Kim Owens - The Penny Hoarder

Let’s face it: It costs money to have fun. My family could easily spend thousands of dollars a year on entertainment, if we had the cash, and I bet you can relate.

But what if I told you that you could enjoy movies, bowling nights, amusement parks, water parks, weekend getaways and more for free? Better yet, how would you like to get paid to go on these kinds of outings?

I do -- through mystery shopping. While most people associate mystery shopping with grocery stores and restaurants, all sorts of other businesses need to evaluate their customer service and product quality. That’s where you, as a mystery shopper, come in -- you can get paid to make observations and purchases during fun activities.

Curious? Here’s how to get started as an entertainment mystery shopper -- plus, how I earn a little bonus on top of my mystery shopping income.

Where Can You Go as a Mystery Shopper?

In addition to the retail options The Penny Hoarder has discussed before, there are lots of entertainment options for mystery shoppers. Here are some of the places I’ve been paid to evaluate:

Movie Theatres

My husband and I have enjoyed numerous all-expenses-paid movie dates in exchange for evaluating the ticket-buying and concession-stand processes, counting the number of people in the showing we attended, paying attention to the movie previews, rating bathroom cleanliness and taking pictures of the marquee.

Bowling Alleys

In exchange for careful observation of cash and credit card handling methods, we’ve enjoyed group bowling nights which included shoes, lanes, food service and drinks at the bar.

Amusement Parks

These shops are the best value because amusement parks are expensive! When I visit an amusement park, my reimbursement usually includes one or more complimentary tickets for a full day in the park, plus free parking.

Plus, I get enough free food to share in exchange for evaluating a number of food stands within the park, and I also receive a small fee for each food stand review. These usually take less than five minutes, depending on the line-up, so they’re a great bonus.

What’s the Catch?

Mystery shopping companies usually let you bring whoever you want on a shop, though sometimes they have criteria such as the number of people, age range or gender. For instance, sometimes companies want you to bring a teenager with you to a movie, or they want one adult of each sex so that both the women’s and men’s restrooms can be evaluated.

Make sure to choose the shops that work best for you, your friends and family -- don’t pick a Chuck E. Cheese shop if you don’t know any kids you could take with you!

Once the fun is done, you’ll need to complete and submit evaluations within 24 hours to qualify for reimbursement and/or payment. While it can feel like a bummer to come home to paperwork after a night out on the town, it’s not that bad. Many entertainment venue reports are shorter than those you’d fill out for other shops, like visiting fine-dining restaurants, and they don’t require a ton of writing or detail. I can usually complete them in 20 to 45 minutes.

Where to Find Entertainment Mystery Shopping Jobs

Here are my favorite mystery shopping companies to work for when I want to focus on entertainment shops.

1. Amusement Advantage

This company is unique in that it specializes in amusement attractions and locations; 100% of its shopping opportunities are entertainment-focused. This is the company to work for if you’re interested in amusement parks, water parks, bowling, movies, skating, aquariums, museums and more. Amusement Advantage works with over 400 amusement organizations all over the U.S. and Canada.

The company typically offers reimbursement for expenses incurred during the shop, but sometimes you’ll also earn additional pay. You can usually bring multiple people along on your shop. The application process involves completing a shopper profile (name, gender, location, age) and submitting a writing sample.

2. Confero Compass

Although Confero Compass offers other tourist attractions, movies and retail opportunities, I focus on the amusement park shops. This company’s application is similar to the one for Amusement Advantage, although you may have to take a test to qualify before being assigned to a particular shop. The test is simply preparation for your shop evaluation.

The great part about mystery shopping amusement parks with Confero is you get a free ticket (including parking and reimbursement for food) and you get paid, usually $25 to $30 for your food stand reviews. The report is simple and not too detailed, which is a bonus.

3. Data Quest

Data Quest’s application process is similar to those of the other companies. They offer opportunities in most states, and their shopping opportunities include upscale casual restaurant, hotel and bar audits.

But my favorite Data Quest shops are their bowling alley visits, which provides hours of free fun, food and drink for a small amount of work and a report that takes about 40 minutes.

4. A-Closer Look

A-Closer Look’s application process takes about 20-30 minutes. In addition to supplying the typical profile information, you’ll need to take a test, which isn’t scary as long as you have decent writing and basic math skills and can follow directions.

While this company offers a variety of restaurant and retail shops throughout the country, it’s my go-to option for movie date nights. The shops are easy and the report takes about 30-40 minutes.

