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"How to Live Large, and Largely For Free: Jennifer Voitle's Way"

A Laid-Off Wall-Streeter Eats, Travels And Stays in Hotels as Part of Work


STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- On the breezy patio of the Local Golf Course here, Jennifer Voitle was hard at work.

"Cheers," she said, hoisting a frosty Corona with lime. Tanned and relaxed after playing a few holes, she finished up the beer and ate a cheeseburger. The golf and burgers were all part of the job, as were the strict instructions from her boss to "consume at least one alcoholic beverage."

Her morning jobs were equally trying. She went dress shopping, stopped into a bank to cash a check and visited a Saturn dealership to look at new cars. After golf, she was headed to Manhattan for dinner at a nice Italian restaurant. All these activities were paid jobs. Her total earnings for the day: about $300. "Can you believe they call this work?" she said.

Jennifer Voitle has mastered the Freebie Economy. A former investment-bank employee who was laid off two years ago, Ms. Voitle has found a new career in the arcane world of dining deals, gift certificates and "mystery shopping," where companies pay her to test their products and services. She gets paid to shop, eat at restaurants, drink at bars, travel and even play golf. Last month, she made nearly $7,000 from her various freebie adventures. By the end of the year, she could be making more than she did in investment banking, not counting her steady supply of handouts.
She gets free gas, free groceries and free clothes. When her car breaks down, she gets paid to have it repaired. She can make $75 for test-driving a SUV, $20 for drinking at a bar and $25 for playing arcade games (she keeps any winnings). Golfing is her latest passion, and in addition to playing on courses around the country free of charge, she gets free food and drinks and gifts from the pro shop.
Weekend trips to Hawaii and Mexico? "I don't pay for anything except occasional meals," she says. She does much of her work on a free hand-held computer.

"My friends tell me I should just get a job," says Ms. Voitle, who is slim and blond and gives her age as "somewhere over 30." But, she says, "most full-time jobs out there don't make economic sense."

Ms. Voitle never planned on becoming a freeloader. A trained engineer and financial expert, with four advanced degrees and a gift for numbers theory, Ms. Voitle worked for years as a number-cruncher for Detroit's auto factories. Her real dream was to make it big on Wall Street. In 2000, she got her break when Lazard LLC, the storied investment bank, hired her to analyze fixed-income derivatives in the firm's asset-management business.

Single, with a salary of more than $100,000, Ms. Voitle bought a house in leafy Baldwin, N.Y., complete with a pool and gym. She spent weekends golfing, traveling or playing with her cats -- Continental and Northwest. In the fall of 2001, she was laid off. With thousands of other investment-bank workers losing their jobs, Ms. Voitle couldn't find any financial work. Last summer, her unemployment checks ran out and both her electricity and phone were shut off.

"I woke up one morning and said, "That's it. I have to start looking for money, wherever I can find it," she says.

Trolling the Internet, she discovered an ad for mystery shopping. "I thought, this looks too good to be true," she says. Mystery shoppers get paid to sample a company's service or products and write a report on their experience. For companies, mystery shopping is popular way of checking on quality. For Ms. Voitle, it was a quick source of cash and freebies.

Her first assignment was a local grocery store, where she received free groceries and $10 for a quick report. She worked her way up to gas stations, clothing stores and restaurants. She quickly discovered that the best-paying mystery shopping jobs were for upscale businesses like banks and high-end car dealers. She earns $75 for test-driving an upscale SUV, compared with about $30 for a more common, cheaper car.

Volume is critical. On any given day, she will mystery shop gas stations, grocery stores, golf courses, clothing stores, casinos, hotels, insurance companies and restaurants. She even gets paid to shop for apartments and interview for jobs. She can make as much as $50 for applying for a job at a major company, and reporting back on the performance of the people who do the hiring. The only catch: If she's offered a job, she has to turn it down. "For someone who's unemployed, I get a lot of job offers," she says.

Not that freeloading is easy. Ms. Voitle spends most of her day racing around New York in a battered Mercury minivan, piled high with files and road maps, empty 7-Eleven cups and nutrition bars. She says she usually gets home after 11 p.m. and writes reports on her computer until 1 or 2 in the morning, starting again the next day at 6:30. Her cellphone rings constantly. Usually the calls are from companies that use her as a shopper.

"A golf course in Hawaii?" she says to a recent caller. "I think I can do that."

Beyond mystery shopping, Ms. Voitle also collects gift certificates, travel deals, two-for-one coupons and cross-promotional deals. She does detailed cost-benefit analyses of most of her deals. She's always on the lookout for what she calls "freebie synergies," or combining multiple deals to get more value. Before she sets out each morning, she plans a detailed travel route to make sure she hits the greatest possible number of stores.

On a recent morning in Long Island City, she mystery shopped a bank and earned a quick $15 for visiting the teller and trying to cash a check. She spotted a car dealership across the street and got a $50 gift certificate to Target for test-driving a car -- another cross-promotion. Pulling out of the car dealership, she saw a bridal shop and made another $15 for trying on dresses for half an hour.
Ms. Voitle does have a few real jobs -- but they also include multiple freebies. She stocks grocery-store shelves for consumer companies, getting as much as $13 an hour in salary and $100 a day in travel expenses, which she can use to subsidize her mystery shopping. On Sundays, she sells printers at a computer store, where she can buy technical books for $1 and sell them on the Internet for $50. She can write off her cellphone bills because she provides preparatory phone interviews for people looking to find work on Wall Street.

"I couldn't believe there were all these opportunities out there," says Gordon Stewart, a friend of Ms. Voitle's who works in finance. "She's discovered this whole other economy."
So far, Ms. Voitle's ventures haven't attracted any scrutiny. She follows the general rule of her employers not to mystery shop more than three of the same businesses a day and to file detailed reports on her store visits. She once mystery shopped so many grocery stores during one period that the mystery-shopping company put her on grocery suspension for three months. Ms. Voitle mystery shops for several concerns, including mystery-shopping firms ICC Decision Services and Customer Perspectives LLC.

Judi Hess, president of Customer Perspectives, Hooksett, N.H., confirms that Ms. Voitle has done several mystery shops for the company over the past year and that "we wouldn't keep using her unless she was a good shopper." A spokesman for ICC Decision Services declines to comment on Ms. Voitle.

Ms. Voitle says her ultimate goal is to return to Wall Street or get a job at a large financial institution. If that fails, she's considering writing a book or holding seminars on living for free. "I think it could help a lot of unemployed people," she says. "But I'm not sure they'd pay for it.

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