For Richer Or For Poorer

An owner-operator’s wife offers first-hand tips for paying the bills – and keeping your credit rating up – when emergencies strike.

Back in 1993, my husband John was leased to a refrigerated carrier and working himself to a frazzle. Struggling to stay awake one morning as he crossed into Kansas, he drifted onto a soft shoulder. Instantly he overcorrected, sending our entire trucking company skidding on its side down the highway.

The truck was sidelined in a repair shop 375 miles from our home in Blooming Grove, Texas. It took almost a month and a $1,000 deductible to get it back. John drove as a company driver for the first month, and when he got the truck back he drove for a month without coming home. I had recently taken an unpaid maternity leave from my job as a first grade teacher, which left me owing the school district money to cover my insurance premiums. I got a sitter and took a job teaching summer school.

Financially, we were nearly ruined. To protect our credit rating, I was determined to pay every cent we owed. I paid the utilities and rent first, but then discovered that the telephone company and the electric company have terrific payment plans. I was able to stall for time on the truck payment by arranging to send ridiculously small installments.

I made the mistake of putting off car payments and not making arrangements with the lender. I got some nice reminders, then some not-so-nice reminders, and then a phone call. They allowed me to put my overdue payments onto the end of my note, but if I had called the company in the first place, I would not have that bad mark on my credit.

Another lesson I learned is that credit card companies always report you if your payment is more than 30 days late. They are also quick to turn you over to debt collectors, who tend to have unpleasant personalities and ways of making you feel worse than you already do. The only way you can stop the collectors’ calls is to pay up. Now we have a MasterCard with a reasonable rate and a self-imposed low limit, plus two gas cards for emergencies.

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Because our credit rating dropped, we paid a higher interest rate when I replaced my car. My husband left trucking for a few years, and when he returned, we had to go through several lenders before finding one to finance our truck, even though many of our “slow pay” listings were then years old. I shiver to think what we might have faced had we declared bankruptcy or been forced to let our truck or car get repossessed.

These days I tackle money problems head-on. When a bill comes in, I enter the due date and amount on my bill calendar and then place the payment slip and envelope in a wooden organizer that has slots for each day of the month. I do my best to pay before late fees can be applied, and I call immediately to make arrangements if I am forced to make a late payment. If no money’s coming in for a few weeks, I buy time by keeping in mind that utilities can generally go about 10 days late before you receive a cut-off notice, and rent, mortgage, car loans and insurance can safely go from five to 15 days overdue, depending on the creditor.

If I could tell new owner-operators one thing, it would be: “Expect emergencies!” I wish John’s wreck had been our lone crisis, but that’s not the reality of this business. Last year he was on I-35 in Austin, Texas, when his drive shaft fell out. Having cash reserves and a strong line of credit is the only way to prepare for such emergencies. We have been blessed to find a reliable mechanic who lets us pay out major repairs. My father and brother use FleetNet cards and let their carrier hold payment out of future settlements.

Disability insurance can be the key to survival if you are injured on the job. John slipped as he was climbing into his cab and he ended up in a sling for a shoulder injury. Without disability insurance, we had to send him back to work before his recovery was complete. He still has trouble with that shoulder.

Changing leases is never cheap. Some companies require additional equipment, new base plates and permits, escrow, and a new physical and drug screen, all charged back to you. Then there’s the down time between your start date and the first settlement date. It may be weeks or even months before you see profit, so do your homework and plan appropriately for start-up costs.

In the long run, you will never get past just surviving if what you make isn’t significantly more than what you spend. One reason John and I have made it on so little is that we live within our means. Our modest home cost less than what we could afford, but I’m thankful for the low payment in lean times. John maintains a good 1998 International 9400 Eagle that he bought used, and our payment is less than $500 a month. Our ultimate goal is to be debt-free, and we can reach that goal only if we stay focused and refuse to give up.

Spending less
Small expenses can quickly add up, but so can small savings. Here are ways we pinch pennies:

SAVE ON UTILITIES AND FUEL. We reduce our utility bills by as much as $75 a month in the winter by keeping the house cooler, wearing layers of clothing and planning oven-prepared meals to add warmth. In summer, we go easy on the air conditioning and use the slow cooker, grill, and microwave to avoid heating the kitchen. My husband reduces idling by taking extra blankets or a fan that plugs into the cigarette lighter.

CUT COMMUNICATION COSTS. We lowered our long-distance bill about $25 a month by exchanging letters or e-mails with relatives. John lets his voice-mail pick up less urgent cell phone calls, then returns the call from our land line when he gets home. We trimmed about $100 a month off John’s cell phone bill by keeping conversations short during daytime hours and saving longer conversations for nights and weekends.

ENTERTAIN CREATIVELY. We have invited friends over to play dominoes, cards and board games, and our dinner parties have generally been weenie roasts and potluck suppers. John and I once planted a garden while his truck was down for repairs. Some of our best vacations have been camping trips, which cost $10 to $15 a night. Avoid money traps like the movies, shopping malls and amusement parks.

WATCH INCIDENTAL PURCHASES. Buy snacks, cigarettes or soda in bulk and keep them handy – at home or in the truck – rather than paying double at a convenience store. Forget lottery tickets and other gambling. Such expenditures are luxuries to be enjoyed when the money is flowing.

EAT OUT CHEAP. When we do splurge on a nice meal for the five of us, we steer toward places with cheap kid menus. We save $5 to $10 by ordering only water. Some places allow you to order lunch portions for less than the dinner menu prices. We often share larger portions. At truck stops, John orders cheap but filling meals like red beans and rice or biscuits and gravy.

EAT INEXPENSIVELY. I can easily spend $100-plus a week on groceries, but when we go into money-miser mode, I chop our bill to about $40. Before we go to the grocery store, we make a list of meal ideas and ingredients. We try to skip items we can live without, such as chips, cookies and candy bars. We do not return to the store for a week or longer unless we forgot something major, and we use our “menu” to remember what we need to cook each day.

Finding extra cash
Sometimes I’ve helped us get over the hump by teaching summer school, leading workshops and working at youth camps. John enjoys the outdoors, so he has mowed lawns, hauled brush and raked leaves. He had a lucrative gum and candy machine business until our locations played out. One of the machines cost less than $100, yet it brought in $150 to $200 a month. During one dry spell, he made wooden birdhouses that I painted and sold at craft malls.

Trading labor is as good as earning money. John used his tractor to do some gravel work for our neighbor, who is a plumber. He, in turn, helped redo our outdated bathtub plumbing.

A garage sale can be a good way to earn a few hundred dollars, but don’t squander items of value for pocket change. Name-brand clothing will bring more at resell shops, and antiques can be placed on consignment. If you have collectibles for sale, use an online auction site.

Don’t overlook parting with large-ticket items. I sold my saxophone to make a car payment. In a pinch, you may feel less attached to livestock or an RV than you thought.

If you live in hunting country, you can lease out hunting rights by the gun, by the day or by the season.

Checking your credit
If you’re not sure about your credit rating, check with one of the major credit reporting bureaus. One report usually costs less than $10.

(800) 685-1111

(888) 397-3742

(800) 916-8800
–Cynthia Woody

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