Staff Writer

Americans are clearly dedicated to hydration. We drink water like it’s our job.

In fact, Americans drink an average of 39 gallons of bottled water per person each year.

That’s a lot of plastic water bottles.

As you’re probably expecting me to point out, it’s also a pretty significant impact to our environment.

But that’s a topic for another day.

Since this month is Plastic-Free July, I’d like to talk about the impact to our wallets.

Bottled Water: Why Not Just Pour Money Down the Drain?

As a Florida resident, I’m the last person who would ever argue against the importance of staying hydrated.

I know that grabbing the occasional bottle of water at a convenience store is a small price to pay to avoid passing out during a spirited game of outdoor volleyball in 93 degree weather.

It’s regularly buying bottled water that really adds up.

A 12-ounce bottle of still water can run you anywhere from 99 cents at a grocery store to $2.00 or more at a gas station or convenience store

And that’s just for plain water. Fancy water with added nutrients, flavoring and bubbles costs even more.

How Much Do Alternatives to Bottled Water Cost?

The obvious solution to disposable water bottles is to get your hands on a refillable water bottle or two and fill them up yourself.

When it comes to reusable bottles, you’ve got a few options.

Pricy but durable. Penny Hoarder staff photographer Heather Comparetto has a distressed wood water bottle that retails for about $25, but she says it’s well worth the money.

“Yes, they are expensive,” says Comparetto, “but they are so functional that I use mine every day. I can't tell you the last time I purchased a plastic water bottle or even used a regular cup.”

Mid-range price with extra features. Several water bottles on the market are fairly affordable at around $10, but those aren’t rock-bottom prices. On the other hand, they do come equipped with neat extras like a storage compartment, fruit infuser, or (inexplicably) a wireless speaker.

Refillable water bottles at this price point are perfect for someone who has some extra dollars to spend on features that aren’t strictly necessary but make chugging water all day a little less boring.

Basic but cheap. You’ll find plenty of reuseable water bottles for less than $3 if you’re willing to forgo all the bells and whistles.

But, really, what more does a water bottle need than a spout and cap, right?

The best of both worlds. Depending on your level of comfort drinking from previously-owned beverage containers, you might be able to find a high-end water bottle or one with extra frills at a thrift store for dirt cheap -- like a buck.  

I’ve also seen piles of brand new refillable bottles at my local thrift store emblazoned with company logos. Someone else’s swag giveaway is your treasure.

Free(ish). Reusing an empty bottle from disposable-bottled water you already bought is a good way to recycle and do a little something to help save the environment. Just make sure you wash it thoroughly with hot soapy water.

When You Hate, Hate, Hate Your Tap Water

Some people rely on water bottles to quench their thirst when they’re at work or on the go. But others buy bottled water to drink at home because they can’t or won’t drink tap water.

Like me, for instance.

Unlike many other areas of the nation, the tap water in my city is perfectly safe to drink but I don’t like the taste. It might be because the water comes into my house through the original copper piping laid down when the house was built 50-odd years ago.

Or maybe I’m just a water snob.

Either way, I don’t want the water that comes out of my faucet.

But I also don’t want to buy a zillion disposable plastic water bottles that will end up in a landfill somewhere.

Instead, I researched some other in-home options that improve tap water or bypass it altogether. Here’s what I learned.

Bring On the Math

For each option, I looked at:

  • The equipment cost of each system
  • The daily cost to drink 64 ounces of water per day using each system. I used my own water bill as a baseline, which works out to 10 cents per day, per 64 ounces of water.

Just for funsies, I also figured out how many 99-cent bottles of water you’d have to drink to break even on your investment using each system.

Bottled water is sold in a wide variety of sizes, packaging and price points. To arrive at a happy medium somewhere between volume-discounted multi-bottle flats of water and expensive premium single-serving sizes, I used a 12-ounce bottle of water at 99 cents for my calculations, which works out to $5.28 per day.

Pitcher Water Filters

Pitcher water filters are super easy to use. Just fill the pitcher by pouring tap water through the filter built into its lid, and then stash the pitcher in the fridge.

Cost of equipment: $17 for the pitcher system, $7 for a replacement filter that lasts about two months.

Cost per day: 21 cents

How many 99-cent bottles of water to break even? 25

Faucet Water Filters

Faucet water filters attach to your kitchen sink faucet to automatically filter water flowing through the tap.

Cost of equipment: $28 (and up) for the filter system, $26 for a replacement filter that lasts about three months.

Cost per day: 38 cents

How many 99-cent bottles of water to break even? 55

Countertop Water Filters

Countertop water filters sit next to your sink and filter water from the tap to dispense directly from the appliance.

Cost of equipment. $60 for the filter system, $25 for a three-pack of replacement filters that last about three months each

Cost per day: 37 cents

How many 99-cent bottles of water to break even? 85

Refillable Jugs (5 Gallon)

Many grocery, big box and home improvement stores sell refillable plastic five-gallon jugs of water. Just tote the empties back to the store, refill them at the water kiosk and take them back home.

