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How to Become an Instacart Shopper – Pros & Cons, Pay & Job Application

At my favorite grocery store, Instacart shoppers sometimes outnumber regular shoppers. Confident and determined, they breeze through the aisles, barely breaking stride to knock cans of beans and blocks of cheese into carts or baskets that never seem to stop moving. They make me feel like a sucker for wasting the better part of an hour each week doing my own grocery shopping.

As sharing economy gigs go, shopping for Instacart is a pretty good deal. Instacart classifies in-store shoppers – those who fill orders in-store and hand them off to Instacart drivers or on-site customers – as traditional employees. That gives these shoppers a guaranteed base wage and certain legal rights, such as protection under federal and state anti-discrimination laws, not afforded to independent contractors. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Instacart shoppers’ take-home pay, though highly variable, is better on average than that of sharing economy gigs that don’t pay hourly wages.

If you’re intrigued, here’s what you need to know about becoming an Instacart shopper.

Full-Service Shoppers vs. In-Store Shoppers

An Instacart shopper may fill one of two roles: full-service shopper or in-store shopper. Both earn weekly payouts and perform comparable work in store, but other aspects of the roles are quite distinct.

Full-Service Shoppers

Full-service shoppers are self-employed independent contractors who receive customer orders through the Instacart app, accept or decline them based on the expected payout, and then fill accepted orders at customers’ preferred stores and deliver them to customers’ doors. Orders are assigned in “batches” consisting of up to three customers’ orders from the same store.

Compensation

Payment for batches requiring fulfillment and delivery consists of several parts:

  • A variable base payment for delivery
  • A variable incentive payment to encourage the shopper to accept the order
  • A mileage reimbursement at or slightly above the federal mileage reimbursement rate
  • An optional tip added at the customer’s discretion
  • A “bump” payment that makes up the difference between the sum of the above and Instacart’s $10 minimum payout per batch

At stores where in-store shoppers are present, full-service shoppers may need only to deliver filled orders to customers’ doors. Payouts for these orders may be lower.

In either case, Instacart’s full-service shopper compensation structure is subject to change. The latest significant change happened in late 2018 and drew mixed reviews, according to Ars Technica. Instacart no longer claims that full-service shoppers can expect to earn up to $25 per hour, although this may be achievable during peak shopping periods. Realistically, full-service shoppers should expect to earn $10 to $20 per hour before expenses, depending on order volume, batch fees, and tips.

Work Environment

Full-service shoppers choose their own hours and may work as much or as little as they wish. Instacart encourages full-service shoppers to work during peak grocery shopping periods – typically weekday evenings and all day on weekends – but doesn’t penalize shoppers who don’t work during these periods. However, the Instacart app assumes that shoppers who decline multiple consecutive orders are done working for the day and logs them out of the app, and shoppers have 30 minutes to log back in before they’re forced to quit for the day.

Employment Status

As independent contractors, full-service shoppers are responsible for staying on top of their state and federal income tax obligations. Full-service shoppers earning more than $400 are subject to self-employment tax and may be required to make quarterly estimated tax payments to state and federal revenue authorities. Instacart doesn’t withhold tax from full-service shoppers’ gross pay. Also, although they’re reimbursed for miles driven, full-service drivers must pay vehicle expenses such as fuel and maintenance out of pocket as they incur them. To make the bookkeeping a little easier and less of stress come tax time, you should use software like Quickbooks.

In-Store Shoppers

In-store shoppers are W-2 employees based at supermarkets in Instacart’s network. They receive customer orders through the Instacart app, fill those orders, complete the checkout process, and hand them off to Instacart delivery drivers – full-service shoppers not responsible for in-store fulfillment of those particular orders.

Compensation

As employees of Instacart, in-store shoppers are entitled to a guaranteed minimum wage under applicable state and federal law, as well as certain legal rights, such as protection from discrimination based on race, sex, and other protected statuses.

Work Environment

Unlike many service-sector employees, in-store shoppers can choose their own hours and aren’t required to work during peak periods. However, per-hour earnings tend to be higher when order volume is higher.

Employment Status

The Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide health insurance to employees who work more than 30 hours per week, the statute’s threshold for full-time status. Not coincidentally, Instacart caps in-store shoppers at 29 hours per week; in-store shopping with Instacart is not among the shrinking group of part-time jobs with health insurance benefits.

Instacart Shopper

How to Get a Job as an Instacart Shopper

Here’s what Instacart requires of its shoppers and what you can expect from the application process.

