Below, I tell my story of how much physical therapy (PT) school cost me and how I attempted to mitigate costs. I also integrated a few lessons within this article for those who are still in school.
Bachelors of Science in Kinesiology: ($9,504.14 + 4 years of study)
I accumulated $9.5k of student loans during my undergraduate years. This cost would have been non-existent if I had gone to community college. While it was expensive, my local university provided me with leadership and networking opportunities within their pre-physical therapy student association that lead me to be an exceptional candidate for one of the nation’s most competitive physical therapy (PT) programs.
Solely based on the life-changing experiences I had during my undergraduate years, I cannot say I regret my decision. However, the better financial move would have been to go to a community college. All three of my siblings went to community college prior to a university and came out with a much better return on investment.
Lesson # 1: Attending community college for your pre-requisite courses could save you thousands.
Doctorate of Physical Therapy: ($87,429 + 3 years of study)
It was my goal to become a PT despite the high cost. Unfortunately, my graduate program did not provide substantial scholarships to students no matter how good their grades were.
I became even more devastated when I found out state and federal grants that were applied during my undergrad year do not apply to graduate students. To make things worse, in 2012, laws changed and graduate students were no longer eligible to receive subsidized loans.
total amount borrowed
The cost of my schooling could have been much more had I not tried to mitigate costs.
I not only kept the cost of housing, transportation, and food at a minimum, but I also spent next to nothing on books.
During my 7 years in college, I lived at home with my mother and siblings. My siblings and I didn’t have to do anything except work towards a cleaner house and made sure we were around for dinner.
It was a headache just to think about spending thousands of dollars on a used car and having to deal with maintenance, traffic, and fighting off sleep at the wheel while traveling to school.
To me, a car was an inconvenience when public transportation was available. Especially, since the train station was only a mile away. Often my brother and I would time ourselves running the distance and compare our times in an unofficial contest. I think he still holds the record at slightly under 6 minutes. Maybe after I fix my knee, I’ll shoot to break some records.
My mom cooked in bulk which made packing leftovers easy. Since meals consisted of home-cooked Chinese food, my classmates were often left jealous. I doubt anyone negatively judged me. Even if they did, I wouldn’t care and neither should you.
Books & other expenses
Books are costly, but they can be greatly mitigated. I only spent roughly $500 on textbooks throughout my years in undergrad and a little more than $1000 in grad school.
Integrate yourself into a network of peers following a similar curriculum, purchase books that you need, cannot borrow, and can be resold.
In undergrad, it was the Pre-Physical Therapy Student Association for which I eventually became elected president and we initiated a book swap program.
Additionally, I hustled and poached potential buyers from the university library. I researched where certain classes were held the next semester, posted flyers on campus, and used email list-serves to sell to other students.
Lastly, I also looked for international textbooks which often has a different cover, but are otherwise identical. The best part is that they may be 50 – 75% of the cost of domestic texts. I simply bought low and sold high. In the end, I ended up selling all my undergrad textbooks — some for profit (I learned a lot of this from my now wife who is also a hustler).
During grad school, I consulted with upperclassmen to determine how frequently these “required” books were actually used.
I eventually found a senior classman who had a similar learning style as me, so I relied on his judgment and only purchased a handful of books that he actually used.
I also never purchased books from the university bookstore. Buying online was always more affordable. If it took too long for the book to ship to my home, the university library carried limited electronic and paper qualities I could temporarily use. Also, my classmates were always willing to share during study sessions.
As far as non-educational spending, I went out enough to not seem like a complete weirdo and when I did, I avoided splurging. Credit cards helped pay for outings, but I never missed a credit card payment and I still haven’t to this day. Life was a bit tamed, but it was all about setting myself up for success.
Income While In School
While earning my bachelor’s degree, I worked various jobs as a server, teaching assistant, PT-Aide and caterer for a temp agency. In doing so, I saved $10,000 of the $16,000 I made throughout my 4 years in college.
The money I saved in undergrad helped me survive grad school where my earning potential was limited. While I worked a few hours a week, most of my time and energy were dedicated to my studies.
Also, I was in no rush paying off my $9,500 student loan from undergrad since it was subsidized. Meaning, the government would be paying any accruing interest while I was in school.
Lesson # 2: Always pay yourself first. This means to put money in your savings account before spending on non-essentials. You never know when you’ll need it.
I applied to a couple of dozen scholarships throughout my educational career. While I don’t remember them all, I can’t forget the 3 that awarded me a total of $15,000.
SciTech Scholarship: $3000 x 2 years = $6000
- I applied to this scholarship twice and received it both times!
- I would have continued to apply, but this program was discontinued due to insufficient funding.
- It appears this program has been reinstated as of this publication.
Individual Development Accounts (IDA) program: $4000 x 2 years = $8,000
- I also applied to this one twice.
- This is one of the most interesting programs that sounded too good to be true.
- This program encourages you to save by giving you a 400% match on your savings up to $1,000.
- I was under the impression at the time of award that it was a 1-time reward.
- That may or may not have been true. In either case, it is currently renewable for 3 consecutive years.
- The National Association of Letter Carriers also has a $4,000 scholarship that I was not aware of until now.
Lesson # 3: During the summer, students can earn more money spending 2 hours a day applying for scholarships compared to 8 hours a day waiting tables.
I would be lying if $96,933.14 is all I owed. By the time I graduated, I accrued $10,000 of interest and an additional $8,000 during the repayment period totallying $115,000
When I decided to become a physical therapist, I added up the costs and estimated that I would owe $75,000 based on the current costs of school and the average PT made $72,000. What I didn’t anticipate was that college costs were rising 2-3 times faster than inflation while PT wages were stagnating. Other things I didn’t consider was that student loan rates increasing from 3.5% towards 6% and decreased graduate school funding increased the need for Graduate Plus Loans sitting at 7.65% at the time.
It became that my return on investment gradually worsened the longer I was in school. Regardless of how much debt I got myself into, it was my responsibility to pay it back.
In the next part, I outline how I paid off my 6-figure debt with a starting salary in the low $60,000’s. Read more about it here.
Art is the founder of Flexcents, a blog created in 2018 to help others reach their fitness and financial goals through sharing insights as a physical therapist, personal finance nerd, and self-directed investor.