Cost of equipment: $13 per bottle and $7 to refill (local Publix), $6 for a hand press pump

Cost per day: 70 cents

How many 99-cent bottles of water to break even? 26

Water Delivery Service

Alternatively, you can have refillable five-gallon jugs delivered right to your door. The delivery company even drops off replacements when your bottles run dry.

Cost of equipment: $10 per bottle and $7 per month for water dispenser rental (from my monthly Crystal Springs water delivery bill)  

Cost per day: $1.23

How many 99-cent bottles of water to break even? 17

It’s worth noting reverse osmosis water systems and whole house filters are two other ways to always have tasty water available at home. However, they also come with hefty installation bills unless you’re a skilled DIYer.

What Works for Me

After considering all our choices, my husband and I decided to buy our own water in five-gallon jugs.

It may not be the most cost-effective choice per month (not by a long shot) but on the flipside, there was no upfront investment and we recouped our costs in a single day.

My water is tasty, so I happily drink an ocean of it every day. And, yes, I always dispense my water into a reusable bottle.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She rarely drinks anything but water so this topic is serious business for her.

We generally think of AAA as the company to call when you’ve locked yourself out of your car or are stranded on the road with a flat tire.

They actually offer customers a whole bunch of services that aren’t just about getting you and your car out of a jam.

AAA offers insurance programs, banking services and even has its own travel agency.

If you’ve got some travel experience under your belt and can travel to Hamilton, New Jersey, for about six weeks of paid training, check out this full-time work-from-home Travel Help Desk Agent job with AAA.

Apply for This Work-From-Home Job With AAA Club Alliance

The job listing says pay is “competitive based on experience.” We’ve reached out to the company for more details, and we’ll update if we hear back from them.

Your job responsibilities will include:

  • Accurately answering and processing customer phone calls and emails
  • Complete customer travel reservations using appropriate software
  • Resolve booking or reservation issues
  • Assist customers with navigating the Travel website
  • Participate in user testing of new systems and procedures
  • Assist with training of Level 1 agents

Applicants for this position must have:

  • Creative problem-solving skills
  • High school diploma or equivalent
  • Two to four years of travel experience
  • Two to four years of customer experience
  • Knowledge of PC-based computer systems, GDS systems and the internet

If you’re hired for this job, you’ll be eligible for the following benefits:

  • Set schedule with one Saturday or Sunday included
  • Three weeks of paid time off in the first year
  • 401(k) with company matching
  • Medical, dental, prescription and vision coverage  
  • Tuition reimbursement
  • Life insurance
  • Flexible Spending Account

Apply here for the Travel Help Desk Agent job at AAA Club Alliance.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She loves to travel and loves working from home so this sounds like a pretty rad job to her.

We know a lot of our readers want, need or just prefer to work from home.

Penny Hoarder staffers are no different. In fact, I’m writing this from my home office right now.

We’re super fortunate that work-from-home days are part of our benefits package (thanks, Kyle!), but some bosses still need convincing.

If yours is one of them, maybe this news will help sway them.

The Considerable Benefits of Working From Home

Stanford Business Senior Editor Shana Lynch recently wrote about the results of a study conducted by Stanford business professor Nicholas Bloom, who tracked employees at Chinese travel agency Ctrip to help the company understand the impact of workplace flexibility.

“[Ctrip] solicited worker volunteers for a study in which half worked from home for nine months, coming into the office one day a week, and half worked only from the office,” explains Lynch.

The performance of employees who worked from home shot up by 13 percent.

Bloom attributes the increase to two things. He says workers concentrate better when they work from home and are more likely to work a full shift when they aren’t dealing with commutes, long lunches and other distractions.

The study also discovered the rate of resignations at Ctrip “dropped by 50% when employees were allowed to work from home.” The company also reported it made about $2,000 more profit per work-from-home employee.

So, let’s recap.

Employees who work from home perform better, are more focused, less distracted, quit less often and increase a company’s financial profit.

On a larger scale, work-from-home options help  conserve oil, lower greenhouse gas emissions and save companies buckets of money.

(Apparently, anything is possible when employees are allowed to work from home. It probably also relieves dry skin, promotes hair growth and cures bad breath. Those things just haven’t been studied yet.)

Anyway, if the results of Bloom’s study aren’t enough to convince your boss that employees should be able to work from home, lay these additional benefits on them. You can also arm yourself with proof that working from home increases productivity.

If your boss won’t go for remote working at all, try negotiating for a shorter work day.

Still no luck? Don’t let it get you down. In reality, only about 7% of U.S. workplaces offer telecommuting benefits.

And to be perfectly honest, working from home isn’t always as awesome as it sounds.

Except when it is.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She loves working from home but also thinks it really sucks to miss the days when people bring in cupcakes, pizza or their dog.

