Focusing on Savings Rate instead of Only the Highest Pay as a Travel Therapist

With rising student loan debt and stagnant or even declining reimbursement for therapy services, finances are often at the top of therapists’ minds. This is no different for travel therapists. Over the past few years while mentoring thousands of current and aspiring travel therapists, we’ve found that the primary reason most therapists choose to travel is to earn more money than they would at a permanent job. The therapists, especially new grads, who we have mentored are often able to earn twice as much, or even more, as the offers they received for permanent positions in their home areas. That extra money can go a long way toward paying down student debt or toward reaching a position of financial independence earlier than traditional retirement age. In fact, Whitney and I were able to leverage our higher pay as travel therapists to achieve what we refer to as semi-retirement in our 20s after only three years of working full time. As we dive deeper into this topic, if you’re unfamiliar with how pay works as a travel therapist, this article is a great place to start.

While therapists often focus on how much they can make as a travel therapist, what is often neglected in discussions about finances between travel therapists though is the expense side of the equation, which is very important as a traveler. After all, if your primary goal with travel therapy is to improve your financial situation, then earning a lot of money and subsequently spending almost all of it doesn’t really lead to the desired result. While all travel therapists want to earn as much as possible on each contract, we believe that a much more important metric is your savings rate while traveling, which takes into account both income and expenses. This is the primary metric that we focused on early in our careers as travel physical therapists and is the main reason why we were able to achieve so many of our financial goals in such a short period of time.

Savings Rate

Calculating your savings rate is pretty straightforward and easy. You simply subtract your expenses from your income, and then divide by your income for any desired time period (usually monthly). The equation looks like this:

(Income – expenses) / Income

If you aren’t keeping track of your exact spending every month and you want to keep it simple without having to track every single purchase, you can at least take a look at the big expenses that don’t change much, such as your rent/mortgage costs for your tax home, your cell phone bill and any other monthly utilities you pay, a car payment if you have one, health insurance, and your rent for your travel location (which will vary but you can look at for each individual contract). You will get the bulk of your expenses from these “big ticket items.” Then you can estimate about how much you’re spending each month on things like groceries, gas, activities, eating out, and miscellaneous purchases, to get a rough idea of your monthly expenses.

We always use after tax numbers when calculating savings rate, as we’ve found this to be more useful as travel therapists. For example: let’s say you’re a Travel PT making $1,800/week after taxes on a travel contract. All of your expenses, including your tax home costs, equal about $4,000/month. To determine your savings rate for the month, first you’d take your weekly take home pay of $1,800/week and multiply by 4.33 (the average number of weeks per month) to get your monthly income. Then you’d subtract your $4,000 in expenses. Finally you’d divide this by your monthly income calculated above and convert into a percentage. For this example the math would look like this:

((1,800*4.33)-4,000)/(1,800*4.33)= .487 = 48.7% savings rate

The higher your savings rate from month to month, the more quickly you can achieve your financial goals. A savings rate of 48.7% in the example above would be really good and nearly 7x higher than the normal US average. But with some optimization and by trying to keep our “big ticket item” expenses pretty low, Whitney and I were regularly able to reach a saving rate of 70% or higher while traveling full time. We funneled all of that savings into smart investments that have grown significantly over time, which has helped us achieve financial freedom.

Optimizing Savings Rate

A common mistake we see new travel therapists who are traveling to improve their financial position make is always chasing the highest pay packages, without paying attention to the cost of living in the area of those high paying jobs. In the search for high pay, many travelers will be enticed by a travel job paying $2,000/week after taxes on the west coast in a high cost of living city, over a job paying $1,800/week after taxes in a much lower cost of living area on the east coast or in the Midwest. The higher paying job in this situation will lead to about $900/month in additional income, but that extra income will often be more than negated by the higher expenses. Not only is housing more expensive in the higher cost of living areas, but so are food, gas, activities, and other small expenses like parking. We’ve talked to many travel therapists regularly paying $2,500/month or more just for short term housing in high paying, high cost of living areas, and we can only imagine what their total expenses look like after taking into account all of the additional costs besides just rent.