5. Coyle Hospitality

Coyle has the most rigorous application and report writing standards of all the mystery shopping companies I’ve tested. They require an extensive writing sample, and I was rejected the first time I applied because I didn’t take it seriously enough. Their reports require a lot of detail and the company requires that you follow its style guide.

Coyle’s shops are assigned hierarchically, so the most sought-after opportunities go to evaluators who have worked for the company the longest and achieved the highest report ratings. If you hang in there, you can score sweet shops like hotel stays, spa visits and even cruises. Coyle offers both national and international shops.

So far, I have visited several fine dining restaurants for Coyle -- and the food was some of the best I have ever had the pleasure of eating.

6. TNS

I haven’t shopped for TNS yet, but I can’t wait to work with them. They offer an amazing opportunity to go on vacation for free, plus make some extra cash!

TNS offers timeshare shops where they will pay you to stay at well-known timeshare resort properties throughout the country for up to a week in exchange for attending and recording the timeshare presentation. They’ll pay for your resort stay and you’ll receive payment, typically $50, for recording the presentation. You can even keep the timeshare gift you get for attending!

You’ll have to provide your own transportation to the timeshare destination, but you can be reimbursed up to $113 for travel expenses. I’m just waiting for a shop to come along that coincides with when my husband and I have time off from work!

Why Do I Have to Provide My Social Security Number to Mystery Shopping Companies?

When you sign up with a mystery shopping company, you’re often asked for your Social Security Number. Don’t let this request scare you away from completing the application!

Mystery shoppers are independent contractors, which means you’re in business for yourself. The companies don’t take taxes out of your pay, but if you earn enough money working for them, they’ll send you a 1099 form so that you can file your taxes. To do this, they need your social security number.

Many mystery shopping companies allow you to defer providing your SSN until you hit the taxable threshold. Others may allow you to wait until it’s time to be paid for your shop, while some require an SSN up front. Choose to work for certain companies based on what you’re comfortable with, or use my strategy:

Get an Employer Identification Number

I shop with dozens of companies and don’t want my SSN floating around. To avoid sharing it with every company, I applied for a business identification number, otherwise known as an Employer Identification Number (EIN).

An EIN a nine digit number just like a SSN that identifies you as a business entity. Apply through the IRS website, and if you choose to receive your information by email, you’ll receive your EIN within a few minutes. Then simply include your EIN on all your mystery shopping applications.

How to Make a Little Extra Cash as a Mystery Shopper

With mystery shopping reimbursements, occasional payments on top of that and careful planning, I get just about all of my entertainment for free. But I have a secret strategy to get a little extra cash back almost every time: I use discounted gift cards to pay for my expenses.

Sites like Gift Card Granny and Raise buy gift cards from people who don’t want them and sell them to people who do -- often at less than their face value. Here’s how I use these sites to earn money back from mystery shopping:

One mystery shopping company offered up to a $50 reimbursement for two tickets and concession snacks at a movie theatre. I went to a discounted gift card site and purchased a $50 gift card for $40, a 20% discount. I used the entire gift card to pay for my mystery shopping expenses and was reimbursed $50, thus netting me $10. Cool, right?

Most mystery shopping companies will not allow you to use coupons, but they do allow you to use gift cards. This awesome trick helps me earn an extra few hundred dollars a year!

Your Turn: Have you tried mystery shopping entertainment venues? What companies have you worked with?

Affiliate Link Disclosure: We have a serious Taco Bell addiction around here. The affiliate links in this post help us order off the dollar menu. Thanks for your support!

Kim is an only child (explains a lot), psychologist, former big fish in a little pond, happily married entrepreneur, who is a huge believer that living richly and being frugal is not an oxymoron. Join her soon to launch “different kind of” personal finance blog, MoneyUndertheCushions.com.


While I might strive for the minimalist lifestyle, it’s something I will probably never achieve because I like my things too much. Even my wallet is full, what with gift cards, credit cards and rewards cards … not enough cash, though!

But I just learned how to minimize what’s in my wallet -- and score a free $5 gift card at the same time. Instead of carrying all your gift cards around in your overstuffed wallet, store them online using a site called Gyft (yes, it’s spelled correctly). Want to follow my lead?

How Gyft Works

Having all of your gift cards in one place (not your wallet) makes it easy to check your balances and keep track of your cards. If you’re shopping online on your computer or tablet, simply open your Gyft account to check whether you have any gift cards to use.

