Most owner-operators were company drivers before they bought a truck. Company drivers quickly figure out how to get the time off that they want, and how to get it without significant penalties. But when the company driver becomes an owner-operator, the old company driver habits about time off should change with the new responsibilities.
An owner-operator has costs that the company driver does not. One of these costs is “fixed expense”. This is the cost of ownership, and the expense is unrelenting. It is spent every day regardless if the tractor is moving or sitting. A typical fixed expense is about $80.00 and it happens every day until the last tractor payment is made. (After that last payment is made there will still be fixed expense, although it will be reduced.)
Unlike a company driver, when an owner-operator takes time off, this expense of about $80.00 a day is still incurred even though the truck is sitting. Because of this penalty, time off has a different meaning for the owner-operator. There are a few clever things an owner-operator can do to lessen the shock of this expense while still having time off.

Time is our Biggest Asset

First, look ahead for a full year and set goals based on what is reasonable and what is possible.  There are 365 days in a year, and many drivers will say they would like about 550 miles per day.  If you do the math, that comes to 200,750 miles. But we’re only human, and that’s a lot of miles! However, you should ask yourself: is 255 working days possible? Is 550 miles a day average reasonable? If these are feasible to you, then the miles would total 140,250. Not too bad!
Are 100 days of time off right for you? (Remember to allow time for mechanical issues, bad weather, layover & holidays). Some studies show that if operators commit less than 255 working days per year that their success is only marginal, sometimes worse. Other operators may need closer to 290 working days to be successful. Figure out now how many working days remain this year, and then do the same for all of 2015. You’ll be moving forward by mapping out the number of working days you need to succeed, instead of working to catch up without having a plan ahead of time.
Understanding freight cycles will give you another advantage. There are yearly, quarterly, monthly, and weekly freight cycles. Every sector of the trucking industry (van, flat, reefer, HHG, tank) will have different cycles and even individual companies in the same segment may have differences.  Here are the differences between each type of freight cycle:

  • Yearly. The yearly fright cycle depends on your industry. For one segment of an industry it might be slow in the first quarter (Jan-Feb-Mar) of the year. Then the next two quarters (Apr-May-Jun and Jul-Aug-Sep) things can pick up and are more normal. The last quarter (Oct-Nov-Dec) is often the busiest quarter of the year.
  • Quarterly. A quarterly freight cycle is where the first month of the quarter will be slowest, the next month will be more normal, and the last month will be the busiest of the quarter.
  • Monthly. This is when the first week of the month will be slowest, the next two weeks will be more normal, and the last week will be the busiest week of the month.
  • Weekly.  Friday is the busiest day of the week, and Monday is the next busiest. If you are consistent with making the most of these days of the week, it can help your business to thrive.

If you can get in sync with these cycles, you can use them to your advantage. Match your time off with the slowest time of the calendar. Then take your time off accordingly, and when it will affect your business and productivity the least. Give yourself the advantage by being available for work during the busiest times on the calendar.
Here are some additional ways to ensure that you make the most of your time:

  • Ask your fleet manager or operations manager to explain your company’s freight cycles to you. Mark the cycles on a calendar for the rest of the year, then plan your time off and availability for work accordingly. 
  • Plan vacation time (and any major truck repairs) in the first quarter when it is usually the slowest.
  • Stay out and stay in service during the busiest quarter of the year.
  • Never take time off during last week of the month, or during the last two weeks of the quarter when it is the busiest.
  • Set a goal every week for how you can make your business more profitable. Set another goal for the month, and for the year.
  • Make the most out of Fridays and Mondays, since they are the busiest days of the week.
  • Don’t be tempted to refuse “bad loads” late in the week – they could be the key to what makes your business more profitable. 
  • Try staying out for a longer period right before you’re planning to take time off.  Then you can make up for it by bundling more days off together (instead of keeping them spread out).  One good way to make the most of this would be to run hard the last weeks of the month, then use your time off during the first week of the month when it’s slower.
  • Take loads through home instead of to home. Once you stop productivity, it’s harder to start back up and get the momentum going again.
  • If you lose a day on the road, stay out an extra day and make up for it.

An owner-operator must be sure to look at time off differently than a company driver.  By following these key strategies you can minimize the outgoing expenses of your company, and maximize the income.  Returning to work after taking time off should not be an added stress.  Have peace of mind knowing that your foresight in planning ahead for time off will keep your business running strong in the future.

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Comments (7)

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Maybe I should look into doing that, Joey! :)

September 15, 2014 13:39:21 PM

Beth, wow, are you sure you don't run a trucking company on the side? That's solid advice.

September 12, 2014 5:54:19 AM

Great article with very valuable information to all Independent Contractors.

September 11, 2014 12:32:31 PM

That's an excellent point, Jeff! Thanks for clarifying!
And Craig, that's a really great habit to be in. It sounds like you're using the time wisely for your business!

September 11, 2014 12:24:15 PM

This is very good information Beth, thank you. We do the same thing. Time off is taken during the off season. Our "freight cycle" is fire season. When it's fire season, it's work season. I make it clear to my two part-time drivers that they have fall, winter and spring to play, travel and camp or what ever their hobbies are. Summer is fire season and that means dedication to work. During work season we can be expected to work 7 days a week for weeks on end, there is no time for time off during fire season. Since my part-time drivers are retired and financially independent they are good with this arrangement and that allows us to follow the advise you presented.

September 11, 2014 8:26:24 AM

You make some great points. Through the home and to the home largely depends on where you live. If you live in an area like Indianapolis freight through the home makes sense. When you live in Green Bay, freight to the home is more likely. You make a great point about working with the cycles.

September 11, 2014 6:35:23 AM

Our first year I over estimated our expenses and under estimated our income and that worked out very well. The next year I started using our first years revenue and expenses to create a realistic monthly budget. As the years have passed and we have stayed with the same company the budget is pretty realistic and so is the basic rate per mile we need to run each month. Learning to run on a percentage contract gives us a little more freedom to pick and choose what loads we will take and what areas of the country are the most profitable.

September 11, 2014 5:40:11 AM