How much does an owner-operator make?
This is one of the most common questions for considering a change from the company driver to an owner-operator business. The average owner-operator base income is nearly $144,000 according to Indeed.com. But this varies widely depending on experience, the type of loads a driver will specialize in and carry, and how much time they spend on the road.
While that may sound like a lot of money, a word of caution: While that’s the average base salary for an owner-operator, they often take home much less than that when you factor in expenses. You have to dig much deeper to figure out an accurate owner-operator average salary — what you’d net each week and annually after paying those expenses.
Many owner-operators will only take home $45,000 to $80,000 a year, with a much lower average for the first year. We’ll explain why, but the most important thing to remember is that you need to maximize income (AKA revenue) and minimize expenses to increase your net take-home pay.
Also important: owner-operators don’t have health insurance benefits through their employer, so they rely on insurance through a spouse or partner or purchase their own insurance. So why would you want to be an owner-operator? Let’s break down the numbers.
Owner-operator vs. company driver salary
There are two ways to look at salary: gross and net. The gross average owner-operator salary is three times what a company driver makes. But that’s before expenses and taxes — net is what’s left after those.
Expenses are fixed and covered for most company drivers. Taxes are based on the tax bracket they’re in. The more specialized and experienced a driver is, the more they will make as a company driver. The biggest advantage of being a company driver is that employers handle everything for you. There’s no overhead, so you don’t have to worry about owning a truck or paying employees, and taxes automatically come out of your check. You also don’t have the startup costs of being a business owner.
Owner-operators have to buy or lease and maintain their trucks, manage their own schedules, and keep track of their own taxes and business expenses. You control your schedule, time at home, the routes you take, and the type of truck you drive. After initial startup costs, though, owner-operators have much higher earning potential.
The upshot: The more responsibility you take on, the higher your earning potential. The more you let a company handle by working for them, the less control you have.
How do owner-operators get paid?
There are two main ways: a percentage of the load or mileage. Earning consistency is the biggest difference between the two.
- Percentage of load. Drivers take between 25-85% of the load revenue. So if you get a high-paying or valuable load, your pay can be excellent. But a low-value load can hit you hard — sometimes, you don’t break even on those.
- Mileage. You get paid a set amount for the miles you drive, regardless of the load’s value. It’s more consistent than the percentage-of-load-pay method, but you may miss out on some potentially large paydays.
Which method should you choose? It depends on your situation. The load percentage could work for you if you save your money well, manage cash flow efficiently, and budget conservatively (based on average vs. best-case scenarios). You can bank a percentage of that money for leaner load times when you have valuable loads.
If you need a more consistent pay schedule, especially if you have a family at home, you may want to opt for the mileage route. Your salary will be more consistent and predictable over time.
Because many owner-operators sign on with a carrier to get consistent loads, they may have to choose one payment method. You can combine the two if you work with more than one carrier; it makes bookkeeping and figuring profit and loss more complicated.
To decide what will work best, you need to understand expenses and what they mean to your bottom line.
What kind of expenses do owner-operators have?
Several expenses go with a trucking business. Some are obvious, while others are more challenging to figure out.
Buying a truck
First, you’ll need to buy or lease a truck. Determine these before you purchase a truck:
- The type of loads you want to haul
- The lanes you will operate in (which may affect emissions testing)
- Your budget and the best truck you can afford
- Whether you will lease to a carrier, fill your own loads, or a combination
In figuring out what you can afford, remember that an older truck will need more maintenance and repairs, and a newer one will cost you more upfront. Consider all those things when choosing which truck to buy and how to pay for it.
Even a brand new truck will need things like oil and fluid changes, tires and wheels, regular grease jobs, compressor maintenance and repair, brake checks and replacements, and regular fuel filter replacements. Regular maintenance can prevent larger problems, but don’t forget to include these expenses in your budget.
Over time, you’ll learn the average fuel cost for your lanes, but it will vary as fuel prices rise and fall. This expense never goes away.
While there are reward programs and other ways to save money, they have their limits. Budget for fuel based on the mileage you will travel, and budget for the worst-case and highest-cost scenario rather than the ideal one.
You’ll need the right insurance for your truck, but you’ll also need insurance to cover cargo loads if there’s a loss, theft, accident, or other damage to your load. These claims are part of the business, no matter how smooth your operation is.
The Truckstop.com cargo insurance program offers low per-load insurance. Policies are “All Risk” cargo insurance that covers any physical loss or damage from external causes subject to the terms and conditions of your policy). It serves as primary coverage and insures you from when you pick up your freight until it is delivered and signed for. This can help with the cost and uncertainty of what load insurance will cover in the event of a claim.
Before buying truck insurance, consider talking to an agent who understands OTR work and your state’s specific legal requirements and states in your lane. Make sure you’re not paying for coverage you don’t need but have enough to meet legal requirements and cover your own needs.
Taxes and paperwork
Everyone’s favorite! If you were a company driver before, you probably had taxes taken out of your check automatically. Now, you will have to track and pay them yourself, including self-employment taxes and Federal and state income taxes.
A few simple rules will keep you out of trouble with the IRS and your state tax authority.
- Save to pay taxes. Put away 20-30% of everything you earn in a tax savings account (TSA). This guarantees you have the funds to pay your taxes when due.
- Pay quarterly taxes. This keeps you legal with the IRS and prevents a surprise tax bill on April 15.
- Hire an accountant. Unless you are good with numbers and the tax code, hire someone to help with your taxes. They’ll know about specific deductions and how to minimize your tax liability.
- Track everything. This includes mileage and all expenses. You may want to use accounting software so that you can give your accountant access at the end of the year, and your tax prep will be faster and cheaper.