Requirements for Full-Service Shoppers

Applicants must meet the following minimum requirements to become and remain full-service Instacart shoppers:

  • Be at least 18 years of age
  • Have legal authorization to work in the U.S.
  • Be able to lift up to 40 pounds without accommodation
  • Have regular access to a reliable vehicle
  • Have regular access to a newer smartphone capable of running the Instacart app

The company encourages prospects with prior grocery or transportation industry experience to apply but doesn’t disqualify applicants without such experience. Instacart’s full-service shopper application portal specifically calls for ride-sharing and delivery contractors – those working for apps such as Uber, Lyft, Postmates, and DoorDash – to join the Instacart team.

Requirements for In-Store Shoppers

Applicants must meet the following minimum requirements to become and remain in-store Instacart shoppers:

  • Be at least 18 years of age
  • Have legal authorization to work in the U.S.
  • Be able to lift up to 40 pounds without accommodation
  • Have regular access to a newer smartphone capable of running the Instacart app

Instacart encourages prospects with prior grocery industry experience to apply but doesn’t impose any formal work history requirements or exclude applicants without prior experience.

Applying to Become an Instacart Shopper

Instacart’s application process is pretty streamlined. The initial online application takes just a few minutes. To complete it, you’ll need to:

  1. Enter basic personal information, such as your name and address
  2. Indicate whether you have regular access to a car
  3. Enter your phone number
  4. Schedule an in-person hiring session, which typically takes two hours and involves an orientation session and skills test

The fourth step is a potential bottleneck, particularly for in-store shopper applicants. Instacart won’t necessarily have in-person hiring sessions scheduled in your market when you apply. If there’s no session available at the time, you’ll be told to expect an email once a session is scheduled, and the process will temporarily pause.

Instacart may waive the in-person hiring session – they have in the past, at least – in markets where it’s trying to staff up quickly. If you’re not required to attend an in-person session, you’ll proceed immediately to the fifth step, which involves:

  • Completing employment paperwork (such as your federal employment authorization form and tax forms)
  • Signing a contractor agreement (if applicable)
  • Providing your driver’s license information (if applicable)
  • Consenting to a criminal background check.

New hires not required to attend an in-person session may need to complete a virtual knowledge quiz and practical test – typically, a few virtual orders to demonstrate their speed and accuracy – before being permitted to accept live orders.

Things to Consider Before You Become an Instacart Shopper

Before applying to work as a full-service or in-store shopper, weigh these considerations carefully.

1. Understand the Implications of Independent Contractor Status

If you plan on becoming a full-service shopper, be aware that Instacart classifies full-service shoppers as independent contractors, not traditional employees. Independent contractors, as a class, typically have more control over their work schedules and environments than W-2 employees. However, employers aren’t required to extend independent contractors the same legal rights as traditional employees, such as protection from discrimination by protected class. They’re also not required to abide by minimum wage laws, though Instacart’s guaranteed batch minimum may, in practice, exceed the minimum wage in most markets.

Independent contractors also have potentially costly and time-consuming obligations:

  • Handling Their Own Income Tax Obligations. Employers don’t withhold income tax from independent contractors’ payouts. Instead, independent contractors must calculate their own income tax liabilities based on actual and expected earnings and expenses, set aside sufficient funds to cover those liabilities, and make quarterly estimated state and federal income tax payments as required. Using free tax preparation software from TurboTax can be a big help when it’s time to pay taxes.
  • Paying Self-Employment Tax. Independent contractors who earn more than $400 per year are subject to self-employment tax, which amounts to about 15.3% of their income from self-employment. Most traditional employees pay just half this rate on wage income; their employers pick up the other half. For more information about self-employment tax, consult IRS Topic Number 554 or speak with a tax professional.
  • Covering Your Own Expenses Out of Pocket. To be clear, traditional employees aren’t guaranteed full reimbursement for work-related expenses, either; just ask the next public school teacher you meet how much they paid out of pocket for classroom supplies last year. However, independent contractors are more likely to be held responsible for covering routine work-related expenses on their own dime. For full-service Instacart shoppers, that means fuel, vehicle repairs, and vehicle maintenance. Although most such expenses are tax-deductible – see this list from Intuit – these deductions don’t completely offset the bottom-line hit.

Full-service Instacart shoppers essentially operate miniature business enterprises. If the prospect of running your own shop sounds less than appealing to you, you may want to consider being an in-store shopper.

2. Review Feedback From Current & Former Instacart Drivers

Take an hour or two to read through verified feedback from current and former Instacart shoppers on reputable job-rating sites such as Indeed and Glassdoor before deciding to apply. You don’t have to read far in this Indeed roundup of Instacart employee reviews to find some eyebrow-raising anecdotes, including tales of sudden deactivations, bogus customer complaints, poor tips, and crowded parking lots.

Even ostensibly positive reviews raise concerns. A five-star review from a San Francisco shopper warned prospective shoppers that they’d better enjoy shopping, driving, and people, for instance. The review went on to note the inevitability of vehicle repairs and implied that shoppers “handy with a wrench” make out better.

