Living in Capitalism: The Fat of the Land

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Some of capitalism’s critics like to depict a market economy as a ruthless system in which making a living and paying expenses is inherently (or even intentionally) difficult for anyone not born into a wealthy family. Worse yet, jobs are often depicted as an all-or-nothing prospect, with anyone not able to secure a full-time position being left out of economic opportunity entirely.

But the wealth creation made possible in a free economy actually allows an endless series of incremental and supplemental income streams—so much so, in fact, that there’s a flourishing cottage industry just in describing and promoting them.

There is nothing revolutionary about having a part-time job, of course, but modern Internet platforms and services have made it easier then ever for someone without a lot of money, education, or training to turn a few free hours a week into a second (or third or fourth) income stream. And not all of these opportunities are even what we would normally think of as jobs.

For instance, in any household, there are two ways to make ends meet: increase your income or reduce your expenses. If your side hustle is extreme couponing—like YouTube shopping legend Star Smith—that volume of discounts can lower your expenses as much as some part-time jobs would increase it.

The competitive nature of markets makes these incremental income steams possible. When retailers have to compete for customers, they offer all different kinds of discounts and offers to get customers to buy. For many middle-class people, those discounts are relatively small and incidental, but for lower-income people dedicated to optimizing these offers, the returns can be large.

For example, many Americans will remember the weekly adrenaline rush of watching ordinary shoppers get hundreds of dollars of groceries for pennies on the TLC reality series Extreme Couponing. Some things in U.S. retail marketing have changed since the show launched in 2010 (more digital deals and fewer paper coupons, for example), but the ability to engage in “discount maxxing” is still very much out there.  

The current generation of retail discount apps also provides opportunities that the traditional newspaper inserts didn’t. You can still get coupons to print at home at, but the same company now offers a mobile app that allows you to scan your cash register receipt with your phone’s camera and upload for rebates after your purchase. Other popular apps like ibotta have similar functionality, with rebate payouts available via gift cards, PayPal, or direct deposit to your bank account. The app Shopkick will give you rewards for just walking into a featured store or scanning items with your phone’s camera. And the website and app Swagbucks combines retail discounts with other marketing strategies like rewarding users for completing surveys, watching short videos, and playing online video games. Brand Club provides loyalty rewards for shopping with your favorite consumer bands and giving consumer feedback.

Obviously no one is going to buy a Maserati or a private island with coupons, but discount offers and retail arbitrage are a real economic phenomenon—it’s not just about getting 25 cents off of a tube of toothpaste once a month. These flexible options are great for people who are economizing over a short period of time, have been laid off, or have suffered an injury that caused them to miss work. Students, retirees, stay-at-home moms, and plenty of other people who don’t have (or want) a regular 9-to-5 job can supplement their household finances with these options. And corporate marketers are coming up with new and better ones all the time.

Yes, the ultimate goal of these apps is to make money for large corporations that sell consume products. But having to compete for your time, attention, and dollars means they have to offer you something of value, too.

Finally, app users can become affiliate marketers themselves, recommending the apps that they’ve used to friends and family for small commission payments that they receive every time a new person signs up using their referral link. I just did that myself—the links to ibotta, Shopkick, Swagbucks, and Brand Club above are copied from my own phone. I’ve included them to show that there’s no shame in the consumer referral code game. Commissions and affiliate marketing are legit and reasonable business strategies. If you decide to try any of them, please take the same opportunity I just did and share your own code with friends and family for your own bonus.

To quote Tim Curry’s character from the 1985 comedy Clue: “He decided to put his information to good use and make a little money out of it. What could be more American than that?”