One of the common refrains you’ll hear from most personal finance experts is to properly manage your big three expenses: housing, transportation, and food. This makes sense – according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these three expenses account for 62% of your typical household’s yearly spending. If you can keep these three expenses under control, you should find yourself in a better financial position compared to most people.
There are a lot of ways to address these expenses. For example:
- Housing – Live in cheaper and smaller places. Or house hack to reduce your housing expenses, such as by living with roommates, renting out a room in your house on Airbnb, or living in a multi-unit property and renting out the other units.
- Transportation – Bike or use mass transit rather than driving. When you do drive, only do so with cheaper, more fuel-efficient cars like a Prius.
- Food – Shop at cheaper grocery stores like Aldi. Avoid going out to eat and try to cook at home more often.
Housing and transportation are common topics in the personal finance/financial independence space and there’s definitely no shortage of articles out there extolling the financial benefits of house hacking or getting around via bike. In fact, I’ve written about both on this blog (see here and here).
On the food front, the strategy typically boils down to a few things: cut down on costs by going out to eat less and shop for food at low-cost grocery stores. These are obviously totally fine things to do, but here at Financial Panther, we’re always on the lookout for slightly more advanced tactics that we can use to optimize our lives.
Over the past few months, I’ve been trying a different strategy to reduce my food expenses – taking advantage of secret shopping websites in order to get myself free food at restaurants. I stumbled onto this world of secret shopping jobs a few years ago, and honestly, it was so insignificant to me at the time that I don’t even remember how I initially found my way into it.
For a while, I did these secret shopping jobs very sporadically, getting a free meal here and there every few months or so. But as I thought about it more, it dawned on me that secret shopping was probably something that I could use to my advantage, allowing me to go out to eat a lot, while at the same time dramatically reducing one of the largest expenses in my monthly budget.
Similar to how people use credit cards to travel for free or house hack to live for free, secret shopping is something that you can use to hack your food budget, allowing you to go out to eat far more often than you’d otherwise be able to.
In today’s post, I’m going to show you exactly how I’ve been doing that.
What Is Secret Shopping?
Taking a quick step back, it might first make sense to explain what secret shopping is and how it works. The basic idea is simple – most businesses place a high premium on ensuring positive and consistent customer experiences, and in order to do this, businesses will contract with secret shopper companies to have customers go to those businesses, act like a customer, and secretly audit the business.
This is where we come in. Secret shopper companies contract with individuals like you and me to do secret shops, picking up different gigs as they become available. Some secret shops will require you to go to retail stores and pose as a customer acting out some specific scenario. I typically avoid these type of secret shops since, to be frank, they don’t sound very fun to me.
The secret shops I like to do are restaurant secret shops, which typically involve going to a restaurant, ordering a certain amount of food, and then filling out a survey afterward where I evaluate my experience at the restaurant.
A typical restaurant secret shop will reimburse you for your food order up to a certain amount – typically enough to cover your meal. Some restaurant secret shops will also pay you a small fee to complete the shop – I typically treat this fee as part of the amount I have to spend on food. So, if a restaurant secret shop reimburses me $25 for food, plus pays me a $10 secret shop fee, I’ll treat it like I have $35 to spend on food.
With all that said, knowing that we can get our meals covered opens up some interesting possibilities.
My Secret Shopping Results
As is typical of the things I do, I dove headfirst into the restaurant secret shopping world to see if secret shopping could work to hack my food budget. The results so far have been pretty good:
- In May, I went out to eat 19 times, resulting in a little over $700 in restaurant food reimbursements. This included multiple $50 meals and a good $100 meal at a restaurant my wife and I would never go to otherwise.
- In June, I went out to eat 10 times, with about $400 in food reimbursements. This included three meals at nice, upscale restaurants. I also took my friend Erik from The Mastermind Within with me a bunch of times since he works downtown and can go to these restaurants with me when my wife or my other buddy can’t go.
- So far this month (July 2019), I’ve gone out to eat 10 times and am currently slated to get over $300 in reimbursements. I’ll likely get more scheduled as well.
This is pretty incredible. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that your typical household spends about $3,300 per year going out to eat at restaurants. In three months, I’ve been able to spend over 40% of what your typical household might spend in an entire year – and all for free!
And even better, since I’m getting reimbursed for my spending, I’m able to put more spend on my credit cards, giving me more travel rewards that I can then use for free travel. Getting credit card points and miles is a secondary benefit of hacking my food budget, but something to think about that adds to the value of these restaurant secret shopper jobs.
How To Secret Shop
The basic process of a restaurant secret shop job is pretty universal and can be broken down as follows:
- Grab an available secret shop and schedule it for a day that works for you.