Bear in mind that every shopper is different. If you like interacting with customers, enjoy driving, and have the confidence to repair your own vehicle, being an Instacart shopper may be a better fit for you than for others.

3. Prepare to Treat the First Few Weeks As a Trial Period

Don’t pay too much attention to company-sanctioned information about shoppers’ earning potential or work environment. Instacart has every right to push a favorable narrative; you shouldn’t begrudge the company for trying, provided it avoids demonstrably misleading or inaccurate claims. But you, yourself, have every right to try the Instacart shopper experience out for yourself.

Treat your first few weeks as an Instacart shopper as a trial period. If the experience fails to live up to your expectations – your earnings come in much lower than expected, for example, or the aggravation of crowded supermarkets proves intolerable – then cut your losses and quit.

4. Consider the Ramifications for Your Vehicle

If you’re contemplating becoming a full-service shopper, bear in mind the impact it will have on your vehicle. While it might not put quite as many miles on your car as driving for a ride-sharing app such as Uber or Lyft, delivering Instacart orders is certain to increase wear and tear on your vehicle – and, with it, long-term vehicle ownership costs. Working as a full-service Instacart shopper for any length of time will raise your vehicle maintenance and repair bills, and a long-term engagement may set up a choice between purchasing a new or used car to continue your full-service gig or hanging up your delivery hat until you’re ready to replace your vehicle.

Depreciation is another crucial consideration. If you plan to sell your car before running it into the ground, know that using it to deliver Instacart orders will accelerate its inevitable value loss until it’s worth little more than the intrinsic value of its components. While it’s never wise to treat your car as an investment, it’s nice to preserve its liquidation value for a rainy day.

5. Weigh the Financial Upside Against Opportunity Costs

Before applying to become an Instacart shopper, ask yourself: Is this the best use of my limited spare time? It may be that you love shopping and driving and people and don’t mind dealing with crowded parking lots and congested roads. If so, Instacart shopping could be a natural fit for you.

On the other hand, if you don’t really enjoy working as an Instacart shopper, your time may be better spent elsewhere – perhaps on another side gig with higher earning potential or more stability.

6. Try to Get a Sense of Order Volume & Competition in Your Area

Even if your skills and temperament make you a good fit for Instacart shopping, it may not be worth your time on a consistent basis. Whether Instacart shopping is more profitable than, say, driving for Lyft depends to some extent on factors outside your control – in particular, order volumes and competition from fellow Instacart shoppers.

Anecdotal feedback from current and former Instacart shoppers is your friend here. In markets where the supply of shoppers swamps comparatively meager order volumes, average shopper earnings are sure to be lower than in markets where the shopper supply barely keeps pace with order growth. If you’re fortunate enough to be in the latter scenario, you’re far more likely to find Instacart shopping worth your while.

7. Factor Traffic, Parking & Lines Into Your Considerations

Finally, consider the cumulative impact of inefficient systems on your Instacart shopping gig. If you’re working as a full-service shopper in a major metropolitan area, traffic congestion and parking woes are foregone conclusions. When every minute matters to your bottom line, the delay at that nightmare traffic light isn’t trivial, nor is the seven-minute wait for the next parking spot to free up. Both could completely change the trajectory of your shift.

Don’t discount in-store congestion, either. During peak periods, checkout bottlenecks and crowded aisles can devastate fulfillment times, especially for larger batches. I hate navigating busy grocery stores as much as the next person, but at least my income stream doesn’t depend on it.

Final Word

Shopping for Instacart is no walk in the park. The gig won’t make you rich; even Instacart’s former rosy promise of $25 per hour barely tops the U.S. median hourly wage, and most shoppers should expect no more than $20 per hour consistently. Peak hours fall on weekends and evenings, complicating things for shoppers exhausted from day jobs. And full-service shoppers – who theoretically have greater earning potential due to tips, mileage reimbursements, and no limitation on work hours – must put a lot of miles on their cars to stay in the game, which comes with its own costs.

On the other hand, Instacart is one of the few gig economy companies that extends the protections of traditional employment to at least some of its workers. Though monotonous, in-store shopping takes place in a controlled environment, safely out of reach of distracted drivers. And, whatever its perils, full-service shopping mixes the freedom of the open road with the opportunity to explore new neighborhoods.

Ultimately, the value of shopping for Instacart as a side hustle, part-time job, or full-time occupation is in the eye of the beholder. If the gig’s perks and possibilities outweigh its inevitable tradeoffs and drawbacks for you, it may well be worth the time and effort. If you’re still not sold on it, rest assured there’s a better-suited side hustle out there for you.

Are you thinking about applying to become an Instacart shopper? If not, what’s holding you back?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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