James E. Olsen saves money in restaurants by using coupons and sneaking in his own soft drinks.
Every year, Ben and Melanie Easters take a three-week trip to Hawaii. Donald and Susan Pardue have lots of big toys, including a motor home and deck boat. James E. Olsen just bought a $330,000 house.
While they’re unlikely to be profiled on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” they’re all doing quite well for truck drivers. In fact, whereas the average owner-operator who reads Overdrive makes about $41,000 a year after expenses, these truckers earn substantially more.
It takes a special owner-operator to earn big bucks, says Perry Wiseman, an accountant with Truckers Accounting Service in Omaha, Neb. Usually, team drivers or unmarried truckers do the best. Teams tend to earn higher per-mile rates; single drivers can stay on the road longer because they don’t have family obligations.
Lucrative hauls help with the bottom line, but so does having a cheap truck payment or no payment at all. “I have a client out of Arizona who ran pretty hard for four or five years and paid everything off,” Wiseman says. “Now he takes six months off. He doesn’t have a wife at home or kids that require additional revenue.”
Owner-operators who find a particularly lucrative niche are few and far between, he says. Still, Wiseman says disciplined contractors who resist spec’ing trucks with high monthly payments and those who pay close attention to costs can do well whether they earn 83 cents per mile or $1.50. “For every nine guys that are normal, there’s one guy that saves money and tracks everything he spends,” Wiseman says. “It pays to be cost-conscious.”
For the Easters, the Pardues and Olsen, staying aware of costs and getting in the right niche were the first steps on their road to riches.
THE BEAN COUNTER
James E. Olsen
General commodities hauler
James E. Olsen likes numbers. “My accountant says I’m so anal-retentive that I should be an accountant,” Olsen confesses. For instance, he keeps a notebook of out-of-route miles and, as with dozens of other operating statistics he can rattle off, knows that in the past 10 years, he’s averaged less than 5 percent out-of-route miles.
While such attention to detail may border on obsession, it pays off for the 54-year-old trucker. His willingness to live cheaply, to avoid expensive purchases and to take advantage of special deals and opportunities are a few of the things that set him apart from most owner-operators.
Olsen typically earns $8,500 a month in revenue. But he’s pocketing more than $6,000 before taxes and after expenses – twice as much as many operators can net. While the revenue is good – Olsen averages about 85 cents a mile driving for Schneider National – it’s what he doesn’t spend that gives him far more income than the average trucker.
“I’m always looking for the cheapest fuel,” he says. When he finds it – usually at a Flying J truck stop, Olsen says he takes advantage of the company’s loyalty program to save even more. “I charge all my expenses on a Flying J preferred member credit card, and I get a penny to a penny and a half off their fuel price.”
Before he leaves on his usual three-week trips, he checks the list of fuel prices for each truck stop on Flying J’s website. “I download it, print it out and take it with me,” he says. Throw in Schneider’s fuel surcharge, Olsen says, and, “I’m running pretty close to a buck a gallon for fuel.”
Olsen also saves money even when he eats by using Flying J coupons, of which he gets about $25 worth in a month. One day in February, for example, he paid for a salmon and cottage cheese lunch with $5 and $2 coupons, then put the $1.76 tip on his credit card to earn the fuel rebate credit. He often brings his own soda with him – saving about $1 a day.
At least $2,500 stays in Olsen’s business checking account with Bank of America so that he doesn’t have to pay the monthly fee of $7.50. He uses mapping programs to avoid out-of-route miles because every missed turn has a cost.
Olsen is also thrifty with his diesel. He says he knows the terrain he’s driving and keeps the speed down so he can average 7 mpg to 7.5 mpg loaded. Other truckers speed to get to a delivery early, but then have to idle to stay warm, Olsen says. Driving slower and timing his arrival closer to deadline cuts down on wasteful idling and on maintenance expenses. “My truck is shut off even when it’s zero degrees,” he says. “I’m not in the truck when it’s that cold. I’m in Schneider’s facility.”
Even when he is forced to idle, he saves money because his 1998 International 9800 has optimized idle control, something Olsen spec’ed because he knew it would pay for itself. When he ordered the truck, conventionals cost nearly $20,000 more than cabovers, so it was an easy decision to go with the cabover. “The way I look at it, I’m a businessman first, a truck driver second,” he says.
The other features he spec’ed contribute to comfort or efficiency – such as leather trim, two-speed fans to stay cool in the summer and an onboard computer so he could keep track of his statistics. Even with the extras, the truck cost less than $85,000; now that it’s paid off, Olsen has much more money to keep.
When he bought his first truck from Schneider, a 1989 cabover, he paid $19,000 for it. He sold it to a local hauler four years later for $10,000, and put that aside in a savings account, which has been earning interest for the past six years. “Now I’ve got more than $10,000 if I need it for an engine rebuild,” he says.
Finally, Olsen’s saving aggressively for retirement, and his personal finances are clear of the sort of expenses that can cripple other owner-operators, such as a car note and credit card debt. It makes affording that big new house in southern California easier.
Olsen was an operations manager for Wick’s Furniture before he made the leap into trucking. But even in management, he says, he didn’t make the kind of money he now makes in trucking.
Ben and Melanie Easters