There’s a lot of stress that comes with the unknowns of becoming a licensed mental health therapist: How will my first session go? Will I be any good at it? Will my clients even like me?
But not knowing how much it will cost to become a therapist shouldn’t be one of those stressors.
I’m nearing the end of my journey of becoming a licensed therapist myself. I’ve made it through graduate school, survived my practicum, and have been practicing full-time (under supervision) for about two years now.
I personally know the costs of what it takes to get here. I want to help you find clarity so you can make an informed and worry-free decision for yourself.
By the end of this article, we’ll have covered:
- The exact costs it took me to get here
- How those costs may vary for you
- Hidden costs to anticipate
- What I wish I knew
Let’s dive in.
How much it cost me to become a licensed therapist
There are three main stages to most, if not all, paths to becoming a licensed therapist. Those stages are: Graduate School, Practicum, and Pre-Licensure.
Practicum is sometimes referred to as your internship. It tends to be towards the end of your graduate program and is when you first start seeing clients. Usually you need to accrue a set number of client hours to finish your practicum and graduate.
After you graduate, you begin the pre-licensure phase. This tends to be when you first start getting paid to see clients. Usually you need to accrue a set number of client hours to be eligible for licensure. Once you have enough hours, you need to pass both your state and national exam to attain your license.
Each stage has its own unique costs, so let’s break down the costs of each based on my own experience. Note that these costs vary depending on location, among other factors.
- $11,220 x 3 years = $33,660
- $250 per Semester x 6 semesters = $1,500
- $82 x 3 years = $246 (AAMFT)
The main expense for graduate school was my tuition. I wasn’t able to cover the costs of tuition myself so I applied for and used federal student loans.
Each license has their own state and national associations which represent the interests of students and therapists with that license. It’s recommended you join these early on and student memberships are often free.
- $82 x 1 year = $82 (AAMFT)
Once you start seeing clients in your practicum, it’s highly recommended that you get a liability insurance policy to cover you in the rare occurrence that a disgruntled client tries to sue you. Some practicum sites might cover this for you but it’s not guaranteed.
A Psychology Today profile is also recommended as a way to market yourself. Building a caseload can take time so any extra boost to get your name out there helps.
- National Exam Application
- National Exam Test Prep Material
- $146 x 2 years = $292 (AAMFT)
- $26 x 2 years = $52 (MAMFT)
Additional supervision is the main expense for pre-licensure. Below we’ll go over why this is expensive and a great resource for finding quality and affordable supervision.
The other major expense is applying for the national and state exam. This is a one time fee if you pass the first time, but additional attempts will cost extra if you don’t pass.
If you’re looking for quality test-prep material, I’ve been using this and highly recommend it.
Grand Total: $43,071
Costs to become a licensed therapist are variable
The most significant cost variation is tuition. I’ve heard from other therapists that what I paid for tuition is conservative compared to others—sometimes 2x, even 3x the cost. It’s even higher for Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs.
I polled my audience on Twitter and 45% of the 315 respondents paid under $50,000, while over 80% paid under $100,000.
I suggest you research all the different options available to you, especially when it comes to cost. A cheaper school doesn’t necessarily mean a worse education.
What I valued most about my program was the cohort model it used, accreditation, and how helpful and supportive the program was in transitioning us into practicum - all of which are not dependent on cost.
Research the schools around you to see which might be most affordable. Then find a handful of therapists that graduated from that school (most have this in their Psychology Today bio) and ask for a brief informational interview to see how their experience was for them. You can even ask your questions over email. Most will be happy to help.
The other significant cost variation is supervision. Every practicum and pre-licensed therapist needs a supervisor. Employers will often provide this “free of charge” but take a cut from your pay for this. When looking for employment after you graduate this is an important factor to consider.
You also typically need a second supervisor after you graduate. Sometimes this is required in order to get enough supervision hours. But it’s also a great opportunity to diversify and specify your supervision.
