How to Slash Your Entertainment Budget Without Staying Home

Mystery shopper
Roman Harak under Creative Commons
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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?

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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,