Thursday, January 22, 2015

Side Hustlin'- Confessions of a Secret Shopper (and tips if you want to do it, too)

So I have approached this whole paying down debt thing the same way I would approach teaching a class, acting a role or directing a play- first I do a LOT of research. And so I have been combing the ol' interweb and WOW are there a lot of blogs about getting out of debt. WOW.
But even with all of this excess of information at my disposal, as far as I can tell it still comes to a list of 2 basic things I need to do-

1) Live frugally- spend less than I make with the extra going to debt
2) Increase my income- make more money with the extra going to debt. The Debt/Frugal living/Personal Finance bloggers seem to call this a Side Hustle.

the rest is gravy.

Okay. I can do this. I decided that in January I would do ONE thing to live more frugally and ONE thing to increase my income.

Frugal Living- Couponing! Brilliant! It was kind of a disaster. Which I will write about later. I swear. Because it's pretty hilarious if I do say so myself. Instead I will write about...

Increasing Income/Side Hustle- SECRET SHOPPING

Now to be fair, I had done this before. When I was a SAHM I had started doing this just as a means of making a little extra cash in an attempt to avoid using the credit card to make ends meet. (Spoiler alert: It didn't work.) But I had stepped away from doing it when I was 900 months pregnant with my 2nd son because frankly it felt like just a raindrop in a thunderstorm and the energy it took didn't feel worth it in my hormone induced pity party state. Then I got a full-time job and I figured I didn't need to do it anymore. But now I'm SIDE HUSTLIN' so it's back I go to my secret consumer life. This month I've done 4 shops and made $98 so far.

My husband likes to imagine that I dress in all black and have a code name like Natasha and slink around stores looking for my contact to get my Secret Shopping mission. I let him think that. But it's actually pretty boring. Here's how it goes:

1) I signed up with a few reputable Secret Shopping websites. I happen to like
Anne Michaels and Associates and Beyond Hello.  I tried a few others, but these two had the most opportunities, the clearest instructions and feedback formats and the best pay. In my opinion.

2) I filled out the extended profile for each.

3) I get sent emails daily that have titles like "Ann Michaels and Associates Mystery Shop Posting: Restaurant/Winery (Due 1-28-15)" Depending on the time of year I can get sent as few as 2 or as many as 25.

4) I then click on ones that have due dates that look doable based on my schedule. When I click on it there is general information about the type of shop (Clothing, Restaurant, etc.) & the location (City only). Then if it still looks like it might be a good fit, I click on a link that takes me to a page where I can apply for the shop. 

5) On the application page there is information about the pay, times and any special qualifications or restrictions. While the name of the store is never mentioned, often an address is given and a quick google search can often reveal where you would be shopping. If it all still looks good, I apply. Just type in my email and password for the site. Done.

6) Then I wait to see if I get picked. It's kind of like gym class all over again, but with significantly less stress. And less dodge ball. I get an email notifying me either way.

 7) If I am selected, I get my "mission". These actually can be kind of overwhelming if you haven't done one before. There is often a LOT of information, including what you are to be shopping for, things you need to be looking for, questions that need to be asked and in some cases photos that will need to be taken. When I first started doing these I would study my "mission" info and take notes. (To be fair, I was also kind of bored and overcompensating.) But the more I did, the more comfortable I became and the better I got at remembering what needed to be done.
Tom Cruise, not me

8) Shopping Day comes and off I go. When I started and my son was about 18 months I would try to only do shops where I could take my kid (if it doesn't specify "no kids" my understanding is that you can bring them) so I didn't have to get a sitter or take up family time. Now that I have an overactive 3 1/2 year old and an infant, I try to do them solo. Family time- schmamly time. My sanity can only take so much.

9) Then I fill out a report on my experience. Some are more extensive than others, but pay is usually compensated accordingly.  The reports for the two places I use are online and very easy to fill out. I can also save them and return to them which is great when dealing with previously mentioned tiny people living in my house.

10) I submit and hear back in a few weeks what my "rating" was (they grade you. Again like gym class. But again significantly less stress and physical exertion) and that the shop is complete. I get paid in the month following the shop directly to my Pay Pal account.

