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!

What is Travel Physical Therapy?

Did you know that you can get paid to travel for work as a physical therapist (PT)? In fact, physical therapist’s assistants (PTA), occupational therapists (OT), occupational therapist’s assistants (OTA), and speech language pathologists (SLP) can all get paid to travel!

Maybe you’ve heard of travel therapy (or travel nursing) before, but don’t really understand what it is or how it works. Travel physical therapy (“Travel PT”) and other travel therapy careers are growing in popularity, and for good reason, as it is actually a very accessible and lucrative career path.

Keep reading if you want to learn more about the basic ins and outs of travel physical therapy (and other disciplines!), and how you can get started!

 

What Is Travel Therapy?

Travel therapy is a career option for PTs/PTAs, OTs/OTAs, and SLPs/SLPAs allowing them to work temporary, short-term contracts while moving around to different facilities all over the United States. The length of each contract varies from a few weeks up to a year, but the most typical travel therapy contract length is 13 weeks (3 months). Travel therapists work at facilities that need a temporary employee for various reasons which could include: a temporary medical leave, a seasonal increase in caseload requiring increased staffing, or a short term staffing need while trying to hire a permanent employee.

Why Choose Travel Therapy?

There are many benefits of choosing a career in travel therapy. Financial gain is a major reason many therapists choose to travel, since travel therapists typically earn a higher income than permanent therapists. Another perk of choosing travel therapy is being able to explore new areas of the country and experience new adventures. Therapists can also gain experience in new practice settings, learn new skills, and meet new friends and co-workers. Plus, travel therapy can afford therapists significant lifestyle flexibility, as they can choose to work when they want to and take off from work when they want to. For example, we have been able to work only one or two 13-week contracts per year, while taking 6 months or more off from work each year to travel around the world for leisure!

For more on our domestic and international travel adventures, check out our travel physical therapy blog

How Does Travel Therapy Work?

There are different ways that a therapist can become a traveler, for example by working through a travel staffing company, working as an independent contractor, or working as an internal traveler through a particular medical system. The most common way is working through a staffing company, often referred to as a “travel company.”

Travel therapists, especially new grad travel therapists, often ask, “Which is the best travel company?” The truth is that there are well over 100 different travel companies out there, and they all have their pros and cons. Each travel therapist has their own unique situation and needs that will influence which travel company is best for him/her. Finding the ideal travel company for you can be difficult, but it helps to get individualized recommendations based on your situation.

If you’re wondering which travel company to choose, send us a message and we’ll give you personalized company recommendations based on our experience!

When working through a travel company, the therapist’s primary point of contact is the recruiter. Your recruiter helps you find travel therapy jobs, assists you throughout the process, and is a resource to you during your contract. The individual recruiter you work with can make or break your experience with a particular travel company. It’s vital to find a great recruiter at any company you choose to work with in order to have a successful travel therapy career. You want to search for a recruiter that is personable, trustworthy, attentive, and understanding. Unfortunately there are many recruiters out there that are willing to low ball travel therapists on pay and push therapists into a bad situation just to make money off of them. Be sure to choose wisely and reach out if you need help!

Travel therapists should communicate with more than one company in order to have the most job options, because not all companies have access to the same jobs. This also introduces a bit of healthy competition between recruiters, which discourages low ball pay offers that I mentioned earlier. Since the recruiters are working to get your business and are aware that you have other options, they are much more likely to present the therapist with the highest pay offer possible in order to not lose out to a different recruiter/company. Therapists are free to work with as many companies as they want, and they are only employees of one company during the length of one contract. There are no binding commitments to stay with one company for a certain length of time. Travel staffing companies are simply there to help you through the process and offer positions for you to pursue.

Travel therapists have a choice to take as many or as few contracts as they wish. They can work one 13-week contract, then decide they want to take a permanent job after that, or they can continuously work travel contracts for their entire careers, with short or long breaks between jobs. They also have a choice as to where they would like to go and when they would like to work. However, finding a position depends on the jobs that are available and the timing. Therapists have three major factors to consider when searching for positions: location, setting, and pay. The more flexible therapists are on these factors, the more job options they will have. If they are too particular, for example only willing to work in one setting and in one state, there will be less job options and may lead to extended periods of unwanted time off.

How Much Money Do Travel Physical Therapists Make?

Travel physical therapy salary is a major concern for many prospective travel PTs. This is no surprise with the massive amounts of student loans that many new grad physical therapists begin their career with these days! Travel physical therapists can sometimes make up to double what a permanent physical therapist would make! Similarly, travel OT’s, SLP’s and assistants can make quite a bit more than permanent therapists in these professions.

