Wednesday, March 25, 2015

let's talk about online surveys.

When I graduated college and set out for my adventures in unpaid internships, I had no idea how difficult things were going to be. Goodbye easy-to-find job at the coffee shop – hello weeks of fruitless job searches. Goodbye almost-zero gas bill because I could walk or bike to campus every day – hello bus passes because I couldn’t afford downtown parking for my internship. Goodbye three square meals a day – hello eggs and hotdogs.

My first stop was Denver, which is where the harsh reality of post-college life really hit me. Up until this point, part-time jobs had been very easy to come by. I figured I would go to my twenty-hours-a-week unpaid internship and work the rest of the time. Good plan, right? Sure… if I had been able to find a part-time job. I applied all over the place and (after a month of searching) was finally given two-week-long job at a fireworks store. After that job ended, I was hired to work at American Eagle (the clothing store). Those jobs saved my ass.

Unfortunately, my minimum wage earnings from these jobs were barely enough to pay for my bus passes – let alone expenses like my credit card bill and food and toothpaste and such. I was continuing to apply for more part-time work, but no to avail. So what did I do in the meantime?

I signed up for internet surveys.

In my desperation, I turned to Google. I searched for alternative ways to make money: what to do when you are underemployed and no one else will hire you. (I know “alternative” sounds suspicious, but the suggestions were things like “sell your belongings” and “be a crafter.”)

One of the survey results suggested online surveys. According to whatever site that was, some companies would pay you to take surveys about things like advertising and new product ideas. That sounded like the miracle I needed.

I signed up for a handful of survey websites. You earned points for each survey you took, and you could cash in your points for gift cards, PayPal money, a check, or a bunch of other stuff. One of the sites I signed up for would pay you two cents each time you opened one of their special advertising emails. I thought I had a good thing going.

And for a while, I did. I took surveys during every free moment I had, and I started collecting points. As I went along, I figured out that all of these sites had a minimum points balance you had to meet before you could cash out. And getting to that minimum balance took FOREVER. Sure, you could earn 90 points if you took a 20-minute survey… but it took 1000 points to buy a $10 Amazon e-gift card. When I thought about it that way, it didn’t seem so great… but I was poor enough that I did it anyway.

Let me tell you: those surveys – while time-consuming – were lifesavers. It felt like a downright miracle to get a check in the mail when I was at my poorest. The surveys were mostly about how I felt about a certain advertisement, but every now and again, they sent me a product to test. That was THE BEST: especially when I was too poor to buy things myself. I tested toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner (lots of shampoo and conditioner), body wash, little vials of perfume (TONS of that), razors, deodorant… mostly toiletries. There was a fair amount of food: mostly snack bars, but I was sent a frozen pasta meal packed in dry ice. I even tested sticky notes once. The product tests were awesome because you not only got to keep said product, but they were worth a ton of points. Man, do I miss those product tests.

I was a survey-taker for nearly SIX YEARS: long after I stopped being poor enough to really need it. It was fun to get the odd $20 check here and there, and the surveys gave me something to do on cold winter evenings when I was living alone. I took scads of surveys when I lived alone in Minneapolis, and even more when I moved from living alone in Minneapolis to living alone in Sioux Falls. I earned enough points to cash them in for a dust buster, and that was the year that I funded all of my Christmas shopping with Amazon gift cards from survey taking. No kidding.

Like all good things, my time with the survey companies was doomed to meet its end. The beginning of the end was when the surveys started becoming more difficult to complete. When you were sent a link to a survey, they’d usually ask you some general questions (age, location, what kinds of products you buy) before deciding whether or not you were eligible for their survey. If you were, they’d send you on to the entire survey, and you’d earn your points at the end. If not, they’d kick you out right away and suggest you take more surveys. That was all well and good… until I started noticing that – with more and more frequency – I’d spend nearly twenty minutes taking a survey before I was kicked out and told my opinion wasn’t needed. After I’d given my opinion. Not cool.

It was a lot of little things driving wedges between my survey companies and me. Remember those paid emails? That website enacted a new policy: they’d only send you paid emails if you successfully completed surveys for them, also. The surveys on that website were incredibly difficult to qualify for, and I almost never took them. So much for the paid emails.

The rewards systems began to change as well. They were already a pain in the butt with their minimum balance fees and their incredibly long processing time: it could take six weeks to get a check or PayPal money. Many companies started charging a “processing fee” in order to get you your rewards. The paid email company charged you $3, which was a hell of a lot of paid emails (150, to be exact). One company would give you weird gift cards (like to a restaurant’s website) without a charge, but they’d charge you a $5 fee for the good stuff, like Amazon and PayPal. Finally, yet another website began deducting points from your balance if you didn’t spend them in time – but they still enforced the minimum points balance, so it was nearly impossible for me to earn enough points to spend them before they started expiring.

It wasn’t just the surveys that were changing: it was my life, too. Winters alone in Minneapolis and Sioux Falls are pretty bleak, and honestly, I didn’t have anything better to do than take online surveys. Things changed when I got engaged and James moved in. Suddenly, I had a person to share those bleak winter evenings. Even if James and I were just sitting on the couch together watching Netflix, it beat the hell out of sitting by myself at the kitchen table, answering questions about how a certain advertisement made me feel. Surveys were no longer a good way to spend my time.

Even after I had arrived at that decision, it took me a while to cut the cord. I kept getting survey invitations in my inbox, and I kept deleting them – telling myself I’d take surveys again some other time. When I did half-heartedly click through, I found myself getting instantly annoyed with the questions. Who gives a shit whether or not I find the narrator of this commercial irritating? Why am I doing this? I should be reading a book, or playing with the cat, or doing anything besides taking these stupid surveys.

So I quit. I had already quit all but two survey companies, and I cashed out the last of my points: for a $10 gift certificate to an online-only cookie company (which I will likely never use) and $15 in PayPal money (which I will most definitely use). I haven’t unsubscribed to those survey companies yet – if you request a reward and then unsubscribe before you actually get the reward, the company won’t send you the reward at all. So I’m biding my time until I get my hard-earned rewards. In the meantime, I am simply deleting each survey invitation as soon as it hits my inbox.

And let me tell you: it feels SO good.

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