They try to seduce you with promises that you can make money while having fun in your spare time. But in reality, dozens of online platforms that promise “easy” and “fun” opportunities are rotten side hustles.
To be sure, reasonable people can disagree about what makes a moneymaking opportunity good or bad. So it’s worth rattling through why we think these side hustles are just plain rotten.
In a rotten side hustle, you’ll earn less than minimum wage after accounting for expenses. Or your assets — worth many times your pay — are put at risk when you participate. Or the platform has the contractual right to take your accumulated wages and has a history of doing so. Or you have to pay upfront fees for largely worthless services.
Perhaps what’s most disturbing about the rotten side hustles is that there are almost always better options in similar industries or with different online platforms. But the better alternatives are less well known, so they’re often overlooked.
Here are some rotten side hustles and their better alternatives.
If you’ve been tempted to sign up for a survey site, you should know that no matter how smart and efficient you are, you’re not going to make even close to minimum wage there. Yet you’ve probably seen advertisements for sites such as Swagbucks, Survey Junkie, MyPoints, Perksy and PaidViewpoint, which all try to draw you in with promises of having fun while you earn gift cards and prizes.
Of these sites, Swagbucks and Survey Junkie appear to be the best, but they’re still not great moneymaking opportunities. A NerdWallet writer who tried Swagbucks a few years ago figures she earned about 89 cents an hour. When our tester tried Survey Junkie, he calculated that if he used his time as efficiently as possible, he could earn up to $3 an hour.
Some survey-site advocates say that this is one of the few side hustles that you can do while watching TV. That’s true. If your main goal is to fidget while binge-watching Netflix, have at it. But if your goal is to make money, taking surveys is a rotten way to go.
Consider signing up for focus group sites instead. Like the survey sites, they pay you to answer questions. However, in this case, you’re likely to be invited to answer questions in person or via Zoom.
You won’t get offered a focus group every day. But if you land just one, you’ll probably make more money than you would by doing surveys all year. FindFocusGroups, which matches people with focus groups in their area, estimates that the typical focus group takes anywhere from a few hours to a full day and pays $50 to $250.
Another option: Sign up to be a mock juror. Mock jurors are hired to review legal cases to give attorneys better insight into whether they’re presenting the case in a clear and compelling manner. Many cases can be reviewed online in an hour or less. Pay ranges from $5 to $60 per case.
I first heard about mystery shopping when I was a retail employee. The manager of the clothing store I worked for warned us that the company had hired shoppers to make sure we were helpful, efficient and following company policy. If the shopper rated you highly you’d get a whopping bonus of, say, $5.
Little did I realize that mystery shoppers earn similarly paltry pay.
BestMark and Secret Shopper are among the nation’s largest mystery shopping firms. You are certain to get offered plenty of gigs if you sign up with either or both of them. Typical mystery shopping jobs pay $10 to $25 per shop.
The catch: When you account for the time it takes to get to the store, complete the tasks and write up your report, you’re earning a few bucks an hour, after expenses. On occasion, one of these companies might offer reimbursement for dinner or a movie someplace nice. But those plum assignments get snapped up in seconds.
But you love to shop? Consider shopping for groceries ordered through Shipt, Instacart or Dumpling. The pay at these sites won’t knock your socks off either, but it generally exceeds minimum wage.
Car rental platforms
If you have a spare car, you can rent it out and earn upward of $20 a day. However, the platform you use to rent out your car makes a big difference. In our estimation, renting through HyreCar is a miserable idea, renting through Turo could be good, and renting through Giggster could be great. Here’s why:
HyreCar rents your car to Uber and Lyft drivers. They’re going to drive your car constantly and add a lot of mileage. Additionally, the insurance policy provided through the platform has some substantial holes. As a result, a raft of people claim that renters have crashed or stolen their vehicles and that they were never reimbursed for the loss.
Turo rents your car to tourists, who are likely to put on less mileage than ride-hailing drivers. The site also offers insurance, which owners say has been fairly accommodating about paying claims.
Giggster rents cars (and homes, offices, retail space and land) to photographers and movie producers. If you have a distinctive vehicle, you can rent it out by the hour here and earn many times more than you would renting it by the day through the other sites. You can even restrict the amount it’s driven and can require a deposit to incentivize bringing the vehicle back in pristine condition.
Beware of websites that require you to accumulate a set amount of earnings before cashing out. Too often these sites consider your earnings their property until you hit the benchmark.
This is the case at a number of sites that promise to pay for listening to music. They use various ways to avoid paying — sometimes they boot you from the platform; other times they simply stop sending work when you near the cash-out threshold.
Want to make real money with music? If you can play an instrument well enough to teach it, sign up with Lessonface. This site helps you teach online, setting your own rates and schedule. The platform takes a commission ranging between 4% and 15%, depending on whether you brought in the client or it referred the client to you. Other online tutoring platforms can also connect you with students.
At some online platforms, the thing they do best is find imaginative ways to charge side hustlers for useless services. Beware if you get charged to ask questions about your pay, to get someone to respond to you promptly or for being “inactive” for a period of time.
Other red flags: Being charged to take skills tests, finding it impossible to bid on jobs without paying a monthly fee, or facing undefined “referral fees” (which are often exorbitant and sometimes don’t even result in referrals to actual clients).
Better options: If you’re a writer, try Contently or Skyword. Programmers and digital creatives can find well-paid positions through Working Not Working and FreeUp. Pros in other fields can try FlexProfessionals.
Tradespeople would be wise to post on a free neighborhood site such as Nextdoor. Nextdoor is a little quirky because it enlists local moderators, who sometimes overstep. But it’s common for neighbors to post their availability for all kinds of tasks, including tutoring and home repairs. And if you have happy clients, they can post about you — providing nice referrals for free.
Kristof is the editor of SideHusl.com, an independent site that reviews hundreds of moneymaking opportunities in the gig economy.