How Much Do Owner-Operators Make?

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How Much Do Owner-Operators Make?

How Much Do Owner-Operators Make?

On average, owner-operators gross $184,000. Sounds like a sweet gig, right? But before you quit your day job in the office or as a company driver we should get a few things clear here. For one, that’s gross pay - meaning that’s what you make before you have to pay for fuel, truck payments/lease, food and lodging, and all the other expenses that come with trucking. Another thing to keep in mind is that this is just the average gross salary. Sure, there’s a chance you’ll be making more than the average (eventually), but there’s a good chance you might be making less, especially if you’re just starting out.

The real answer to the question:  “how much can I make as an owner-operator?”, is simply... it depends. In this article, we’re going to break down all of the different factors that determine how much you can make as an owner-operator.

Where Does the Money Come From?

As an owner-operator, there are two different ways you can get paid. One way is by being fully independent. This means that you’re a freelance driver and you can haul loads for anyone at any given time. The other method of income is by leasing yourself to a carrier. This means that you dedicate yourself and your equipment to the carrier and haul exclusively for them. Where you get your loads and income will depend on your experience and your personal preference. Let’s explore the two different means of being employed as an owner-operator.
What Does it Mean to Lease Your Truck to a Carrier Leasing your truck to a carrier means that you are lending your truck and your services exclusively to a carrier to haul their freight. In this scenario, you don’t need to have your own trucking authority or your own insurance. If you already have your own authority and insurance, you just simply take a larger percentage of the pay. There are a lot of benefits to leasing your truck to a carrier. For example:

  • You don’t need to find and negotiate loads, the carrier will take care of that. This means that you will almost always have steady work and not have to worry about hunting a load down to generate income.
  • There’s far less work to be done on the business side of trucking. The carrier will take care of the paperwork so you can just focus on driving.
  • You don’t have to pay insurance (sort of). The carrier will take a percentage of your pay to provide insurance so it’s about the same as buying your own insurance. The only benefit is that the carrier will take care of it so you won’t have to.
  • The carriers will provide maintenance at their shop.
  • Up front set up expenses can be spread out over time so you don’t take a huge financial hit when you start out.

The downside of leasing on to a carrier is that ultimately you’re taking home less money. However, that’s a small price truckers are happy to pay not to worry about taking care of paperwork, bookkeeping, insurance, finding loads, etc. If you’re still relatively new to trucking, leasing is a better alternative than going fully independent. 

What are the benefits of getting your own trucking authority?

Becoming an independent owner-operator with your own authority means that you’re solely responsible for running your trucking operation. This means that everything falls on your shoulders, including: finding loads, getting liability insurance, taking care of the paperwork, and doing the bookkeeping. It’s definitely more work, but the upside to all of this is that there are no carriers taking the percentage of the cut;the majority of the money is going to you. Also, you’re not tied to a single carrier so you can accept freight from anyone and everyone. If you’re looking to start making serious money, going fully independent is the way to go. With that said, there are many barriers to being successful as an independent owner-operator. They  include:

  • Finding your own loads. Many successful owner-operators have long-term relationships with shippers that provide consistent loads. Without this, you’re always going to be hunting down your next load and you may struggle with cash flow if work is inconsistent. In these cases, you will need to rely on brokers or a dispatcher to find work. This will eat away at your profit and increase overhead.
  • You’re 100% responsible for running the business side of your operation. This means everything from bookkeeping, creating a compliance policy, permitting, and more is on you. Driving a truck is one thing, running a business is a whole other animal. You have to excel at both.

How Much Should I Charge for Freight?

If you decide to go the fully independent route, you’ll be the one to decide how much you charge for hauling freight. How much you charge for freight all depends on you, however, generally truckers charge anywhere from $1.50 to $3.00 per mile on average. How you decide this will depend on your cost-per-profit and balancing the profit you generate and how competitive you want to be with your pricing. First step is to figure out what your cost per mile is.

How to Calculate cost per mile
cost per mile is the total cost of what it takes to keep your trucking operation going. You will need to know what your cost per mile is so you can determine how much money you will need to generate from hauling freight to break even and make a profit. There are a lot of factors to be considered when figuring out your cost per mile, but ultimately it comes down to a simple math equation. Here is how to calculate your cost per mile:

