Todd Baldwin can afford to splurge on fancy meals. But for the most part, the 27-year-old self-made millionaire refuses to spend his own money at restaurants.
Baldwin, who earns six figures at his day job and has built a $4.4 million real estate portfolio with his wife Angela, is a "secret shopper" on the side and gets paid for dining out.
"There are a lot of businesses out there that want to know how their employees are doing and how the market is responding to their products," he tells CNBC Make It. "Those companies will hire mystery shopping firms to find independent contractors like me to go pose at their establishment as a regular customer, buy the product or service and then report on it." Reporting usually entails completing an online survey within a certain time frame.
Thanks to secret shopping, Baldwin spends just about $25 a month on food: "90 to 95% of our restaurant budget is covered by mystery shopping," he says. "Every once in a while, we'll want to go somewhere a little bit more exotic that doesn't have a mystery shopping program." But for the basics — coffee, fast food, chain restaurants and the occasional higher-end restaurant — they're covered.
Baldwin even gets paid to stock his fridge and pantry, once earning "$350 to get $70 worth of groceries from Trader Joe's," he says. That wasn't typical, though: Expect to get paid closer to $35 for mystery shopping at grocery stores, he says. While some places require you to visit a few different sections of the store, like the meat or produce department, you typically have free range over what you can buy, he adds.
To be clear, "secret shopping is not how I got rich," Baldwin says in a secret shopping explainer video on his YouTube channel. "I got rich through investing in real estate and through finding multiple streams of income."
That said, if you want to save money on food or entertainment, this is a relatively easy way to do so if you have a flexible schedule and aren't a picky eater. When you sign up for assignments, you have to "shop" during a specific time frame, like 11:15 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. or 4:15 p.m. to 9 p.m.
"There are some legitimate companies, like Bestmark, that make it easy to become a secret shopper," Sara Skirboll, a shopping expert at RetailMeNot, tells CNBC Make It. "All you need to do in order to apply is enter a few lines of general information about yourself."
Baldwin started mystery shopping in college, when he was first dating his wife. "I wanted to take her out, but I didn't have any money," he says. "I started researching ways to get free food and free entertainment."
At first, "I thought it was a total scam," he admits. After all, besides getting reimbursed for dining out, going grocery shopping, seeing a movie, even visiting hotels and casinos, you get paid for your time. He tried it out anyway, filled out the survey, uploaded a copy of his receipt proving how much he spent and got a check in the mail two weeks later. Ever since, he and Angela have been getting paid to go on dates.
Baldwin has made about $30,000 since he started mystery shopping five years ago. The surveys he fills out after the experience aren't too time consuming, ranging anywhere from five to 15 minutes. For that reason, he has a hard time justifying spending money at bars and restaurants. "If a buddy wants to go to a bar or someone wants to go see a movie, I usually try to wait until I can get a mystery shop," he says. "If you're going to go there anyway, you might as well get it for free and get paid on the top."
The gigs that pay hundreds or even over $1,000 are more time-intensive, he notes. Completing those surveys can take between two and three hours.
To land those high-paying gigs in the first place, you have to put in the time and prove yourself as a reliable and thorough mystery shopper. One of Baldwin's first experiences was at fast food chain Five Guys, he recalls: "I got a free meal, plus about $4 worth of profit, so it wasn't that big. That's where you're going to start, with places like Five Guys or Panda Express. But eventually, as you get a good reputation and your ranking increases, you can get really high-end restaurants."
Baldwin uses about a dozen secret shopping platforms. His favorites are Reality Check, where you can get reimbursed for car washes and high-end restaurants; Service Sleuth, where you can get paid to visit casinos and resorts; and Market Force, which he likes to use for free food at Panda Express and Five Guys.
However, Baldwin and Skirboll both recommend exercising caution when searching for secret shopping platforms. "This industry has experienced some scams in the past," says Skirboll. "The FTC shares great guidelines to look out for so all you need to do is research, look at reviews and make sure to stay away from any companies asking you to pay or wire money."
And while it's simple to apply to become a secret shopper, it does take time and work to actually complete assignments, she says: "I wouldn't suggest this is the best way to make a surplus of money on the side if you have a full-time job. Shoppers can make a quick $30 or $50 depending on the assignment, but if you have the flexibility and time to put into being a secret shopper, the payments can certainly add up."
That's what Baldwin has found: "With mystery shopping, you never have to do anything that you don't want to do. I only sign up for the ones that are going to be fun and convenient."
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