5 things I learned about managing my money from covering the oil bust

A reporter relays tips from her time in the field.

 

This essay originally appeared at InsideEnergy

Call it a bust. A correction. A slowdown. A time to catch our breath. Whatever your euphemism, the numbers don't lie: the price of oil is down, way down, and that's had a huge impact on North Dakota, the country's number two oil-producing state.

Emily Guerin
It's also had a big impact on me. I moved to North Dakota in June 2014 — pretty much the beginning of the end of the boom, although I didn't know it at the time. Back then, North Dakota was the last bastion of the American Dream, a place where anyone with a high school education and a willingness to work could get a good-paying job. It felt like everyone was hiring, everyone was optimistic, everyone was hustling.

Almost immediately after I arrived, things started to change. There were signs that summer that American oil companies had gotten too good at producing oil from places like the Bakken, creating a glut. Prices started sliding on their own, but then in November, OPEC decided not to cut back on production, meaning the world market would continue to be saturated with oil. Prices fell faster after that. As one oilman told me right around the OPEC decision, "we’re not slitting our wrists, but it’s terrible.”

Over the past year, I've been asking everyone from truck drivers to RV park owners to school superintendents about how the falling price of oil has affected them. And along the way, I've gotten a lot of unexpected financial advice. So I'm passing those tips along to you, dear readers. Here are five things I've learned about managing my money from reporting on the oil bust.

1. Don't adopt an expensive lifestyle that traps you in a job you hate.

Last week I met a truck driver who had been hauling crude oil for four years. That's three years longer than he intended. Why did he stick around? Because he and his wife got giddy with his six-figure salary and bought a new truck, a boat and other shiny things. Suddenly, he needed that income to make the payments on all those new toys. It's called "the golden handcuffs," and it happens to a lot of oilfield workers, as my colleague Leigh Paterson has reported. If you don't like your job all that much but it pays you well, don't get accustomed to an expensive lifestyle. It will make it harder to quit.

Taco bell sign: Bismarck, North Dakota. November, 2014. I see a lot fewer hiring signs these days.
Emily Guerin

2. Don't go into debt if your income varies wildly or your industry is unstable.

Let's stick with our trucker for a minute. When oil prices started falling, the first thing this guy's company did was cut everyone's hours. That meant no one was getting overtime anymore, which is how most oil workers make most of their money. Suddenly his income was cut nearly in half. Making those truck payments seems extra unlikely now.

So many people here have told me to avoid large debt loads, from real estate developers to people working for oil companies to small town mayors. It's practically a refrain in the oilfield, "Want to know who's screwed right now? Just look at who is in debt." So if you are working in an industry whose employment needs and overall health fluctuate wildly, whether it's based on a commodity price or because you're a freelancer or whatever, don't go into a lot of debt.

3. If you are in a job that's not ideal, don't lose track of why you are doing it. Know when it is time to leave.

I hear things like this from oilfield workers all the time. "I'm only staying here for 2 years ... I'm working this job until I pay off my medical debt ... I've re-done three rooms of the house and I have one more. When that's done, I'm going back home."

I think this is super smart, especially when you're doing a difficult job you may not like that much but that pays really well. If you're in it for the money alone, know exactly how much you need to hit your goal and then get out of there. Don't just work for the sake of working, be deliberate and know why you are sacrificing your quality of life and how much longer you intend to do that.

4. Diversify.

Last March, I interviewed the owner of a small oilfield services company. With oil prices down, his core business area — hauling things around the oilfield on demand, a subspecialty called "hot shot driving" — had started to slow, too. So he diversified. He got a bunch of power washers and put his drivers to work washing drilling rigs, which needed to be cleaned and stored since so many of them weren't being used to drill for oil anymore with the slowdown. Many of his drivers were also trained as welders, so when hot shot driving was slow he'd shift them to doing repair work. Smart.

5. If everything is collapsing around you, don't be afraid to completely change what you are doing.

Selfie: Sleeping in my car in October 2014 because all the hotel rooms were full while on a reporting trip in New Town, North Dakota. This doesn't happen anymore.
Emily Guerin

A lot of people in the Bakken did not start out as oilfield workers. I've met a Hewlett-Packard employee who lost his retirement savings in the recession and wound up hauling wastewater as a truck driver. I've met a logger from Oregon who fled the state after saw mills closed and ended up owning an RV park here. I've met a journalist who now works on a drilling rig. These people have taught me not to completely derive my identity and self-worth from my profession, and not to be afraid to reinvent myself if the situation calls for it. Which given the uncertain state of journalism in the 21st century, is probably a good lesson.

Emily Guerin is the North Dakota-based reporter for Inside Energy, a public media collaboration covering energy issues in Wyoming, Colorado and North Dakota. She's also a former High Country News correspondent.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -