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!

Finding Short Term Housing vs. Living in an RV as a Traveling Healthcare Provider

*This is a Guest Post that Whitney wrote for Furnished Finder where she discusses the differences in housing options for travel therapists, including some of the pros and cons of each! This post should be helpful to those of you trying to decide what’s the best housing choice for you as a travel healthcare provider!


Finding Short Term Housing vs. Living in an RV as a Traveling Healthcare Provider

One of the major concerns for many healthcare providers looking to pursue travel careers is how they will set up housing. There are many housing options out there for those of us who travel for work, from using sites like Furnished Finder to secure short-term furnished housing, to having the travel agency set you up at an extended stay hotel, to choosing some form of tiny living on wheels like an RV!

During my 5 years as a traveling physical therapist, I have utilized a few of these housing options and have had the opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of each. (And let me tell you, any option is going to have pros and cons!)

So let’s dive in to some of those pros and cons to considering these different options for housing, and maybe some of my insight will help you along your own travel healthcare journey!

Logistics and Considerations

When you’re considering what option to choose for housing, you will first need to take into account your own personal situation. Are you traveling solo, with a significant other, with children, or with a pet? Do you feel comfortable sharing accommodations or would you rather have your own place? If you’re thinking about tiny living/RVing, do you feel comfortable with the maintenance and upkeep involved with owning a home on wheels, plus towing it around the country?

In addition, you need to consider the location of your potential travel contract(s). Are you interested in traveling to big cities or more rural places? Some quick internet searches can reveal a lot for you as to how easy or difficult it’s going to be to secure short term housing on your own vs. having the travel company assist you with the process. It will also give you an idea of whether finding campgrounds/RV parks in the vicinity of where you might travel will be feasible.

For me, I am a traveling physical therapist and travel with my significant other who is also a traveling physical therapist, so after weighing lots of options, we decided to buy a camper and lived in it for about 3 years! This worked well for us overall as a pair, rather than finding short term housing for the both of us; however, we did end up renting a short term furnished place on a couple of assignments. More on our journey below and how we chose between short term housing and the RV life!

Company Provided Housing

This is actually the only housing option I have not utilized. Generally speaking, it seems that most travel healthcare providers choose to accept the housing stipend from the travel agency and then set up their own housing, rather than letting the company handle housing. There are some travelers who choose to let the company set up housing for them though.

I think generally the best time to let the travel company set up housing for you is if in the area where you’re traveling, you are having a lot of difficulty finding housing on your own, or you are short on time to be able to set this up yourself. Also, some travelers may just find it easier to have this weight lifted off their shoulders and let the company handle it.

The pros of letting the company set up housing for you would be that you have less worry and headache in getting the housing set up. You also probably won’t be on the hook for any rent/lease issues, in case your contract gets cancelled early. However, the cons are that, you may have less control over your accommodations, and you may end up losing money on your weekly pay because they take out a lot for housing instead of giving you the housing stipend!

Finding Short Term Housing On Your Own

I would say this is the option that the majority of travel healthcare providers choose! In your pay package, you will have the company allocate part of your pay as a housing stipend (hopefully tax free if you qualify by maintaining your tax home– hooray!). Then you will utilize different websites, like Furnished Finder; ask around in online forums and groups; call realtors and apartment complexes; and so forth until you can identify some good short term housing options!

The pros here are that you can usually find housing that’s cheaper than what the travel therapy company would take out of your paycheck, so after you pay your rent, you should come out ahead by keeping the extra money! (Who doesn’t like extra money?!) You also have more control over choosing your accommodations, such as proximity to work/attractions, as well as how many bedrooms/bathrooms, and other amenities at the accommodation!

Cons are that it is sometimes difficult to find places that offer short term rentals near where you’re going to be working. I’ve definitely run into this in the times that I had to search for short term housing. A lot of apartment complexes and personal ads for housing do not allow any shorter than 12 month leases. Also, lots of the places you find won’t be furnished or have utilities included, which leaves you with another problem to solve.

I will say that Furnished Finder has solved a lot of these problems for us. They only list places that offer short term leases (or even better, month to month!) for us as healthcare travelers. And all of their listings are already furnished. I can’t stress how much hassle this removes in terms of setting up leases, getting stuck in leases if your contract is cancelled, setting up utilities, and furnishing a place for only a couple months!

But, unfortunately there is never a guarantee that a property on Furnished Finder will be available for the location and dates that you need, so alas we must sometimes use the other options like Craigslist, Airbnb, VRBO, apartment complexes, extended stay motels, realtors, etc!

In my experience, I’ve rented two different places I found off Craigslist for two different assignments. Both were semi-private, meaning that they were part of someone’s home, but we had our own “suite” if you will. One was an over-the-garage studio apartment, but we had to share the kitchen and laundry in the main house. The other was a fully furnished basement with our own kitchen, but we had to enter through the main door and share the laundry upstairs. Overall these were good experiences, and we were very lucky to find furnished, short term rentals, with utilities included in the price, on Craigslist! Because Craigslist can definitely be hit or miss, and sometimes sketchy!

But unfortunately during our searches, we did find that there were extremely limited options for short term housing in the areas that we needed, with the criteria we wanted in an accommodation. When searching for short term housing as a traveler, you are definitely at the mercy of what’s available. So sometimes you’re either going to have to skimp on your ideal setup, or raise your budget, or possibly both.

Another consideration when choosing to set up short term housing as a traveler (whether on your own or with the company’s help), versus choosing an RV, is packing and moving often. This was a big thing we were trying to avoid by buying an RV. In an RV, you always have all your stuff with you, so you don’t have to constantly pack and move in and out of places. But, those travelers who do choose short term housing (again- the majority of travelers) do end up becoming pretty good at packing their cars and being minimalistic! And although it can be a headache sometimes, it’s just part of the traveler lifestyle and you get used to it!

Tiny Living or RV Life

Tiny living, van living, and RVing are definitely becoming more popular options for traveling healthcare providers. There is certainly some appeal to having your own home on wheels with you all the time, and traveling from place to place. To be honest, a lot of RVs now are just like little apartments, and you are by no means “camping outdoors” when living in an RV! However, tiny living is very much a lifestyle choice and not to be pursued by just anyone! It’s difficult to even compare it side by side with the alternative short term housing options, because it’s so different! I recommend not looking at this like option number 3, but like taking a left turn and pursuing a completely different path!

We chose to buy a camper pretty early in our travel PT careers, and there were several reasons why we thought this would work out better for us.

  • First, we thought it would make life easier to leave all of our stuff in the camper and just move it from place to place, without having to always pack, move in, and move out of places every 3 months or so!
  • Second, we thought finding campgrounds/RV parks would make the housing location search a lot easier than finding short term housing accommodations.
  • Third, we thought we would save a lot of money by buying the camper, staying cheaply at campgrounds, and then selling the camper when we were done.
  • Fourth, we thought it would be a cool adventure!

All of those were true, to some extent. However I don’t think it was exactly the all-around-perfect life choice that we envisioned when all was said and done.

Not having to pack and move all the time, and having all of our stuff in the camper with us all the time, was for sure a huge perk! We only had to do minimal “packing up” each time to make sure things didn’t fall down inside the camper. We could usually easily load up and move to a new place (if it was within driving distance) on a weekend, then get set up within an hour or so at the new place, and be back to work on Monday if we wanted!

The campground/RV Park finding process was easier than short term housing to an extent. However, it does sometimes limit the locations you can travel to. For example, it’s not as common to see RV Parks that allow long term (month to month) stays near bigger cities. We had pretty good luck finding them in suburban and rural areas, but it did limit us from going some places. The way we maneuvered this was, when presented with a potential contract to apply for, we instantly did a quick Google search to see if there were even any RV parks nearby before we submitted our applications for the job. That part made it a little more feasible. Because as compared with short term housing, you can’t always do a quick search to know whether there are places to rent readily available for the dates you need, before submitting for the job.

Financially, having the camper usually saved us on our monthly rent costs, with most campgrounds we stayed at costing between $300-900 per month. Whereas depending on the area, short term rentals could run you anywhere from $500-2500 per month! But, with an RV, you still have to account for the upfront cost of buying an RV, the costs for maintenance and repairs, and the depreciation on the vehicle if you plan to sell it afterwards. When all was said and done after factoring in these costs once we sold it, we probably about broke even over the course of 3 years. If you planned to keep it for shorter than 3 years, you’d most likely come out behind financially based on our calculations.

As far as adventure goes, it was certainly a fun experience and something we will be able to talk about for the rest of our lives! But it’s not for everyone. The part we didn’t really take into account were the maintenance and repairs. It’s like owning a house, but one that’s on wheels, with little parts that can break, and you can’t always easily find the part to replace or a repair person who knows how to fix it like at a normal house!

All in all, we are glad we chose to do the RV life for 3 years. But it did not come without its hassles and headaches. In the end, we were glad to sell it and not have the responsibility anymore! So this is a huge thing you need to take into consideration for yourself. Are you going to be the type of person who wants to maintain and upkeep your home on wheels? Or would you rather just rent short term housing and not have a place to worry about all the time?

What Type of Housing Is Best for You?

So what’s the best choice for housing as a traveling healthcare provider? I don’t think there’s one answer to this question. You really have to consider what type of person you are, and what you’re comfortable with. As I mentioned, most travelers will choose to go with short term housing and set up their own accommodations. But there’s always the option of letting the company set up housing for you for an assignment and seeing how that goes. Or if you’re feeling really adventurous, or already know you like the camper lifestyle, maybe you decide to jump into RVing/Tiny Living, but just make sure to do your research before making any big purchases!

I hope this information has been helpful to you in terms of deciding what types of housing will be best for you as a traveling healthcare provider! Happy Travels, and enjoy the journey!

 


Written by, Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC

Whitney has been a traveling physical therapist since 2015 and travels with her significant other and fellow Travel PT, Jared Casazza. Together they have a personal blog titled “Fifth Wheel PT,” which got its name from their 3 years traveling and living full time in a fifth wheel camper! Whitney and Jared have traveled for PT work up and down the east coast, and in their time off between contracts have traveled all over the world! Together with Jared, Whitney also mentors current and future travel therapists at their website TravelTherapyMentor.com. You can follow their travel journey on Instagram or Facebook @TravelTherapyMentor.