Advice for tracking mystery shopping expenses and income?

The payments from mystery shopping are so diverse and are usually for small amounts. Not to mention, they come in either by check or more often paypal. How do you keep record of them?

I just linked all my accounts on so I can actually see where my money is going. I'm not very familiar with it yet, but hope it will be useful to increase transparency with how much of my income I save each month.

Do you have any tips and tricks you use to keep track of how much you spend and make from shopping, as well as how much money you save?

Shopping Santa Barbara and Goleta, CA.

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It is all on the spreadsheet. Who, when, where, fee, bonus, reimbursement, mileage, when paid, how much paid.

Are you talking about how much of your net earnings you saved or how much of your normal expenses got covered by mystery shopping?
I'd like to keep track of my net earnings saved as well as how much of my expenses are covered by mystery shopping. I have a very strict goal at the moment of saving nearly half of my bimonthly paycheck, so need to be mindful of expenses.

It's tricky to track mystery shopping expenses since they are reimbursed up to 3 months later.

Shopping Santa Barbara and Goleta, CA.

Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 12/22/2015 11:00PM by gojiberry.
You have set for yourself quite a task. First you must decide the degree of accuracy you want for your 'net income'. If you go for an oil change and are reimbursed $45 and it cost $45, you theoretically have spent nothing. But if in real life you would have gotten the $19.99 oil change and this replaced it, you haven't 'saved' $45, only $19.99.

IRS will allow you to deduct mileage from your fees, but what does it REALLY cost to drive your vehicle per mile? We drive vehicles that are getting on in age, so their depreciated value is almost zilch. Cost at this stage of their usefulness is gas, oil changes, routine maintenance, tires, insurance and the occasional repair. It has been a couple of years since I did the calculation, but we were running about 15 cents and 21 cents per mile--but that of course changes with the price of the current tank of gas. But driving to a shop is an expense that cannot be ignored if you are truly trying to determine how much you have earned and how much you have saved.

For what you are trying to do, I would suggest that you do it on a basis of figuring that the money is earned when you do the report. You could add columns to a spreadsheet that reflected any overage you paid on the shop but won't be claiming as an unreimbursed expense, but that is irrelevant to the current argument. You go to the grocery store, you are reimbursed $10, you spent $10 and you had to spend $1.10 for an item you would never buy on your own, don't want and don't need. Fee = $6, Reimbursement = $10 SAVED = $8.90 ($10-1.10), Miles driven = 12.5, Driving 'cost' = 12.5 x your estimated mileage cost. EARNED = Fee + any bonus - your driving 'cost'
Most of my shops are for restaurants or grocery stores; I would be doing business with them even if it weren't for mystery shopping. So it's nice to be reimbursed for these, since they act as discounted groceries and dinners now.

Thanks for explaining how to compute the price to drive to and from shops! This is quite a big goal of mine, so it all helps.

Shopping Santa Barbara and Goleta, CA.
You can just directly use the amount IRS allows per mile as your deduction, but it is 57.5 cents per mile for 2015 and overall while it will protect that much of my income from taxation, it just doesn't cost that much to operate our vehicles here. For 2016 the IRS rate will be 54 cents per mile, at least for the first half of the year.
Mint is fantastic.

Give each company a tag. Let's say you spent $10 at McDonald's. Tag that with the company name. Then when you get paid, do a search for all tags for that company. Then you can easily see if the payment is correct. I actually just did that about 10 minutes ago.

I classify all mystery shop expenses as a business expense for mystery shopping. All mystery shop income as mystery shop income. Click on the trends tab. Choose a date range. You can easily see how much you spent versus how much came in.

Mint is really an excellent way of keeping track.
I have two tools that I use.
First, a spreadsheet similar to what Flash described. In a column on the far right I keep track of my net earnings for that 2-month period.

Second, I use a budgeting program that is similar to Mint, called YNAB. I have a budget category called "Secret Shopping." Every mystery shopping expense, reimbursable or not, goes into this category, with a few exceptions which I'll get to in a second. If I go out to eat and spend $30 but will be reimbursed $25, then I just spent $5 in my Secret Shopping category.

