneos Health is a company based in Quebec that hosts clinical trials mostly in Montreal and Quebec.

They mostly look for healthy, non-smoking volunteers, except for their Human Abuse Potential studies that require recreational drug users to participate.

A few of their studies pay up to $5,000. What’s more, if you enroll in their database and complete a study, you’ll be eligible for their referral program, which pays $100 for each new participant and $250 for new participants who meet specific enrollment criteria.

7. Antidote

Antidote.me has a proprietary Smart Match search engine that makes the process of finding paid clinical trials easier for potential participants.

It involves answering a series of questions, including the medical condition you have, age, gender, and how far you’re willing to travel, and it will show you registered clinical trials and what phases they’re in.

8. Meridian

Meridian Clinical Research connects participants to clinical trials to companies and clinical research organizations (CROs).

To find ongoing clinical trials near you, complete the form on their site with your information, and an enrollment specialist with Meridian will contact you so you can review studies that are the right fit for you.

If you yourself aren’t eligible to participate, you can still earn up to $25 for referring someone who is.

9. Clinical Hero

Clinical Hero works with various companies and clinics to recruit patients and volunteers for their clinical research studies.

On their search page, you can easily search for clinical studies by location. You can easily see if they need healthy volunteers or those with existing medical conditions, plus if the researcher chooses to display it, you can see how much they pay.

You can also subscribe to their mailing list to get information about paid clinical trials that you might be eligible for.

The Bottom Line

There are plenty of paid clinical trials are out there if you know where to look.

Stick with reputable sites as this is your health and well-being on the line.

I recommend checking out our guide on how to get paid to sleep. There are some interesting clinical trials described there, including NASA’s famous paid sleep study.

Have you ever participated in a paid clinical trial? If not, are you planning to? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!

Health Insurance Options for the Self-Employed

One of the biggest challenges of self-employment is obtaining affordable private health insurance. When you are employed at a company, that company’s group bargaining privileges allow for all insured employees to receive a lower premium. Once you strike out on your own, however, you lose that group bargaining advantage. Paying for private health insurance can take a big bite out of your income, especially if you are older or have preexisting health conditions.

Most self-employed individuals take one of five routes when attempting to find and pay for private health insurance. They either:

  1. Risk having no health insurance.
  2. Pay for COBRA-sponsored health insurance.
  3. Pay for exorbitantly expensive private health insurance.
  4. Obtain occupation-specific group health insurance.
  5. Obtain an HSA (i.e., health savings account).

Self-Employed Health Insurance Options

No health insurance

Many folks, especially if they are young and single, risk going without health insurance coverage. However, in the event that they become sick or injured, the costs inherent in treatment a condition like cancer or a broken arm can be astronomical. Personally, I’ve witnessed at least two of my friends, both in their mid-30’s, be diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses while not covered under any health insurance plan. In the first case, the friend was diagnosed with breast cancer and ended up going into lifelong debt to pay for her chemotherapy. In the second case, the friend ended up with an $80,000 surgery bill, which was miraculously paid by the hospital’s charity fund.

The other issue with having no health insurance coverage is that you don’t benefit from routine check-ups that could end up saving your life. For example, many cancers can be cured if they are caught early. However, if you don’t get routine check-ups, you could end up paying with your life.

Pay for COBRA

If you recently became self-employed, you can remain on your old employer’s health insurance plan for up to 18 months via COBRA coverage. However, you must now pay up to 102% of the plan’s costs, which includes the amount that you and your employer paid for your health insurance, plus an additional 2% for administrative fees. This can be quite substantial since employers often pay the majority of their employees’ health insurance costs.

In my own case, I went from paying just $78/month for my individual health insurance plan to $456/month. Keep in mind that I had no preexisting conditions and had not visited my PCP in nearly five years. When I added my partner to the plan, my insurance premium skyrocketed to over $870/month! Obviously, the high price tag of COBRA coverage makes it unfeasible for many self-employed individuals and their families.

Things become even worse if you are disabled and are obtaining COBRA coverage under an 11 month disability extension (following the standard 18 month COBRA coverage term). In such a case, you could pay up to 150% of your former employer’s premium. This is simply insane.

Obtain private health insurance

Many of my self-employed friends and family members purchase their own private health insurance plans through big name insurance companies like Dean, Kaiser Permanente, AllState, etc. However, they all had to apply to several health insurance providers before being accepted into even a single program.

Those members that had preexisting health conditions like heart disease or diabetes were forced to pay extremely steep insurance premiums; for example, my uncle is in his early 60’s, has a history of high blood pressure, and pays about $1,000/month for his private health insurance plan. Likewise, your provider might raise your rates substantially if you make too many claims in a single year.

Obtain occupation-specific group health insurance

Although not as common as employer-sponsored group health insurance, some trades and guilds do offer occupation-specific group health insurance. In such cases, the premiums cost significantly less than those of private health insurance plans. For example, the members of the Freelancers Union collectively bargain with health insurance companies for a set member premium. Once you join the Freelancers Union, you reap the benefits of such membership.

Getting occupation-specific group health insurance is great; the problem is that it is not available to every profession or geographic location. Most of the available health insurance providers are centered in big cities like Chicago or New York. Unless you plan to drive many miles for your next health check-up or dental exam, occupation-specific group health insurance is not going to be possible for you.

Start a health savings account

The HSA, or health savings account, has become very popular in recent years as people try to find affordable health insurance for themselves and their families. An HSA is set up very much like a Flexible Spending Account, or FSA: You contribute pre-tax dollars into a separate bank account and then use that money for qualified health and medical expenses. Unlike the FSA, however, your contributed money does not expire at the end of the year. Thus, you are not subject to a “use-it-or-lose-it” policy with HSA monies.

On the contrary, you can even regard your HSA as another type of IRA, since it is likely that you will need to withdraw from your HSA as you become older. Unlike an IRA, however, you are not taxed upon withdrawing money from your HSA- as long as that money is used for qualified health and medical expenses. If you have the good fortune of not needing your HSA cash for health and medical expenses, you can still withdraw and use your money- provided you pay your taxes on it, of course.

HSA contributions can be quite substantial and really help you during tax time: For 2012, an individual can contribute as much as $3,100 into an HSA, while a family can contribute up to $6,250. If you are 55 years or older, you can add an additional $1,000 of “catch-up” money to your individual or family contribution. All this money is deductible from your gross income, allowing you to soften much of the taxman’s blow.

Before you start an HSA, you will first need to obtain a high deductible insurance plan. Many companies offer such plans, each with its own annual premium and deductible. Keep in mind that some deductibles can be as high as $2,000/year. Surprisingly, not all health insurance premiums will inversely correlate with deductible amounts, so it pays to compare individual insurance companies and find out exactly what they will (or will not) cover.

An HSA is not for everyone. If you require several drug prescriptions or are in poor health, the high deductible that you must pay before dipping into your HSA funds (which are still your own money) may make this coverage too expensive for you. Likewise, if you are considering becoming pregnant or have a preexisting medical condition, there could be a waiting period before maternity or other coverage begins. However, for many self-employed individuals and their families, having a tax-deductible HSA is a realistic solution to otherwise paying for highly priced private health insurance.