Side Hustle Review

The Tips, Tricks, & Downfalls Of Being An Instacart Shopper

What to know if you’re thinking of signing up to shop and deliver for Instacart, from someone who’s been there.

Becoming an Instacart shopper is an increasingly popular side hustle.
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It's not just you (or me) — people everywhere are checking their bank balances and finding less money than they'd like, leading to more and more of us seeking out "side hustles." For some of us, that translates to hoping Instacart's pay and tips could be the answer to our financial prayers. If that idea has crossed your mind, there are a few things you need to know about being an Instacart shopper before going down that route.

Hardly anyone is safe from financial uncertainty, and when uncertainty hits, we all start scrambling for ways to keep our heads above water. The newest way to make a little money? Food and grocery delivery. We almost all have that one cousin who swears he can pay his bills driving for DoorDash. But can delivering food and/or groceries really put food on the driver's table?

This will likely shock no one, but being a writer doesn't always afford you a lush (or even reliable) lifestyle. Anyone who works the freelance life can tell you: Some months, you're floating on cloud nine and balling hard. Other months, you're just barely scraping by. So, when fourth-quarter budget cuts and holiday spending hit my family hard, I decided to give Instacart a try. I'm still not sure it's worth it.

The Perks of Instacart (and Others)

If you have a tank of gas, a working phone, and no accessibility issues, Instacart can be a great way to pick up some extra funds. In several hours spread over a couple of days, I scooped up enough money to buy some extra groceries and replenish the gas in my car. Another long afternoon of hustling around my side of town gave me the money I needed to grab the last Christmas present I wanted to buy for my parents. There are some genuine perks to this gig:

  1. No background or drug tests.
  2. No dress code.
  3. Flexible days/hours.
  4. Alone time.
  5. Get paid (almost) instantly.

Instacart's Downfalls

Of course, I learned a lot during those first few "batches" or trips. For instance, on my second attempt at grabbing groceries, I didn't stop to look at what was being ordered — nor did I consider that I should.

Fresh out of a battle with bronchitis, imagine my horror when that $18 "batch" of 24 items included two flats of water, multiple twelve packs of pop, and a giant jug of laundry detergent. OK, so the cart was heavy. It gets worse. They lived in a second-floor condo. If they hadn't been elderly and clearly struggling with their health, too, I might have left the groceries by the security door and bid them good luck. I heaved them up the stairs with a smile, though... and then collapsed into my car to pant and cough.

A few other potential pitfalls I've learned along the way:

  1. You might have to drive to a busier area.
  2. You'll rack up wear and tear on your car.
  3. Double batches are confusing!
  4. Not everyone is thankful for the help.
  5. Even small, "quick" orders can take ages at checkout.
  6. You have to complete five orders before you can withdraw your money.
  7. If you're broke and already low on gas, this could feel like it costs more than you'll gain.
  8. It's only flexible if you have childcare — no "guests" can shop with you.
  9. There's a five-batch "waiting period" before you can cash out your earnings.
  10. Double-order batches only count as one.

Tips and Tricks to Instacart

I'll admit it: Some of my early Instacart missteps came from needing to learn the ropes. For instance, while a young person might not take issue with lugging heavy items up the stairs, I know I'm just not healthy enough for that right now. Figuring out that I could see the order before I accepted it was a game changer.

Some other valuable insight?

  1. Instacart works best for people who live near busy areas. I live in a smaller, lower-income urban suburb. People don't order groceries here. My best day came when I drove 20 minutes to the other side of town. In the long run, maybe it's no different than just driving 20 minutes to an office job, but it's still worth keeping in mind.
  2. That mileage listed on a "batch" is the mileage from the store to the delivery. My first order had me drive 30 minutes to a store on the other side of town. I thought the ".5 miles" was how far away the store was from my current location. Rookie mistake.
  3. Spend time playing in the system. Much like learning how to read those batch alerts, it might behoove you to know that you can click on the batch and see what's in the order first. You may be fit as a fiddle and fine to run six cases of pop to the third floor. If you're not, though, it's good to look at those orders beforehand.
  4. You can make the most money taking batches with multiple orders. Once you complete a few batches, Instacart will start showing you batches with multiple orders. In other words, you'll go into one store and shop for two to three people, then pay for those orders and deliver each order. This saves you a bit of running back and forth. However, it can get confusing. Not only do you have to keep track of messaging the right client about the right things, but you need to make sure you place the correct order on the coordinating doorstep. If you've ever had the wrong groceries delivered to your home, this is probably why.
  5. Don't flake on those smaller amounts. Sometimes you see a $5 order come through, and it's easy to brush it off. We're in it for the big bucks, right?! Those small orders can be good gigs, too. Sometimes you're only picking up an order and delivering it — not shopping. Grabbing a single bag from a shelf at Michael's and driving it around the corner for $5 isn't necessarily a bad move.
  6. Stick to stores that you know. One of my first trips was to a grocery store I'd never visited. Not all stores are the same anymore, so shopping at an unfamiliar store can slow you down considerably. Instacart will tell you your average time to shop an item and remind you that taking too long affects your shopper score. It also just means more time circling the store like a little lost puppy. Thanks, I hate it.
  7. Use the chat functions. There are two chat functions. One chat allows you to talk to your custie. The other is more of a "help desk." It can't help you find products, but it can help you navigate other awkward moments — like when you sign up for a batch only to realize you left your prepaid card at home. Or when you aren't given a "scan code" despite several in-app warnings about how you must let cashiers "scan code" before they begin ringing out the order. There are so many odd ways different stores function.

A Final Word of Advice

When you mix all that with the various ways Instacart gets its batches, your first few days will feel like every trip is wildly different from the next. Everything will feel wrong because it's different from how it went last time. And yeah, it might be wrong (it's definitely a possibility in your early Instacart shopper days), but it might also just be different. This side hustle can help you bring in some much-needed extra cash; the trick is figuring out how to make the system work best for you.