How Buying Beer Paid Me $4,000 a Month for College

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Carolyn Kaster/AP
My parents always taught me that paying for college was the student's responsibility. So as I approached my freshman year, I knew I'd have to figure out how to earn money while I went to school.

But it wasn't until I was enrolled that I realized what a challenge this would be -- and how ridiculously expensive it is to earn a degree. I started with traditional jobs, like working at a grocery store, but I simply couldn't earn enough from a low hourly wage to make ends meet.

So I started coming up with more innovative ways to pay the bills, like reselling textbooks and getting paid to attend movie premieres. That's when I stumbled upon what ended up being one of my best college money-makers: working as a beer auditor.

What Is a Beer Auditor?

Working as a beer auditor just might be the perfect job for college students. Here's how it worked: I'd go into a store, purchase beer and see if the people behind the checkout counter carded me.

If they tried to card me, I was supposed to say I left my ID in my car, and see if they'd sell me the beer anyway. Other times I'd take my beer purchase to the counter and show my ID, watching to see if the cashier took the time to enter my birthday into the computer.

Contrary to popular belief, the job wasn't about trying to trick people into selling to underage customers. I was over 21, so I could legally buy beer. Instead, I was simply testing stores to see whether employees performed ID card checks appropriately. If they didn't, the companies I worked for -- the same types of companies that hire mystery shoppers -- would advise the store to retrain their employees.

After my rounds, the companies that hired me paid me for the job, reimbursed me for the cost of the beer, and let me keep anything I'd purchased. What other job stocks your fridge and closets full of beer?!

How Did This Opportunity Come About?

Mystery shopping -- or getting paid to test and report on stores' procedures and customer service -- ran in my family. My grandma and mom did it, and when I was a child I helped them out with remembering details to write accurate reports.

When I became a teenager, I began mystery shopping on my own. I continued making money this way when I went off to college, and TrendSource -- one of the mystery shopping companies I worked with at the time -- asked if I was interested in becoming a beer auditor. I was over 21 by then, just the right age, and I had the experience they were looking for.

How Much Money Can Beer Auditors Make?

During my peak of auditing work, I made $4,000 to $5,000 a month -- enough to pay for living expenses, books and even some tuition.

Beer auditing usually pays $10 to 20 per store you visit. But unlike some types of mystery shopping, where a single job might take 45 minutes or even an hour, alcohol shopping takes less than five minutes. You buy the beer, go to the counter, and that's it. You also have to complete a written report, which usually takes another 10 minutes. So for 15 minutes of work, you get $10 or $20, plus the reimbursement costs for the alcohol.

I earned so much because I developed routes. I would audit 50 stores in a weekend -- at $15 a store, that's $750, plus the cost of the beer (not to mention the beer itself). I might travel 400 miles to hit all the stores, but when I did, the companies also offered what they called "route pay," which more than covered the cost of gas.

I lived in Tampa, Florida, at the time, and I'd drive all over the Southeast. Once I got good at beer auditing, I found other companies simply by searching online. Having multiple employers added significantly to my income.

How Can You Become a Beer Auditor?

Because I run a website called The Penny Hoarder, lots of readers come to me with questions about unusual ways to make money. Beer auditing is a big topic.

Here's the trick: Don't look for beer auditing jobs. Instead, start working as a mystery shopper. Most companies look for beer auditors from their mystery shoppers. Two companies to try are ExpertField Force and Second to None. As you're looking around, you'll notice a lot of scams for mystery shopping -- but there are plenty of legitimate companies, too. Let's go over a few ways to tell them apart.
  • Check to see whether the company is registered with the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, a national organization that regulates mystery shopping companies, and scam companies likely wouldn't be registered.
  • Look at the application form. Legitimate mystery shopping companies never ask you to pay any kind of money. It is always free to sign up. But they do want your Social Security number so they can send you a 1099 form during tax season. They're going to pay you good money, remember?
What Happens Next?

Read the TrendSource Mystery Shopping FAQ to get an idea of what mystery shopping companies are looking for. The application also typically involves a written test, so be prepared to complete that when you apply. Often, there'll be a set of instructions and then a series of multiple-choice questions testing you on whether you understood the instructions. They'll also ask you to write a short paragraph, maybe something like describing the last time you were at a restaurant, just to make sure your writing skills are up to snuff.

If you pass, you'll usually be approved and able to mystery shop within a day or two. That's when you'll find out if you're eligible to be a beer auditor. Some companies have age ranges -- for example, only people 21 to 25 years old.

Alcohol audits are almost always self-assigned. The companies post all the beer audits and alcohol audits on their website, and you select the ones you want to do. Often, you can do this without having to get approval from anyone. Just go online, pick the jobs you want, do them and fill out the reports -- and within 30 days you'll get a check.

My Advice to New Beer Auditors

The first shop will likely feel a little uncomfortable. It feels weird to be undercover. Treat it like you're just going grocery shopping and try not to make it into a big deal.

The first few shops will probably take longer than you expect, so don't get discouraged. As you gain experience, you'll be able to do your shopping and complete your reports faster. Once I had enough practice, I was sometimes able to do three shops an hour, including travel.

Keep at it, pick up more audits, develop routes -- and see how much money you can make. Oh, and make sure you have extra room in your fridge.

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