So you are down in the dumps about your crummy job at your neighborhood Wal-Mart or McDonald's, take heart, some people have it even worse. I am not talking about the 3rd world sweatshops, meatpacking plants or even Migrant Farmworkers, but jobs that people are doing all around us in the cities and suburbs of the good ole USA. At first glance, some of these jobs seem to pay fairly well, but the hidden costs of pursuing these lines of work eventually drive many people from them within months. Often the job leaves them in worse shape financially than when they started, no matter how hard they worked. This is because people are attracted by vague and inflated claims of the income that can be made while the long term costs of pursuing the particular line of work are understated or left unstated. People just starting out in the work world are most likely to fall for these jobs, needing quick cash and not being experienced in the true costs and risks of certain jobs. This happened to me when I was younger, working hard but saving nothing and having little to show for it.

There are two principal characteristics of these types of jobs, which should send up a red flag to anyone considering them. The first is that the employee is not paid or even guaranteed a set hourly or weekly wage, but is instead paid by piecework or straight commission. The second is that the employee must use his own vehicle without substantial mileage reimbursement. This is a great deal for the boss, as he is insulated from the major expense and risk of operating a vehicle, and from the expense of carrying the full salary of an employee when business is slow. Insulated from these risks and burdens, the business owner will often take on all the marginally profitable business as he can find, as long as he can find employees willing to do the work. True vehicle operating costs are much higher in the long run than in the short run, a fact that does not dawn on many people until their car breaks down, and they find they can't afford to repair or replace it.

A few words about Automobile operating Costs

In my experience, after about 700,000 miles of driving in 27 years, the bare minimum long term cost of owning and operating a vehicle in the US is about 0.25 USD per mile (2006). If you take a job that requires a lot of driving, say 30,000 miles per year, figure on $7,000 per year in automotive expenses. This is for a low cost and reliable vehicle, such as a Japanese Econobox or mini pickup. A mid size V6 Sedan or minivan will cost a bit more, and a mid size or larger SUV or luxury car can have double or even triple the operating costs of an Econobox or mini pickup. This includes the cost of not only gas and routine maintenance, but also depreciation, major repairs, accidents, and insurance.

Here is how expenses seem to break down, based on 30,000 miles per year in a typical suburban setting.:

Depreciation: A new (cheap) $10,000 vehicle depreciated over a lifetime of 200,000 miles is 5 cents a mile. You might have decent luck with a cheap beater, but count on frequent repairs.

Gas: Figure 10 to 20 cents per mile. 30 mpg at $3.00 per gallon is the best you can expect in mixed driving, less for a lot of short trips or a bigger vehicle.

Routine repairs: Figure 3 to 5 cents a mile, especially once a vehicle hits 100,000 miles. This will be for things like tires, brakes, oil changes, and the like. This assumes you drive in a sane manner, you spend your repair dollars wisely, and can do some of your own work.

Major Repairs:

If you keep a car past 100,000 miles, you should at least be prepared for at least one major repair before it hits 200,000 miles, and probably several intermediate level repairs. Major Repairs would include major engine or transmission work, or accident repairs. Intermediate repairs include things such as alternators, water pumps, suspension work, radiators, emission controls and exhaust systems. Figure at least $1,000 to $2,500 for a major repair, such as installing a junkyard engine or transmission, and several hundred bucks each for things like exhaust systems, suspension work, and alternators or starters.


Insurance is usually a fairly fixed cost, but if you are racking up a thousand miles a week as an urban courier while having your vehicle insured for driving to the local high school, you had better hope your insurance company doesn't find out. Count on at least a grand a year, much more if you are young or accident prone. The more you drive, particularly in congested urban and suburban traffic, the more likely you are to have an accident which will cause an increase in your premiums. Don't run without insurance either, even if it is legal to do so.


A wild card in the deck of the game of life, but even the best drivers will get hit every once in a while, or suffer a lapse and cause an accident themselves. Whether you are at fault or not, it will cost you at least $500, possibly a lot more even if you have insurance. Figure the cost of towing, getting a rental, days off from work to deal with the mess etc, in addition to deductibles and other costs. Figure on at least one incident of some type every 100,000 miles or so. In an urban area such as Boston figure on more frequent accidents.

Other Costs:

In addition to accidents, fines and penalties for inadvertent or forced violations of traffic laws and parking regulations can add up to major expenses. Speed cameras and red light cameras are often set up to maximize revenue, and the (mostly) innocent motorist can be caught off guard by being trapped in fast moving traffic, or flashed running a red light with a very short yellow which allows too little time to make a safe stop. Parking in urban areas often involves taking calculated risks weighing the risk of a ticket parking in a loading zone, near a hydrant or bus stop versus spending a significant amount of time and money to find a legal spot several blocks away to make a 5 minute delivery. The cost of the occasional ticket becomes a cost of doing business, but should not be ignored.

Jobs to be Skeptical of

Commissioned Sales

Commissioned sales jobs are probably the most familiar to people as jobs that by their very nature are risky. A person considering a sales job must not only consider if he has the personal characteristics to be a good salesperson, but whether or not his prospective employer has a viable and salable product. Even in proven businesses, senior level salespeople are in a position to scoop up the best leads, and throw the rest to the rookies. Here is a personal example: A few years ago, I was looking to relocate to a new city, and had contacted one of the larger Realtors in the area for a tour. I met the agency's owner, who quickly shuffled me off to a young fellow who she handed a stack of about a half a dozen listings. My escort was a nice young man, but I could tell that the real estate business wasn't treating him very well. In the course of our day's travel looking at overpriced 30 year old houses 40 miles from work, I found out that his 15 year old car, which was threatening to overheat on a cool rainy day was borrowed from a relative, and that he was sleeping on a friend's couch. The move didn't go through, and I am sure the young man had to eat the cost of driving me around all day.

All that being said, if you have what it takes to succeed, it is possible to make a good living doing commission sales work. Part of the secret is the ability to separate the Hondas from the Yugos, and not waste your time trying to sell stuff that people don't want.

Parcel or Courier Service Jobs:

In the want ads every week are jobs for pizza delivery, courier service, and even hazardous waste transportation. Yes, these jobs advertise income up to several times the minimum wage. The reason why these companies are constantly advertising for help is that they fail to tell you a few minor, but critical points. First is that those wages are what their top producers make on a good day, not what the average guy will do on an average day. Secondly, they won't tell you how much you will actually drive your vehicle on company business. Couriers which deliver documents to businesses often rack up 50,000 miles per year on their vehicles or more, and risk parking tickets, speed cameras and other hazards of urban driving on a daily basis. Either you are constantly buying new vehicles, or you are spending most of your spare time and money keeping the old one running if you do this for very long. People who can make a long-term living out of this type of job are almost always pretty good shade tree mechanics, who can fix up an old junker, and have good connections for buying used vehicles they can fix up on the cheap.

Construction Subcontractor:

Skilled tradespeople, such as plumbers, electricians, and skilled carpenters can make a very good living at their selected trades, despite the burdens of having to deal with the whole driving thing and often unsteady work. The same can't be said for laborers, and less skilled trades such as roofing, painting, drywall, and landscaping. Price competition for these services is often intense, and many of the businesses are small fly by night operations which don't carry proper insurance for their employees. Many of these jobs, such as roofing, entail a significant risk of on the job injury. I heard recently that workmen's compensation insurance for a roofer costs over $3.00 per hour per employee. Painters often have to deal with exposure to hazardous chemicals such as organic solvents, lead, and asbestos particularly in renovation work.

Lower Level Field Service:

This includes a wide variety of semi-skilled mechanical assembly, repair, and installation jobs. Almost all of them require you to drive your own vehicle on service calls. A desktop copier service job I applied for in 1987 paid $7.00 an hour, and you had to work (park) downtown at a cost of $10.00 a day and lug a 40 pound tool case around. This immediately made a $7.00 job worth about $5.50. I also checked out the wonderful world of the cable guy, and did a stint assembling bicycles and gas grills. Both of these jobs featured extensive unreimbursed use of my vehicle on company business, poor working conditions, and piecework rates that were so low you had to work 12 to 14 hours a day to survive.

Protecting Yourself

There is no shortage of employers willing to use your vehicle for their purposes, especially when you foot the bill. If you are considering a job that requires significant on the job travel with your personal vehicle, especially working on commission or piecework, make sure you are being adequately compensated for its use, either by a decent mileage allowance or a pay rate that makes it worth your while. Try to get a realistic feel for the amount of driving required. Asking the question directly may make your prospective boss uncomfortable and evasive. Instead, try asking about the account base and how they are to work with, a typical day on the job, and the range of the territory show the interviewer that you are sharp and interested in the job rather than doing a 60 minutes interview. You can mentally do the math to figure out if the numbers work. If you take the job, try and glean from your coworkers early on a realistic idea of income prospects, not just what the boss says is possible. See how your immediate boss is getting along. If he lives in a rundown apartment and has trouble paying his bills, this is a good indicator that the job's prospects are not particularly bright. If doing piecework, try and figure out early how quickly it will take to come up the learning curve, and where you will likely top out. Most successful pieceworkers show an aptitude for the work quickly, if you don't see this happening, the job might not be for you. If the numbers don't work, it might be best to move on immediately, before you get trapped in a job that will drive you to the poorhouse.

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