When the road is home

| April 02, 2008

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.

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