When the road is home

| April 02, 2008

Living full-time in the truck can be a way to find freedom and financial success.

Expedited team drivers Phil and Diane Madsen from the Twin Cities area of Minnesota woke up one day and realized that while they owned plenty of things, their things owned them, too.

They decided that they could build wealth, clear debt and experience real freedom if they got rid of the material possessions anchoring them to a home they seldom had time to enjoy. Much to the shock of their friends and family, they sold their cars, furniture and household goods, put a few keepsakes in storage and hit the road with a much lighter load.

The notion of what the Madsens call “property-free” trucking describes a subculture of truckers who live the majority of their lives on the road. Home-free truckers are also in hot demand with fleets trying to operate under the pressure of catering to the home-time-happy majority of drivers. A trucker who wants to run hard without the conflict of scheduling home time is a recruiter’s dream. A team like the Madsens, willing to stay out on the road, more than doubles their value to their company. But why would someone give up the comforts of a home base in exchange for a seemingly rootless life on the road?

Truckers reside full-time in their trucks for all kinds of reasons. Some choose the life. Others have it chosen for them. For a few, it’s a last resort before the repo man comes knocking. It’s the hard-luck stories of truckers “forced” to live in their trucks that generate many of the negative trucker stereotypes out there. Some truckers themselves use mildly derisive labels like “wanderer” or “gypsy” to describe the “mobile-homeless” trucker. But for the Madsens, there’s nothing negative about it. Their decision to sell their possessions and hit the road full-time gave them the means to extract money, adventure and joy from their trucking profession, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

The couple came to trucking after successful earlier careers. Diane Madsen is an attorney and was general counsel for Gov. Jesse Ventura’s administration. Phil Madsen is a financial consultant and well-known computer guru who helped propel Ventura into political superstardom. They met on the campaign and decided to seek second careers where they could start over together. In August 2003 they launched their expedited business driving team for FedEx, and a year later, they sold their cars, home and possessions to further simplify their trucking life.

“Sure, most couples say they’d go nuts being together 24/7, but we love it, and sometimes we have to argue over who gets to drive. It’s always an adventure,” Phil Madsen says. His enthusiasm for their way of life is contagious, and they find new friends wherever they go. “We have an expanding network of close trucking friends all over the country. There are a lot of great people out here who are doing what they love to do. Sure, like any industry, there’s going to be the negative, bad apples. But we are attracted to those like us, who love what they do.”

The Madsens specialize in critical-shipment freight. Loads include items like museum art, space shuttle components, medical equipment and otherwise “hot freight,” which must be moved immediately. They drove company trucks for three years before purchasing a 2006 Volvo VNL with an ARI Legacy custom sleeper for more than $250,000. They paid it off in 2006 and have begun saving now to buy their next truck – with cash. The interior resembles a tricked-out motor home more than a typical big rig, with conveniences like a microwave, convection oven and full bath with a shower (and, coming soon, a washer/dryer).

While they don’t have children, they have family scattered around the country and say they get to see them more now than when they had to rush home to mow the lawn or trim the trees. It helped that Phil Madsen had an extensive financial planning background as he mapped out their new plan, but they both agree it’s the opportunity to be together that most drove them to the arrangement. “We really enjoy our life on the road, and this is such a great adventure without the distractions and burdens of owning a lot of stuff,” Phil Madsen says. In their free time, they go to museums, state parks, libraries and bookstores or take long walks on nearby beaches. “Instead of rushing home, we enjoy wherever we are at the moment,” he says.

This enthusiasm is one shared by Steve Brosnan, an owner-operator from Las Vegas who hauls oversize loads for ATS Specialized out of St. Cloud, Minn. He’s been a long-haul trucker since he was 19 years old and has tried a variety of ways to make it in trucking over the last 30 years, including extended time away from home and less lucrative but more family-oriented short-haul gigs. While he was able to spend more time with his wife and children when he ran local, it became clear over time that it wasn’t working out for any of them. One day, his family conducted an “intervention” around the kitchen table and told him he ought to go back out on the road full-time.

“I guess it’s just better this way. I’m more suited to stay out here than I am to be home,” Brosnan says. He stays in phone and e-mail touch with his two children and takes his son out on the road during the summer months. He and his wife remain cordial, and he keeps their home his official base of operations. She handles his mail, and he keeps up his end of the finances. But for all practical purposes, he lives on the road.