If you love iPhones, iPads and and all things Apple, you won’t want to miss this work-from-home job opportunity.

It comes with a bunch of great benefits, including a generous employee discount.

Apple is hiring AppleCare At Home Advisors to work remotely, helping customers fix technical issues with their Apple products.

You can apply from anywhere in the United States as long as you meet a few requirements:

  • A minimum of two years of technical troubleshooting experience
  • Customer service and support experience
  • Availability to work between the hours of 7 a.m. CST and 10:30 p.m. CST, including weekends and holidays
  • Available for 5-6 weeks of training on a fixed schedule, possibly including weekends
  • Minimum typing speed of of 40 WPM while talking to customers
  • A quiet workspace
  • High-speed internet

Job benefits include “competitive” pay, time off, and participation in the employee stock plan.

AppleCare At Home Advisors are also eligible for an employee discount on a variety of Apple products -- including iPads, iPhones, iPods and Apple Watches.

If this work-from-home job sounds too good to pass up, have a look at what Apple at Home Advisors do all day, then head over here to apply.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s always on the lookout for work-from-home jobs to share with readers so look her up on Twitter @lisah if you’ve got a hot job tip.

There are so many streaming music services to choose from it’s got me singing the blues.

Yeah, sorry. I had to get the obvious cliche out of my system. I’m done now.

Anyway.

The dizzying array of feature choices and subscription levels among streaming platforms makes it really difficult to figure out which service to choose.

I can’t make the decision for you, but I can share some insight into what some of the major streaming music services have to offer.

What Do Streaming Music Services Have in Common?

Everything, basically.

The major streaming music services:

  • Have a giant catalog of songs you can listen to on smartphones, tablets, computers, home audio equipment and, in some cases, gaming consoles.
  • Are free or have a free tier with a few features you don’t have to pay for (except Amazon Music Unlimited).
  • Have a playlist feature so users can build lists of songs in whatever order and groups they wish.
  • Offer radio stations or channels users can turn to for genre or artist-specific music.
  • Allow users to download music to listen without an internet connection.

How Do Streaming Music Services Differ?

There aren’t a lot of differences between music services, but they’re nevertheless significant.

  • The main difference between streaming music services are the pricing structures. Some offer family or student pricing in addition to free and individual plans; others don’t. Prices across the services range from $4.99 per month to $14.99 per month, depending on features and number of users on the plan.
  • Though all the streaming services have some features in common, each one also has its own unique pros and cons. Some might not be important to you but others might be deal breakers.

A Closer Look at the 8 Most Popular Streaming Music Services

Let’s take a look at what some major streaming music services have to offer.

Note: These features and prices may change at any time, so check directly with the services you’re interested in for the final word.  

Apple Music

What’s cool: The service includes original TV shows and movie programming at no extra cost, plus subscribers get early access to new music from major artists.

What’s not: The user interface is clunky.

How many songs: Millions

Playlists: Yes

Stations: Yes

Supported devices: iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, Sonos devices, computers and smartphones. Works with CarPlay.

Available offline: Yes

Cost:

  • Three-month free trial
  • Individuals $9.99/month
  • Family: $14.99 for up to six people
  • College students: $4.99/month

Here are more details about Apple Music -- plus how to get a three-month free trial.

Amazon Music Unlimited

What’s cool: It has nice integration with Amazon products.

What’s not: Amazon’s unlimited music plan is easily confused with its Prime Music service, which gives Prime members access to two million songs for free.

How many songs: Tens of millions

Playlists: Yes

Stations: Yes

Supported devices: Smartphones, computers, Alexa devices, Fire tablets, Fire TV

Available Offline: Yes

Cost:

  • Free 30-day trial
  • Prime members: $7.99/month or $79/year for an individual subscription, $149/year for the Family Plan
  • Non-Prime customers: $9.99/month or $14.99/month for the Family Plan
  • Echo Plan: $3.99/month per Alexa device

Here’s more information about Amazon Music Unlimited.

Google Play Music Unlimited

What’s cool: The service includes a complimentary YouTube Red membership. Radio station content is available without a subscription.

What’s not: It doesn’t include a desktop app.

How many songs: 40 million

Playlists: Yes

Stations: Yes

Supported devices: Android and Apple smartphones, iOS devices, computers

Available offline: Yes

Cost:

  • Two-month free trial
  • Individuals: $9.99 /month
  • Family: $14.99 for up to six people

Learn more about Google Play Music Unlimited.

Pandora

What’s cool: Pandora learns what music you like and dislike the more you use it. It’s great for finding new music and artists.

What’s not: The free plan is basically feature-free. 

How many songs: 30 to 40 million

Playlists: Premium members only

Stations: Yes

Supported devices: Smartphones, computers, TVs, Xbox, PlayStation and home devices

Available offline: Pandora Plus and Premium members only

Cost:

  • Free with ads
  • Individual: 30-day free trial, $4.99/month
  • Premium: 60-day free trial $9.99/month

Find out more about Pandora.

