It’s been almost 2.5 years since I first wrote about my plans to semi-retire in 2018. I was excited but very nervous about that decision at the time, but since then my thoughts about it have evolved significantly. I now believe that the majority of travel therapists should practice some sort of semi-retirement, and my only regret is not doing it sooner!
If you’re unfamiliar with my story and path to financial independence and early “retirement” at the age of 30, read about it here.
What is Semi-Retirement?
How I define semi-retirement is essentially the process of choosing to work only 6 months of the year while using the rest of the year to pursue other interests and travel domestically or internationally, not for work but for leisure. Most people with regular permanent jobs don’t have the option to do something like this due to vacation time limited to 2-4 weeks each year, but healthcare providers who travel for work in the US are unique. We have the massive advantages of not only being able to make significantly more money than at a permanent job, but also the ability to take as much time off between contracts as desired. Personally, I took six months off in 2018, nine months off in 2019, and have yet to work as a physical therapist at all in 2020 so far.
Why Choose to Semi-Retire?
There are a variety of reasons why a travel therapist may choose to take large chunks of time off. Four of the biggest include: avoiding burnout, spending time with family, traveling internationally, and pursuing other areas of passion.
- Avoiding burnout: Burnout has been a very hot topic in the therapy world for the past few years. Much of this has to do with new and recent graduates being disillusioned by the large amount of student debt, relatively low permanent job salaries, and productivity standards that can make even the best jobs miserable. Many therapists find the day to day stress and monotony of some rehab jobs very disheartening, and a feeling of burnout can emerge. Being able to take 3-6 months off at a time can be a great way to combat burnout by allowing therapists to rest, recuperate, and reevaluate settings and schedules.
- Spending time with family: This motivation is self explanatory. Spending time with growing kids or aging parents and grandparents can be invaluable at some points in life.
- International travel: Whitney and I had done very little international travel prior to our own semi-retirement in 2018. One of the main reasons for this was the high costs associated with most international trips. An interesting thing we discovered though, is that on a daily cost basis, international travel becomes much cheaper with longer trips vs short vacations. The reason for this is that the biggest costs of an international trip usually revolve around airfare and lodging. Both of those costs can be reduced on a daily basis when staying overseas longer. As most travelers know, AirBnBs almost always offer a discount for longer stays, which is our lodging of choice when staying overseas. In addition, a $1,500 round-trip flight spread over the length of a three month stay is much less than when spread over a 1-2 week stay, which is typical for most people going on an international vacation. Taking advantage of these factors allowed me to travel for five months in Europe and Asia for less than $37/day in 2018 (~$1,100/month) and for four months in Europe for less than $47/day in 2019 (~$1,400/month)! Both of those were ‘trips of a lifetime’ for about the same cost as my normal daily life in the US, due in large part to the long nature of the trips. In addition to cost, longer trips provide other advantages, such as more time to interact with and get to know the locals and the culture.
- Pursuing other areas of passion: this was a primary motivator for me when aggressively pursuing early retirement. I enjoy being a physical therapist, but I also have many other interests. I love spending time reading and learning about finance, business, health/nutrition, psychology and philosophy as well. Taking long periods of time off from work as a PT allows me to focus on those other areas and then go back to physical therapy with renewed interest. I’ve also been able to spend more time on creative and business outlets like writing on this website as well as at the FifthWheelPT blog.
What About Income?
At this point you’re probably thinking, yeah of course taking long periods of time off sounds wonderful, but I can’t afford to do that.
This is, of course, a valid concern. Surprisingly though, for many travel therapists, it’s possible to make as much as a full time permanent therapist while working only two travel contracts (six months) per year, and that has definitely been the case for me. In my hometown, full time outpatient physical therapy jobs pay around $65,000/year on average. After taxes, this comes out to $49,000/year. As a travel therapist, my average pay over the years has been about $1,700/week after taxes. That comes out to about $44,000/year after taxes while working only six months taking outpatient physical therapy contracts!