If optimizing your savings rate is the goal, then often taking moderately paying travel therapy contracts in lower cost of living areas is a very smart move. We took all of our contracts on the east coast for our first few years of travel therapy largely for this reason. Our pay packages back then averaged about $1,750/week after taxes, but we were able to keep our expenses low and subsequently save a much larger percentage of our income than we would have been able to making $2,000/week after taxes in high cost of living areas

Minimizing Expenses

Since keeping expenses relatively low is vital for having a high savings rate, for a traveler focused on finances, minimizing them should be a priority. Of course, taking travel jobs in lower cost of living areas is the primary way to do this, but another big way to decrease overall expenses is by looking at your tax home expenses. As a traveler spending most of your time in other areas for work, it’s often possible to get by with downsizing your place back home or even choosing to rent a room as your tax home, instead of an entire house or apartment. Some travelers have big, expensive houses back home with fixed costs, which significantly increases their expenses each month. Meanwhile, Whitney and I rented a room in a house at the beginning of our travel careers to cut down on our tax home expenses, and later on we bought our own townhouse but had a housemate move in to our place to split costs and reduce how much we had to pay out of pocket each month while traveling.

Another great way to minimize your expenses on the “big ticket items” of your budget is to drive a slightly used car instead of a brand new one. Although we could certainly afford to get new cars regularly with our income as travel therapists, since our primary goal has always been to have enough saved and invested so that work is optional for us, we’ve never actually bought a new car. Both Whitney and I have always driven cars that are reliable but at least a few years old in order to avoid the massive depreciation that comes with buying new cars.

Focus on What Matters

Getting the absolute highest paying travel job as a travel therapist can be wonderful, but if it means actually saving less each month due to being in a very expensive area, then this is counterproductive to your financial goals. It’s important for travel therapists to focus on not only the income side of the equation, but also on the expenses, to maximize their savings rate while traveling– which is what really matters. When scouting out your next travel job, be sure to consider the costs of that area and not just the pay for the contract. After all, when it comes to your financial security, it’s not just what you earn, but what you’re able to save!

If you have any questions about traveling or finances as a travel therapist, feel free to send us a message. You can also check out additional financial related articles on our blog. If you’re considering getting started with travel therapy and need to get connected with trustworthy travel therapy recruiters, fill out our recruiter recommendations form and we’ll help you!

Jared Casazza
Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

Jared is a Doctor of Physical Therapy who has been a Travel PT since 2015. He is also a finance enthusiast and has spent thousands of hours learning about personal finance. He used his career as a Travel PT combined with strategic financial choices to achieve financial independence by the age of 30.

Negotiating Pay on a Travel Therapy Contract

Pay negotiation is one of the most often asked about and least understood aspects of travel therapy. Since one of the biggest fears for new and aspiring travel therapists is being taken advantage of by travel companies and recruiters with regards to pay, it’s understandable why so many people are in search of information on negotiation.

Unfortunately, travel therapy is a niche industry and most of the advice out there about negotiation is written for those applying for permanent positions as the target audience, and that advice may or may not apply to us as travelers. To make matters worse, travel healthcare Facebook groups are often filled with unhelpful or even counterproductive advice when it comes to negotiating pay on a new travel contract. This is largely due to the fact that negotiating pay in a travel contract is complex, varies significantly from contract to contract, and impossible to explain with proper nuance in a short Facebook post. Sometimes though, the information given is purposely deceptive or vague in an attempt to convince you that the person knows some “secret” about negotiation that you can learn too, if only you work with their recruiters or buy their product. Rest assured that no such secrets exist.

Over the last six years as travel therapists ourselves as well as serving as mentors for thousands of other travelers, we’ve learned a lot about negotiating travel contracts and what all goes into determining how and when to push for more money. In this article, I’ll do my best to outline how to negotiate on your next travel therapy contract and maximize your pay package.

Working with Multiple Trusted Recruiters

Working with more than one recruiter (ideally three) is one of the most important things you can do increase your pay and negotiating ability as a travel therapist. It’s not enough to just be working with more than one though, you need to make sure that they each know that you have other recruiters also assisting you in your job search in order to find the highest paying job that fits your individual needs. Having a recruiter who understands that they have competition during a job search often makes them much more likely to stay on the ball when it comes to submitting you for jobs and also more likely to give you the highest pay offer they possibly can right off the bat in order to avoid losing your business to a different recruiter. If you only work with one recruiter, they know that the only pay offers you’re receiving are coming from them and that you have nothing to compare to in terms of pay and that they might be able to get away with underpaying you to varying degrees for a contract.

