By JOHN EGAN
This year, total credit card debt in the U.S. will come close to hitting the $1 trillion mark. Meanwhile, total car loan debt zoomed past $1 trillion last year, and total student loan debt now exceeds $1.3 trillion.
If you owe a sliver of that debt, you might be hunting for ways to earn extra money to put toward those bills. You don't have to flip burgers at McDonald's or sell clothes at Macy's, though. Here, we present four unique ways to stash some bonus cash in your bank account.
1. Secret shopper
Zondra Wilson, president and CEO of Blu Skin Care in Hawthorne, California, used to make money as a secret shopper.
At Wendy's, the hamburger chain, for instance, she'd check to see whether employees were "upselling" customers on additional menu items. She'd then report back to Wendy's about what she found out.
Wilson says each of her secret-shopping gigs paid $30, plus money for gas and mileage. Each gig took less than an hour. "I loved doing it," she says.
Secret Shopper, a company that hires folks like Wilson, says it normally pays $12 to $25 for each secret-shopping assignment.
Before you sign up to become a secret shopper, though, it's important to do your research on the company giving you the assignment. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned that some secret-shopping opportunities are scams designed to steal your money.
"Legitimate mystery shopping opportunities are out there, but so are plenty of scams," the FTC says. "If an opportunity is on the up and up, you won't have to pay an application fee or deposit a check and wire money on to someone else."
To search for a mystery-shopping gig in your area, you may want to visit MSPA-NA.org (formerly the Mystery Shopping Providers Association of North America).
2. Movie and TV extra
At age 3, Rebecca Chulew got her first taste of acting when she appeared in TV commercials for her parents' chain of furniture stores. Today, a good chunk of Chulew's income comes from being an extra in movies and TV shows.
As an adult, her first stint as an extra came in 2002 when she dressed up as a life-size Barbie doll for a program on CNN. Since then, she's been an extra in movies such as "Jurassic World," "Bernie," "Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser" and "I Saw the Light." She's also made appearances in TV shows such as "11.22.63," "The Astronaut Wives Club" and "American Crime."
Chulew, who lives in Slidell, Louisiana, says her work as an extra pays between $88 and $101 a day, plus overtime.
Although she says she's fed well on the set, being an extra isn't all glamorous -- her workdays often last 12 to 17 hours, and she frequently has to wear uncomfortable costumes for hours on end.
Chulew says the benefits of being an extra are more than monetary, though: "You get to work with attractive people all day long, and you might get to be on TV or in the movies if you get placed well in the scene."
To find work as an extra, one resource you might check out is Backstage.com, which lists hundreds of opportunities in film and TV.
3. Plasma donor
When Andrew Keahey moved to Austin, Texas, in 2009 with his family, he was in a financial bind.
Earnings from his wife's job at a daycare center weren't enough to cover rent and food, and Keahey was having trouble finding work. So he turned to plasma donation to help make ends meet.
Twice a week, Keahey would donate plasma at a facility in Austin. He'd make $40 a week for those two donations, which may not sound like a whopping sum, but it meant a lot to Keahey and his family at the time.
"Most people won't consider it much money, but when you have basically nothing, it's excellent," says Keahey, who now works in the art department of a sign company in Austin.
CSL Plasma, an operator of plasma donation centers, says one of its donors could make as much as $400 a month.
In most states, you must be at least 18 years old, weigh at least 110 pounds and pass two medical exams to become a plasma donor. According to Columbia University, studies show that donating plasma frequently is safe, but it doesn't come without risks, such as lower levels of antibodies in your blood.
However, the risk may be worth the reward. "If you're in a hard spot, the money can be very helpful," Keahey says.
Hunting for a place to donate plasma? Visit DonatingPlasma.org.
4. Professional "guinea pig"
Jesse Harrison, founder and CEO of Southern California-based Zeus Legal Loans, has made money playing games and watching movies. Sounds like a blast, right? Well, the work may not have been hard, but the purpose was serious.
From 2012 through 2015, Harrison participated in several university-sponsored research studies. Each one paid between $40 and $100 and lasted 15 minutes to two hours, he says.
One experiment involved playing a game revolving around an ethical dilemma, with researchers gauging the participants' reactions. In another experiment, Harrison and other participants watched two versions of the same movies: color and black-and-white. The assignment: Decide whether the acting was good or bad.
"These social and behavioral experiments can be a good source of extra cash," Harrison says.
However, you aren't limited to social and behavioral experiments. Numerous studies -- known as clinical trials -- test everything from antidepressants to acne treatments to cancer-diagnosis tools.
A 2013 global survey for the nonprofit Center for Information & Study on Clinical Research Participation found that just 5 percent of participants in clinical trials did so to pocket extra money.
However, depending on the number of visits someone makes for a clinical trial, the payoff can be significant. For example, the center says that a participant in an arthritis study could earn $100 to $1,450, while a participant in a breast cancer study could collect $150 to $1,350.
"The experiments are not always intrusive, though. You can avoid the intrusive ones," Harrison says. "I never had to get any chemicals into my body or anything like that."
If you're seeking a research study in your area, one place to look is ClinicalTrials.gov.
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