Achieving a Positive Net Worth in 2 Years with 6 Figures of Debt: Yonas’s Story

We’ve written extensively about how travel therapy, among other strategic financial choices, has helped put us in an amazing financial position. But we’re not the only therapists who have taken advantage of this career path to achieve financial freedom! Today we’re bringing you a financial success story from a fellow traveling therapist who was able to achieve a positive net worth (assets minus debts) in only 2 years after graduating with his Doctor of Physical Therapy degree! We hope Yonas’s story will further inspire you about the possibilities in your career path as a traveling therapist! Check out his story to learn more:


Achieving a Positive Net Worth in Two Years with Six Figures of Debt: Yonas’s Story

Background

I am a 28-year-old Doctor of Physical Therapy, and I graduated in May of 2018 with six figures of debt. I recently achieved a positive net worth after strategically making simple moves within two years.

I still have student loan debt but have chosen to not rush to pay this debt off, while instead focusing on investing for my future. The amount of assets/money I have is now more than my debts, which equals a positive net worth. I would have never thought I would be this excited to be above water, but here we are today!

How Did I Get Here?

Below I’ll discuss the simple moves I completed to achieve a positive net worth in just two years out of school. These may or may not be easy depending on your goals and situation. Everyone comes from a different starting point, and each person has different goals, life situations, and opportunities.

Personally, I am a first-generation Eritrean. I do not come from a family of wealth. As the son of immigrants, I was instilled with the values of working hard and saving. I never thought about debt or finances until recently. I became interested in how to manage my debt, so I started listening to audiobooks and podcasts on my commutes to work, which is where I learned about most of the tools to help set me up for financial success.

With a bit of research, hustle, and determination, anyone can improve their financial situation.

Here are the 5 steps I used to reach a positive net worth:

  1. Live below your means
  2. Increase income
  3. Automate
  4. Be consistent
  5. Surround yourself with like-minded people

Let’s dive into each one of these steps to see how you can utilize these strategies too.

Live Below Your Means

Spend lavishly on things you love and save immensely on things you do not care about” — quote by author Ramit Sethi, from I Will Teach You To Be Rich

I am pretty low maintenance and do not value many expensive, material things. I do value experiences. I save a good chunk of my paycheck and splurge occasionally on experiences.

For example, during a recent weekend, I went to Yosemite National Park and rented out a cabin with friends. I am living my best life and saving money as well.

I also give credit to my Instant Pot. I am able to cook nearly anything in it. It is great because I can make affordable meals, it makes large portions, and it saves time. As a solo travel therapist, I have lived in places that do not have stovetops or full kitchens, often allowing me to save money on housing costs. Even with these accommodations, I have not had a problem eating well with the Instant Pot. A big “money saver” food is rice as a side. I have eaten over a hundred pounds of rice over the years. My staple dinner is cooked chicken, vegetables, and rice. Yummy for a good price.

This may sound extreme to some, but I am happy with how I am living my life. These are just a couple examples of how I am able to live frugally and put aside a lot in savings. You need to figure out what is your savings comfort level, and make moves accordingly.

Increase Income

Unfortunately, the job market for physical therapists doesn’t always allow for the highest paychecks depending on your setting and location. However, thus far in my career, I have focused on only taking higher-paying jobs in order to improve my financial situation.

I am flexible on setting, location, and am open to moving anywhere in the country. My first job was a permanent job in a large teaching hospital. It was a great learning experience for my first job, but I could not stay there if I wanted to reach my financial goals. I put in my one-month notice and applied for higher-paying travel PT jobs. I have also worked higher paying Per Diem jobs.

In my short two years as a PT so far, I have worked in the ICU, CCU, SNF, ALF, LTC, home health, outpatient, and acute care settings. I have been exposed to many settings from the many travel contracts and PRN jobs I have taken. There is always something new to learn, and if you’re strategic in choosing your positions, you can find high paying jobs while experiencing a variety of settings and learning new skills.

Automate Your Decisions

In order to stay on track financially, I automate my savings, my payments on expenses, and my investments. I automate everything to where I do not have to think about it, thus making it easier to reach my financial goals, be sure not to miss any payments, and having money automatically directed towards savings. This strategy psychologically trains me to not even expect the extra money from my paycheck that is automatically allocated to my bills and my savings accounts.

I am currently saving about 60-70 percent of my paycheck. As part of my savings, I maximize my Roth IRA retirement account. I invest in the same fund every month and plan to do so for as long as I can. This money will benefit me in retirement, and some of it can hopefully be passed down to my future kids or beneficiaries one day. Outside of my retirement contributions, I currently do not invest in any additional brokerage accounts, as I want to hold money to invest in real estate for now. This is a personal decision to diversify my savings.

