secret side hustles

The Music Teacher Who Travels the World for Free As a Mystery Shopper

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photos Getty

Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want. Here, a teacher explains her secret side hustle as a mystery shopper, which allows her to take trips she could never afford.

I became a music teacher straight out of college, but after having kids I had to hit pause on my career. Then I went through an unanticipated divorce and had no income, overnight. I was desperate for money, but I couldn’t afford child care so I took assignments doing mystery shopping at grocery stores. The way it usually works is that you get a certain amount of money to spend in the store you’re evaluating, but you have to make the purchase yourself and then get reimbursed after you send in your report. Most of the time, you can buy whatever you want — wine and cheese or diapers. It’s up to you. The reimbursement isn’t a lot (around $15), but back when I was unemployed and only getting about $16,000 a year in child support, it helped big time.

Once my kids were in school I went back to teaching. Now I work full-time at a charter school, but I don’t have set hours because a lot of my job involves home visits and consulting. I’m still a prolific mystery shopper, and these days I get much better assignments, including travel. In fact, I’ve been all over the world for free.

From grocery stores, I got into restaurant assignments, which was a big deal because I couldn’t afford to eat out otherwise. Next, I discovered hotels. My first was a four-star hotel in Santa Barbara. I took my kids, who were just toddlers, and even got a massage in my room as part of the job. I couldn’t possibly afford vacations like that, so I kept it up and did a hotel every year, with my kids.

I now earn between $60,000 and $80,000 per year from my teaching job, but just six years ago I was only making $48,000 a year, and I was unemployed for two years before that when the economy imploded. At that point, I had an annual income of $18,000. So I’ve never been able to afford fancy trips on my own salary.

About four years ago I did my first assignment alone at a ski resort in Utah, and it was probably one of the best weekends of my adult life. All activities were reimbursed. I had to go to the spa, so I got a hot stone massage. I had to eat at all the restaurants and I had to do ski school. The bill was probably about $2,000 for the three nights because of all the things they wanted me to do. I remember looking at my face in the mirror midway through the trip and thinking, “I look ten years younger!” Since then I’ve mystery shopped at about 50 hotels.

These trips work similarly to the grocery store assignments, in that you have to front everything  with your own credit card and then you get reimbursed once you’ve written the report. It’s like you go on an expensive vacation and then the bill vanishes. I try to go to New York a few times a year and Miami every summer. I go to Hawaii once a year, too.

You get a checklist of what to look for ahead of time. For example, employees are always supposed to ask you your name, and use it during the conversation. I try to act as normal as possible. You’re cautioned against being too obvious. You don’t want to seem too demanding or act like you’re trying to catch someone in a mistake. I only ever find it uncomfortable when an employee is doing something wrong. I’m thinking: Oh no! Please stop, don’t do that because I’m going to have to put it in my report. Once, at a hotel in Houston, my friend and I were checking out and the bellman was like, “Hey, did you guys take the bathrobes?” And we were like, “No, of course not, we wouldn’t do that.” And he’s like, “No, go ahead, they never check,” and was insisting that we steal the robes. And I’m thinking, Please stop talking. I think I wrote in my report, “The bellman helped us with our luggage. He suggested we take the bathrobes.” You don’t add your opinion.

At restaurants you’re supposed to note what time you walked in, what time you were seated, what time the server came, what time your drinks were served, and so on. I use a note-keeping app on my phone and I just jot down the basic stuff. Sometimes I’ll take notes in the restroom. Thank God everyone takes pictures of their food now. I mean, I look like one of “those” people, but too bad — it’s a good way to keep notes. Before I had an iPhone, I sometimes got my kids to help with the assessment. My daughter would be like, “His name tag is not on the right side.”

These days I look for assignments that let me treat myself. I get free haircuts, massages, and manicures. I’ll go to Macy’s and buy lip gloss or order groceries for delivery. I’ve gotten blowouts where my hair has never looked better, like the best hair day of my entire life. I recently got a face wash that cost $55, which I would never ever be able to pay for otherwise. I needed a haircut a few months ago, but I couldn’t find a mystery shop assignment, so I waited and waited until I was finally like, You just gotta go pay to get your hair cut.

I do a lot of restaurants because I have a 16-year-old son so it’s a good way to feed him (you can usually bring a person with you and their meal gets paid for, too). It could be a fast food place like McDonald’s or the nicest restaurant in the city. I once did a restaurant in Paris and it was probably the best meal of my life. I could see the Eiffel tower from the table and it was extra special, like there was a gold leaf in the dessert. It was a three-hour meal and I think it was €300 or something crazy.

I think being less memorable is definitely an asset, especially when I mystery shop the same store or restaurant several times (they usually don’t allow that with hotels). I’m 5’8”, average weight, with brown hair and nothing out of the ordinary like tattoos or piercings. Basically, the rule is to not stand out, in terms of appearance or behavior, so that the service received is typical and not impacted by the shopper. You do have to look the part. If you go in to a luxury store wearing flip-flops and a T-shirt, you’ll draw attention to yourself. I have a simple black dress that’s my mystery-shopping uniform. A while ago there were assignments at a Diane Von Furstenberg store, and the payment was a purse. I use it when I travel so that people see it and think, “Oh she looks like she can afford to be here.”

There are hundreds of mystery shopping companies and you have to register with each one individually. I’m probably registered to 50. There are new assignments each day  so you can take the ones you want and ignore the ones you don’t. I’m a little obsessive with the hotels. I’m always looking. There are some hotel jobs in the Maldives, and when they pop up I’m like, How can I make this happen? I haven’t had to spend money on a vacation in five years. I don’t really vacation otherwise, because why would I pay? Most hotel assignments are only two nights, so if I’m going  all the way to Europe, I’ll try to do a few assignments back to back. Recently I went to London for a week and stayed in three different hotels.

I think I’m good at mystery shopping because I have a natural eye for detail. You also have to be able to put your observations into words. I’ve gotten better at that over the years, but I know that’s hard for some people. Your report gets looked at by an editor, and if they have to fix too much, they just won’t use you as often. Or they won’t use you for bigger assignments because you create more work for them. You have to follow directions and be punctual. If it says to go to the restaurant between 6 and 8 p.m., that’s when you need to go. A lot of mystery shopping is about time, deadlines, and getting the reports done within 12 or 24 hours. It does call for discipline.

If you mess up an assignment, they won’t pay you back. That’s never happened to me but it’s a healthy fear that keeps me on my toes. And it really is “mystery” shopping. Only my close friends and family know what I do. The big rule is that you can’t post online when you’re doing a job. If I’m staying at the Peninsula Hotel in Tokyo, I can’t tag myself, “Hey everyone, I’m at Japan at the Peninsula!” If my son comes with me, I say, “You can tell your friends we’re in Paris but don’t tell them where we’re eating or where we’re staying.” You have to use your real name because you’re paying with your credit card and showing your ID. I do worry about blowing my cover because I’d hate to lose the travel.

My boss doesn’t know I do this, and I’ve had a couple of close calls. One time, I was on a conference call at a hotel on the Gulf Coast and I forgot to hit mute when the housekeeper came in with towels. If I meet people when I’m traveling I keep quiet about what I’m doing because you never know — you could be talking to the manager’s wife. I play it like I’m a single person who just loves to travel, but I think sometimes people wonder where I’m getting the money on a teacher’s salary. There’s also a pride thing that kicks in. I don’t want people to think I’m living off a rich ex or something.

If I go away, I try to leave on Friday and come back on Sunday, or make it around our school vacations so it doesn’t interfere with my job. But sometimes it’s irresistible. When there’s nothing going on at work and you can have a free trip to New York City, you have to take advantage of it. A couple of years ago I had my end-of-year review over the phone while I was in Cabo San Lucas. I was on this conference call about how my job is going, and I could hear the waves outside my room. And I just thought, Isn’t this the life?

The Music Teacher Who Travels the World As a Mystery Shopper