The only expenses that I don't count as "secret shopping" expenses in my budget are those that I would pay for either way. For example, when I do a gas station shop with a required gas purchase, I usually get $10 worth of gas. I split the expense into two categories: $5 (the reimbursement amount) for secret shopping, and $5 for Transportation expenses. If I go to the grocery store with a $9 reimbursement, I do the same. For any restaurant expense or gizmo that I'm required to buy, I call it a Secret Shopping expense (not for tax purposes, but for my own personal tracking). Basically, anything where I might be tempted to spend money that I would not have spent if I wasn't working at that store, is a Secret Shopping expense in my budget.

When I get paid, I do not record the payment as income. Instead, I put it directly into my Secret Shopping category. (I'm not sure how Mint works, but in YNAB you can record money as Income or you can deposit it directly into a sub-category). That way I can keep track of my net income including any outstanding expenses which are waiting to be paid. For my first 6 months of shopping, this category was in the red at certain points in the month, and if it got too far below zero I stopped accepting shops that required an expenditure. Once I was staying above $500 I started taking money out of that category every month to pay myself. I keep a $500 balance in that category to cover shopping expenses. (At some point I'll need more than that, but it is plenty for the level I'm at now).

I hope that makes sense. YNAB has a slightly different budgeting philosophy than Mint does, but I think you can apply the same principles to both.

We are all here on earth to help others....What on earth the others are here for I don't know.

--W. H. Auden

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 12/23/2015 09:33PM by Alter_Ego.
I use to track my accounts as well as categories. Some examples are Groceries, Eating Out, Rent, Phone Bill, and so forth. When I started mystery shopping, I added that as a category. I can track both income and expenses in this category. I also do a variety of random activities that lead to a small amount of income as well as expenses so I have categories for those.

One example is - I shop online a lot and participate in Facebook groups where we sell or swap things. Occasionally you can take advantage of online sales or liquidation situations and buy stuff for a low price and resell it for higher. So I have a category for those sales. It's not really that much "income" more just helping me support my shopping habit, ha! But I want to track how much money I have made back from that stuff. Another example is - I buy a lot of yarn and crochet supplies. Occasionally I sell something I make, or I sell off some yarn. So I track both "income" and expenses in that category. I also have a lifestyle blog which occasionally incurs expenses and gets a little bit of affiliate revenue. I hardly ever make enough money on any of this to make it a tax issue but I want the data to be there in case I do need it for tax issues in the future.

I have a couple of different accounts that money goes into and comes out of (namely checking and PayPal, and I also have a paycard I get payments on for some jewelry sales I do) so I can track categories across all of my accounts. There is a fee with, but it's not very much and I think it's worth it to have this type of data.

I haven't quite figured out the balance of what to put in the Mystery Shopping category vs. the category the spending would normally go into like Groceries or Eating Out. It's clear to me that if I would never have purchased something but just did it for the shop, like when you go to XYZ Drug Store looking for reloadable mastercards and the POV is a $1 purchase, I put it in Mystery Shopping. On occasions where I grocery shop which I would do anyway, I think I put it in Groceries. But I think I should probably put at least the required purchase amount it in Mystery Shopping for tax purposes? It would decrease the income amount. You can split purchases between categories so I might start doing that.
Taxes is somewhat of a different issue than trying to understand how much you are actually 'earning' from mystery shopping,

My choice is to claim every penny received as 'income' and then deduct from that the reimbursements. Because all payments--whether check, Paypal or direct deposit--initially go into the same account where the only other income is my monthly social security and my annual distribution from my retirement plan (if I take one), that is the 'match up' account should IRS have questions about 'income'. Odd little pieces of income such as rebate checks, eBay sales and other stuff goes into a different account just for the purposes of clarity. A flat fee shop that requires a purchase but does not reimburse separately for it, becomes an 'unreimbursed business expense' for taxes and gets deducted from 'income'. Thus after all the legitimate deductions, my shopping 'earns' very little each year because of a very low 'net income' while the actual benefit to me is pretty significant.
@Flash wrote:

Taxes is somewhat of a different issue than trying to understand how much you are actually 'earning' from mystery shopping,

The IRS might not agree. grinning smiley
Since the government gives us a mileage deduction for our business miles it is pretty easy to have very little income left since only the fees are taxable. Since reimbursements are not taxable income, there can be a substantial benefit from those when the purchases replace what you otherwise would have spent your own money on and NOT been reimbursed.
Thanks for sharing CeciliaM! I also sell things occasionally through eBay and Facebook groups.

It sounds like does everything you need it to. With the categories that you can add and rename it sounds very similar to Mint. I suppose what I like most about Mint is that it connects to all my accounts and I don't have to enter anything, but I can customize it.

Shopping Santa Barbara and Goleta, CA.
I thought at first that I would like that about Mint when I was looking for a program, but ended up feeling uncomfortable adding my bank account info (security) so I chose another program. Now that I've lived with YNAB for a while, I find that having to manually enter everything into my program only takes a few minutes a day and helps me stay focused on the budget. But I can definitely see the advantages of either system.

We are all here on earth to help others....What on earth the others are here for I don't know.

--W. H. Auden

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 12/24/2015 09:23PM by Alter_Ego.
You folks are scaring me. I don't know Mint or Clearcheckbook but I am assuming these are cloud housed applications. I have two sons, both of whom are actively engaged in computers, programming and trying to get applications into the cloud. While they are identical twins, there are few things they agree on and one of those is that the less of your personal information is in the cloud, the better.

If my bank chooses to use the cloud and they are hacked, they must make me whole. If my online brokerage accounts are hacked, they must make me whole. The same for credit cards. If I choose to put my own information on the cloud, nobody is obligated to make me whole.

One son recently attended a conference on cloud security where the presenter was quite straightforward saying that either a business could put expensive layer after expensive layer of security on their data and pray a lot or they could just put the data up there and when hacked, send a note of apology with a $50 off coupon for your next purchase of their multi thousand dollar software. His thesis was that you purchase a good quality security software once so that nobody can say you weren't diligent and let it update, but you don't fly to the newest, greatest, best security software.

So please put as little of your personal information 'out there' that could be tracked back to you, your accounts or your identity as possible.
My spreadsheet tracks the shopper fee, reimbursement amount, amount spent, and amount not reimbursed--which I will carry forward to the tax form. But what do you do when you purposely go over the amount that you're reimbursed? It doesn't feel ethical to include my extra chocolate I bought because I 'needed it.

Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product. Eleanor Roosevelt
I don't keep track of the total amount spent because my interest is fee and reimbursement and any unreimbursed amount that is actually a 'business expense'.

I go to the grocery store and am required to make a category purchase (that I can satisfy for under $2) and will be reimbursed up to $10. I spend $45. My fee is $10. My sheet shows fee $10, reimbursement $10, unreimbursed $0.

I go to a retail location for a fee of $10 and a reimbursement of $5. I get there and there is not a darn thing $5 or under. The cheapest I can find is $6.00 including tax. My sheet shows fee $10, reimbursement $5, unreimbursed $1. (Now lets say that what I actually purchased was $9 including tax. My sheet will still show unreimbursed of $1 because I COULD have bought the $6 item and chose to do something else.)

I do a fixed fee gas shop for $15 that requires a MINIMUM of $2 in gas plus an inside purchase. There is no guidance regarding expenditures except that I can't buy less than $2 in gas. I put in $10 at the pump to not be too obviously a shopper and I spend $1.79 inside. My sheet will show fee $15, reimbursement $0, unreimbursed $11.79.

I do a sandwich shop where I am required to purchase a combo. I am paid a fee of $10, I am reimbursed up to $5, the minimum combo costs $6.20. I buy the cheapest combo. My shop sheet shows fee $10, reimbursement $5, unreimbursed $1.20.
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