Soundcloud

What’s cool: It’s great for exploring music created by independent artists.

What’s not: Some of the content may have embedded ads.

How many songs: 135+ million

Playlists: Yes

Stations: Yes

Supported devices: Smartphones, computers, Xbox

Available offline: SoundCloud Go and Go+ subscribers only

Cost:

  • Free
  • SoundCloud Go: 7-day free trial, $4.99/month (web/Android)/$5.99 (iOS)
  • SoundCloud Go+: 30-day free trial, $9.99/month (web/Android)/$12.99 (iOS)

Learn more about Soundcloud.

Spotify

What’s cool: The subscription includes access to podcasts, videos and music videos. Spotify automatically builds you weekly playlists based on what it’s learned you like listening to.

What’s not: The free tier has lots of ads.

How many songs: Over 30 million

Playlists: Yes

Stations: Yes

Supported devices: Smartphones, computers, tablets, cars, home speakers, PlayStation, TVs,

Available offline: Yes

Cost:

  • Free
  • Students: $4.99/month
  • Premium: 99 cents/3 months, then $9.99/month
  • Family: $14.99 for up to six people

Here’s more information about Spotify.

Tidal

What’s cool: The service is artist-owned so musicians have a lot more say in the content they deliver to fans than with other services. Fans benefit with access to exclusive content concert tickets and more from megastars like Jay-Z and Demi Lovato.

What’s not: Some of the subscription levels are pricy.

How many songs: 48.5 million

Playlists: Yes

Stations: No

Supported devices: Smartphones, tablets, computers and network players

Available offline: Yes

Cost:

  • Free 30-day trial
  • Premium (standard sound quality): $9.99
  • HiFi (High Fidelity sound quality): $19.99
  • Family Premium: $14.99 for up to five people
  • Family HiFi: $29.99 for up to five people
  • Student Premium: $4.99/month
  • Student HiFi: $9.99/month
  • Military Premium: $5.99/month
  • Military HiFi: $11.99/month

Here are more details about Tidal.

YouTube Red

What’s cool: The subscription also includes ad-free videos, Originals, YouTube Kids and a complimentary Google Play Music subscription.

What’s not: You’ll be automatically billed for the service if you forget to cancel the free trial.

How many songs:Nearly endless

Playlists: Yes

Stations: Yes

Supported devices: Mobile, tablet, computer and TVs (some benefits only work on certain devices)

Available offline: Yes

Note: The benefits aren’t available for YouTube videos you pay to view, like paid channels, movie rentals and pay-per-view purchases.

Cost:

  • Three-month free trial, $9.99/month.

Learn more about YouTube Red.

Which Streaming Music Service is Best for You?

With 50 million paying users, Spotify is the most popular of the bunch for its huge catalog of songs and its user-friendly interface.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for you.

For instance, music lovers committed to Apple’s ecosystem may prefer Apple Music, while people who enjoy discovering indie artists might prefer SoundCloud or Pandora.

Your best bet is to give each service’s free trial period a whirl to see which one you like best before plunking down your cash.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. This topic is near and dear to her since she streams audio content roughly 14 hours a day, every day.

While several cities recently made headlines for raising their minimum wages, one city is in the news for doing exactly the opposite.

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens recently announced he will allow St. Louis to lower the minimum wage from $10 per hour to the state-standard of $7.70 per hour. That change will take effect starting August 28, 2017.

The city’s current $10 per hour minimum wage was set to go up to $11 an hour starting January 2018, but that’s obviously off the table now.

Depending on how you look at it, this news is really good or really bad.

I’m conflicted. Feelings are hard.

The Good (If You’re a Business Owner)

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved a bill in 2015 to gradually step up the city’s minimum wage to $11 per hour by 2018.

Business owners reacted almost immediately, saying they couldn't afford to increase workers’ wages that much and still stay in business. In fact, a consortium of businesses sued the city, saying the action conflicts with current state laws and makes Missouri “less attractive for business growth and job creation.”

Amer Hawatmeh told CBS News his family-owned restaurant in downtown St. Louis is already struggling. He says the minimum wage hike is one reason he had to scale back both his eatery’s menu and its operating hours. He fears ultimately having to shut down altogether.

Greitens defends his decision, saying helping local businesses succeed also helps workers in the long run.

“This increase in the minimum wage might read pretty on paper, but it doesn't work in practice,” he said in a statement. “Government imposes an arbitrary wage, and small businesses either have to cut people's hours or let them go.”

The Bad (If You’re a Wage-Earner)

It’s pretty easy to understand how lowering the minimum wage is a huge blow to workers in St. Louis, who already struggle to get by.

“Some 24.9% of St. Louis residents live in poverty, far more than the 14.7% national figure,” reports USA Today.

Missouri Sen. Jamilah Nasheed says people in St. Louis can’t get by on $7.70 per hour and calls the move “inhumane.”

