Retiring Early on a Physical Therapist’s Salary: “Choose Healthy, Not Normal”


Today I am very excited to bring to you the first guest post on this blog. This post comes to you courtesy of Chris who writes for his and his wife’s blog, Eat the Financial Elephant. Chris recently retired in February after working only 16 years as a full time physical therapist. He is extremely knowledgeable with finance related topics, has a bigger blog following than me, and is a much better writer than I am, so this should be a treat for you guys. Without further ado, here is his post which he fittingly titled, “Choose Healthy, Not Normal!”

Thank you to Jared and Whitney for the opportunity to write a post for the “Fifth Wheel Physical Therapist.” I am a physical therapist as well, with a shared interest in personal finance.

I started my career in 2001. After 16 years, I have achieved financial independence, or at least enough financial security to quit my job to pursue other interests, while putting our ultra-safe early retirement plan into action.

I am extremely excited to start reaching out to young physical therapists and other professionals to assist your financial education and be an example of what is possible in life by simply making a few decisions differently than the masses.

Are We Normal?

There are probably a handful of readers of blogs like Jared’s or mine who are looking for inspiration or practical solutions to start their own journey to financial independence. If you are one, then cheers to you.

More commonly, people stumble upon blogs like ours. They look at people like Jared or myself and see examples of the “extreme.”

Some see us as some type of outliers, with special financial skills or knowledge they do not and can not possess.

Others assume high savings rates equate to sacrifice. They tune out before learning the deeper truth.

Still others simply do not believe what we are doing is possible. We must be exaggerating, or making our stories up completely.

If you assume you could not achieve financial independence quickly, I am going to ask you to challenge your assumptions today.

Does Average = Normal?

As physical therapists, we work with the general population. Ask yourself a few questions.

What percentage of your clients eat a diet consisting primarily of processed foods? What percentage of your clients exercise at least 30 minutes daily, at least three times per week? What percentage of your clients are overweight? Obese? What percentage have Type 2 Diabetes? Hypertension? Heart disease? What is the average number of medications each of your clients takes?

Is a sedentary lifestyle, excessively eating garbage food, having multiple associated lifestyle diseases, and managing them with multiple medications average or typical for a middle age American? Unfortunately, it absolutely is.

Is it healthy? I hope you agree it is not.

Is it normal?

The Parallels of Finance and Health

Think of everyone that you graduated with. Think of other high earning professionals that you know. Now ask yourself a few more questions.

What percentage of people graduate with student debt? What percentage have 6-figure debt? Despite this debt, how many of them go out and finance a fancy car as soon as, or even before, they collect their first paycheck? How many are all too excited to let a lender determine what they can “afford” when going for a mortgage on a first home?

How many high earners save at least 15-20% of their income? Of that small number, how many take the time to actually understand and manage their investments? How many simply follow the worst investing advice I’ve ever heard everywhere?

How many people plan to work until age 60 or 65 or greater? How many simply do it because that is when you can get Medicare, collect Social Security and take retirement distributions without penalty? How many people do not even put that much thought into retirement planning?

Now ask yourself again, is this behavior average or typical? Absolutely.

Is it healthy? I think not.

Is it normal?

Redefining Normal

The first step in fixing our health and financial problems is redefining normal. In our society, what Jared and I are doing is very atypical.

However, it is also atypical for an average American to eat an organic diet focused on healthy fats, proteins and copious amounts of fruits and vegetables. A typical American diet is mostly processed foods from boxes and cans, pesticide sprayed produce, hormone and antibiotic infused meat, and tons of sugar and salt. Does anyone recommend this to their patients or clients simply because everyone else is doing it?

Exercising regularly is atypical for the average American living a sedentary lifestyle. Should you strive for lousy posture because the average client presents this way? Do we ever suggest that it is “normal” to not be able to lift your arms overhead or bend down to pick something from the floor? Should we dissuade our clients from starting a walking program, because most people do not get out and walk? Of course not.

We define normal for our clients as the healthy ideal, not the average or typical presentation. Why do we not define normal in our own financial lives as a healthy state? Why do we mindlessly accept normal as the average or typical lifestyle, simply because everyone else is doing it?

Am I Normal?

My introduction to FIRE (financially independent, retired early) blogs was Early Retirement Extreme (ERE), written by Jacob Lund Fisker. I started my blog to document my path to financial independence to give a different perspective, that of a “normal” couple.