- When you’re first starting out with secret shopping, read the instructions for each secret shop carefully. Once you’ve done them a few times, you’ll get the hang of it, but early on, it’s really important to make sure you understand exactly what you’re supposed to do so that you don’t get your secret shop denied and lose out on your reimbursement (not getting paid because you messed up is something we definitely want to avoid).
- Some secret shops will require you to call the restaurant a day or two in advance and ask a question about the restaurant.
- For the secret shop itself, you’ll always have some sort of order requirements – usually an appetizer, entrees, dessert, and maybe drinks. When you pick a secret shop, you’ll need to look at the menu in advance and sort of plan out how to use your budget. Most secret shops will give you just enough money to cover your meal, but you won’t have a large enough budget to just order anything you want. Remember to account for the tip also.
- During the secret shop, you’ll typically have to identify the host, your server, and usually a manager for your report. This isn’t difficult, but it’s something you need to remember to do. Your server’s name is always going to be on your receipt. You usually won’t be able to get the name of the host or the manager, so make sure you remember what they look like so you can describe them in your report.
- You’ll need to take a photo of your receipt and you might need to take a photo of your entree before you eat it. Make sure to remember this, because if you mess up here, you are not going to be able to fix this later.
- Once you’ve completed the secret shop, you’ll then need to fill out your report. The reports generally consist of a few questions that you select an answer for and a short narrative section where you write a paragraph about your experience. You’ll usually have a day to finish your report. I typically just try to do it the same day so I don’t forget. This shouldn’t take you too long once you get the hang of it.
Of course, secret shopping, like a lot of life hacks, does involve some work. The first time you do it, it’ll take you more time because you won’t be as familiar with the process. But like anything, the more often you do it, the easier it tends to get. And as you can see by how I’ve been taking advantage of secret shopping, it can allow you to go out to eat a lot.
Secret Shopping Websites I Use
So how do you get started with these restaurant secret shopping jobs? The hard part is finding all of the different secret shopping companies out there – I think it’s the reason why so few people seem to take advantage of this strategy to eat for free. (I know it’s why I took a long time to get into this world)
Luckily for you, I’ve done a lot of the work for you. Below is a list of a lot of the secret shopping websites I’ve been using over the past few months:
- Bestmark – This might be my favorite company to use. They seem to have a lot of different secret shops pop up every once in a while. They also pay you twice per month, so you don’t have to wait long to get your reimbursement. Their interface looks pretty good too (as you’ll learn when you start doing these secret shopping jobs, a lot of these websites look terrible).
- Marketforce – This can be solid, but most of the restaurant secret shops tend to be fast-food restaurants for one person to eat. It’s worth signing up for when you need to get yourself a little lunch or dinner, but I don’t get a ton of shops from them.
- Presto InstaShops – This website (and mobile app) is where you’ll find a ton of secret shops. Presto, as far as I can tell, is sort of an aggregator for secret shops from a bunch of other companies that all use the same underlying interface. What you can do is use Presto to check out the shops that are near you, then you’ll need to sign up for each individual company that appears on the Presto website. As an example, I’ve been using the following companies that I found from Presto, with the first two companies accounting for the bulk of my restaurant secret shops:
- Reality Based Reports
- Ann Michael & Associates
- Customer Impact
- A Closer Look – This website offers more high-end shops, but they also seem to be more intense with their reporting requirements, although that might also be due to the fact that I’m still not as experienced with this secret shopping platform. It has very good secret shop options, however, so you should sign up for and use this site.
- ISecretShop – This is another one that I’ve used very sparingly. I rarely see anything good on it, but I have done some restaurant secret shops through this app before.
A word about payments. Almost all secret shopper apps pay once per month, which means that you’ll have to be able to float the cost of your meals for at least a little bit. Bestmark pays twice per month, so you’re usually only floating the cost of the meal for 15 days. The other secret shop websites only pay once per month, so you’ll have to be prepared to float your costs for at least 30 days. I don’t usually find this to be a problem, but it’s just something to note.
There are likely dozens of secret shopping websites that you can use and the ones that work for you will probably vary depending on where you live. I’m merely scratching the surface at this point. My hope with this post is that I give you a good starting point so that you can hack your food budget every month.
To be sure, getting a dozen or more secret shops in one month probably isn’t normal or sustainable. But I think it’s completely realistic for most people to do at least a few restaurant secret shops each month.
If the average household is spending $3,300 per year going out to eat at restaurants, even getting a few secret shops each month can add up to $1,000 or more of free food each year – reducing your own eating out budget by at least 1/3. That’ll leave you with more money that you can use to invest or use for other things.
We do a lot of life hacks these days to optimize our financial position- travel hacking to travel for less, house hacking to reduce our housing expenses, etc.
Taking the time to hack your food budget with secret shopper jobs is just another lever you can use to optimize your finances.