August 22nd, 2011

“High Stakes Sweepers”: Is Winning For a Living Too Good to Be True?

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Move over, “Extreme Couponing.” There’s a new show in town, and it’s giving you a run for your money. Literally.

TLC’s latest reality show special, “High Stakes Sweepers,” follows five individuals whose main hobby—and sometimes full-time job—is entering sweepstakes.

Florida sisters Barbara and Patricia have together won more than $2 million in cash and prizes over the course of 20 years. Ron Miller has won electronics galore for his family and prizes for his son, like a Bam Margera-signed skateboard.

The promise of winning prizes for a living probably sounds too good to be true; but before you quit your job to sweep full-time, consider the downsides—and there are several—to truly “high stakes sweeping.” For those starry-eyed sweepers out there, I break down the seemingly sweet sweepstakes life to the nitty-gritty reality.

It’s hard work.

When Carolyn Wilman of Ontario, Canada, lost her job after working in marketing for 15 years, she stumbled upon sweepstakes-entering as a hobby and decided to make it her career. “What a great idea. I won’t have to work. I’ll just win for a living,” she said to herself. Although Wilman makes her “sweeping” sound ideal, the truth is, it’s a job. It’s a job that, much like her marketing career, involves a lot of time, research and dedication. In return, you may get cash, but it’s more likely that you’ll get a prize to keep or turn around to sell for money. And there’s a lot of disappointment when most of your entries are losses.

Fortunately for Wilman, she’s developed a somewhat successful career out of her full-time sweeping. Combining her love of sweeping with her marketing knowledge, she’s created Contest Queen, which gives tips on how to win sweepstakes. For most hobby sweepers, however, making a career out of winning isn’t realistic, which is something viewers need to keep in mind.

The winnings can be minimal.

Contest Queen Wilman is proud on the show to reveal she’s won approximately $250,000 in cash and prizes in just ten years of full-time sweeping. Since sweepstaking is her main means of income, that’s just $25,000 each year. That’s the same as the median income of an individual with just a high school diploma for the year 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Wilman hasn’t become rich off of sweepstakes, and she likely won’t.

Another sweeper, Ret Fortuna, has been in the sweeping game for 50 years. In that time, she’s won about $1 million in cash and prizes. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But when you break it down, she’s made just $20,000 per year. And that doesn’t account for the fact that most were probably prizes she’s had to either sell or auction off.

It’s not free.

The winnings can be great for a super sweeper. Fortuna has won refrigerators, grills, trips and even a motorcycle. All it takes is commitment to entering hundreds of sweepstakes a week. But other than her time commitment, she has other costs to factor in.

Let’s take the cost of postage as an example. If she enters 200 mail-in contests a week, she’ll spend $88 on stamps alone. Over the course of a year, that’s $4,224 just for postage for her contest entries. That knocks her total winnings estimate of $20,000 per year down to just $15,776. And that doesn’t even account for other costs, such as envelopes. Extreme sweeping isn’t cost free at all, and you’ll actually pay money for a slim chance at winning.

When you do win, your prizes don’t arrive free-of-charge either. You’ll have to pay taxes on your accepted prize if you’re in the U.S., since the IRS considers contest winnings—whether cash or prizes—as taxable income in the “Other Income” category.

The Bottom Line: I’m not trying to dissuade any of you sweeper-curious folks out there. By all means, enter to win that all-expense trip for four to Ireland. Just remember these setbacks. And think about the fact that, after TLC’s new show takes off, the number of contest entries will likely jump significantly, greatly reducing your chances at that free vacation.

Have a Karmic day,

Bethy Hardeman, Social Media Maven

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Disclaimer: All information posted to this site was accurate at the time of its initial publication. Efforts have been made to keep the content up to date and accurate. However, Credit Karma does not make any guarantees about the accuracy or completeness of the information provided. For complete details of any products mentioned, visit bank or issuer website.


  1. I’m glad you did the math on how much they were earning a year because I was about to do it and it was making my head hurt. That is not that much at all!! And it’s true that by spilling their secrets to TLC they’re going to dramatically reduce their chances of winning, but I’m sure they’ll get some compensation from the network. This just seems so time-consuming to me, just thinking about it is driving me crazy! Thanks for breaking this down and giving this “job” a reality check.

    CreditShout at 10:33 am on August 23, 2011
  2. I AM Ret. First of all, I never enter more than 10-20 mail in sweeps a week and absolutely never spend $4000 a year for stamps. When sweeps were all mail ins instead of on line over 5 years ago, I would spend $1000 or less a year on stamps. As far as envelopes, I get them for free. I don’t think I’ve sold more than 3 prizes over the years. Many of my wins were from drop boxes which cost nothing to enter. I do use all I win or give them to my now grown kids since I only enter for things I want to win. I am disabled and raised my kids myself so those wins kept food on the table and gas in the car. As for taxes, some are paid for by the sponsor so it’s not as bad as you think! If you just enter on line it costs nothing except your time!!! So much for your guesses! LOL

    Ret at 4:04 am on August 24, 2011
  3. I entered a lot over the years. My largest win was a huge SUV. That was worth $45K. Other wins include $10K cash, free airfare, free food, t-shirts, all the game systems for my family (Think DS, XBOX360, etc), MP3’s, etc. I spent in my “heyday” about $1800 in postage and more on envelopes and stamps and such. Most years I was in the “red”, meaning I didn’t break even with what I was spending, and if I did, it was “close”. But years when I exceeded expenses, I did it by TONS. So over the years, i’m ahead of the game, but I tell people my “hourly rate” is about 25 cents per hour! If TLC portrays it realistically (and I think it did a good job), this “hobby” won’t have many converts! It’s a lot of effort for “maybe” no return. Remember, it’s mostly luck!

    Valerie at 5:16 am on August 25, 2011

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