You’ll be able to access your gift cards on the go using Gyft’s app for iOS and Android -- eliminating the frustration of forgetting a gift card when you go shopping, losing track of a gift card (and the hard-earned cash it represents), or simply having to carry around an entire stash of gift cards. It’s a great way to keep your discounted gift cards in one place if you’re trying to stock up for a big purchase.

If you decide you won’t actually use one of your gift cards, it’s no problem -- you can easily give it to a friend.

Buy New Gift Cards Through Gyft

Want to pick up a gift card for a friend -- or maybe for yourself, perhaps as a way to meet credit card spending minimums?

When you buy gift cards through Gyft, you’ll earn points toward future purchases. If you pay with Bitcoin, you’ll earn three points per dollar you spend, or two points per dollar with Paypal, and one point with all other payment methods.

For every 100 points you earn, you receive $1 a future purchase. It’s not a lot, but it’s nice to get a reward for a purchase you’d make anyway -- especially if you also make that purchase using a credit card that offers cash back or travel rewards.

Gyft offers gift cards from over 200 well-known retailers and restaurants such as Amazon, Best Buy, Gap, Starbucks, Target, Home Depot and the Cheesecake Factory.

Even better: When you sign up for Gyft, they’ll give you $5!

How to Get Your Free $5 Gift Card from Gyft

Right now, Gyft is giving new members a free $5 gift card, one per household. All you have to do is sign up and purchase a gift card valued at $15 or more. It was super simple -- here’s how I got my free $5 gift card.

Go to Gyft.com, click the “sign up free,” button and choose Facebook, Google or email and you’re done! After I signed up, I immediately received a promo code valid for $5 credit toward any card in their store. The promo code is non-transferable and expires in 24 hours, so don’t forget about it and miss out.

I went to straight to the Gyft gift card store. I planned to buy a Starbucks gift card, but unfortunately when I looked through the store, I had to choose between gift cards for $10 (too low to qualify for the freebie) or $25 (more than I wanted to spend). I thought about purchasing the $25 card, but opted against it because I wanted to get the best value. Yes, getting a $25 Starbucks gift card for $20 is a great deal (that’s 20% off), but getting a $15 card for $10 is an awesome deal (33% off).

I became suspicious that Gyft only offered $10 or $25 cards, thus forcing everyone to buy something more expensive to redeem their $5 credits. I’m glad to say that wasn’t the case, and I saw lots of $15 cards for other retailers. I suspect that with the popularity of this promotion, the site ran out of some of the most popular $15 gift cards and they’ll be available again when the stock is replenished.

I opted for a $15 Barnes & Noble gift card, applied my $5 promo code, paid $10 (Gyft accepts Paypal, credit cards, Google Pay, Apple Pay and Bitcoin)  and boom, I had a $15 gift card, ready to use online or in stores.

Using My Gyft Gift Card

I downloaded the Gyft app (available on iTunes or Google Play) and added my Barnes & Noble gift card to my “Gyft wallet.”

When I’m ready to go shopping, all I have to do open the app and click on the stored gift card. A virtual card with a UPC will pop up, and the cashier will scan the UPC for payment. That’s all there is to it.

Now I’m just waiting for a discount coupon to come my way so I can combine it with my discounted Gyft card to maximize the savings. In the meantime, I’m breathing a sigh of relief that my wallet is no longer bursting at the seams.

Your Turn: Have you used Gyft? What do you think about keeping your gift cards online instead of in your wallet?

Affiliate Link Disclosure: We have a serious Taco Bell addiction around here. The affiliate links in this post help us order off the dollar menu. Thanks for your support!

Kim is an only child (explains a lot), psychologist, former big fish in a little pond, happily married entrepreneur, who is a huge believer that living richly and being frugal is not an oxymoron. Join her soon to launch “different kind of” personal finance blog, MoneyUndertheCushions.com.

It’s not something you’re supposed to admit as a frugal blogger, but I will: I’m a sucker for Hallmark cards.

I can always count on finding a few I like when I visit the store or website, and I also get a kick out of the gold seals for the envelopes. Hallmark cards are anything but cheap, which used to mean I could only admire them. But by combining Hallmark’s two rewards programs with some clever strategy, I can now afford to buy their cards -- and I get free gift cards to my favorite stores on top of my savings.

It sounds too good to be true, but I’m proof that this strategy works. Here’s how I earn free gift cards to retailers like Starbucks, Chili’s, The Gap and Best Buy, simply by buying Hallmark Cards.

Step 1: Join the Hallmark Crown Rewards Program

Simply go to Hallmark.com and create an account. Next, go to the drop-down menu under your name and select “Crown Rewards.” Follow the instructions to join the program.

Once you’re registered, you’ll earn points every time you make a purchase and present your card (which you’ll get in the mail), or provide the phone number associated with your account. The points are turned into reward dollars that can be used to buy any Hallmark product, not just cards.

How Many Points Do You Get?

The program is a bit complicated. It’s organized in tiered categories, with members achieving silver, gold and platinum status based on the number of cards they purchase and/or the amount of money they spend.

You earn more points as you move up the program tiers. For instance, silver-level members earn 10 points for every dollar they spend, plus an additional 10 points per dollar for every card they purchase. Gold and platinum members earn more points, and you can earn bonus points by buying multiple cards at a time.

Every time you accrue 1,500 points, you’ll receive a $5 reward certificate to use in stores or online. That sounds like a lot of points, but given how you earn them and your ability to use coupons to maximize your spending, you can start reaping the benefits fairly quickly and easily.

Step 2: Join the Hallmark Card Rewards Program

Remember that drop-down menu where you found the Crown Rewards Program? Go back, and choose “Card Rewards Program” this time.

Ready to start earning those free gift cards? When you join this program, you’ll earn a free $5 gift card for every five cards you buy.

When you purchase your cards in store or online, show your Crown Rewards Card or give your phone number. You’ll receive a credit for each card, and once you accrue five credits, you’ll earn a reward that can be redeemed for a $5 gift card. Using your Crown Rewards Card also means you’ll earn points, which will net you other discounts and coupons.

If you forget your card, simply log into your account when you get home and enter the UPC numbers located on the back of the cards. You can even purchase your Hallmark cards from non-Hallmark stores, like Target, and enter the UPC number this way.

The program doesn’t consider the cost of the cards you purchase, so make sure to keep an eye on the sales. I get most of my cards for $0.99 rather than the regular price of $3.50 or more. Spending $5 on five cards and a $5 gift card feels great!

There is a limit to the fun: you can only get free gift cards four times per month. However, that gives you $20 in free gift cards per month, or up to $240 a year.

While you might not have enough card-giving occasions to use this strategy to its full potential, consider whether you can help your friends or family members stock up on birthday or wedding cards. Or, take advantage of the timing and hit the post-Valentine’s Day sales on love-themed cards. If you have kids, you’ll be all set for their classroom celebrations next year! And of course, make sure to use a rewards credit card to make sure you earn points or cash back on your purchase.

What Gift Cards are Available?

Compared to other reward programs, the gift card selection is admittedly on the small side, and hopefully it will grow as the program matures. However, it’s been easy to find cards to retailers I love, such as Starbucks, Gap/Old Navy/Banana Republic/Athleta, Best Buy, Staples, Chili’s and Burger King. You can also redeem for RedBox rentals or yearly subscriptions to magazines like Better Homes and Gardens and Every Day with Rachael Ray.

One downside is that you can only redeem one of each gift card per month. So when I earned enough for two $5 gift cards in a single month and really wanted two Starbucks gift cards, I could only get one. I used the other reward to get a clothing store gift card. This is a small concern, though -- I can’t complain about free gift cards.

In addition to gift cards, you could also choose to redeem your rewards toward other offers such as $50 towards the purchase of Omaha Steaks. However, these offers are fairly common online, so I’d recommend avoiding them and sticking with the gift cards for the best value.

How I Get 10 Cards and $10 in Free Gift Cards for $5

This is where your coupon strategy really comes in handy. If you already have a “$5 off a purchase of $10 or more” coupon, you’re all set. If not, check sites like Retail Me Not and Coupons.com for printable coupons, or simply wait for the Crown Rewards Program to send them out in the mail. Then, combine it with your program memberships to make the most of your purchase.

On my last card-buying trip, I bought ten cards at $0.99 each, plus a small piece of $0.25 candy to get me to the $10 mark, and presented my membership card and “$5 off a $10 purchase” coupon. Here’s what I got for five dollars and change:

  • 10 Hallmark cards
  • Two $5 gift cards
  • Points toward future discounts
  • A piece of chocolate

That’s what I’m talking about, Hallmark!

Your Turn: Do you use the Hallmark Rewards Programs? Will you sign up and start earning free gift cards when you buy cards?

Kim Owens believes that living life richly and being frugal is not an oxymoron. Her blog Money Under the Cushions is dedicated to sharing her favorite ways of accomplishing just that.