Now that is $5,000 less than 12 months at a full time permanent job, but that’s not the whole story. When working only two travel contracts per year (6 months), taxable income is cut in half and income tax is reduce significantly. In fact, while working only two contracts per year, most travel therapists will actually pay $0 in federal taxes! Taking the lower taxes into account, my average after tax weekly pay would increase from $1,700/week to about $1,800/week. This leads to an after tax yearly pay of almost $47,000. That’s only $2,000 less than if I worked the entire year as a permanent full time outpatient therapist in my hometown!
$2,000 is still a significant amount of money depending on your financial situation, but this can be accounted for with lower expenses. Depending on how you choose to spend your time off, your day to day expenses may or may not be lower than they are while working. This is certainly the case for me. It turns out that hiking, going to the gym, reading, gardening, watching movies, and taking long walks are very inexpensive, which is how I choose to spend most of my time between travels. In addition, I spend less on gas when I’m not working due to no commute, less on clothes due to work clothes lasting longer, and am able to have plenty of time to cook meals at home instead of eating out saving money as well.
In addition to the day to day expenses, I save a lot of money on my student loan payment (currently paying $0/month while on an income based plan) and on my health insurance (currently less than $100/month due to subsidies while having a lot taxable income only working part of the year). The lower health insurance and student loan payments alone more than offset the $2,000/year additional income I’d be making at a permanent full time job all while taking six months off each year!
So as you can see, working 6 months per year as a travel therapist and taking 6 months off for this semi-retirement lifestyle, you can easily make about the same amount of money as you would working full time 12-months per year at a permanent position, and maybe even spend less money during your time off!
How to Structure Semi-Retirement as a Travel Therapist
Personally, if I could go back, I would make some changes to how I approached my career as a travel therapist. Hindsight is always 20/20. But luckily for you reading this, you can benefit from my hindsight.
For someone like me starting travel therapy as a new grad, I would suggest the following: I would work continuous contracts for one full year to build clinical skills and confidence, as well build some savings and investments. After one year of full time work, I would start working a schedule of one 3-month contract, followed by three months off, and repeat that indefinitely. I’d use the three increments off to alternate between long international trips and pursuing other interests, or possibly building a business of some sort.
This is in contrast to what I actually did, which was relatively continuous contracts for three straight years, saving money and investing like mad, followed by almost two full years so far of almost no work at all. Although my financial situation is undoubtedly better for going that route, I was feeling burnt out after three years of continuous travel contracts. I also have learned that, at least for Whitney and I, international trips longer than a few months (although they’re awesome) can lead to missing home and fatiguing out, even when traveling relatively slowly and stress free. Our long trips so far have been 5-months and 4-months, and they were pretty exhausting. Instead, two to two-and-a-half months at a time of international travel is probably the sweet spot with regards to cost and maximal enjoyment. In addition, waiting three years to take our first long international trip also put us closer to starting to think about having kids and settling down, so starting earlier would have given us more time and been preferable.
For yourself, even if you didn’t like the model outlined above, you could tailor it however you wanted. Maybe you want to work two back to back contracts per year (6 months), followed by 6 months off. Or, one 3-month contract, followed by 1 month off, then another contract. However you decided to break it up, you could still take advantage of a lot of the principles outlined above.
In my opinion, semi-retirement (~six months off per year) is a wonderful balance between work and leisure that allows for lots of adventure and personal development early in your career. Being a travel therapist/traveling healthcare professional, due to it’s unique attributes, is the perfect career to make this lifestyle work, and has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life to this point.
My only regret is not starting this lifestyle a couple of years earlier. It’s possible to work only half of the year and still make an income comparable to a full time permanent therapist position, while significantly reducing expenses when not working, even when traveling internationally in some cases! If you can, why not give it a shot?
If you need help getting started with your travel therapy career, check out our guide to getting started and reach out to us for recommendations on travel companies and recruiters!