Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Poor Pilot's Guide to Cheap Living

Congratulations! After years of working hard getting your ratings, flight instructing, and flying boxes, you finally got the magic call you'd been waiting for. You're now cruising the flight levels in comfort and style - and earning $19 per hour to do so. The money will improve once you upgrade, but unfortunately your company just lost a major contract to another regional that pays their newhires $18 per hour. Now you're running the numbers and they don't look good: you're facing a long period of low pay, your expenses are outstripping your $1500/month income, and your savings account from pre-aviation life is just about depleted.

Welcome to aviation, my friend. Many a pilot has been exactly where you are today. If you look at the senior captains of your company, you'll see behavioral patterns that betray their former life of poverty. The appetite for free crew meals, stealing newspapers from the departure lounge to avoid buying one, driving a 1987 Chevette to work: all signs of a learned cheapness forced upon every pilot who has been in this industry for long. Don't scoff at these guys - they are the standard you should aspire to! I've compiled some of the best tips on living miserly to accompany my last post about cheap eats on the road.

Homelessness: Not Just For Homeless People!
Think of how much you pay every month for that apartment of yours. It's probably your biggest expense, yet it sits empty a lot of the time while you're off on trips. Do you really need it? Sure, it's nice to have your own place, but if you're young and single it's often an unneccessary expense. There are lots of warm, cozy overpasses and cardboard boxes to be had in your city. OK, I won't go that far, we should establish safe and clean as minimum criteria in our quest for the cheapest lodging. But there are many ways you can get a roof over your head without shelling out 2/3 of your monthly earnings.

I actually did this when I was flight instructing in LA; I literally lived on somebody's couch. In my case, it was an apartment shared at any one time by 6 to 8 other flight instructors and full-time students. I paid $100/mo to sleep on the couch while everyone else was paying $200 for a mattress. Suckers! If you can find an apartment full of similarly broke people, you can probably talk them into a deal like this. The local flight school is a great place to start.

Crashpadding It
Most airline domiciles have crashpads nearby. A crashpad is an apartment, condo, or house that is used by commuting crewmembers when they need to spend a night at their base due to an early showtime or late release time. They pay a small amount, often under $100/month, to use a bed whenever they're in town. There are often more renters than there are beds, and people are always coming and going. Many crashpads will also rent to a limited number of full-timers, usually for $200-300/month. I did this during my internship in St. Louis. You get to meet lots of cool people and there's always something interesting going on. The bad news is that on an exceptionally full night, you may come home to find all beds taken. See: couch-surfing!

Look for crashpad listings on your local crew room bulletin board. If you're a flight instructor or box hauler, crashpads may still take you, but you'll need an airline pilot buddy to find some listings for you, as they're not typically seen outside crew rooms.

Renting a Room
An alternative to crashpadding is to rent a room from a normal person (ie non-aviation). It won't be as cheap as crashpadding, but it won't be as crazy either. You'll probably pay half or less of what you're paying for an apartment now. Check your Sunday classified listings.

Living in a van down by the river!
I'm not kidding; this is my serious face. I've known pilots that literally live out of their vehicles. One was a flight instructor in Grand Forks; another was a full-time student in LA; the other was a pilot for Ameriflight in Burbank. What all of these guys had in common was owning spacious vans or RVs and having facilities (showers, kitchens, lounges) available to them nearby. I'm not sure how the Grand Forks guy survived the winters...I think he may have actually slept in the flight instructor lounge and just used his VW van as a wardrobe/locker. It's more extreme than I'd go, but I can't help but admire the guy.

Get Some Roomies
So maybe you want to keep your current apartment, or you own your place. Either way, you can help make the rent/mortgage payments by bringing in a few roomies. When my friend Kelly was hired as a mechanic at my airline, she rented our basement the first few months she was out here, and it was really ideal. Renting out rooms does work best when you know or work with the people who move in. That's not to say that strangers are neccessarily trouble, but you just don't know, and it's a different situation than renting from strangers because now you're responsible for the place. I'd suggest posting a flying on the crew room or flight school bulletin board.

An alternative is to set up your place as a crashpad. If you're fairly social and don't mind people always coming and going, you could get enough crashpadders to pay your rent or mortgage. You will have to spend some money at the outset for additional furniture, particularly beds and mattresses.

Normally I advise pilots against commuting. It adds a whole lot of hassle to your life and sucks away your free time. But, if you're based in a very expensive locale, moving to a cheaper town may justify commuting. Here's the key: there should be lots of flights between the two towns, either on your carrier or one that has a jumpseat agreement with you.