  1. Determine how many miles you will drive in one year: This is necessary to understand your cost per mile. Determining the amount of miles you drive in a year is easy to estimate if you have loads and routes set up. However, if you’re not sure how many miles you’ll drive you can generally expect 100,000 miles per year. Using a more accurate number is better so do your best to anticipate how much you’ll be driving if you can. Also, keep in mind that your estimates should include total miles - this means the miles you will drive whether you’re getting paid or not (deadheading).
  2. Calculate all your fixed expenses: Fixed expenses are all the things you have to pay for that do not fluctuate in costs. In other words, fixed expenses are costs that aren’t dependent on the miles you drive. For example, fixed costs include things like insurance, license plate fees, permit fees, and even things like cell phone bills for your company. To calculate the fixed costs, add up the total cost of all of these expenses. If you have a monthly payment, add up all of the payments you’ll make in one year. If you have one time expenses such as licensing or permitting fees, add that to the total as well. Once everything is totaled up, simply divide by 12 to figure out your monthly fixed expenses.
  3. Calculate your variable expenses: Your variable expenses are costs that changes depending on how much you’re driving. These things include things like fuel and truck maintenance, but it also includes things like food, lodging, tolls, broker fees, factoring fees, or anything else that is determined by the amount you drive. To calculate your variable expenses, you’ll need to estimate these costs based on the amount of driving you will do. For example, fuel prices range from $0.30 per mile to $0.50 per mile so on the high end you can expect to pay up to $50,000 per year on fuel alone.
    1. Doing the calculation: Once you have your monthly fixed and variable costs, all you need to do is divide each by your monthly estimated miles:
                                                   cost per mile = Monthly Fixed Cost Monthly Miles + Monthly Variable Costs Monthly Miles 
                                                                                         Monthly Miles                                          Monthly Miles
      What you’re left with is the cost per mile to run your operation. This is what you’ll need to earn per mile minimum to break even. In order to make a profit, you will need to source loads that will pay more per mile than your cost per mile.
  4. Adding Profit Margins: your profit margins, or driver pay, is what you’re paid once all your fixed and variable costs are paid off. The amount margin you need is unique to your situation. Think about your non-trucking expenses such as mortgages, rent, car payments, and so on. Your profits will need to cover your everyday life expenses and have enough left over to save. With this in mind, when a job comes your way, look at what they’re offering, the distance you’ll need to drive, and figure out what they’re paying per mile to see if it covers your operational costs with enough left over to cover your expenses.

    Lastly, one thing to keep in mind is that not every load may meet your desired profit margins. There may be certain loads that will come your way with thin margins and it may be tempting to hold out for a load with higher margins. However, it’s better to take a lower margin job than wait 3 days for something better to come through. Point is: keep moving.  There may be days when you’re making huge margins on a load and days when you’re barely above break even. The important thing is that you’re averaging your ideal rate over time.

How Do I Make More?

Making more is always the goal of owner-operators. So how do you make more from trucking? A lot of this comes down to you and optimizing your operation. Here are a few things to consider.

How to Decrease Your Variable Costs


  • Be more fuel efficient - Change your driving habits to save fuel. Things like accelerating more gradually, maintaining a steady speed, anticipating traffic so you’re not accelerating only to brake a few seconds later, and other methods can help save fuel in the long run. There are also maintenance to keep fuel efficiency high such as keeping up with oil changes and monitoring tire pressure which will add up. You may also want to look into aerodynamic devices you can add to your truck such as side skirts and deflectors that will reduce drag and improve fuel efficiency.
  • Do preventative maintenance - Unexpected breakdowns cost a lot of money and will eat into your profits. Staying on top of maintenance will help prevent small problems from becoming bigger ones and will ensure that your truck stays on the road where it can generate revenue, not in the shop. Also, make wise decisions when buying parts. There are definitely truck parts you do not want to cheap out on. On the flip side, you don’t have to buy the top shelf parts for everything. Learn what maintenance or parts are better to invest more into and areas where you can save.
  • Decrease reliance on brokers and dispatchers - Freight brokers, load boards, and dispatchers are great ways to find freight especially when you’re starting out. However, the tradeoff is that they take a percentage of the pay for the load they find. Although it may be difficult to not use them completely, you should make efforts to decrease your dependency on them. Create relationships with shippers so you can get their loads without the middle man whenever possible.
  • Plan out food and lodging - Of course you need to eat and find a place to rest for the night when you’re on the road, but there are ways to cut back on costs here. For food, try to make your own food at home and bring it with you instead of eating out for every meal. For lodging, book ahead of time and shop around for the best rates.

Decreasing Your Fixed Costs

Decreasing fixed costs is more difficult. However, there are a few things you can do to decrease your fixed costs.

  • Truck financing - If you already bought a truck this might be hard to adjust, but if you haven’t yet, we highly recommend doing a lot of research into purchasing a truck first. There are many options to financing a truck that can help decrease your monthly fixed costs. If you have already bought a truck, you can try negotiating your monthly payments down but typically this is very difficult to do, if not impossible.
  • Shop around for the best insurance - As a first year owner-operator, you’re going to pay a lot for insurance. However, that shouldn’t stop you from shopping around to find the best rates. As you gain experience and if you stay accident free, you’ll see these rates go down over time. Before it’s time to renew, shop around and see if you can find better rates.


As you can tell, it’s not easy to calculate exactly what you’ll be making as a owner-operator because there are so many variables involved. If you’re starting out on your own, there will be times when finances are tight and you’ll be fighting to just break even. As long as you plan ahead, anticipate the rough times, and push through, things will get better.

When you do face tough times and you’re strapped for cash, turn to TBS Factoring to help your cash flow issues. Turn unpaid invoices into instant cash so you can keep both your business and your life moving forward. Learn more about our freight factoring services today.

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