Not only is truck driving an enjoyable career — because you get to enjoy your freedom and explore the country — but truck driving can be an extremely lucrative career. In fact, the national average for owner-operators in 2023 is well over $200,000.
However, on the flip side, some owner-operators are making well under $100,000. It’s not uncommon to hear stories about truck drivers going broke because they aren’t making enough money to cover their expenses — especially with the rising costs of everything in the last few years.
If your paychecks aren’t ideal, and your earnings are coming in on the lower side of $100,000, you might be trying to figure out how to maximize your income and save some money on the road.
There are several key tactics you can implement to help yourself become a top-earning owner-operator. It starts by understanding what’s having the biggest impact on your income. Maximize your income by following these tips.
Increase Your Truck Driver Income [7 Tips]
The difference between being a successful driver and a struggling driver can come down to whether or not you implement these cost-saving practices:
- Stick to your budget
- Cut fuel costs
- Do your pre-trip inspections
- Keep up with truck maintenance
- Trip plan
- Open up your freight opportunities
- Save money on food
1. Stick to Your Budget
This first tip is pretty straightforward, but it’s easier said than done.
If you're an owner-operator, chances are, you had to stick to a strict budget to pay for your first truck. Now, you juggle covering the cost of your truck, maintenance, fuel, permits, tolls….the list is endless. Budgeting is something you live and breathe.
However, sticking to your budget can mean the difference between taking home a great paycheck every week and barely covering your expenses. Your budget already includes all your operating costs (fuel, truck payment, food, etc.) and the bills you pay at home. Now stick to it.
You shouldn’t have any surprises when you check your bank account at the end of the week or your credit card statement at the end of the month.
Remember this budget of yours any time you’re considering an unnecessary purchase — like the latest technology or spending a night in a hotel room every night on the road.
2. Cut Fuel Costs
Without question, next to your truck payment (if you have one), fuel is your biggest cost on the road. Unfortunately, fuel isn’t getting any cheaper. Fortunately for you, however, it’s a controllable cost if you make fuel-efficient practices a normal part of your routine.
There are a ton of ways you can make your truck perform optimally by making small adjustments in the shop, but there are also a few things you can do on the road. The best drivers take advantage of these fuel-efficient practices to save a few dollars here and there.
For starters, don’t idle your truck if you don’t have to. An auxiliary power unit (APU) can be a great investment for you if you want to cut down on fuel costs. Consider, however, that the upfront cost can be around $15,000. If you plan on keeping your truck for a while, the investment will pay for itself in a few years. Otherwise, a bunk heater is a cheaper solution.
Next, you want to make sure you’re not driving aggressively and driving at excessive speeds. Your average miles per gallon (mpg) drops significantly when you drive over 60 miles per hour (MPH). Using cruise control can also improve your mpg and save you money at the pump.
3. Do Your Pre-Trip Inspections
You should always be doing pre-trip inspections, day in and day out. This will ensure your truck and trailer are both roadworthy and it’ll help you avoid costly breakdowns and accidents on the road.
A thorough pre-trip inspection should only take you 15-20 minutes. That’s just a handful of minutes that can prevent a tire blowout on the road, an expensive violation during a roadside inspection or a breakdown that can leave you stalled for days.
The cost of an accident itself is expensive on its own — and that isn’t taking into consideration downtime and money lost while waiting for your truck to get fixed. You’ll be losing out on opportunity costs, which is the money you’re losing when you don’t move freight. That’s hundreds of dollars per day and higher. If you’re down for a few days, you can easily be out thousands of dollars.
Taking the time to inspect your truck and drive safely will save you a lot of money.
4. Keep Up With Truck Maintenance
Truck maintenance goes hand-in-hand with regular pre-trip inspections. You’ll save money by doing pre-trip inspections and then getting your truck in the shop for routine repairs.
Preventative maintenance is easily one of the best ways you can save yourself from costly downtime — especially paired with those pre-trips and post-trips.
If you notice a weird knocking sound or your service engine light goes on, don’t ignore it. The longer you push off repairs, the more likely you’ll end up causing more damage in the long run. You can make the problem even worse by ignoring it.
It’s like taking care of your body. If you have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, it isn’t going to fix itself. The longer you fail to manage it, the more detrimental its effects on your heart.
Take care of your truck and trailer and they'll take care of you.
5. Trip Plan
Looking to cut excess miles from your trip that burn up time and fuel? Trip plan. Even seasoned drivers who’ve been driving for decades trip plan. Why? Because it works.
Every extra mile you put on your truck comes associated with a cost — whether that’s extra fuel or truck wear and tear.
Before you get on the road, you should always take the time to plan your trips. Where will you stop for fuel and your break? Where are you stopping for the night? What’s the best route to the shipper’s facility? If you run into construction or an accident, how are you getting around that in an efficient manner?
Trip planning is all about efficiency, and when you’re efficient on the road, the dollars can add up in your wallet.
Save yourself time and money by trip planning.
6. Open Up Your Freight Opportunities
Do you find you’re overly picky about the freight you will and will not haul? If so, it’s probably having a huge impact on your wallet.
As a driver or administrator, you need to have a crystal clear understanding of the freight market. Then, you need to make smart load decisions based on the market. Before you say yes to a load, consider how far you’ll have to deadhead to pick up the load and if you’ll be able to get a load out of that area. Is it worth it? The highest-paying load won’t be worth it if you have to deadhead hundreds of miles to pick it up and then you can’t get a load out of that market.
Especially when the market drops, you have to be willing to haul some lower-paying freight just to keep your wheels turning.
Go where the freight is. Be willing to haul freight across the entire U.S., not just places you like to run. And if you can diversify your skillset to haul more lucrative freight — like classing up or getting endorsements — do it.
7. Save Money On Food
Skip the truck stop meals and cook delicious, healthy meals in your truck. You’ll save the money in your wallet and inches around your waist.
Think about how much money you spend at truck stops for all of your meals, then compare that to how much money you’d spend by meal prepping or cooking in your truck every day. You can easily save hundreds of dollars each week.
Sure, it’s nice to enjoy a meal on the road every now and again — especially when you’re in a new area. However, don’t make it a habit or you’ll see your earnings start to dwindle.
Improve Your Earning Potential
As you know by now, salaries for owner-operators can vary heavily. The type of driving you’re doing, what kind of freight you’re hauling, how many loads you’re hauling and how often you go home can have a big impact on how much money you take home — as can your experience on the road and the state of the market.
With a few small changes and a little hard work, you can be one of the top earners we talked about at the start of this article.