Remain Consistent

It is important to have an end goal and motivation to stay consistent. What’s the point of making money if you do not have any intrinsic motivation?

I hope to one day be financially free, allowing me the freedom to work because I want to, not because I have to. I also love volunteering and would love to have more free time for this.

Surround Yourself with Like-Minded People

It’s important to hang out with finance rock stars or like-minded people. You are the average of the 5 people you hang out with most (~Jim Rohn). Since the pandemic currently makes it tough to hang out with anyone in person, I try to listen to people who not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk in the finance world. I do so via audiobooks or podcasts, so I can internalize their mindset on money which helps me in my own life. Everyone has an opinion, and it is best to listen to people who have a track record of success. Growing up, I was the kid who never read a book unless if it was for school; however, I am currently on track to read/listen to at least 24 books this year because of the valuable content I have gained.

During the first few months of my first PT job, I had the mindset to pay off my loans ASAP and put the majority of my paycheck toward loans for peace of mind. There is nothing wrong with this, and it’s a great strategy for many people. However, after listening to many podcasts and books, I have changed my mindset and prefer to use the money toward investments and not rush to pay off my loans. I would rather pay myself first and set myself up for a positive financial future, than rush to pay back my student loans at this time.

Future Goals

I am unsure of what the future holds for me. I am currently saving a chunk of my paycheck in a high yield savings account and maximizing my Roth IRA retirement account. I know that in the future I do plan to invest in real estate. I would like to live in a unit, and rent out the others. Hopefully, I can buy property at least once a year and see where the investment goes from there.

Recommended Resources

Below are a couple of life-changing books that changed my mindset on finances. I would recommend checking these out if you’re looking to get into a better financial situation!

  • Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki
  • I Will Teach You to be Rich by Ramit Sethi

A resource I wish would’ve been available to me as a beginning travel therapist is “Rate My Therapy Company” Facebook group. I created this community to fill a need of therapists not knowing what kinds of companies they would be signing contracts with. This group allows therapists to rate companies and provide valuable information on factors like pay, setting type, and company culture.

I love talking about my story, so if you have further questions about it, you can email me or send me a Facebook message—I am an open book.

Best of luck to you as you pursue your own path to financial freedom!


Yonas Tekeste is a travel physical therapist originally from Chicago, Illinois. He graduated with his DPT degree in May of 2018. He is currently taking a month-long break from travel contracts to spend more time with family in Illinois. He enjoys listening to podcasts, playing sports, hiking, and attending social events in his free time. The best way to contact Yonas is through Facebook or email at Yonastekeste@gmail.com


We would like to thank Yonas for sharing his story with us! Please feel free to contact Yonas to learn more about his financial strategies. You can also contact us if you have more questions about starting a career in travel therapy to help set yourself up for a better financial future, as we and many other traveling therapists have done!

What is Financial Independence and Why is it Easier to Reach as a Travel Therapist?

It’s been over a year now since I reached financial independence at the age of 30, and getting to that point at such a young age is due in large part to choosing to pursue a career in travel physical therapy as a new grad.

Originally when Whitney and I started traveling, I laid out a rough outline and projected it would take me about 5 years of working as a travel PT to reach financial independence. But, surprisingly, I was able to both make more and spend less than I anticipated, which sped things up significantly.

Even though my story and path to FIRE (financially independent retired early) is unique, it didn’t require anything particularly special to be done. I think my journey to financial independence can definitely be replicated by other travel therapists.

The keys to reaching financial independence as a travel therapist were:

    • living frugally
    • hustling to make as much money as possible
    • investing money intelligently

What is Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE)?

Essentially reaching financial independence is getting to the point at which it’s possible to cover all of your living expenses with only investment returns (or other forms of passive income) indefinitely. At that point, work becomes optional since the income from work is no longer needed to sustain your financial life.

Once financial independence is reached and work becomes optional, many people choose to retire early. I personally have only worked 10 weeks as a physical therapist in the past two years, since I’d rather spend time traveling internationally and working on other interests than to work with patients at this point in my life. It’s not that I never plan on working as a therapist again, it’s just that I no longer have to; and I am choosing to do other things with life right now. I enjoy helping people in a physical therapy capacity, and will likely do some sort of part time work as a PT in the future, but any money earned from it is just icing on the cake at this point.

How do You Determine When You’re Financially Independent?

Most people have no idea how much money they need to reach financial independence and retire. This is a problem because many people, myself included, are motivated by setting and achieving goals. How do you set and strive to reach a goal of retiring when you have no idea how much money is needed?

This is where the 4% rule comes in. The 4% rule is a research-backed method for determining how much money is needed to reach financial independence. Basically, when your invested assets reach a level where you can cover a year’s worth of expenses while withdrawing only 4% of your investment portfolio, you’ve reached financial independence. Even though average equity returns (taking into account the history of the stock market) are in the 8-10% range, there are periods of time when returns can be significantly lower than that, so planning to withdraw 8-10% from your portfolio per year can easily lead to running out of money before you die. At a safer withdrawal rate of 4% per year though, running out of money is very unlikely, assuming that your money is invested wisely.

An easy way to determine how much you’ll need to retire is to use the inverse of the 4% rule, by taking your yearly expenses and multiplying by 25. This is exactly how I figured out what net worth number to shoot for to reach financial independence back in 2015 when I started working toward FIRE.

Traditional financial planning usually involves calculating your retirement number based on your yearly income rather than your yearly expenses. But this just doesn’t really make sense. The true number you need to focus on to figure out your retirement, or financial independence, number, is how much you actually spend each year, and therefore how much money you need to live on for a year. In order to figure this out, you’d need to track your expenses for a few months or a whole year to get a good estimate of how much you actually spend in a year.

Since your financial independence goal number is determined by expenses, reducing monthly/yearly expenses is the easiest way to reduce the amount of time to get there. This makes your savings rate vital!

Why Strive to Achieve Financial Independence?

Everyone has their own reasons for trying to reach financial independence. It could be to spend more time with family, to take long trips overseas, to spend more time working on hobbies, as well as a variety of other reasons. For me the biggest reason was to have as many options as possible. Reaching financial independence meant that I can now pursue whatever it is that piques my interest at any given time. I’ve found over time that my interests change often, and having as much time as I want to pursue new interests when they arise is huge for me.

Why is Reaching Financial Independence Easier as a Travel Therapist?

There are several reasons why I believe that reaching financial independence is easier as a travel therapist compared to therapists working permanent jobs. All of the factors below directly contributed to my success in reaching financial independence so quickly:

  1. Higher income:This is the most obvious reason and the reason why many therapists choose to travel in the first place. Most travel therapists can expect to earn between 1.5-2 times as much money after taxes compared to a therapist working a permanent job. The more money a therapist is able to make, the more they’re able to save to reach financial independence more quickly.
  2. Becoming a minimalist:As a travel therapist, getting used to living with less is important. Packing and moving is always difficult, but it gets more difficult the more stuff you take with you to each assignment. Whitney and I both progressively became more minimalist the more travel assignments we took in order to avoid having to pack and move as much stuff, and this seems to be an almost unanimous trait among other travelers as well. Learning to be a minimalist is important in reaching financial independence because the less you buy, the lower your expenses, and the faster your path to FIRE.
  3. Lower student loan payments:I’ve written numerous articles on student loans including all the various student loan forgiveness options over the years. As a travel therapist on an income driven repayment plan, it’s possible to reduce your student loan payment significantly and even to pay $0/month in some cases. Going on the REPAYE repayment plan and pursuing student loan forgiveness while saving and investing as much as possible has allowed me to have a significantly higher net worth even when factoring in my student loan balance gradually growing. This isn’t the solution for everyone but is definitely worth considering, especially as a travel therapist with lower taxable income.
    • For those therapists who would rather pay off their student loans as quickly as possible, point #1 about higher income can help you to aggressively pay off your student loans within just a couple years as a travel therapist, compared with stretching it out over 10+ years on a standard repayment.
  4. Cheaper health insurance:Currently under the Affordable Care Act, subsidies can make health insurance extremely affordable for those with a low taxable income. I’ve been able to take advantage of this for the past couple of years with, health insurance costing me less than $150/month while using the ACA marketplace plans between contracts. While on contract I’ve always chosen to use company sponsored plans which have always been very affordable. For most Americans, health insurance costs are a major concern, but as a travel therapist with a lower adjusted gross income (AGI), health insurance can be very affordable!

Using Travel Therapy to Gain Freedom

Financial independence is a goal that everyone should be striving for regardless if retiring early is appealing or not. Even if you love your job and plan to never quit working, having the peace of mind of knowing that work is optional is invaluable. Having more options in your life is always a wonderful thing!

Pursuing a career as a travel therapist, with all of the flexibility and benefits inherent in the job, is a perfect way to reach financial independence more quickly. Travel therapy was certainly vital for me in reaching my financial goals in such a short period of time!


If you’d like help getting started on your own path to financial independence and travel therapy journey, feel free to contact us with questions or ask us for recommendations for travel therapy companies/recruiters to help you get started!

Jared Casazza

Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT