I'm a professional dog musher. Here's how I budget

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I'm a professional dog musher. Here's how I budget

Aliy Zirkle has been racing sled dogs professionally for 22 years, and making a full-time living at it for the past decade. The 49-year-old was the first woman ever to win the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, and consistently finishes in the top 10 (including three second-place spots) in the world-famous Iditarod sled dog race.

Zirkle and her husband, who’s also a professional musher, care for 35 dogs at their business, SP Kennel in Two Rivers, Alaska, a small town where sled dogs outnumber humans four to one. We asked her how she budgets.

What makes budgeting different for a dog musher?

The money can be good if you’re among the top finishers. Over the years Zirkle has earned more than $460,000 from the Iditarod, and the paychecks from her three Yukon Quest finishes totaled $42,000.

Most of SP Kennel’s funding comes from race winnings, although sponsors may provide things like veterinary care and racing equipment. Or cash: Mushing enthusiasts will pay from $25 to $500 annually to join the “Dog Fan Club” or sponsor a particular pooch.

However, there are no guarantees that mushers will earn much – or anything – if something goes wrong. Extreme weather, rough trails, injuries to dogs (or their owners) can leave a racer quite literally out in the cold, financially speaking.

Zirkle budgets for a year at a time. She knows what it will cost to run SP Kennel for 12 months in terms of dog food, racing gear, vet bills, transportation costs and race entry fees. If she doesn’t have that amount in the kennel fund by the end of October, then she adjusts the coming year’s goals. For example, they might decide not to breed a litter of puppies or to purchase new gear.

Because mushers train and race from November through April, there is no time for a day job. “We don’t make money in the winter. We spend it,” Zirkle says. In the past she took summer gigs, but now concentrates on the kennel.

What are the costs of becoming a dog musher?

That depends. Someone who owns property in a reliably snowy and musher-friendly area is already way ahead of the game. (Hint: Your neighbors might not care for the sound of dozens of dogs howling at the moon.)

It also helps to know mushers who will sell you their second-string dogs or unneeded sleds and other gear, so that you can learn the ins and outs of the sport before trading up. Some wannabe mushers take on unpaid apprenticeships with established kennels, to soak up information from experienced racers.

But if you don’t have land, dogs, sleds or cold-weather gear, it takes a lot of cash to get set up. There’s also the need to build or buy dozens of doghouses and provide food and veterinary care for the animals. (To say nothing of picking up several dozen dogs’ worth of poop every day.)

According to Zirkle, someone starting from scratch with a three-year plan of running the Iditarod could spend up to $300,000 during that time frame. Because SP Kennel is well-established, the annual cost averages $700 to $1,000 per dog per year.

What tools do you use to budget?

Back in the day, Zirkle used pen and paper. After years of knowing how much it takes to run SP Kennel, budgeting is fairly rote – and still fairly old-school. Although she now uses spreadsheets, she admits that most of the budget is “in my head.” (Use our template to create your own budget.)

What kind of debt do you have?

Zirkle has no debt at all. Almost 20 years ago she bought 10 acres and built a home with a combination of sweat equity, a loan from her parents (since paid back) and the Yukon Quest winnings.

A reliable truck with “dog boxes” in the back is essential, but the couple pays cash when a new vehicle is needed. About the only luxury they have is a “really nice coffee maker” – also essential in a region where winter temperatures drop to 40 or 50 degrees below zero.

The musher says she would “reduce expenses” before taking on obligations she couldn’t pay for in cash.

What kind of insurance do you have?

Zirkle and her husband have high-deductible health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Their premiums are high, she says, due to their ages and the fact that insurance in Alaska costs a lot. (Health care costs in the state are so high that insurance companies sometimes fly patients to Seattle for treatment.)

The couple has homeowners insurance for their property and, for a while, recreation and tour insurance to protect them from liability when they ran dog mushing trips for tourists.

Are you a spender or a saver?

Back when she was a part-time musher, Zirkle followed a basic routine: “Work really hard from May until Oct. 1, make as much money as possible and then put it all away.”

Although she and her husband no longer work at day jobs, their attitude is the same: Earn as much as possible from racing and sponsorships, and bank it for a rainy snowy day. Since they can’t count on consistently high earnings, they don’t spend money unnecessarily.

“We don’t have a new TV. We’ve had our couch for 12 years. My bed is 20 years old,” Zirkle says. “I’m a saver, and so is my husband, which is very convenient.”

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Image: Phillip Blackowl