Recently in our trucker's forum here at TruckingTruth there was a discussion about how to handle finances as an OTR truck driver. I decided to write on my blog about it, as everybody getting into truck driving should know what they are about to face. Finances on the road can be tough when first getting started, but hopefully this will provide you with a little insight on how to stay out of trouble.
When first starting out in truck driving, you'll probably begin with a weekly base salary. This pay can vary greatly from company to company. Some companies pay upwards of $500 per week for training pay, while others pay as little as $200 or so. But after all, it is paid training. Many other industries will not pay for you to get your certifications / training. Generally, training will last from 4 to 6 weeks, but maybe longer. So, if possible, it's good to have some money saved up in the bank to help cover your bills at home, as well as any expenses on the road that you may come across. Try to set up a budget for yourself too, soyou knowexactly how much you can spend each week.A few hundred dollars per week wont get you far, so it's best to be very frugal when you first get started.
After training is over, the vast majority of people who drive OTR will be paid based on how many miles are driven in a given week. This also varies greatly by company, but can be anywhere from 25 to 35 cents per mile when you first start, with raises after a given period of time or miles driven. Generally you will receive 2500 miles per week. Sometimes more, sometimes less. A lot depends on the economy, the time of year, and if you are experiencing any problems with your truck, which will land you in the shop for repairs. An honest estimate on first year income will be in the $30,000 to $40,000 range, leaning more towards $30,000. The reason there is such a range is because each company is going to be different. Some flatbed companies pay more than dry van companies, for example. But earning less than $30,000 or more than $40,000 in your first year is very unlikely. That is, unless you decide to lease or become an owner operator your first year, which I highly advise against (I'll leave that for a future blog).
So, what is your biggest expense on the road? That is a very easy question to answer. Without a doubt, your biggest expense is food. It is very easy to rack up $30 or more in a single day eating food on the road. That comes out to over $200 per week, and over $10,000 per year! WOW!
There aren't many places truck drivers can eat other than truck stops or restaurants that have truck parking. It's pretty difficult to make a large variety of meals in the truck, and most drivers don't have much time to prepare meals either. Although, quite a few do use crock pots, mini electric ovens, lunch box cookers, and other devices to make some rather good meals. But the vast majority end up eating fast food and restaurant food. You can imagine how expensive this gets.
Truck stops are masters of marketing as well. One major truck stop chain frequently advertises all you can eat ribs for just $9.99. And the ribs are rather tasty! Yes, I've had them! But after taxes and a tip, that $9.99 has quickly turned into almost15 bucks. The dinner buffets are usually around $10. Once again, after taxes and a tip, you're looking at paying more than $10 for your meal. The worst part about the all you can eat menu and the buffets, is you can't take any left over food with you for later.
Even fast food restaurants can get expensive. A meal from McDonald's is going to be 6 or 7 bucks per meal. They have gourmet Angusburgers now that will run around $9. This all adds up during the course of a week, and seriously dwindles a paycheck.
Don't forget about your drinks! Want a liter of Coke or a liter of bottled water? That'll be $1.50 each. Want a snack for the road? Add on another few bucks. Everything is more expensive at a truck stop, and they find ways to nickle and dime drivers out of quite a bit of money. The trick is, the prices are more expensive on the cheaper items. So you don't really realize how much extra you're spending. But over time, it really adds up to a lot of money.
So what's the solution? Well, there really isn't a solution. It's just a part of driving a truck. But there are things you can do to help soften the blow. When you're hired on with a company, they should have you on what is known as "per diem" pay. This is basically a system that gives you a certain percentage of your pay, tax free. This pay is so you don't have to keep all of your food receipts and deduct them at the end of the year for your taxes. I've spoken with a tax specialist, and he indicated that "per diem" pay is far better than saving all your receipts and deducting them, because everybody truck driver he's ever come across has saved more money on the per diem pay than if they had deducted from actual purchases. But, if your company doesn't have per diem pay, be sure to save every single food receipt as all meals on the road are tax deductible. You can also deduct other purchases made while on the road. If you get a hotel for the night, buy a DVD, get a CB Radio, buy work gloves...all tax deductable! Save all your receipts!
Be smart about your meals. Instead of getting the buffet, order off the menu. It's usually about the same price (and many times cheaper), and the servings are usually large enough to where you'll have food left over. Take that food to go! Most trucks have a space / hookup area for a small fridge or electric cooler. I have a small Coleman electric cooler that cost about $50. Well worth the convenience of having it on the truck, and it pays for itself after a very short time. You can also get a small microwave in the truck too. Get one for cheap at a Goodwill store. I've seen them there for as little as 5 or 10 bucks. Eating left over meals is a great way to save cash. Now, instead of spending $30.00 for two buffet meals for lunch and dinner, you've spent $8 for lunch and $7 for dinner.
Any chance you can get to Walmart, pick up as much as can fit in your truck comfortably. Buy cases of your favorite soda. Buy a few gallons of water. Remember how I said a 1 liter bottle of water costs $1.50 at the truck stop? Well, a gallon of water from Walmart costs about 75 cents. Remember that fridge / cooler I was talking about? Get some sandwich meat, mustard, mayonnaise, etc., and stock up that fridge. While sitting at a customer waiting to be unloaded, sometimes a good ol' fashioned sandwich is just what you need. I buy little packs of sandwich meat from a company called Buddig. Any Walmart has them. They are individually packaged and cost about $1 a piece. They are supposed to have enough meat for two sandwiches, but I usually use the whole pack on one sandwich. They last much longer since they are in small sealed packages.
Subway is king. Most Pilot Travel Center truck stops have a Subway inside, and it's one of my favorite places to stop. I usually get a $5 footlong sub and eat half, then eat the other half later. After taxes, that's a little over $3 per meal. Not bad! And a little healthier than a restaurant, buffet, or greasy burger and fries.
Aside from food, which is an obvious necessity, the money spending is really up to you and how you want to live on the road. Casinos almost always have truck parking. Try not to get wrapped up in the gambling. A lot of truck drivers form gambling habits. Do you want a small TV for the truck? Do you want satellite TV? A DVD player?How about a game system to go alongwith your TV?Want a CB radio? A laptop? Wireless internet for that laptop?A beefed up sound system? Satellite radio? Do you plan on visiting the truck stop arcades often?
I chose to purchase a CB radio, got an old TV from my parents, and already had a game system which works as a DVD player. My laptop has wireless internet, which I often use to watch TV and movieson via www.hulu.com(excellent and free service with minimal commercials). I also have the Coleman electric cooler for the truck, satellite radio, and my biggest entertainment expense is DVD movies (usually buy a $9 pre-viewed DVD every other week or so). Aside from that, I don't have much. But I still manage to stay pretty happy out here.
Truck driving will challenge your financial spending. This is not a glamorous career, and it's not for those who need material things to be happy. This career will never make you rich either. But if you love to drive, want the freedom,and have the self discipline to watch your spending, you'll be able to chuckle at the poor souls trying to get to work at 8am in their business suits, while you're starting your dayheading off into the country in yourfavoritet-shirt, sneakers, and sweatpants,with 400 miles ahead of you.
Until next time, drive safely!