Retiring Very Early as a Physical Therapist (Yes, even as early as in your 30’s)

Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

Retiring from your career as a physical therapist earlier than “traditional” retirement age may be a goal you’re seeking, or something you’ve at least thought of in the back of your mind at some point. What if I told you that it’s possible not only to have a comfortable retirement before the age of 65, but possibly even as early as in your 30’s depending when you began your career and how you choose to structure your life? If this is something that’s piqued your interest, let’s dig a little deeper to understand how a very early retirement (or at minimum a transition to part time or optional work) has become a reality for me and could be a real possibility for you as well.

Background

Over the past five years, I’ve written dozens of articles on personal finance, investing, and financial independence. Almost all of these articles have been on the blog I started back in 2016, Fifth Wheel Physical Therapist, where I’ve consistently tracked my progress toward financial independence since that time. Over the past couple of years I haven’t felt as motivated to write about these topics though. That’s mostly because usually I feel that either I’ve already covered things I would potentially think about writing, or it’s already been covered elsewhere in the finance space. It’s also because I’ve had gradually decreasing interest in personal finance and financial independence since I reached my ultimate financial goal in May of 2019. In reality, the decrease in interest started even before then, when I realized that I’d saved more than enough to “Semi-Retire” (transition to only working part of the year) back in 2018, after only working full time for 3 years as a physical therapist. Once I was certain that my financial future was secure, my interest in personal finance took a backseat to other interests.

Every now and then though, I’ll get a particularly moving email or message from a follower who was inspired by my articles to improve their own financial situation and is now on their own path to financial independence. The excitement that emanates from those communications reminds me of the excitement that I felt when I first discovered that financial independence and early retirement (known as the “FIRE” movement) was possible and achievable for me, and it reminds me why I started writing about FIRE and working toward it in the first place. For the right person, like me, being introduced to the idea of financial independence and the math behind it is intoxicating.

After all, who in their right mind wouldn’t want to reach financial independence and have nearly unlimited options for their future?

With so much negativity regarding finances and workload after graduation in various therapy groups where I’m involved, I realize now the value in at least occasionally putting out content to introduce those that are receptive to the idea that a 30+ year career seeing 20+ patients per day isn’t a foregone conclusion. With some planning, optimization, and foresight: it’s possible to achieve financial independence and effectively make work optional much earlier than most think is possible.

Making my job as a Physical Therapist (PT) optional financially was my ultimate goal from my very first day working as a PT. From my clinicals, I knew that I enjoyed working as a physical therapist, but that it was probably something that I wouldn’t want to do 40+ hours per week indefinitely. It’s becoming clear from the conversations being had online that a large number of current therapy students and new graduates have had, and are currently having, this same realization.

In my opinion, actively working toward financial independence is the answer. This was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made personally. I like to think of working toward financial independence as a game, with every net-worth milestone being one step closer to buying lifestyle freedom and optionality.

If you think this sounds crazy, or is just a pipe dream, below I’ll explain how I was able to leave my career as a full time physical therapist at the age of 30, after only working full time for less than four years, with enough saved and invested to support my expenses indefinitely — and have since used that freedom to design a lifestyle full of adventure, international travel, and plenty of leisure.

The Journey to Financial Independence

As I mentioned above, I discovered financial independence along with the math behind it prior to graduating physical therapy school, in 2015. I instantly knew that this was a goal that I wanted to reach as quickly as possible and started sketching out potential scenarios and thinking about options to supercharge my path. Below I’ll detail some of the key strategies that helped me to achieve financial independence, and some ways that you could utilize similar strategies to reach your own financial independence.

Maximizing Income

Based on research I’d done while considering options after PT school, I knew that it was possible to make significantly more money as a Traveling Physical Therapist. That combined with a desire to venture outside of my hometown made Travel PT a no-brainer and led me to pursuing it immediately after graduation. To my delight, my girlfriend (and now business partner, with whom many of you are familiar on this site) Whitney who was graduating at the same time as me saw the potential benefit and was quickly onboard with Travel PT as well. And thus began our Travel PT journey as new grads.

By no means is travel therapy the only way to maximize income as a physical therapist though. There are many therapists that I’ve communicated with over the years that make as much or more than I do as a Travel PT by working in home health, cash based outpatient practices, or by working a PRN physical therapy job outside of their full time job. Travel therapy was just the path that I personally chose to maximize my income as a new grad PT.

Knowing that maximizing income is vital to reaching a goal of financial independence, in addition to working as a Travel PT, I also started working on some side hustles to further increase my monthly earnings. To my surprise, these side hustles actually helped me earn enough that I was able to cover all of my expenses with them and save 100% of my travel therapy income each month during my first 3 years as a PT.

Minimizing Expenses

Another vital component of reaching financial independence and early retirement is minimizing expenses. As a traveler, keeping expenses low can sometimes be more difficult due to the need to duplicate living expenses in order to maintain a tax home, but it’s possible to still keep expenses low with some strategic planning.

I decided to rent a room in a house for my tax home instead of renting an apartment or entire house, which helped me to save a lot of money. Whitney and I also decided to buy a fifth wheel camper to live in while on travel assignments, which not only saved us money each month but also made finding housing in assignment locations much less of a hassle. We bought both our fifth wheel and the truck to pull it with used in order to reduce how much we’d lose in depreciation costs when it came time to sell them later on.

Besides keeping housing and transportation costs as low as possible, we chose to limit how much we spent on things like meals out, electronics, and subscription services to further reduce the expenses side of the equation.

Savings Rate

By maximizing income and minimizing expenses, I was able to maintain a high savings rate. Throughout my three years of full time work as a travel therapist, my savings rate stayed in the 80-90% range. More specifically, around 88% in 2016, 85% in 2017 and 72% in 2018 — even despite working for only half of the year in 2018 and spending the second half of the year traveling around the world!

As a side note, most people believe that traveling for long periods of time internationally would be very expensive, but that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, I keep track of all of my expenses during our long international trips to show that traveling internationally can cost the same or less than it costs to live a median lifestyle in the US, with some strategic planning. It cost me less than $37/day to travel for 5 months through Europe and Asia in 2018 and less than $46/day to travel for 4 months all over Europe in 2019! These were both trips of a lifetime for us, and being able to take them while still saving money was a massive bonus!

Investing

Having a high savings rate is wonderful and a key component to achieving financial independence, but utilizing that money saved each month wisely is just as important. Being able to cover your yearly expenses with 4% or less of your invested assets (known as the 4% rule) is what most people in the personal finance community define as “financial independence.” This is where making intelligent investing decisions comes into play. Investing as much as possible early in your career is ideal in order to allow compound interest to work in your favor for as long as possible.

There are endless ways that people choose to invest, but what worked best for me and probably makes sense for the majority of people is a simple passive index fund investing approach with a reasonable asset allocation**. For me, that meant sticking primarily to Vanguard passive domestic equity index funds. Passive index fund investing not only costs less in terms of fees but also requires significantly less time to implement, which means more time to earn extra income or for leisure.

**Please note that I am not a licensed financial advisor and this is not meant to be specific financial advice for your situation. It’s important that you do your own research and if necessary consult a licensed financial advisor to assist you with investing and finance decisions.

Managing Debt

Besides investing, money saved each month should also go toward paying down debt. I believe that avoiding high interest rate debt at all costs is imperative for achieving financial success, but often some debt is unavoidable. For most of you reading this, that would include student loan debt.

There are generally two main approaches to managing student debt. Either pay the debt off as quickly as possible, or make minimum payments on an income driven repayment plan for 20-25 years until the debt is forgiven, while saving/investing the money saved along the way. Initially, I planned to pay my debt off as quickly as possible, which is what the majority of travel therapists will take the opportunity of having higher income to do; but, after a lot of time spent learning and making projections, I instead decided to go the income driven repayment plan route. You can find the considerations and math behind my decision here. This certainly isn’t the best option for everyone, but for me this choice has saved me tens of thousands of dollars over the last six years and supercharged my path to financial independence!

Early Retirement or “Semi-Retirement”

Since reaching “semi-retirement” in 2018 after only working full time as a PT for three years, and full financial independence in 2019, I’ve significantly reduced how much I’ve worked as a physical therapist, while instead choosing to spend more time traveling the world and working on hobbies and entrepreneurship.

I’ve only worked a total of 200-300 hours/year in each of the last two years, mainly to maintain my physical therapy license and keep my evaluation and treatment skills from getting rusty. This amount of work seems about ideal for me personally, as I’m still able to help patients, which brings me joy, for part of the year, while still having plenty of time to do other things that I want to do including travel the world. I’ve found that working on and growing our websites Travel Therapy Mentor and Fifth Wheel Physical Therapist is something I really enjoy, and I value the ability to impact the lives of others who find and read the articles I write.

The hours I work as a physical therapist combined with income earned from the websites and from my investments have caused my net worth to continue to increase each year, despite not working full time since 2018. At this point, I have over 35x my anticipated future yearly expenses saved and invested, which means an even more secure financial position. I plan for this to continue for the foreseeable future as I continue to keep my expenses relatively low.

Is Retiring Very Early Possible as a PT?

Retiring very early as a physical therapist is not only possible, but I believe that the path I took to get there isn’t unique and is replicable for many students and new grad therapists who are interested in pursuing this goal. In fact, since first writing about this years ago, there are many other therapists well on their way to achieving similar financial success. Here is one such story and here is another!

The wonderful thing about financial independence and personal finance is that it truly is personal. No two individuals have the exact same situation, and therefore no two paths will be exactly the same. I hope that you can find some aspects of my path that will work for you to improve your own financial situation and allow you to achieve financial independence more quickly — and in doing so, be able to design your lifestyle and future to look how you want it to!

If you’re a student, new grad, or current clinician interested in utilizing travel therapy to improve your own finances, here’s a great place to start. If you need helping finding reputable travel companies and recruiters we can help you with that as well! Please don’t hesitate to message us with any questions!

Earning Six Figures in Six Months as a New Grad Physical Therapist

Guest Post by Traveling Physical Therapist Jeff Camara, PT, DPT


EARNING SIX FIGURES IN SIX MONTHS

We can all agree that the cost of obtaining a graduate degree vs. the income for physical therapists isn’t exactly an equal ratio. I knew this going in to my career choice as a physical therapist. However, I still decided to choose a career that would fulfill my life, despite the enormous amount of debt I would have to take on to get there.

I decided early on while still in graduate school that Travel Physical Therapy (Travel PT) would be the best career path for me, as it would not only help me financially, but give me the freedom to explore the country and work in various settings. I can’t say that my other physical therapy friends made the same decision. Following school, many of them have had to move back home in order to save their paychecks as New Grad PT’s and get on their feet.

Many physical therapists would say that you can’t make a six-figure salary or ever pay off your debt in this career. Well, I am here to tell you how I not only earned those six-figures, but I did it in just six months as a New Grad PT.

HOW IT STARTED

My girlfriend, and fellow physical therapist, and I were fortunate enough to land six-month Travel PT contracts at an outpatient ortho clinic in northern Virginia as new grads in 2019 (shout out to Whitney and Jared at Travel Therapy Mentor for help with finding those contracts as well!).

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During my first six months as a new grad PT at this travel position, I learned a ton and loved the clinic– not to mention my awesome co-workers instantly became great friends and we enjoyed exploring a new area of the country. I was able to earn a high paycheck every week by starting my career as a Travel PT, making over $7,000 per month after taxes. This added up to roughly $43,000 after taxes in my first six months of work as a new grad! Comparatively, some new grad PT’s hardly make that much in twelve months after taxes at some lower paying salaried positions.

With one month left in our first ever Travel PT contracts, the pandemic had hit. As the country panicked, I started to see other travelers’ contracts come to an end, and the permanent PT’s at our clinics were losing their caseload and being furloughed. I knew I had to shine in the clinic, or I was going to be next. Fortunately for me, I already had a great rapport with my patients and was able to continue to provide them with valuable treatments whether it was in the clinic or through telehealth. I took initiative and managed my own schedule, which made it possible for me to maintain around 90-95% of my caseload. My hard work led not only to not losing my travel contract, but to having my contract extended.

Despite this contract extension, I still had my doubts, as jobs are rarely secured as a traveler, so I began the job hunt to gain that security. I was fortunate to have one of my co-workers reach out and ask if I would be interested in working home health PRN. Without any home health experience, this company was willing to bring me on board and train me. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. This was perfect for gaining some experience in the home health world in addition to diversifying my paycheck in case my travel contract got cancelled.

STEPPING OUT OF MY COMFORT ZONE

At this moment, I was still working 40 hours per week in the outpatient clinic at my travel contract, while starting to build a caseload with the home health company PRN. My outpatient schedule was perfect for this, providing me with 3 short days working 7am-2pm, leaving me plenty of time to hustle and earn money on the side with home health PRN hours.

Jeff2The flexibility with home health is great. I would be sent referrals daily, and it was up to me to either accept or deny each patient, based on my own schedule with my primary job, and based on how much extra I wanted to work. I started with 2-3 patients after work, 3 days per week, which quickly adds up. It wasn’t easy at first being more the “outpatient ortho type of guy,” but I started to pick it up quickly. I had to step out of my comfort zone and learn a lot about the OASIS documentation (aka the death of home health), but I got into a rhythm and started to push how many patients I could see in a week. I started out with 5-8 patients, then 8-10, and before you know it, I was able to see 15-20 home health patients per week, in addition to my outpatient job, while still having weekends off.

FINDING A BALANCE

When working 7am-7pm, or some days even later, you realize quickly you need the weekends for yourself. We all hear about the “burnout” in healthcare professions, and I remained mindful of that, making sure I was still finding joy in what I was doing. Many of my coworkers didn’t understand, always asking “how do you work so much?” In all honesty, I found it quite easy, because I was actually enjoying a large part of it. There is something satisfying when working hard and seeing results, you know?! Well, what if those results were not only seeing your patients getting better, but seeing growth in your bank account.

THE RESULTS

In the midst of this pandemic, despite uncertainty with the job market, and despite being a relatively new graduate, I have been fortunate to not only maintain a full time physical therapy position, but to pick up extra work too. In addition to working in outpatient ortho full time as a travel PT, plus home health PRN, I was also able to start my own LLC for a cash-based home health business.

Working an average of 60 hours per week for the last 6 months between these 3 jobs, I have been able to achieve my financial goals and more. From May to November 2020, I have been able to earn over triple the amount of my coworkers who work permanent positions in the outpatient clinic.

Jeff3My take home, after tax pay has been approximately $80,000 in the last 6 months. I REPEAT, AFTER TAXES! This is the equivalent to making a gross salary of around $120,000 in just 6 months, from one travel PT contract, part time home health, plus the start of my own LLC in the last two months.

Today the average physical therapist makes approximately $50-55k per year after taxes (not including retirement contributions). I was able to make that amount in 4 months, during a pandemic! One can see the potential for growth at this rate. I hope through my story I can help to show other therapists the possibilities that are out there, especially for those who want to pay off debt quickly and are willing to hustle hard early in their career to do it.

IF IT WAS EASY, EVERYONE WOULD DO IT

At the end of the day, you must ask yourself what is important to you. You might be reading this thinking it’s totally unrealistic for you. I sacrificed a lot to reach this goal. It hasn’t been easy doing late dinners throughout the week, less sleep, no daily gym session, more time driving, an increase in notes brought home, and less time spent with my significant other. This would certainly be more difficult for someone in a different life circumstance than me, for example someone who is married with children, or just needs more personal leisure time or time to de-stress.

For someone who is not familiar with working this much, it would be very hard and draining to do day in and day out. I think I am someone who hardly stresses during work and doesn’t get overwhelmed easily, so working multiple jobs comes easy to me. I have actually worked several jobs since I was in undergrad, so it’s something I’m used to. However, this is certainly not a pace that I could keep up, nor would I want to, forever. This is more so a way for me to get ahead financially early in my career to have more options in the future. Being able to pay down debt and invest early puts me well on my way toward financial independence!

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Below is an excerpt from a Harvard Business Review article that I found interesting:

The American Dream on Steroids: “The first thing that becomes clear is that successful professionals are working harder than ever. The 40-hour workweek, it seems, is a thing of the past. Even the 60-hour workweek, once the path to the top, is now practically considered part-time, as a recent Fortune magazine article put it. Our data reveal that 62% of high-earning individuals work more than 50 hours a week, 35% work more than 60 hours a week, and 10% work more than 80 hours a week. Add in a typical one-hour commute, and a 60-hour workweek translates into leaving the house at 7 am and getting home at 9 pm five days a week.”


MY RECOMMENDATIONS

When I tell people about my current lifestyle, they typically respond with, “there is no way I could ever do that.” This is most likely true, and I wouldn’t recommend this for many people. For those who struggle already with their 40 hour work week, I would recommend against this type of workload.

However, for those therapists that may be thinking about getting a second job in order to hustle and make more money to meet your financial goals, I would highly recommend to look for a PRN home health job, versus a second outpatient or acute care job. Home health provides great flexibility and higher pay, and it gives you the freedom to take on as many patients as you desire within the time that you want.

I am not saying this is only way to make money, nor am I saying that money is the only important aspect in life. For me, the thought of being financially free someday keeps me grinding. My goal is to work hard and hustle during the beginning of my career to help meet my financial goals and increase my savings, so that I can work less in the future and shift my focus to other pursuits, such as having a family.

Now, after hustling for the last 6 months, I have decided to take some time off from work to spend the holidays with my family and friends. This sacrifice, I believe, has been well worth it to be able to take several weeks or a month off at the holidays. After this break, I am looking forward to going into 2021 and getting back at it again!


ABOUT JEFF

jeff9Jeff is a travel physical therapist originally from Massachusetts. He earned his Doctor of Physical Therapy degree at American International College in May of 2019. Jeff was a multi-sport intramural champion in college and enjoys friendly competition in all sports and games. He has lived in 9 different states so far and loves traveling to new areas, hiking, and riding his motorcycle. Jeff and his girlfriend, Megan, are hoping to sign new travel physical therapy contracts at the start of the new year. The best way to contact Jeff is through Facebook or email at jcamara6@yahoo.com.


We would like to thank Jeff for sharing his story in this inspiring article! If you’re also considering pursuing travel therapy to help set yourself up for a strong financial future, please feel free to contact us and we can help you get started on this path!

~Whitney & Jared, Travel Therapy Mentors