Keep in mind that you'll still be spending some nights in your base city due to early showtimes and late releases. Consider whether you'll need a crashpad or hotel, and factor that expense into your decision. If you have friends or family in your base city, see whether you'd be able to crash on their couch a few times a month. I know some commuters that use our crew lounges as crashpads. Comfortable recliners, cable TV, free vending machine food - what more could a pilot want?

Bid the Worst Lines
Some people value their free time. I certainly do. Others contend that free time is simply when you're spending money instead of making it. Every airline has some really nasty lines that go super junior every month, sometimes even below reserve lines. These typically have the worst days off and trips with a ton of flying. Between the extra hours and all the tax-free per diem, you can make a lot of money. Of course, living on the road all the time can be expensive, but it won't be if you read my last post. Also, some of the gnarlier lodging arrangements (like sleeping on couches or crashpadding) are a lot more bearable if you're not home very often.

Travel a lot
This one is pretty counter-intuitive. Most people think that traveling is a luxury that adds expense. If you're smart, though, it can actually save you money. Traveling as a jumpseater is typically free, and on major airlines you may get free food as well. I've known pilots who jumpseated for the food alone. I've even heard of pilots jumpseating on transcontinental redeyes to avoid paying for a hotel, then turning right back around on the westbound morning flight for free breakfast. When I was an intern at TWA, I once jumpseated to Miami in the morning (free breakfast!), took the bus to South Beach ($2!), sat on the beach all day (free!), and jumpseated back at night (free dinner!). A widespread network of friends can make traveling even cheaper.

Mooch off friends and family
If you have enough friends and family scattered all over the place, you could spend so little time at your base that you can just get a crashpad at the "commuter's rate" (often under $100). Your grandparents in Florida, your high school buddy in New York, your aunt in Texas, your long lost pen-pal in Nebraska, and your sister's boyfriend's second cousin in Missoula would all love to have you visit and sleep on their couch and eat their food.

Ditch the Car (or trade down)
Like the apartment, your car sits unused a good portion of the time. Between aquisition costs, insurance, fuel, and maintenance, it can be a major expense. Do you really need it? The U.S. is nowhere near Europe in efficient mass transportation, but it's becoming increasingly common to see airports served by light rail connections. Would you be able to ride the train to work? Many airline workers get very cheap monthly or annual passes. Here in Portland, airline employees can ride the MAX for $40/year. Think how much that'd save over a car.

There are many cities where this just isn't practical (I can hear the Angelenos laughing!). But I'll bet you could save some serious money by trading down to a beater. Sitting in the weather in employee lots for four days at a time is hell on cars anyways, you don't want to do that to a nice car. I drove a 1994 Buick LeSabre for years. Everybody laughed at the "Grandpamobile," but it drove nice, got good mileage, had low insurance rates, and was easy to work on myself.

Final Cost-Slashing Suggestions
- Consider cutting entertainment items like cable TV and even internet access. Broadcast TV isn't that much worse than cable (it's all relative!) and you can get your daily Blogging at FL250 fix by mooching off an unsecured wifi hotspot. You could also get internet access at the library (I hear you can check out books there for free, too).
- Salvation Army, Ebay, Craigslist, garage sales. One man's junk is a broke pilot's treasure.
- Find fun free stuff to do in your spare time. Examples: surfing, swimming, hiking, backcountry camping, snowshoeing, rollerblading, Code Pink rallies, clubbing baby seals, russian roullette, etc.
- Student loans can wait. The interest rates are low, particularly on federally subsidized loans, so defer, defer, defer. Even if you don't technically meet the deferment criteria, you can usually work out something with your lender. I mean, what are they gonna do to collect the loan, take your car? Not if you're driving that Chevette!


The key to surviving these early years is not to just tolerate poverty, but embrace it. Accept the fact that you're one broke dude/chick, and stop trying to live a lifestyle that pretends you're not. Make it your personal challenge to be as wretchedly cheap as any pilot that ever lived. Not only will you survive and prosper in your early years, but you'll be able to wear your cheapness as a badge of honor for the rest of your career. You'll proudly share your favorite cheapo tricks to new pilots, and the cycle will be complete.


John said...

Nice post! Here's a muscian's joke I adapted to aviation:

What do you call a freight dog without a girlfriend?


All the Hardways said...

I like the "Travel a lot" method the best! I must be whack, but I'm a big fan of airplane food, seriously! I flew alot of trans-cons as a kid so I'm used to the grub!

Your blog is full of great insights! Have you thought about getting your blog published? I'm sure it'll take up some of the free time which you're probably short on, however it might be able to subsidize your income or maybe even give it a huge boost!

ERJ Driver said...

thanks for the tips? love me some fl250. i am making the career move next month to full time cfi and eventually a nice regional rj seat. ill need this insight. keep it going.

Sam said...

Haha, I'll have to remember that one, John. It's so very true. My couch-surfing days were from when I was single; when Dawn and I were married, my standard of living magically improved! Let's hear it for sugar mommas and sugar daddies...

ATH - Published as in book form? Not sure who my target audience would be. The general public wouldn't understand it. The major airline pilots would scoff at it. The flight instructors couldn't afford it. Most regional pilots would only read it if somebody left it in a seatpocket.

I've thought about writing a book someday, and it may include essays I've posted here first (such as "Life and Death on AMF132" or "Freight Dog"). But for now I've been in aviation too short of a time to have a book's worth of interesting stories.

All the Hardways said...

I think you have lots of great content to publish your blog into book form and the editors/publishers would work with you on it so that every day people could understand all the pilot/airline lingo. There are lots of bored people like me who'll read about anything. I'm sure lots of people still have the wrong perspective on pilots living it up, making over $300k/year. Travelers who are waiting for connecting flights could pick up your book in one of them airport shops and other travelers will be curious to see what they're reading. Maybe local pilot shops could carry your book and have it give good insight into what it takes and what to really expect as a regional airline pilot. I know there is a flight attendant who already has a book out and another flight attendant is working on publishing a book...she the one who got fired for posting some questionable pictures while in uniform on her blog. Hey, you never know, your book could make some top 10 list and you'd become an instant celebrity! Regardless, keep up the great blogging and safe travels!

Steve said...

Amen. Although I have to say that when I was thinking of leaving flying all together I had a hard time finding any other job that paid more than 30k to start, without going back to school anyhow. Good tips for newbies though! At least information is more readily available now than ever before. It's certainly not just a job is it? Total lifestyle....

Anonymous said...

Great blog, & funny a nonpilot
with an earthbound job with great pay (80k)
but have always admired pilots for their willingness to sacrifice so much to pursue
their calling. Am living a pilot's life
vicariously through your blog!

Anonymous said...

When I was a (very) junior FO at the old Republic, I shared an apartment near KMKE with three other (very) junior FOs and we had a ball. We were broke but so was everyone else that we knew. BTW, I left a comment on your "Fisk the Flying Ads post." If I keep reading and commenting on your blog I may just have to get a blogger ID.

I'm back in MKE for Mother's Day and my Mom's birthday so I drove past the old place and knocked on the door...the guy that answered is a freight dog rooming with three other freight dogs!!!

Keep up the good work.

James said...

Congrats on getting to the regionals... I flew for a major UAX / DAL carrier until they went south financially, so I remember the crashpads and commuting vividly.
It's crucial to keep a positive attitude, and it looks like you have!
Although I'm happy in the IT industry now, I look back very fondly to the CRJ days.

Anonymous said...

Sir we salute you in your cheapness!

Here at London City Airport in the UK we have some of the highest living costs in the world combined with some pretty crappy wages. Both Aircrew and Ground Crew are addicted to free crew food, newspapers from the departure lounge and driving dodgey old bangers to work!

Anonymous said...

You could always try living at a homeless shelter. I knew a guy who was a master computer programmer and made several thousands of dollars per week eleven years ago who, despite his pay, intentionally decided to live in a transitional housing/homeless shelter in San Jose, California to save on the cost of living in San Jose. That same shelter had one electrical engineer living there even though he was making good money himself. It's all a matter of mindset. You had it dead on when you spoke of embracing one's poverty. Make a game out of it.

Also, another tip. Buy a rice cooker. It will save you lots of money so far as food goes. Go vegan too if you can.

Alecia @ Bang-Bang's Quest for Yay, Yum, and Yes said...

I'm very late, but thank you so much for this! I was a flight attendant in '07 and had to quit because I did EVERYTHING wrong financially and ran out of money. Barely two months out of training, I bid to go to Maui, HI, an extremely expensive base where I was doing island-hopping and accruing very little flight time and NO per diem. I was BROKE! Long story short, I quit, went home and got a "normal" job. But now that I've been invited to training with another airline, I'm definitely looking for ways to be frugal... awesome advice! Take care.

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Maura D said...

Hey Sam and other pilots/flight attendants! I am wanting to list a bedroom in my house as a crashpad for 1-2 people tops, its a great comfy place near PDX with hot tub, fireplace, garden, big yard, etc. Where do you recommend I list it? Or know anyone who come through PDX who would be interested? Thanks!

Maura D said...

P.S. it would be affordable:)

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