Also, remember: in most states, you have to file an annual company report (usually online) and might have to renew your LLC or other corporate licensing. You could also be subject to other local business taxes.
Keep these expenses top of mind as you create a budget and determine your salary.
Pro tip: Once you’re making enough money, your accountant can recommend ways to set yourself up as an employee of your own company. You can deduct taxes and issue yourself a paycheck and bonuses, draw benefits you can deduct from your taxes, and increase your contributions to a 401K to plan for retirement. These are just a few extra perks of being a small business owner.
How can owner-operators make the most money?
Considering all these things, how much does an owner-operator truck driver make at the end of the day? Again, to make the most money, increase your income, and reduce expenses. The first step is to maximize your money, which you should outline in your trucking business plan. Here are some money-maximizing ideas:
- Keep your truck moving loads. Use load boards to find quality brokers and loads. Your vehicle will always be working to make money for you. See how load boards work here.
- Get your own authority. It will take a couple of months, so plan accordingly. Your authority is your motor carrier number, which lets you haul freight with your own trucking company. It’s the first step to becoming your own boss.
- Use factoring to maximize cash flow by getting payments quickly. Truckstop pays you now; the broker pays us later, giving you operating cash right away.
- Sign up for ITS Dispatch to keep moving loads rather than looking for them and doing manual paperwork. We have affordable dispatch solutions, no matter what size trucking operation you have. The less back-office paperwork you have to do, the more time you can save, and the more money you make.
- Protect your business with cargo insurance. When something gets in the way of delivery or cargo is stolen or damaged, you are protected, and you don’t have to pay out settlements on your own.
- Book jobs in the highest paying cities. Some lanes and cities pay higher rates for moving loads.
The more money you make, the greater your profit margin should be. Reduce expenses to maximize profit.
Other Owner-Operator FAQs
Here are some of the most common questions about becoming an owner-operator.
How do I become an owner-operator?
To become an owner-operator, you’ll need to buy or lease a truck, get your commercial driver’s license, and pass a physical exam. You will also need to:
- Form a business by registering with your state.
- Apply for a USDOT Number.
- Get your trucking authority.
- Purchase truck insurance that meets FMSCA requirements.
- Install FMCSA-compliant electronic logging devices (ELD).
If you plan on getting a loan or financing, you will also need to develop a business plan for how you will manage your business and be prepared to show it along with tax returns or other applicable finance information.
Once everything is in place, then you need to find loads. The Truckstop.com Load Board for Carriers makes it easy to find loads, negotiate rates, and keep your business running smoothly.
What tax deductions can owner-operators claim?
As an owner-operator, you can deduct much of the cost of operating your business. While you want to consult with a tax advisor, some of the more common tax deductions for owner-operators may include:
- Interest paid on any business loans
- Depreciation of equipment or property
- Home office
- Insurance premiums
- Retirement plans
- Startup costs
- Permits and license fees
- Truck lease
- Accounting services
- Communication equipment
- Truck repairs and accessories
The IRS requires you to document your expense and demonstrate that it is an ordinary and necessary cost to run your business.
What expenses do owner-operators have?
When you drive for a company, they will take care of equipment, and everything else needed to run the business. As an owner-operator, that’s up to you. You will need to invest in trucks and equipment. Other typical expenses include:
- Equipment maintenance and/or repairs
- Fuel expenses and tolls
- Business licenses, transport permits, registration fees, and vehicle inspections
- Commercial truck insurance and health insurance
- Meals and lodging during travel
- Professional services
- Broker fees
- Load board subscriptions
- Factoring expenses (if applicable)
What types of lease agreements are available for owner-operators?
When starting a trucking business, drivers may opt to buy their equipment outright, get a small business loan, or enter into a leasing agreement. Options include a lease, a lease-purchase, and a lease-on agreement.
Owner-operators pay a monthly fee to lease the vehicle. Depending on the terms, drivers are responsible for maintenance and upkeep and may be required to put a down payment at the start of the lease.
Also known as lease-to-own, this allows an owner-operator to pay a monthly fee to a carrier or fleet provider for use. At the end of the agreement, the driver can buy the truck, with a portion of the payments going towards the purchase price.
The owner-operator already owns the truck and leases the rig to a trucking company with a lease-on agreement.
Keep more of the money you earn by reducing expenses.
There are countless ways to save money. Regular maintenance, fuel reward programs, shopping around for the most affordable insurance, and protecting your assets are just a few.
You can make a lot of money as an owner-operator, and being your own boss brings a lot of freedom. But you also have to manage yourself to make sure you maximize your time, make the most money possible, and reduce your expenses to increase your salary. Be sure you are running on time, that you and your truck are reliable, and that your equipment can get cargo safely to its destination. In the end, it’s your job to pay your salary. Make sure you’re getting the money you deserve.
Founded in 1995, Truckstop.com built the internet’s first digital load board to address the challenges carriers faced in finding loads. Today, Truckstop.com is one of the largest and most trusted brands in the freight transportation industry, connecting tens of thousands of carriers and brokers with technology solutions to manage the entire freight lifecycle.
Truckstop.com solutions include freight matching, marketplace rates, partner screening, monitoring tools, transportation management systems (TMS), and integration with most major industry software partners’ complete payment solutions.
Our product offering is continually expanding to include tools to improve and manage the freight moving lifecycle.
Ready to become an owner-operator?
There are two types of professional truck drivers out on the road: company drivers and owner-operator truck drivers. If you’re interested in getting started, Truckstop.com can help you take the first steps in getting your trucking authority. Request a demo, and let us show you how.