Done and Done. Secret Shopping in 10 Easy Steps. Not as sexy or exciting as my husband's fantasy about how it plays out, but still a pretty great way to make some extra cash. Or to go out to eat for free.

If you think this sounds fun or at least not horrible, here are a few pro-tips (and I use the term "pro" loosely) as you get started.

1) If you can, use an email that is designated for this kind of thing. You will sometimes get A LOT of emails and it is much easier to keep track of it all (new postings, submissions, shops due, etc.) if it's all in one place and not cluttering up your personal or professional email inbox.

2) If you don't already have a Pay Pal account, sign up for a Pay Pal account so you can get paid with Pay Pal.  Pay Pal Pay Pal Pay Pal. Can't stop saying it. Makes things MUCH easier. Seriously.

3) The first few times you do it, give yourself WAY more time than you need. Meaning, don't have somewhere you need to be immediately following or right before. Once you get more comfortable with them, it does become something you can do on a lunch hour or while the kids are at hockey practice, but starting out give yourself a lot of buffer room.

4) Take photos of business cards and receipts needed as soon as you get in your car or in your house. It's so easy to lose those darn things and your shop will not be accepted with out them in most cases.

5) Don't get TOO creative or detailed, but go ahead and have fun. I may not put on an accent and give myself an alias (much to my husband's chagrin), but it can be kind of a stress release to pretend to be someone who IS buying something that you would never have the money, interest, desire to buy. Or out at a restaurant you would never go to.  It's a side hustle, not a second job. Hustlin' is a lot of work, but it can also be fun. So let it be. Find the joy in the hustle.

Well that's all I got.
Coming soon- Posts including  "Couponing for Dummies, But In This Case I'm the Dummy" and "My Sanity Saving Non-Emergency Fund."  Also "I Love Carbs. And They Love Me Back. So Why Do They Hurt Me So- A Dysfunctional Love Story"

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Zero Hour, Five A.M.

Between 5 and 6 a.m. I am the most popular girl in our house. Every morning, in this hour right before the sun comes up, the baby wakes calling "Mama", at first cute and endearing, but rapidly morphing into a primal scream. After I go to the baby, pick up the baby and start nursing the baby, then, and only then, do BOTH the 3 1/2 year old and the 2 dogs start vying for my attention with a chorus of whining. Everyone needs me. Right now. RIGHT NOW.

DD_W11_Donut_WebsiteAs someone who is not a morning person, this is not exactly the best way to start the day. And when I say I'm not a morning person, I am being kind. When I was in high school, my father used to find me lying on the floor in the fetal position, after I got out of bed, often for 20-30 minutes, because I couldn't rally to get myself dressed just yet. I would fortify myself a sugar rush provided by pop tarts or donuts back in those days because my parents didn't drink coffee and it didn't occur to me to buy it and make it myself.

Grad school and, well, life, taught me about coffee and the power of allowing time in the morning to just be, wake up slowly and greet the day on my terms. But babies and boys and dogs have just not got the memo. No matter how many time I patiently try to explain it to all of them. Babies and boys and dogs all not the best listeners.

So here I am. Desperately craving donuts. Or pop tarts. Or some kind of delicious, easy fast food breakfast that tastes like comfort and doesn't require me to DO anything but eat it. Because everyone around here already NEEDS me. I don't want my breakfast to ask a lot of me, too.

But a I take a breath, pour myself a cup of coffee and warm up this pear baked oatmeal I cleverly managed to make earlier in the week and keep in the fridge for this very moment.  

Score 1 for being a grown up.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


I wrote this right before I went back to work in August. I am posting it here because on a day like today, a day when I spent 8 hours attempting (and failing) to write one work e-mail while juggling/entertaining/feeding/disciplining/keeping alive both kids, it is good to be reminded why I am doing this...

Next week I head back to work. YIKES! Many of my mommy (and daddy) friends think I'm nuts. I have an infant and a 3 year old and I was staying home with them. Staying home with them during this magical time before school and friends take over their little minds and when I alone instead am their everything. So here are my top 5 reasons why I am choosing to return to work...

5) We Are Broke & I Like to Eat Out-   When we moved from NYC to College Town in Missouri in 2007 our mantra became "HERE WE LIVE LIKE KINGS!!!" When we pulled up to the 3 bedroom house I had rented that cost 1/2 what we paid for our 500 sq/ft apartment in NYC , my husband honestly thought I was joking. "Shut UP. We live here?? We don't live here." But there we did live. And in 2 years we managed to pay off all of our NYC debt and (gasp!) start saving.  We didn't stress the bills at the end of the month. We didn't stress financially at all. Wow! People actually LIVE like this!!?!?? Our eyes were opened.  But then when we moved to Suburbia of Big City and I stopped working, we not only lost 1 salary, but also our insanely low cost of living. Suburbia costs twice as much to live in as College Town when one figures in housing costs, insurance, taxes, groceries, basically everything. Now there are certainly perks that go with all that extra expenditure. Perks we enjoy. And frankly we wouldn't have been so footloose and fancy free in Missouri if we only had one paycheck. But the perfect storm of less income and more expenses put us right back into budgeting every penny, worrying about every expense, and we went back to stressing.  No more dinners just cause I didn't feel like cooking or coffee treat because dang it we deserve a coffee treat.

4) Two Words: Polar Vortex- You guys! You guys! Did ya hear about the Polar Vortex? Of course you did. Everyone heard about the F'ing Polar Vortex because it SUUUUUCCCCKKED and the media loves emphasizing things that have catchy names and suck. Do you know what sucks worse than Polar Vortex? Being 400 months pregnant stuck inside with overactive 2 1/2 year old during polar vortex. The experience killed a bit of my crafty, creative, industrious SAHM (Stay At Home Mom) soul.

3) You Can Take the Girl Out of the Theatre....- Look, I spent a lot of time (15 years) & money (let's not talk about it) becoming fairly knowledgeable about theatre. And I really like to share that knowledge with people who want to hear about it. It had become part of who I was. And I miss her. I miss that woman who fights with 18 year olds about "I liked it" vs. "It's good theatre" and "I hated it" vs. "It's bad". I miss her watching students suddenly discover Chekhov IS funny.  I miss her re-reading the same text book for the 100th time and learning something new. I miss her.

2) I've Got A Golden Ticket!- A tenure track position at a university is a golden ticket for a working artist. It just is. And like a golden ticket, a lot of it is about being at the right place at the right time. The fact that I got this offer from a college that is commutable is unbelievable. And it would be ding dong crazy to turn it down.

1) I Am Not A Good Stay At Home Mom- I am just not. I think I am a pretty great mom. But I think the longer I am a SAHM, the less great I will become. When I was young I asked my mother why she decided to go back to work and I remember she was very quiet for what seemed like a long time and I thought I had made her sad. But then she said very simply "Stacy, I think going to work makes me a better mom. Even though I miss you very much, it makes me a better mom." While I didn't quite understand it at the time, it obviously struck me because I remember it so vividly. I am SO grateful that I was able to try this. I pride myself on living life without regrets. And I tried and failed at this. So I walk away knowing this is not my path. I don't have to wonder. I will always cherish and treasure the focused time I have had with my children. And maybe in a few years I will feel differently. But I think right now, I (just me, maybe not you, but me) I will be a better mom if I go back to work.  For me, and again just me, not you, me, I want to buy my kid an ice cream cone once in a while without doing the math in my head. I want to joyfully arrive home, tingling with anticipation to see my kids and give them big hugs instead of dreading the next meltdown and hiding from them in the shower. I want my kids to know that woman who has a lot to say and even more to learn about art and life and the messy place where they intersect in the theatre. I want my kids to see and maybe, dare I say it, be proud of a mom who worked her butt off to get to the right place at the right time. Me, just me, not you, but me. Right now, this is me. And when my kids ask me, "Why did you choose to leave us and go back to work?" I will get very quiet and maybe even a little sad and I will then say "Even though I miss you very much, it makes me a better mom."

Do I think this is going to be easy? Heck NO. I have had 2 anxiety attacks just writing this  and can guarantee I need to throw up as you read this. Do I regret staying home with my kid(s) these past couple of years? Heck DOUBLE NO. I have so much respect for the SAHM and maybe one day in the future, I will again join their ranks. But now, I must turn in my card and then pour myself a cup of ambition, yawn and stretch and try to come to life.**

**I didn't write that last part. She did.