Former Mayor Francis Slay agrees.

“We want people to work hard and not be dependent on government assistance. So, we should reward hard work with increased wages that will then boost the local economy," he says. "It is just not right that a parent working full time for the minimum wage has to raise his or her children in poverty.”

The Bottom Line

There doesn’t seem to be a perfect solution to this problem.

Workers can’t afford to live on $16,000 per year. On the other hand, raising the minimum wage could shutter some businesses and make others leave the community altogether. Fewer jobs puts an even greater strain workers and the local economy.

It’s a prime example of a vicious circle.

Even though the matter seems settled for now, it could resurface now that Slay, a four-term governor, retired this year.

Newly sworn-in Mayor Lyda Krewson fought for a compromise on the minimum wage bill and says the blocking the wage increase is a “setback for working families.”

“I will work with others to get an increase in the minimum wage on the ballot since our state legislature won't address it,” says Krewson.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Kobayashi Maru scenarios make her deeply uncomfortable.

(Note: This article does not use graphic language but some of these links definitely do. Click with caution.)

A collective-action lawsuit filed recently against a national phone sex chat line alleges the company drastically underpays its employees and “manipulates [its] compensation process to insure that their workers remain underpaid.”

According to court documents, Tele Pay bills customers $5 per minute to talk to its phone sex operators, also known as phone actors.

Since five bucks a minute works out to $300 per hour, you’d think phone actors would make bank on their cut, right?

Nope.

Court documents say Tele Pay often pays workers as little as $4.20 per hour -- well below the nationwide minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Workers say the company tells them they can earn more money but consistently come up with ways to circumvent actually paying them more.

The court filing outlines even more shenanigans Tele Pay allegedly uses to underpay its workers, including holding actors accountable for problems outside their control and making it almost impossible to track the amount of time actors spend on the phone with callers.

The details of the lawsuit highlight the ways in which phone sex operators are vulnerable to being taken advantage of by unscrupulous companies.

Working as a Phone Sex Operator

From full-time office workers and college students to men and women who are simply between jobs, people from all walks of life turn to PSO work as a way to make some extra cash.

PSO gigs are usually marketed toward women, particularly cash-strapped moms. Though male phone sex workers aren’t as common, they’re definitely also part of the industry.

Lawsuits against phone sex companies are rare, but the issues Tele Pay workers raised are not.

Many phone sex companies make bold claims about how much workers can make, but those figures rarely line up with reality.

“Some PSOs working for companies are excited to get $1 a minute they are on the phone; which could quite literally mean being paid $15 for 15 minutes of work — but this is all they have to show for having hung around, waiting for calls, for a six hour shift,” explains Deanna, a writer with the women's’ advocacy website Kitsch-Slapped.

Phone sex jobs are also pitched as a way to bring in some extra money while doing chores around the house, but even that’s not grounded in reality.

“When I started I thought I could wash dishes, clean my apartment or manage my email accounts,” Mona Monzano says of her experience as a PSO. “Beware — the client knows if they don’t have your full concentration, and they’ll call you out on it.”

Many PSOs also say the pay doesn’t make up for the sleep deprivation, difficult conversations and emotional labor involved in working as a phone actor.

And yet, there are some success stories.

“Having been a phone sex operator for more than eight years, I can tell you from experience that phone sex can be a fun, sexy, lucrative gig,” says author and phone sex operator Wednesday Lee Friday. (Of course, she also uses words like “frustrating, shocking, confounding, exasperating.”)

Finding a PSO Job Without Getting Scammed

If you want to give phone acting a whirl, there are a few things to keep in mind to help choose a phone sex company you can feel comfortable with.

  1. Look for work opportunities at job boards specifically geared toward adult entertainment. Search sites like SexyJobs.com and AdultStaffing.com rather than general job boards at websites like Craigslist.
  1. Pay attention to the audition process. A brief voice audition over the phone (typically with a female supervisor) is standard practice for reputable phone sex companies. If your audition involves a long, detailed private chat with someone who seems (not to put too fine a point on it) overly invested in the audition call, hang up and apply somewhere else.
  1. Do your homework. As with any other work-from-home job, it’s important to look into who you’ll be working for before you apply. Remember, even the most credible phone sex company (or any business, for that matter) will have unhappy former workers, so you’ll probably see a few online complaints no matter which company you search. Ultimately, you’ll need to trust your instincts and avoid companies that seem sketchy.
  1. You should never have to pay startup fees. Besides possibly paying for a landline telephone, becoming a phone actor shouldn’t cost you a dime. Just say no to any company that tries to charge you administrative fees or some other silliness.
  1. Beware of big promises. The old adage “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” applies here. Companies that promise you’ll rake in hundreds of dollars during your first week probably aren’t being honest with you. While that kind of income is possible, it takes time to build a base of repeat callers, and that’s where the bucks are.
  1. Keep your guard up. Along those same lines, be wary of any company that offers to put you in touch with one of its PSOs to give you the inside scoop on how much you can make on the job.

