Is travel PT the solution to student debt?
One of the most common concerns for graduate students and new grads is student loans. With the vast majority of students graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, on the low end, it’s understandable that many are searching for a solution.
I began thinking about my own student loan situation very early on during physical therapy school. There’s only so much you can do about accruing student debt during school due to high tuition rates, living expenses, and limited time to work. Obviously, choosing a school with a lower tuition cost, trying to live cheaply during school, and trying to apply for any eligible scholarships or grants, although these are few and far between, will help to minimize the amount of student debt you accrue.
I did my best to minimize expenses during PT school, by choosing an in-state public graduate school close to home, which allowed me to live at home and save on living expenses. However, despite these efforts, in addition to coming out of undergrad without any debt, I still amassed nearly $100,000 in student debt from graduate school alone. Considering how challenging it is to avoid debt after graduate school, most of the important decisions about student loans are left to be made in the years following graduation. This is when higher income and lower expenses can allow one to start chipping away at student loan debt that’s already been accrued.
For me, the best way to create a large margin between my income and expenses was with travel physical therapy.
My decision to pursue travel PT
I knew from the very beginning of physical therapy school that travel therapy was an option that I was interested in, but I never realized how good of an option it was until after my first year. I met a travel PT at my first internship who had been traveling for 5 years and was able to set himself up in a great financial situation along with having some exciting adventures. He had very few negative things to say about travel therapy, and it was at that point I decided this was something I was going to pursue after graduation. It has now been two years since graduation, and I have been traveling since day one with my girlfriend and fellow PT, Whitney.
Travel has been a great decision for us financially. Within 14 months of working, I had saved enough to completely wipe out my $98,000 in student loan debt if I had chosen to do so. Originally that was, in fact, my intention, but after researching some options I discovered that financially it was not in my best interest to do so. After days of research and calculations, I realized that by choosing an income-based loan repayment option with eventual student loan forgiveness instead of aggressively paying off my loans, I would be able to save thousands and gain additional financial security.
For those who are debt averse, emotional considerations could outweigh the financial benefits. But for me, this is not the case. Since everyone’s situation is different, I would highly recommend that you run the numbers yourself, or if that’s not feasible for you, you can consult a financial professional.
The financial superiority of travel PT
Whether your intention is to aggressively repay loans, or make investments for the future while paying the minimum on your loans, a compelling case can be made for the financial superiority of travel physical therapy. It’s not unrealistic for a new grad travel therapist to make the equivalent of $100,000 per year or greater, and in fact, I was able to make the equivalent of more than $120,000 in my first year of travel.
In addition to the higher pay associated with travel therapy, some ways that I have been able to optimize my financial situation have included: minimizing time off between contracts, living in a fifth wheel camper to reduce living expenses, working overtime when available, finding occasional PRN positions, investing aggressively (401k, Roth IRA, taxable accounts, and real estate), making extra money on credit card and bank account sign up bonuses, and generally living a frugal lifestyle by enjoying experiences while on assignment (many at little to no cost) instead of possessions. Each of these are broad topics that could have their own posts and exceed the scope of this article, but I encourage you to explore the links above to learn more if you’re interested.
The downside of travel therapy
Although travel therapy has a lot of benefits, it’s not always sunshine and rainbows. There are also hassles that come with the territory. Moving often and having to find short term housing is difficult and can be expensive, however, we’ve been able to combat the increased cost by traveling around in a fifth wheel camper.
Getting licensed in each state where you want to travel is a headache, with some states requiring high fees, long wait times, or requiring difficult exams at testing centers. Although the fees associated with licensing are reimbursed by most travel companies, the time invested in obtaining the licenses can be substantial. In addition, sick days and vacation time are unheard of in travel therapy, which means that any time off leads directly to reduced pay.
Another issue to be aware of is that in order to be eligible for tax-free stipends (the primary reason that travel therapy is so lucrative), a vital requirement is to have duplicate expenses. This means you need to be paying living expenses in the area where you’re traveling as well as the area of your tax home, which can eat away a portion of your income. However, by law, this is the stipulation for qualifying to receive the untaxed stipend.
Should new grads pursue travel PT?
We have often heard practicing physical therapists discourage new grads from jumping into travel PT right out of school. Many are quick to recount horror stories of being placed in difficult situations in travel assignments and encourage PTs to wait until they have more experience.
However, I believe it’s a viable option if you take into consideration the following: that you are confident with your evaluation and treatment skills, that you are a quick learner and adaptable to new situations, that you are picky about choosing your first assignment to ensure a supportive work environment (including considering the other staff members available, an orientation period, and/or a new grad friendly facility), and that you had a strong clinical experience in the same setting that you’ll be entering for your first job.
The benefits of travel therapy
There are pros and cons to everything in life, but for me travel physical therapy has had many more pros than cons. It’s a great option to improve your financial situation and help pay off your loans early if that’s your goal.
Despite many experienced PTs discouraging new grads from starting with travel therapy right away, we felt confident in our abilities to start right out of school and feel it can be feasible for other new grads as well.
Financially speaking, once you have exhausted your options for reducing your cost of living, and made sure you are maximizing your savings and investments, travel physical therapy can be the key to helping you maximize your income over the salary that would be available for a permanent position.
All things considered, I believe travel physical therapy should be an option that many new grads should consider in order to improve their financial situation. If interested, check out these two blog posts (here and here) that I’ve written previously on Whitney’s and my experience on traveling as new grads. Feel free to contact me with any questions and good luck with your financial journey!