There is no way around it … tuition is expensive.
Doctor of physical therapy programs in particular, because of their length (three years) and level (graduate), require a huge financial commitment; at least $100,000 in student loans for most graduates, when tuition and living expenses are factored in.
It would be one thing if a new physical therapist (PT) could easily expect to earn enough money to pay student loans and other bills, but increasingly, PTs are finding it difficult to pull that off. Reimbursements by insurance for physical therapy are decreasing, which means salaries in physical therapy aren’t rising very much, if at all.
But it’s not all bad news. There are some things you can do to mitigate the financial drawbacks, and pursue the career you love.
Get a financial education too
One of the best things you can do, is educate yourself about your finances. There is a dearth of financial education provided to teens and young adults, and as a result, most of us leave high school, college and even graduate school with no idea how to do our taxes, invest money or create passive income, let alone balance a checkbook!
But, if we invest in a financial education for ourselves, we can not only survive, but thrive, financially, even in a time when reimbursements for physical therapy are declining.
To be fair, most of us do not get into the profession of physical therapy to make money. We want to help people. And let’s face it, we love science, not economics. But, it’s hard to help others when you are in a constant state of anxiety over you financial situation, which is happening to more and more new physical therapy professionals, with overwhelming student loan debt and lackluster salaries.
Luckily, there is no shortage of quality financial education resources. If you’re not sure where to start, check out Investopedia, and in particular, their YouTube channel. I also highly recommend reading “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki. This book will change the way you look at income. For the better. Guaranteed. This book presents an entirely different way to look at your finances than most of us were taught. For a preview of the book, check out the video at the end of this post.
Choose your program wisely
If you are still considering which physical therapy program to attend, make sure that you are taking into consideration the cost of the program. It’s OK to want to attend a highly-ranked (expensive) program, and to make sure that you are getting a high-quality education, but the reality is, you don’t need to attend a top tier program to have a successful career. More about how to choose a physical therapy school can be found in this post.
Student loan debt can hamper your ability to buy a house, save for retirement, or even get married and start a family. Before you choose a program, do extensive research on tuition, fees and living expenses associated with the schools you are considering. Calculate the amount in loans you intend to borrow, and what your estimated payment, with interest, will be once you start repaying those loans. Then compare that monthly bill (plus other bills like rent/mortgage, utilities, car payment, etc.) with the take-home pay you can expect as a new graduate.
Some resources are available within the website of the U.S. Department of Education, such as a repayment calculator. Again, most of us are not in it for the money. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider the financial aspects before jumping in.
Loan Repayment Programs
If you have federal government-backed student loans (SallieMae/Navient) and you work in certain settings (VA facilities, e.g.), in 10 years those loans can be forgiven. There are other programs that help you pay back your loans if you work in a rural area that is underserved by PTs.
These programs change from time to time depending on what the government’s needs are and what they are trying to incentivize. So you’ll need to do some research to see what is currently available. APTA has a page on this topic.
It sounds wrong, maybe disloyal, but one of the best ways to increase your salary fairly quickly is to “job hop.” Look for a new opportunity once every 12 to 24 months. Negotiate with each employer so that your salary increases at least 5-10% from your last position (way more than the 0-3% you’d get by staying put). Do this 3 or 4 times and then settle into a more long term position once you are at the level you want to be.
If you’re worried about how moving around from job to job will affect your employment prospects, don’t. These days, people do it all the time, especially in the early stages of a career, and it’s not as bad for your career as it used to be.
In most areas of the country, there are plenty of jobs. More jobs means the employers need you more than you need them, and job-hopping becomes less of an issue. I’m sure I’ll get flack for that in the comments section from hard working clinic owners and hiring managers, but it’s true.
A word of caution: make sure you can back up your increased salary with increasing expertise and value. Take continuing education courses. Obtain certifications or special training. Be good at your job and get stellar references from employers and patients. If you’re “all hat and no cattle,” this strategy won’t work.
Another strategy to increase your income after you graduate, is travel physical therapy. There are so many tax breaks for travelers that you end up pocketing way more cash. Housing and relocation costs, as well as some other stipends are tax-free as long as you travel more than 50 miles from your permanent residence, netting you potentially hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars in tax savings. More information on travel PT can be found in this post.
Wait until you have at least a year or two of experience and give it a try. I have had travel contracts with facilities that provide a comprehensive week-long orientation; but I have also been to facilities that hand you a list of patient names, without so much as a tour of the building. The expectation, most of the time, is that you can function independently as a traveling PT.
You can maximize your situation by traveling with a friend who is also a traveling PT/OT/SLP/RN. Since your housing is paid for when you travel, if you travel with a roommate, you can split one person’s housing stipend.
Is it worth it?
A lot of PT students find themselves asking that question, when they consider the high cost of student loans and the relatively low salaries. There certainly has been a lot of discussion on the topic in the last few years, and quite a few PTs who wouldn’t recommend this profession.
But I think it’s worth it, if you do it right. It’s still a job where you get to help people all day long, without sitting in a cubicle. And, to some, that is priceless.