Written by: Jared Casazza, PT, DPT
I spent a total of 8 years in college (3 of which were in community college trying to decide my direction in life) which culminated in a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, earned in May of 2015. Even though I was very proud of this accomplishment and the incredible amount of work it took to achieve it, I knew that physical therapy was not something that I would spend the next 20-30 years of my life doing full time. I’ve had various interests throughout my life and knew myself well enough to know that eventually I would likely become bored with physical therapy like so many of my passions in the past.
You see, I get consumed with an area of interest for a period of time, before eventually becoming mostly disinterested once I feel that I’ve achieved a certain level of proficiency in the area. I seem to find something I like and throw myself into being the best that I can be in that area, which ultimately leads to me burning out with the pursuit. In my 30 years, this has happened with basketball, chess, video games, diet/nutrition, powerlifting/bodybuilding, and now to some degree physical therapy and finance. I still enjoy all of these things, but I no longer feel an intense urge to learn everything or be “the best” at them anymore like I did with all of them at one point or another in my life. At some juncture, the return on invested time and energy in any area of interest leads to a point of diminishing returns, and this is always where I seem to gradually disengage. At 30 years of age, I still don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, but I have accepted it as a part of my personality.
Knowing about this personality trait (flaw?), I was skeptical whether the time and money investment that is synonymous with 3 years of graduate school (after already completing 5 years of undergraduate work) would be worth it when I had no idea how long I would be passionate about the field. I ultimately decided that it was, and I am very happy with where I am now because of the choice. Although, I would be lying if I said I never questioned whether a DPT degree is worth it.
Student Loan Debt
Upon graduation in 2015, I had about $95,000 in student debt from grad school alone, and that included trying my best to be frugal by living at home and commuting to classes. Even though this is a massive sum, it is generally on the low end of the debt range of what many physical therapists graduate with. Terrified by this student debt, I became engrossed by the idea of increasing my income and decreasing my expenses to pay down the loans as quickly as possible.
After hundreds of hours of research and performing my own calculations and projections for the future, I ultimately decided that it would be in my best interest to pay the minimum on my loans while investing heavily in retirement and brokerage accounts. This has turned out to be a very good choice so far, with my student debt growing at an effective rate of about 3.2% per year while on the REPAYE plan, and my investment portfolio growing at a rate of around 9% since I started heavily investing (this was closer to 11% before the big drop in December 2018)… and this isn’t even accounting for the tax savings from utilizing the retirement accounts. This plan isn’t for everyone, of course, but I do think it should be a consideration for those trying to reach financial Independence as soon as possible with a lot of student debt.
As for financial independence, while researching what to do with my student loans in late 2014, I stumbled upon a couple of blogs talking about saving heavily and retiring early, and I was immediately sold. Once I knew the math behind achieving financial independence and calculated “my FI number,” I knew that was the goal I needed to reach as soon as possible. My main motivation for pursuing financial independence so aggressively was to have as many options as possible for the future in case my interests shifted again and I became passionate about something different and wanted to pursue that.
Traveling Physical Therapy
In my first year of physical therapy school, I researched the options and found that the easiest way to make the most money as a physical therapist, in order to reach my financial independence goal, is by taking travel contracts. In some cases a travel physical therapist can make twice as much or more when compared to a therapist taking a permanent full time job in one location, especially as a new grad.
Whitney, my significant other of over 5 years and also a physical therapist who graduated at the same time as me, also liked the idea of making extra money while going on adventures, moving to and working in new places around the country together. Without a doubt, this was one of the best decisions that either of us have ever made.
Living in a Camper
Finding affordable short term housing at each assignment location can be the biggest difficulty of being a travel therapist, and to combat that we saved our money and paid cash for a fifth wheel camper and truck to haul it after our first 6 months of working and saving aggressively. For the majority of our travel careers, we have lived and traveled in the camper. Whether or not we have come out ahead financially with this decision is still up for debate, but we did enjoy the simplicity of finding somewhere to live while traveling in the fifth wheel and also the consistency of our living arrangement. There have been many pros and cons to traveling in a fifth wheel, but overall we wouldn’t change our decision.
Maximizing My Income and Savings Rate
After having a goal of financial independence in my cross-hairs, I wasn’t content with just making more money as a traveling therapist, so I did everything feasible to minimize my expenses while simultaneously finding ways to make more money along the way. This led to working as many hours as my travel assignments would allow with hundreds of hours of overtime in total over three years, taking part time jobs when available, creating this blog (just as a hobby initially with hopes to eventually generate some income), and going a little overboard with credit card rewards.
In reality, I hustled so much and minimized my expenses to a point that I have been able to save 100% of my income earned from my regular 9-5 travel physical therapy jobs, and even extra on top of that some months. The first two years, I was able to live on just the money earned from credit card/bank account sign up bonus combined with overtime hours and part time work. The last year, to my surprise, the FifthWheelPT blog actually started consistently bringing in enough money to cover all of my living expenses most months.
After 3 years of living frugally and saving my entire full time paycheck as a travel therapist (each year with a savings rate of between 85-90% of my total income), combined with the investment returns I mentioned above, I officially “semi-retired” in July 2018 at 29 years old. I tracked my progress to financial independence with my monthly “Path to 4%” posts each month for the past 2.5 years along the way, and will continue to do so until I fully reach my “FI number.” Even though I haven’t fully reached that number yet, there were various reasons that I went ahead and transitioned into semi-retirement when I did, with a primary one being our desire to travel internationally.
I refer to what I’m currently doing as “semi-retirement” because I still plan to write on this website, write on the FifthWheelPT blog, andhelp those interested in travel therapy get started, which takes up about 5-10 hours per week, and I will also likely continue to work one travel assignment (3 months) per year to keep my physical therapy skills from getting rusty. I still enjoy the job and helping patients, but I no longer wish to do it full time for the entire year.
We celebrated this semi-retirement with a 5 month trip around the world at the end of 2018, which was a wonderful and eye opening experience. By utilizing credit card points to keep expenses lower while traveling, I was able to spend less than an average of $37/day on the trip, all of which was able to be covered by money brought in from this blog. This meant that I didn’t even have to start withdrawing money from my investment accounts, which was a blessing with the market taking such a hit at the end of 2018! This trip really made us realize that life is short and there is so much that we want to see and do before settling down and having kids. We plan to take several more 3-6 month long trips all over the world for the next few years before deciding what’s next for us. We’re currently planning a 15 week trip to Europe in May, which we are extremely excited about.
Right now, we still own our fifth wheel and truck, but we are considering selling them between now and May when we leave on our next trip, so that we don’t have to pay personal property taxes, insurance, storage fees, and deal with further depreciation while taking these long trips and not using the truck and camper. I have to admit that this has led to a bit of an identity crisis for me, since many people know me as the “Fifth Wheel PT” now… if we sell it do I have to rename the blog?!
We haven’t worked as physical therapists in 7 months since leaving for our Around the World Trip, but after searching for jobs since we returned to the US in December, Whitney finally found a Travel PT contract about 3 hours from home. She started work this week, however I still don’t have a job lined up as of now. I’m working on trying to set up a short term contract or PRN work in the same area as Whitney. But, if I don’t end up working before leaving on our next trip to Europe in May, then I will most likely find a travel contract in September when we get back from the trip. Although that will mean I will have a 15 month gap in my work history, which I’m a little concerned about.
We plan to go to a few physical therapy conferences each year to network with other therapists and students and talk about travel therapy as well as finances and how these things have so positively impacted our lives. I may not be as ravenous with learning new things about personal finance and investing as I once was, but I still enjoy writing and talking about it. I’m also not nearly as involved with travel therapy as I once was, but I have learned a ton and want to spread the knowledge and let others know that an exciting and lucrative adventure is possible.
I’m considering writing a book in the future about personal finance and investing from the perspective of a physical therapist, and possibly even more specifically from the perspective of a travel therapist, but I don’t know that I have the motivation required to do that right now. Nonetheless, I plan to continue to write about whatever interests me on the FifthWheelPT website and to write articles about travel therapy on this website.
Ultimately I’m grappling with the realization that financial independence and retiring early is really just the beginning, not the end of the journey. With time and brain power freed up to a large extent, I’m not sure where I’ll go from here, but I’m okay with that uncertainty.
It has been a wild ride for both Whitney and me since graduation in 2015. I would have never anticipated doing what I am now back then, but I’m very grateful that things have turned out the way that they have.
I undoubtedly sacrificed on some things to reach semi-retirement so quickly, but by no means was I a “miser,” living an unfulfilling life in those 3 years of saving aggressively. We took dozens of weekend trips all over the east coast (Whitney has written all about those trips here); spent a few days in Canada; stayed at an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica for a week; I took my brother to Aruba for his high school graduation; Whitney and I went on a cruise to the Bahamas; and we bought plenty of stuff that we really didn’t need (you know, the American way).
I really didn’t do anything special to get in the position I’m in besides looking for ways to maximize my income and minimize my spending while still having a good time. This combined with a cultivated urge to learn as much as possible in my areas of interest have paid dividends. No two paths are the same, but I feel that just about everyone has room to make headway on these fronts.
Thank you for reading this. If you’re a regular reader, then I hope that you have a little better insight into who I am, and if you’re a new reader, then this should be a good introduction to me and my life. Feel free to reach out to me with questions or comments!
This article was originally published on our personal blog. You can learn more about Jared’s story by visiting our blog at FifthWheelPT.com.