I couldn’t relate to most of Jacob’s story. He chose to live in a trailer, with no car and no cell phone. He described eating mostly the same foods every day, living off about $9,000/year while living in the San Francisco bay area.

We live a more typical American lifestyle. Neither my wife or I have ever had a year where we earned a 6-figure salary. We live in a 2,000 square foot home and own 2 cars. We have traveled extensively domestically and abroad. We have a child. We prioritize eating healthy and have no food budget. Our spending is several multiples of the ERE standard.

However, my wife and I have made our own set of choices, that are also not “normal.” We have always saved at least 50% of our income. We have taken a hard line against debt. We have collected 6 degrees between us with less than $20,000 total debt. We used a 15 year mortgage and paid it off in 7 years. I have never made a car loan payment in my life, and have never paid a penny of credit card interest.

Choosing Healthy Over Average

The things that it takes to become financially healthy, and eventually financially independent, are often simple, but they are not always easy. They are a result of making conscious decisions to take a different path from the masses.

There are no long lines of high earning professionals fighting Jared and Whitney to get spots in the campgrounds that enable them to make their story a reality. Likewise, my used Chevy Malibu was out of place for years parked in a lot full of Lexuses, BMWs, and full-sized SUV’s owned by others who I have worked with.

We also must admit our problems and confront our weaknesses. Burying our heads in the sand will not make problems or deficiencies go away. Jared has written extensively here about his 6-figure debt and strategies to address it.

In my case, I had to overcome massive mistakes due to my ignorance with investing and tax planning early in my career. After years of costly mistakes, I have documented how I now save tens of thousands of dollars each year by managing our investments and creating a simple tax plan.

It is easy to focus on others’ strengths and think that they have it easy. However, we all must face our own demons and address them.

Get Started Today

Maybe you are a student reading this blog and considering options as you start your career as Jared was a few years ago. Maybe you have been working for years and find yourself burnt out and starving for change as I was when starting my journey. We each have our own unique story and face unique challenges.

The key is to first make the choice to reject the idea that today’s average lifestyle is normal. Consciously choose your own path. Choose healthy, not normal.

Then that decision must be followed with massive action. What will you do to start your own journey to financial independence today?

Thanks again to Jared and Whitney for allowing me the opportunity to reach out to your readers. I love to connect with others with similar interests. Leave me a comment below or connect with me through my blog, Eat the Financial Elephant, if I can assist you on your journey.

I sincerely appreciate Chris taking the time to write such a well thought out blog post. Be sure to check out his blog and to leave comments or questions below for him.

Progress to Financial Independence- April 2017

We’re now a little over three weeks into our new contracts in Berryville, VA. Currently we are living at a campground in Harpers Ferry, WV. The trip to get here from our last assignment in eastern North Carolina was less than pleasant. We stopped for a night in Roanoke, VA to see our families on the way, but not before having to go down a steep incline at a gas station and destroying on of the stabilizer jacks on the back of the fifth wheel. When we arrived at the campground, our living room slide out got partially stuck on one side which resulted in the slide not being able to fully extend or retract. Luckily we were able to get it most of the way out and enough that rain doesn’t get in. We plan to have it repaired once we leave this campground on the way to the next assignment.

The stock market has continued to stay near all time highs which means that my investments did well this month. Both of my personal loans continue to go according to plan. In addition, I surpassed my savings goal by a healthy margin again this month. Our new contracts are the highest paying that we have taken so far which is helpful, and I have also worked 25 hours overtime in the first three weeks of being here which helped my net worth. I plan to continue to work as much overtime as possible, and that, in conjunction with the higher pay, should lead to a significant increase in my savings rate over the next couple of months.

I am now a little less than 40% of the way to my total goal for financial independence, which is not bad for less than two years since graduation. June 2020 is still the estimated FI date, based on my current projections, but with a little luck I’ll be closing in on May 2020 within the next couple of months. At some point I’ll probably need to update my net worth goal based on my current spending rate, which is significantly less than my original estimates when I started tracking my progress last year. I’m torn between keeping the goal the same to be safe versus making the goal more realistic to hit my FI target sooner. Ultimately it doesn’t make a difference, but the quicker I can proclaim that I’m financially independent, the less stressed I’ll be. If all of this overtime continues and the market stays around current levels, May should be a very good month for me as well.