Brosnan doesn’t see much downside to his chosen profession, and the freedom gives him the time and finances to indulge in his other passion: flying small aircraft. Known by his handle, “FlyBoy,” Brosnan lives for the times he exchanges asphalt for altitude. “I have more time and financial freedom to fly,” says the certified pilot. He’s rented planes in small airports all around the country. He also has the opportunity to pick and choose loads. “I don’t have to accept a low-paying load just because I’m trying to get home,” he says. “I chase the money, and it works out for me.”

Brosnan says he’s part of a trucking subculture that’s not well understood and likely rooted in the psyches of the drifters of a bygone era. “I live a solitary lifestyle that’s more like the old-time cowboys, explorers and seamen. I’m most comfortable behind the wheel or in my rig. I don’t really feel the need for much personal social contact,” he says. While he’s connected via e-mail and cell phone, he says he can go for weeks without actually talking to a human being in person other than ordering a meal from a truckstop waitress. “But it’s OK. I like my life,” he says, “and it’s my choice to stay out here. It’s a way of life that gets in your blood and makes you unsuited for other occupations.”

Company driver T.J. Graff says most truckers could translate that love for the solitary lifestyle to a full-time life on the road, and he highly recommends it. “Anyone can adjust if they have the right mind-set,” says the 49-year-old driver for Freymiller.

Graff, who spent a year in Iraq before a stint in Afghanistan and recently returned from another eight months in Iraq, driving for KBR, says the truck feels like luxury in comparison to conditions in the theater of war. “After dealing with Iraq, everything is easy. I have a sleeper with portable refrigerator, shelves, closets – everything I need,” he says. “It’s about the same amount of room I had in Afghanistan – actually more room. In Afghanistan, we slept on Army cots in basically wooden tents, so this is great.”

Graff not only lives in the truck but runs his second business, www.gotruckstop.com, from the cab. He keeps his company truck – a Peterbilt 379 at the moment, though he says the type of truck doesn’t matter – stocked with the latest technological gear, including a laptop computer and an iWear video visor that gives the effect of watching a 62-inch television screen.

“Technology makes this lifestyle possible,” he says. “For myself, it’s not only the website but audiobooks, the Internet in reference to news, the Drudge Report, eTrucker.com, DVDs. I’m wired with GPS with Bluetooth capabilities and Internet capabilities in the truck. Banking is done online. All my vendors for gotruckstop.com are paid online.”

For Graff, living in the truck is about freedom – freedom from worry, from car and house payments, even from cleaning toilets. “For what I would pay in rent for an apartment, I could stay in a three- to four-star hotel for several days and have all the amenities and not have to worry about anything,” he says. “If I need a vehicle, I rent a car. I get a brand-new vehicle every day.”

The money he saves also allows him to take a week-long vacation every four or five weeks in whatever destination he fancies. “It allows you to take time off anywhere in the country, and the company pays you to get there,” Graff says. When he was driving for Marten, he says, he’d put the truck in for service at the Atlanta terminal and head to the airport. He’d “fly down to Jamaica, and when I got back, the truck was fully serviced and ready to go.”

The Caribbean island is one of his favorite destinations; it’s where he married his ex-wife on the beach and hopes to retire in the next few years on a 43-foot catamaran.

Even Graff’s home base, Mesa, Ariz. – where he spends maybe six weeks out of a year – was chosen for its sunshine. “People spend vacations where I live,” he says. “It’s a permanent vacation.”

While a full-time life on the road is not perfect, it is the closest thing to a dream working situation he can imagine.

“The trucking industry offers you some incredible things,” Graff says. “I pinch myself every morning when I wake up.”

Twists and turns
Not everyone sets out to live in their truck. For Joyce Nolte, a company driver for Celadon Trucking, from Texarkana, Texas, living on the road was not a choice in the beginning. After her divorce from a Texas rancher more than a dozen years ago, she had very few options available for supporting herself. Wiped out financially, she turned to trucking so she could earn money and not have to pay living expenses.

What started out as a desperate decision turned into a life she didn’t want to give up – even after getting on her feet. The mother of four found she appreciated the solitude of her lifestyle. Other than the ordeal of doing laundry and taking showers at truckstops, she adjusted to the rigors and began to enjoy herself. “I never yearned to go back home to an empty house and mow the grass. Not having the upkeep of a place suited me just fine,” she says. It was fun to spread out holidays and downtime visiting her grown children and still good to leave when it was time to hit the road. A recent back injury forced her off the road, and she’s getting restless being grounded. “I really hope to get back out there when I can,” Nolte says.