We’ve mentored dozens of travelers who were being low-balled massively, in some cases for years, due to only working with one recruiter who was taking advantage of them, and having no way to know if the offers they were receiving were reasonable. For example, let’s say that you’re only working with one recruiter, and they offer you $1,700/week take home for a job. You have no way to know if $1,700/week is high, low, or fair for that specific contract since you have nothing to compare it to either in terms of other travel jobs in the area or what a different travel company might offer you for that same job. You tell the recruiter that you’ll take the job for slightly higher at $1,750/week and they agree. You feel like you did a good job negotiating a higher pay rate, but in reality it’s possible the recruiter could have afforded to pay you $1,900/week for that job, and purposely made you a low offer knowing they could let you negotiate a slightly higher rate while still making a big profit on the contract. Of course, $1,700/week could also be a really good offer for that job too depending on the situation, but the point is that when working with only one recruiter you have no way of knowing, and the incentive for the recruiter is to start with a lower offer knowing that you might just accept it and allow them to keep a higher margin on the contract.

Of course not all recruiters are going to take advantage of you. Often if you have built a good relationship with a recruiter, or if you’ve been referred to a trusted recruiter by another experienced traveler, you have a better feeling that the recruiter is genuine and they’ll give you their best offer up front. But particularly when you’re starting out and don’t know the recruiter as well, it’s hard to know if they’re low balling you. By working with multiple recruiters who know they have some competition, the odds of receiving a low ball offer are much lower since they want to be the one to land you a job so they get paid, instead of you going with a recruiter from a different travel company.

In addition, even if you have a recruiter or multiple recruiters who you trust and don’t think are low balling you, it’s still in your best interest to work with multiple in order to compare offers. Sometimes, what one company can pay for a job is going to be higher or lower than another company based on the company’s margins and operating costs, and this may be completely outside of the recruiter’s control. So, even if the recruiter is honestly giving you their best offer up front, you put yourself in a better position to receive the highest pay by comparing offers across multiple companies.

Understanding When You Have the Power in a Negotiation

Negotiating from a position of power is vital. Even more vital though is being able to understand when you’re in a position of power and when you aren’t. In any negotiation, the individual with the most power is the one that is in a position to able to “take it or leave it.”

For this reason, one of the biggest things that gives you power in negotiation as a travel therapist is having multiple different offers either from different facilities, or from different companies for the same contract. If you have three offers from three different facilities that would all work for you, then you have a lot of power to push for higher pay from all of them and then simply go with the one that is able to pay the most. If you have offers from two different facilities, one of which pays less but is a better fit for you clinically and the other that pays more but is less ideal clinically but still reasonable, then that is the perfect position to leverage the higher offer from the less desirable clinic to increase the offer at the clinic you really want to go to.

Telling your recruiter something along the lines of, “I’d love to take this job and it sounds perfect for me, but I have another offer that is paying higher. If you can find a way to match that offer then I’ll take it, otherwise I’ll just go with the other offer” is perfectly reasonable and a great negotiation tactic. The issue here is that you have to actually be willing to walk away or take the lower offer if the recruiter truly isn’t able to match the higher offer either because they can’t decrease their margin any lower or the facility won’t increase the bill rate. “Take it or leave it.” We’ve personally used this tactic several times in the past to negotiate a much higher pay package on contracts.

One thing to mention is that lying to one of your recruiters about having another offer in a negotiation is not something that we advise, for a couple of reasons. First, having a good relationship with your recruiters is very important and you should treat them the way that you want to be treated. You wouldn’t want them to lie and take advantage of you, so you shouldn’t do that to them either. Second, if you lie about having another offer to try to increase pay, then it’s very possible that the facility could just go with a different candidate if your recruiter tries to ask for a higher pay rate, and then you lose out on that job without having a back up plan.

It’s also important to know that if you hear about the same job from two different recruiters, you can compare pay and choose to go with the one that has the higher offer, but you need to do this before being submitted for the job by one of the recruiters. You should never be submitted to the same job by two different recruiters. Being double submitted for a job can get you in trouble and often the facility will just throw out your application.

Supply and Demand

Another thing that gives you power in a negotiation is the supply and demand dynamics both of the travel therapy market in general at that time, as well as with that specific assignment. For example, let’s say that the travel therapy market is really tight like it was in 2020 during the height of COVID, and you’re specifically looking for an outpatient PT job in Virginia. If there’s only one outpatient PT travel job in the state, then you’ll be very limited in your ability to play hardball with negotiation on that job since if you don’t land it, it could be several weeks before another similar job pops up. If you don’t take it and have to wait around for something else, you’ll lose significantly more due to the opportunity cost of missing out on that job than you’d stand to gain from increasing the weekly rate slightly. On the other hand, if the supply and demand dynamics are in favor of the travel therapist and there are a plethora of jobs that fit your search criteria, then you can be much more aggressive in your negotiation, knowing that you’ll have other options if that one doesn’t work out.

These supply and demand dynamics also apply to specific assignments that are more or less desirable depending on setting and location. For example, if you’re applying for a SNF contract in North Dakota in the winter, it’s very likely that you’re the only applicant for that position, and you can leverage that situation to push for higher pay on that contract. A facility with no other applicants that has a severe need for a therapist will often increase their bill rate significantly to get a good candidate for the job. The supply and demand dynamics are in your favor here, and you’re in a position of power which is what you need for negotiation. Meanwhile, if you’re applying for a Outpatient job in San Diego, it’s almost guaranteed that they have dozens of applicants since that’s a desirable setting in a very desirable area. If you get an offer but try to push for higher pay, then the facility will just go with a different candidate. The supply and demand dynamics are in their favor which limits your negotiation ability.

Improving and Highlighting Your Skills and Certifications

One surefire way to improve your ability to negotiate as a travel therapist is by making yourself more desirable as a candidate. If a facility has multiple candidates for a travel therapy position, but you’re clearly the best suited for the job either due to your clinical skills, experience, or ability to sell yourself in the interview, then it’s possible that they will be willing to pay more for you. Things like certifications, CEU courses, and prior experience in the setting and/or with the EMR can be bargaining chips that your recruiter can use to push the facility to pay a higher bill rate in order to get you to fill the position, which can lead to a significant increase in your pay package. Keep in mind that your strengths won’t help you in a negotiation if no one knows about them, so be sure to highlight them in your resume as well as in your interview with the facility for the position.

Putting it All Together

We’ll often have travelers reach out asking how to negotiate higher pay on a contract when they clearly don’t have any actual leverage in the negotiation for that position. We wish there was some secret for all negotiations, but unfortunately there isn’t, and every situation involves a lot of nuance.

A new grad applying for a travel job with no experience in a setting that’s in a desirable location and who has no other offers simply isn’t going to be able to negotiate a significant increase in pay. They can always try, but 99% of the time the facility will just go with a different candidate, and the therapist will be back to square one on the job search. Similarly, for a therapist who is looking for a very specific setting and location, there is often little ability to push hard in negotiations and risk losing the one opportunity that fits their search criteria. So in cases like this, telling the therapist to use hardball tactics to push for high pay is going to be counterproductive and frustrating for them.

On the other hand, an experienced clinician applying for a travel job in a less desirable location who has many other offers and job options can often negotiate an increase of several hundred dollars per week on their pay package simply by leveraging their experience, other offers, and the need of the facility to significantly increase the bill rate.

The bottom line is that negotiation isn’t ever going to be one size fits all, and anyone who tries to give you black and white blanket advice either doesn’t understand negotiation or is trying to sell you something.

When negotiating for pay on your next contract, use the tips above to analyze the power dynamics and make sure that you’re negotiating from a position of strength and are being realistic in your requests so that you don’t miss out on a great contract for you!

I hope this helps you in future travel job searches and negotiations! Feel free to message us if you have any questions, or if you want help getting connected with additional recruiters to expand your negotiating power!

Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT – Jared has been a Travel PT since 2015 and has mentored thousands of current and aspiring travel therapists.

Jared Casazza, PT, DPT, Travel Therapy Mentor