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So you’re a counselor on the road, huh? You’re making big bucks, but you don’t do it for the money.

You rep to see the joy (dread) in students’ faces as they contemplate the college admissions process.

You rep to feel the rush of a rental car with no additional coverage.

You rep for the hotel rewards and the possibility of two check-in cookies.

Let’s be honest. You rep for that per diem.

The tradition of per diem started in the late 900s as a way for royal overlords to pay their long ship oarsmen. The oarsmen rowed for glory, prestige and a small daily wage known as perdag. Just kidding, I have no idea how or why per diem started but I’ve been watching a lot of Game of Thrones so I’m feeling inspired.

While I may not be knowledgeable about its origins, I’m a battle-hardened fiend when it comes to making the most out of that sweet per diem bullion.

Different offices have different standards for how per diem is awarded. Some will allow a cash advance; others pay you after you’ve traveled to the ends of the earth to rep your fine institution. Some offices will grant per diem only if you stay overnight, others will throw money at you for a short and lovely day-trip to the coast.

It doesn’t really matter how per diem comes to you, what matters is how you pool those resources against the debts you incur during travel. Ultimately, during the travel season dance you want to come out ahead, right? Revenue – expenses = profit. If you keep your expenses less than your per diem, you win.

Step 1: Find free or cheap food
Does your hotel have free breakfast? Eat a lot of it. If you’re lucky you’ll be full through lunch and then you’re just on the hook for dinner. Were you just offered food during your visit? Never turn it down. Never. Nature Valley bars never tasted so good.

How many apples did you grab from the front-desk bowl? One? What is this, amateur hour? If it’s free and it’s food, grab it!

Can’t find free food? Head to the grocery store and stock up on healthy, cheap snacks for between visits/fairs/wisdom transferring sessions. I’m talking nuts, fruit, and dry goods like oatmeal, granola and decent crackers – generic store brand of course. You can easily get enough sustenance for a couple days with less than $20. Better yet, buy snacks in bulk to take with you ahead of your trip. Costco for the win.

Go to Subway and get a $5 footlong and eat half for lunch. Combined with those snacks you’ve got a decent meal. Eat the other half of your sandwich and more snacks for dinner and you’re set. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve powered down in my hotel room at the end of the day and said to myself, “I just spent less than $10 to eat all day.” Then I have that second cookie I asked for at the front desk and sleep like a baby.

Step 2: Find money
I’m serious. One time on a glorious fall afternoon I found $5 on the ground. I was nearly reduced to tears. You see, I’d just spent $5 at Subway for lunch. The universe conspired to gift me with free food all day.

If you see loose change on the ground throughout travel season, pick it up. Better yet, collect spare change throughout the year and cash it in just before travel season. You’ve just acquired a slush fund of free cash to spend. You didn’t have to work for it, but it’s sure going to work for you.

Frankie Ballard said, “Pennies make dimes and dimes make dollars.” All of you know what dollars make, right? McChicken sandwiches.

Right on, Frankie. Right on.

Step 3: Profit
You’re done with your trip. What did you spend? What did you earn? Did you come out ahead? Or did you blow it all at fancy restaurants? You were a road warrior, not royalty. But, your frugal nature has now rewarded you and your bank account.

When you’re off the road and are finished with admiring your per diem witchcraft, settle your accounts. Submit paperwork and do some simple addition/subtraction. If you’re like me, you’re already filling out that expense report before you’ve turned off your out-of-office message.

There’s nothing sweeter than finding out you’ve been paid to be on the road thrice over. Once with the smiling faces of the students and counselors you’ve met, once with your normal paycheck, and once with per diem. Sweet, sweet per diem.

By Chris Helvajian