Although it wasn’t her choice at the time, she managed to pay off all her debts and help her children out financially. Building wealth and paying off debt is one of the main reasons truckers make a choice to stay on the road full-time. Owner-operator business consultant Kevin Rutherford of Orlando, Fla., says he’s had clients over the years choose to sell their cars, boats, motorcycles and high-maintenance property and possessions to avoid bankruptcy, repossession or simply to pay off their truck. “If you do it right, with the right attitude, you can honorably pay off your debts,” Rutherford says. “Once you are in the black, you can start really saving money by reducing your living expenses.” The actual number of truckers living solely in their trucks would be hard to pin down, he says. “The problem is with defining the word ‘home,’ which can have a variety of definitions.” But he believes there are more out there than you might think.

He advises clients who choose this option to pare down their permanent living expenses to bare bones. “You don’t need half the stuff you think you do. Share rent with a roommate or rent a room and space from a family member,” he says. “The money and time you’ll save on maintenance will amaze you.”

The ease and efficiency of online banking and the wide availability of Internet access are two of the most significant improvements in the financial life of today’s long-haul truckers. “Online banking and direct deposit opens up the life to those solitary drivers without the backup of someone at home keeping up with the finances,” Rutherford says.

One of the most frequent questions he’s asked is about claiming the tax per diem when the definition of “home” can be in flux.

The Madsens make sure they exceed the spirit of the home-base requirements. They pay rent for a small residence in rural Minnesota, vote, contribute to the property improvements, attend church and maintain ties in the area. They combine downtime to schedule regular doctor and dentist visits. “We make sure we meet every possible requirement for permanent residence,” Madsen says.

Claiming the meal deduction can add up to significant tax savings, but there’s a lot of bad information on the topic and you can’t claim the per diem if you truly don’t have a home base.

“Don’t believe all the advice you hear in a truckstop,” says Mark Miller, tax manager for owner-operator financial service ATBS. “It’s not enough for a post office box to qualify for a permanent domicile.”(see “Taking the Per Diem” on page 24).

There’s no doubt that being released from the burden of property and possessions can pay off, but the life is more physically and mentally grueling than most people think.

“It can be a hard life, and you see the occasional desperate-looking trucker drag in,” Brosnan says.

Rev. Joe Hunter, who leads Truckstop Ministries Inc., sees plenty at the end of their emotional or spiritual rope. They call on his prayer line or stop by one of his more than 70 truckstop chapels around the country. “Living on the road can be full of temptations and opportunities to fall into addictions and terrible loneliness,” he says. “We do our best to be the truckers’ emotional and spiritual refuge. My heart goes out to them, especially those who don’t have anywhere to go when the job is done. It’s a hard life anyway, but when you can’t ever get away from the truck, it can be even more difficult.

“We are meant to be social creatures, to have support networks to help us through life. Some of these drivers are flying without safety nets.”

Home-free trucker Graff admits that one drawback of the lifestyle is the difficulty in meeting interesting, intelligent women. He relies on eHarmony.com for matchmaking, rather than trying to find women with relationship potential on the road. He also has recently acquired a new companion, Jake, an 8-month-old Keeshond puppy.

The road to freedom
For Milica Virag, from Camden, S.C., unloading her mortgaged home would be a blessing. “I’m dreaming of a time when I can sell this house and be free of the maintenance and financial burden of owning a home,” she says. She would like to work and save enough money to buy something small and easy to keep up when she retires.

“I’m torn between keeping the house where my children grew up and selling it,” she says. Like Joyce Nolte, also a single woman with grown children, coming home to an empty home she’s got to take care of is not appealing.

When Rafael Fuentes, from Kissimmee, Fla., was single, he lived quite happily without the added burden of keeping up with all the demands of home, cars and property. For a full two years, he lived solely on the road, building up his savings account and paying off his truck after selling his house and property. “Why would I want to go home to an empty place just to mow the lawn?” he says. That changed when he met the woman who is now his wife. He sold his truck, bought a house and is now driving locally so he can spend more time at home.

“Your priorities change, and now I’ve got someone to come home to,” he says.

Jackie Wormley, from Maplewood, Minn., is the daughter of a career trucker and has lived in her truck since she started driving almost seven years ago. At first, she did it to clear debt, which she did in two years, but then she didn’t see the point of renting. She bought her truck in 2005 and decked it out like a cozy apartment. “I have everything in here I need, a TV, DVD, computer, fridge, microwave and one of the best sound systems money can buy,” she says. “I don’t need anything else. I love what I do, and I get paid to be on vacation 24/7. It’s like I am camping every night.” She stays on her parents’ hide-a-bed on her rare visits home and stores her stuff in a 53-foot dry box trailer the company she’s leased to allows her to store in their yard. She pays all her bills online and gets her mail via post office box. “I have everything set up for being a true interstate gypsy,” she says.

“Property-free trucking is all about the freedom to make choices that fit your economic, social and family needs,” says Phil Madsen. “What works for one person might not seem right for another. But when it’s done right, it’s the ultimate freedom.”

Brosnan agrees. “It gets in your blood and really you can’t imagine another way of living.”

Mike Norbut, an owner-operator from Chicago, has been driving for 20 years, the last five without a home base. He says it’s hard to explain that kind of life. “The freedom of the life is the way you feel inside your heart about life and home and what makes a home,” Norbut says. “It’s about knowing yourself and liking what you know. Life is what you make of it.”


Taking the Per Diem
The Per-Diem Meal Allowance permits a tax deduction for some living expenses incurred when you are working away from home, but for truly home-free truckers, taking the per diem deduction is not strictly legal.

The per diem kicks in when you have to spend at least 10 hours in a destination away from home on business, says Russell Fullingim, owner of Truckers Financial Services. But what determines “home” for tax purposes?

“Generally, your tax home is your regular place of business, regardless of where you maintain your family home,” according to IRS Publication 463. “It includes the entire city or general area in which your business or work is located.”

But as an over-the-road trucker, you probably won’t spend enough time at a company’s terminal for it to qualify as a regular place of business, Fullingim says, especially if you are an independent owner-operator.

According to the IRS, “If you do not have a regular place of business or post of duty and there is no place where you regularly live, you are considered an itinerant (a transient) and your tax home is wherever you work. As an itinerant, you cannot claim a travel expense deduction because you are never considered to be traveling away from home.”

In other words, you can’t legally claim the per diem if your only home is your truck. According to the IRS, to qualify for the deduction, your tax home must match one of the following three descriptions:

  1. You perform part of your business in the area of your main home and use that home for lodging while doing business in the area.

  2. You have living expenses at your main home that you duplicate because your business requires you to be away from that home.
  3. You have not abandoned the area in which both your historical place of lodging and your claimed main home are located; you have a member or members of your family living at your main home; or you often use that home for lodging.”

“You have to have a residence that you’re actually paying for, and you have to have friends,” Fullingim says. Though there is no official amount of time you’re required to spend at your tax home, if you are audited, the IRS might come to your neighborhood and ask your neighbors if they know you or see you come and go on a regular basis.

“A lot of people claim their relative’s place as their residence,” Fullingim says, but that doesn’t qualify in the eyes of the IRS unless the trucker is on record as paying a significant portion of the bills – such as rent or utilities.

Many home-free truckers claim the per diem even when they don’t have a qualifying tax home, Fullingim says, but that is a gamble. “If they audit you and they find out, the taxes you’re going to owe and the penalties and interest are going to kill you,” he says.

If you are planning to go “home-free,” you may want to speak with a truck business services firm about how to legally establish a tax home and claim your per diem. Here are some methods to establish a permanent residence that will qualify as a tax home:

  • Pay rent or mortgage.

  • Receive mail.
  • Pay for home and yard improvements.
  • Pay utilities.
  • Establish community ties such as church and medical.
  • Join an organization like a YMCA.
  • Register to vote.

Health Solo
For truckers staying out on the road full-time, health may be an even bigger issue than it is for other drivers, says Dr. John McElligott, chairman and CEO of Professional Drivers Medical Depots.

“Without regular home time visits, there’s nobody out there to notice the physical signs of illness that the trucker might overlook,” he says. He had a patient come in with a cut on his head. After treating the wound, McElligott says he found the patient riddled with advanced-stage cancer – completely undiagnosed or even suspected by the patient.

While it’s important for all truckers to get regular check-ups by their family physician, it’s even more crucial for those who live most of their life on the road. “Just living in an enclosed space puts you at higher risk for infectious diseases,” McElligott says. Other issues include the lack of dietary and fitness options. “Find a family doctor in a location you frequent a few times a year and then make a point to get there for a routine check-up. It’s crucial to have someone check you out that knows you and can follow your care. DOT physicals are not a substitute for an ongoing medical relationship with a physician.”

By the time trucker patients come to his clinics located next to major truckstops, they are often seriously ill. In fact, McElligott says he had to send nearly 1,000 patients to the hospital just last year. “For those with no safety net of friends or family at home, they need to get medical treatment before complications set in.”

Another concern for home-free truckers is what to do when you are really too sick to keep driving but have nowhere to go to recuperate.

Company driver T.J. Graff says he gets sick a few times a year. “When I’m down with the flu, I just grab a hotel,” he says. “If you’re making money, get out of the truck and get a hotel.”

But owner-operator Steve Brosnan is probably more typical of long-haul truckers. “I just suck it up and keep going,” he says.

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