A typical weekly pay for a Travel PT would be between $1500 to $1800 after taxes. This is the equivalent of a permanent gross salary of over $120,000 in many cases! Some travel physical therapy jobs can pay as high as $2,000/week after taxes, although these jobs are usually on the west coast and in the home health setting. Travel SLPs and Travel OTs make similar weekly take home pay, while assistants can expect to make between $1100-1300 per week after taxes.

Travel therapist pay works a little differently than salary pay. Typically the travel therapist will be paid an hourly rate, plus a stipend for housing, meals and incidentals. The stipend is not taxed, as long as the therapist meets the IRS requirements for maintaining a proper tax home and traveling away from that tax home. Since part of the pay is untaxed, the net amount that the travel therapist keeps is much higher than with a permanent, salaried position. The bottom line is that a travel physical therapist salary, when working consistently throughout the year, is very high, and that is even the case for new grad travel physical therapists!

In What Settings Do Travel Therapists Work?

The most prevalent travel physical therapy jobs are in Skilled Nursing Facilities and home health, followed by outpatient and acute, then schools. Specialty settings such as pediatrics, neuro, and women’s health are less common to see for travel physical therapists. Skilled Nursing and home health are by far the most common for Travel PTA’s and Travel COTA’s. Travel OTs and Travel SLPs most often work in Skilled Nursing, acute, home health, and schools.

Do You Have to Be Licensed in Each State?

When moving to a new state to work as a travel therapist, you must have a license to work in the new state. Traditionally, therapists apply for licensure in each individual state in which they plan to work. Currently, physical therapists in some states are eligible for an an interstate licensure agreement called the “PT Compact” which makes licensing easier between states. Hopefully in the future, all 50 states will participate in this agreement, which would be a huge perk and make life much easier for travel physical therapists! Occupational and speech therapy organizations are in the process of working on this type of compact licensure as well, which would greatly benefit Travel OT’s and Travel SLP’s.

Do Travel Therapists Receive Benefits?

When therapists take travel contracts through a staffing agency, they become employees of the staffing agency, just like the recruiter with whom they’re communicating. During that contract, they are eligible to receive benefits (including health insurance, liability insurance, 401k, etc.) through the staffing company. They would maintain these benefits as long as they are on contract, and the benefits would carry over to the next contract and during short breaks between contracts if the therapist takes the next contract with the same company. If, however, the therapist switches companies, the benefits would change and switch to the new company.

If therapists choose to work as independent contractors, or choose to decline the benefits from the travel company, they would be responsible for maintaining their own benefits. For more information, check out this article explaining how benefits work as a travel therapist.

What About Housing?

There are many options for housing as a travel therapist. The staffing agency can help you set up housing, however it is often better to set up your own housing. If they set up your housing for you, they will not pay you a housing stipend, and your weekly pay would be reduced. If you opt to set up your own housing, they will pay you the tax-free housing stipend, and you are responsible for making your own housing arrangements.

There are a variety of ways to go about searching for short term housing as a travel therapist. Some real estate agencies and apartment complexes allow short term housing arrangements. Therapists can stay in extended stay motels, or many therapists choose to use sites such as Airbnb, VRBO, Furnished Finder, and Craigslist to find short term housing. Some travel therapists choose to stay with friends or family, or search Facebook communities to find housing options using their peer groups. You can also contact the facility where you would be working and ask if they have any housing leads. Others choose to live in an RV and stay at campgrounds, like we did for several years! Finding short term housing as a travel therapist can be a hassle, but there are many options!

Is Travel Therapy Limited to the United States?

The typical travel therapist is licensed to work in the United States and takes contracts within the United States or the US Territories.

Therapists who are trained outside of the US can pursue travel therapy within the US, but there are more regulations and hoops to jump through, so often this is not an easy career path. It is generally recommended that foreign-trained therapists apply for their work visas within the US at a permanent position prior to pursuing travel contract positions.

US-trained therapists who would like to travel for work outside the US will encounter similar challenges. It is possible to arrange short term travel contracts in another country, but it is certainly more challenging and not the norm. US therapists may have more success applying for a work visa in another country and applying directly to a certain facility to work there, rather than searching openings to try to obtain short term contracts.

How Do I Get Started?

If you’re interested in getting started as a travel physical therapist or other travel healthcare professional, check out our guide to starting your travel therapy career to learn what steps to take.

If you’d like our recommendations on travel therapy companies and recruiters that we’ve had a good experience with, fill out this form and we will send you personalized recommendations for your situation!

To learn even more about travel therapy, you can visit the other articles on our Travel Therapy Mentor website, and check out some of our own personal stories on our travel physical therapy blog “Fifth Wheel Physical Therapist.” Feel free to send us a message if you have more questions about pursuing a travel therapy career!

 

Written by Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC

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