If you're trying to save money or land a job, you can still have a fun, exciting hobby that doesn't cost anything but time.
Sandra Grauschopf, the Contests and Sweepstakes Guide for About.com, started entering sweepstakes as a hobby. Unlike gambling and playing the lotto, it doesn't cost any money to enter. "It's pure profit when you win," she says.
A couple of years ago, she won her most exciting prize yet: a Prada shoes shopping spree from a boutique in New York City. "I entered this fabulous store, and they gave me champagne. I shopped for shoes I normally wouldn't buy," she says.
Jill Kathan, a sweeper from Michigan, won a whopping $20,000 from Woolite's Washing Savior contest this past October. Kathan submitted a photo of her daughter and cat dressed in the contest theme of warrior gear. She solicited enough votes to earn her place among the top 10 contestants, and the judges crowned her the winner of the windfall.
Winning big prizes requires a big network to get enough votes. Kathan met friends on the contest circuit, and their group of four regularly enters large sweepstakes together to increase their odds of winning.
"We entered together and divvied up the $20,000 four ways," she says. "It's a great way for stay-at-home moms to contribute financially. Our significant others think we're weird sometimes, but they like when we get the prize."
Grauschopf and Kathan have slashed their birthday and holiday gift budgets by giving prizes they won.
"I won a shopping spree at Cargo Kids and got enough stuff to refinish a room," says Grauschopf. "I had birthdays and Christmases covered for years. My sister was my maid of honor, and as a thank you, I gave her some beautiful furniture from what I had won."
Even small prizes such as a $20 gift card or movie tickets are exciting in this economy. "It's not going to change your life, but it's a nice evening out for free," says Grauschopf.
But you're not going to get something for nothing. Even if a contest is free to enter, marketers running it may require you to give your personal information. Enter with caution and make sure you know who's behind the contest to avoid scams.
Here are some sweeping tips from the pros.
- The key to winning is to enter each day.
- Devote a manageable amount of time to the hobby. For Grauschopf, who's a full-time working mom, that's just 30 minutes each day. For Kathan, a retired teacher and stay-at-home mom, that's about two hours a day.
- Stick to it. Many successful sweepers have been in the game for years and didn't strike gold overnight.
- Don't give up. People get frustrated during losing streaks and feel their luck has worn off. Keep entering to win.
- Enter smaller contests with better odds of winning in addition to big, exciting contests with prizes such as cars and homes.
- Have fun even if you don't win. Companies use contests to promote products and places, so you may stumble upon a new interest.
- Success with sweepstakes is about networking and having a lot of connections, so make friends in the sweepstakes community to help each other in contests.
- Separate your contest friends from your "real-life" friends on social networks. Those outside the sweepstakes circuit will grow tired of constant contest updates and voting requests.
- Take advantage of contests during the holidays. Contestants enter and winners are chosen when most people are offline.
- Give prizes you win as gifts for birthdays and the holidays to save money on special occasions.
- Find contests by following brands in social media. And check out Grauschopf's Contests and Sweepstakes blog on About.com.
- Never give sensitive information such as your Social Security number or credit card information to enter. Entry forms should only contain fields for contact information and perhaps demographic information. Don't share information you don't feel comfortable handing out.
Remember that entering sweepstakes should be treated as a hobby. It's not a reliable way to earn money, and it can't replace having a job. "But if you're spending time at home anyway, you could spend hours in front of the TV not creating any chances to win anything, or you could enter sweepstakes," says Grauschopf.
"There are nice sweepers and crazy ones," Kathan adds. "Greed can take over and people transform. It's really odd. I'm not an extreme sweeper. If I lose, I lose. But it won't affect my life."