They usually offer to let you listen in on a call with a “regular customer” who seems awfully eager to tip his favorite PSO wads of money. Remember, the PSO industry is filled actors, and that often includes hiring managers who may get a bonus for every new worker who signs up through them.

Obviously, PSO work isn’t for everyone. It’s a totally legitimate way to make money, though, so if it appeals to you, go for it. Just be sure to pick a fun name for your alter ego.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Swing by Twitter and say hi @lisah.

What if I told you it’s possible to make internet searches more exciting and pull down a paycheck at the same time?

It’s true!

Marketing services company Lionbridge is hiring work-from-home web content judges right now.

You’ll use company-provided guidelines to rate keyword and search pairs related to websites, videos, online advertisements, images and more. The goal is to help make internet search more “exciting, relevant and interesting”

Pay for this freelance, independent contractor position is “based on completion of the agreed tasks or engagements within the specified time period.”

That’s pretty non-specific, so it’s tough to know exactly how much your paycheck will be, but similar search engine evaluator jobs pay $12 to $15 per hour.

According to the job listing, you’ll work 10 to 20 hours per week.

Requirements for this position include:

  • Fluency in English (additional language skill are a plus)
  • United States residency (working and living) for five years
  • Working knowledge of current events, sports, news, social media and cultural affairs
  • An interest in the internet, including blog writing, website publishing and research
  • Strong attention to detail
  • Bachelor’s degree or equivalent preferred

Benefits include:

  • Flexible hours
  • Direct deposit

Learn more about Lionbridge’s recruitment process, then apply here to be a web content judge.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She loves telling readers about new job opportunities so look her up on Twitter @lisah if you’ve got a tip to share.

One of the first things (after the pay!) many job seekers consider when deciding whether or not to accept a job offer is what the benefits package looks like.

Each job benefit and perk rarely appeals to every single employee. Some place a high value on parental leave or paid sick time, while others prefer perks like unlimited vacation time or a shot at a six-figure promotion.

No matter what kind of benefits package you’re looking for, it’s important to read between the  lines of the perks a company has to offer -- they can tell you a lot about an employer.

5 Job Benefits That Tell You a Lot About a Company’s Culture

Let’s look at the hidden meanings behind five job benefits some of today’s workers enjoy.

1. Paid Parental and Maternity Leave

It’s not easy for companies to offer paid parental and maternity leave to workers.

When a new mom or dad takes time off, managers must spread their work among other employees or train a temporary worker to take over. Employers often also absorb the cost of paying double the wages and benefits to cover two employees instead of one.

Companies that go the extra mile to accommodate new parents to such a degree demonstrate a deep commitment to a healthy work-life balance.

And that’s not all.

“Paid parental leave policy is one of the most powerful statements [companies] can make to break down workplace gender inequality and support working parents and their families,” says Change.org’s president Jennifer Dulski.

2. Fully Stocked Kitchen

[caption id="attachment_60606" align="alignnone" width="1200"] The Penny Hoarder Kitchen is stocked with snacks and beverages. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder[/caption]

Smart employers know many workers enjoy being part of a workplace community that feels like family.

“The dinner table can act as a unifier, a place of community,” writes The Atlantic’s Cody C. Delistraty. “Sharing a meal is an excuse to catch up and talk, one of the few times where people are happy to put aside their work and take time out of the day.”

Companies that stock their kitchens or break rooms with drinks and snacks telegraph that they care about the social wellbeing of their employees, not just their productivity.

By providing a gathering space filled with food, companies encourage workers to get to know one another on a personal level in a way that feels familiar, not forced.

Stocked kitchens help companies show “a personal investment and that need to make sure that they're happy here and they have everything they need to do a good job," said Danielle Mahoney, director of human resources for software company Appeagle.  

3. Flexible Schedules and Remote Work Opportunities

Flex time and the ability to work from home one or more days a week are among the most sought-after benefits in the workforce today.

Companies that allow workers to work remotely and have flexible work hours show they trust employees to be self-directed and productive without direct supervision.

Giving workers autonomous control of their workday demonstrates a company has faith in its workers and a culture that expects the best from its employees.

When businesses are open to alternative schedules and off-site work environments, it shows they aren’t mired down in antiquated ideas of what today’s workplace should look like.

4. Domestic and Same-Sex Partner Benefits

Despite becoming increasingly commonplace, workplace diversity programs fail when companies aren’t sincerely committed to their success.  

Businesses that offer domestic and same-sex partner benefits to their employees signal a strong commitment to diversity and inclusivity in the workplace.

“Employers are realizing that the more inclusive and diverse their workforce is, the better performers they are going to be,” says labor and employment attorney Samuel M. Schwartz-Fenwick.

“When employees feel comfortable in being themselves they bring creativity to work, they bring their ideas, they bring their ability to question… it just leads to a healthier workforce.”

5. Offbeat or Quirky Perks

Some companies like to think way, way way outside the box to come up with unusual or offbeat benefits.

Businesses that offer unconventional benefits are often warm and welcoming to workers who are a little offbeat themselves. If a 9-to-5 desk job isn’t your jam, these types of companies might fit the bill.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. The best job perk she ever had was getting to drive fire trucks. In fact, it was in the job description.

Whether you’re a college student, stay-at-home parent or retiree, mystery shopping is a fun and legitimate way to make some extra cash -- sometimes a lot of extra cash.

I’ve mystery shopped a lot over the last few years (though nowhere near 5,000 times!) and really enjoyed myself.

The one thing I haven’t liked, though, is stumbling across mystery shopper scams. Luckily, it hasn’t happened often but I still need to stay alert for shady shopping jobs -- and so should you.

Mystery shopper con artists will always lurk around the internet so it’s important to know how they operate.

The Most Common Mystery Shopper Scams

Like most cons, mystery shopper scams come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Here are some of the most common ones you might encounter.

The “Oops We Overpaid You” Scam

One of the most common mystery shopping scams involves getting a victim to give up their name and mailing address, ostensibly so the fake company can advance the shopper some money for a gig.

When the victim receives a check in an amount larger than they were expecting, Fake Company tells them to deposit it in their personal bank account and wire back the overage amount.

You guessed it. The check bounces and the victim is out whatever money they wired to Fake Company, never to be seen again.  

The U.S. Postal Service warns against a similar scam involving unsolicited mailings from scammers inviting you to become a mystery shopper.

Be sure to check out the copy of an actual fake check and letter to see how convincing these con artists can be.

The “Pay Us to Find You the Best Shops” Scam

This con plays upon our natural desire to want guidance navigating through the hundreds, if not thousands, of mystery shopping jobs available across the internet.

These fake companies promise to find you best, highest-paying, most fun jobs in your area -- for a fee.

They may claim to have special search capabilities, access to mystery shops that aren’t advertised online or recruit for well-known mystery shopping companies.

Don’t you believe it.

Reputable mystery shopping companies don’t use recruiters, hide their jobs from applicants or require special search tools to find.

Drop these fraudsters like radioactive waste.

The “Oddly Specific Invitation” Scam

The AARP, which tracks all kinds of scammers through the its Fraud Watch Network, says fake mystery shopping gigs have been around for a while.

“One way the scammers found many of their victims during the recession was through job boards where people could post their resumes,” says Amy Nofziger, regional director for the AARP Foundation.

“Scammers would use these to personalize their pitch to specific job seekers, homing in on the job seeker’s previous experience,” she says.

“They still use these methods today.”

The “Make $9,000 a Month!” Scam

You know we love mystery shopping here at The Penny Hoarder HQ, even when we kind of accidentally fail at it.

Several of us do it as a side hustle, but we know we’re not going to get rich doing it.

True, some shops can net you anywhere from $45 to check out a church up to as much as $100 to shop for a trench coat.

But those opportunities are rare.

Most mystery shopping jobs net you more like $10 - $20 per gig, or just some free booze (hey, that’s good enough for me).

Armed with that knowledge, be highly skeptical of any company that promises you’ll make enough money to drive around in a Lexus while nibbling caviar at stoplights just by shopping undercover.

Protecting Yourself from Mystery Shopping Scams

New mystery shopping scams pop up all the time, so your best defense is a good offense.

When deciding whether to apply for mystery shopper job or run away like your hair’s on fire, keep these tips in mind.

1. Research. Then Research Some More

You probably already knew I was going to tell you to do your homework, but it really is the number one way to protect yourself from scams.

Don’t be afraid to go all Sherlock on the company you’re thinking of signing up for.

Check out them out with Better Business Bureau, run them through the BBB Scam Tracker, and type their name in your browser’s search tool to see what pops up. (“[Company Name] scam” is a particularly useful search string.)

Our Facebook community page is also a great place to talk with other home-based workers about their mystery shopping experiences.

2. Don’t Respond to Mystery Shopping Companies That Find You

Don’t answer unsolicited emails about mystery shopping gigs, no matter how enticing they seem. Toss mystery shopper snail mail you didn’t send for and hang up on companies that call you out of the blue.

Reputable mystery shopping companies don’t spend money and time recruiting shoppers through cold calls and emails to random people around the country.

3. Keep Your Hard-Earned Cash

You want to make money as a mystery shopper, not spend it.

Any mystery shopping company that asks you for money in exchange for plum assignments, application fees, or background checks does not have your best interests at heart.

The Federal Trade Commission says it best: “Remember that legitimate companies don’t charge people to work for them – they pay people to work for them.”

What to Do If You Spot a Mystery Shopping Scam

If you spot what you think is a fake mystery shopping company during your job search, don’t bother trying to call them out.

Instead, report ‘em!

They’re the experts in handling this kind of thing so file a quick complaint and get back to the business of finding a legitimate mystery shopper job.

Nofziger notes mystery shopper scams can happen any time but occur more frequently during economic downturns and at certain times of the year.

“We often see an uptick during the holidays, when people are looking to make some extra income for the holiday shopping,” she says. “The scammers will often use this same season as a way to sound more legitimate by touting ‘the extra people needed for these secret shopper positions during the holiday shopping season, as companies want to ensure good customer service.’”

Nofziger says vigilance and consumer education are the best weapons against falling for fake mystery shopper gigs.

“These scammers are very clever at what they do and in the ways that they trick people.”

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. The best mystery shopper gig she ever landed was a full makeover at a fancy department store. She got to keep the lipstick.

One of the toughest things about being self-employed is how vulnerable you are to catastrophic expenses that wipe out your bank account.

Of course, many of us face that possibility whether we’re self-employed or work for a company that pays us steady wages.

But many independent contractors don’t have the type of protection that someone who works for an employer does, like workers’ compensation or unemployment insurance. (Hopefully, that will soon change.)

There aren’t many options for self-employed workers who need emergency funds, but some do exist. Let’s take a look at what’s available for freelancers in an industry that’s near and dear to my heart.

Emergency Funds for Self-Employed Writers

Writers who need emergency assistance or temporary support can contact these organizations:

  • The Haven Foundation provides grants to freelance writers and other members of the arts community who “have suffered disabilities or experienced a career-threatening illness, accident, natural disaster or personal catastrophe.”
  • The Mayer Foundation offers economic relief grants to New York City-area residents struggling with “poverty, low income or lack of financial resources.”
  • The Writers Emergency Assistance Fund provides financial assistance to established writers who are unable to work as a result of “advanced age, illness, disability, a natural disaster, or an extraordinary professional crisis.”
  • Modest Needs offers self-sufficiency grants to people in dire need but “because they are working and live just above the poverty level, are ineligible for most types of conventional social assistance.”
  • The Authors League Fund helps professional writers and dramatist who need emergency funds because of “medical or health-related problems, temporary loss of income, or other misfortune.”
  • Pen America offers grant funding to “professional — published or produced — writers in acute, emergency financial crisis.”

Be sure to also check out these lists of additional grant resources for writers and other creative artists.

Professional organizations and nonprofit organizations in industries other than writing also offer emergency funding to freelancers and independent contractors.

To find out what options are available to you, head to your favorite search engine and type in “grant money and emergency financial assistance” followed by the field you work in -- graphic arts, real estate, farming, tutoring or teaching, and so on.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s owned her own business for 18 years and knows first hand what it’s like to white-knuckle it through a financial downturn.

Here’s a question for you. Which would you rather do: ask your boss for a raise or get a root canal?

If you said “get a root canal,” you’re not alone. Employment agency Robert Half says 5% of the 1,000 people they surveyed recently said the same thing.

We’d also rather get audited by the IRS (4%), look for a new job (14%) or clean our houses (36%).

Robert Half researchers say 44% of the people they interviewed plan to ask for a raise this year, primarily because their compensation no longer matches their job duties.

But they also note “only 46% of professionals felt confident when asking for a raise.”

Well, aren’t we a bunch of nervous nellies? I know I am.

If the thought of asking for a raise terrifies you, I hope it helps to know there are people out there just like you.

Why We’re Raise-Seeking Scaredy Cats

LearnVest’s Marisa Torrieri says there are several reasons employees are reluctant to ask for a raise:

  1. You’re afraid you don’t deserve more pay. If you believe you aren’t as valuable as your co-workers, I urge you to read up on impostor syndrome.
  1. You’re afraid of rejection. If so many people weren’t, meeting people sure would be easier. Torrieri says even though being told “no” is a drag, it “doesn’t mean the topic is off the table forever.”
  1. You’re afraid to negotiate. Whether it’s over a car or job benefits, bargaining for what you want can be grueling. The key is to learn how to negotiate effectively.
  1. You’re worried you’ll lose your job. Fair enough, but don’t let fear stop you. Research shows that pretty much never happens.

Why We Need to Suck It Up and Just Ask for More Money

It’s easy to slip into avoidance mode and skip the raise discussion during your next performance reviews.

Here’s why that’s not the best idea.

"People who are hesitant to talk about compensation may reduce their earning power – not just in their current role but also with future employers,” says Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half.

For one thing, raises give job-seekers an edge during salary negotiations with a new employer.

Furthermore, getting paid what you’re worth helps close the wage gap.

Some experts say failing to negotiate your first job could cost you more than $65,000 in the long run.

What Are You Waiting For?

Arm yourself with these salary negotiation strategies and tips, then set up an appointment to speak with your boss.

You got this.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She wonders if her editors will be expecting a meeting invitation once she files this story.