This secondary supervision tends to be expensive. I’ve been paying from $50-60 a week for this and that’s primarily because I do dyad supervision. I’ve heard from others that they’re paying as high as $300.
Finding the right fit for a supervisor itself can be tricky, let alone finding someone in your price range. Thankfully, Motivo has made the process so much easier and is affordable. You can even choose from individual, dyad, or group supervision to help cut costs. I highly recommend checking them out to find the right fit for you.
Hidden costs to becoming a licensed therapist
The first hidden cost is the cost of your time. This is relevant primarily for when you’re in school and doing your practicum.
My grad program had two tracks available. The first was a traditional track that had classes on Monday and Tuesday evenings. The second was an accelerated track that had classes all day Monday and all day Tuesday.
I chose the traditional track because it allowed me to work full time and go to class in the evenings. The accelerated track may have been faster but I wouldn’t have been able to work the job I had full-time.
During my practicum I had to reduce my working hours so that I had enough availability to see clients. Thankfully, I had budgeted for this, but it was still a significant loss in income.
The second hidden cost is health insurance. This is more relevant after you graduate but should be a consideration as you’re looking for jobs.
I work for a group practice and am considered an independent contractor, so health insurance isn’t provided. Thankfully, I’m covered by my partner's insurance. If I were not, this would be another significant expense.
When you’re interviewing after graduation, be sure to ask if health insurance is covered for you.
The third and final hidden cost is lower wages at the start. The switch I made from my previous job to being a therapist was a slight increase in pay on paper, but it took a couple of months to get there because I needed to fill out my caseload. And even then, it wasn’t much of a difference.
I know for many who have changed careers to become a therapist, they have experienced a decrease in pay. It’s important to know exactly how much you need to make in order to keep yourself financially afloat and then do further research into what you will earn in your specific state. You can start here.
What I wish I knew about becoming a licensed therapist
A full caseload may be difficult to attain and maintain. Building a case load typically takes a significant amount of time. The cycle of getting new clients, reducing frequency as they make progress, and sending them on their way is always spinning. As said before, this means you may not be making a full time salary from the get-go.
Additional supervision is a significant expense. I had heard this in grad school but did not feel it until I started. Balancing everyday financial necessities with a small starting income and additional supervision can be overwhelming.
It’s okay to take things slow, if you need, and put off additional supervision until you can afford it. It may just mean you are extending the time it will take for you to become licensed.
Start exploring alternative income streams early on. I had an expectation from the start that I needed to be a full-time therapist. That’s just what people do. The trouble was I began to burn out. Partly from my caseload and partly from external personal circumstances.
When you’re a therapist, your income is directly attached to how many clients you are seeing. I didn’t like this dependance, so I’ve been working on building alternate income streams outside of seeing clients.
It started with DoorDashing on the weekends and has grown into starting my own business. I’m not just diversifying my income to make more money, but to also free my mind from the stress of being dependent on seeing a certain amount of clients in order to stay afloat.
Identify your baseline income. Having an exact number of what you need to make reduces the stress of the unknown. It’s easy for concerns to become too inflated (and too small) when there isn’t clarity.
If you haven’t already, take some time to outline your essential expenses. Then calculate what you will need to make to match that with a small cushion built in (there’s always something we forget or can’t anticipate).
Use this number as a filter when you start interviewing for jobs. You’ll have more confidence in a position if it matches or exceeds that number. And you’ll have more opportunity to negotiate if it doesn’t.
Start thinking about costs now
A final note: I know this can all feel overwhelming. It has for me too. So take a deep breath and know that this process is always one step at a time.
You don’t have to figure everything out right now. As long as you are starting the process of understanding the costs and spending a little time each week checking in, that clarity will help guide you in making smart and informed decisions down the road.
And thankfully, there’s ample opportunity in this field to grow, both professionally and financially. It just takes some initiative, curiosity, and consistency.
Thinking about going into private practice after you get licensed? Check out our article on how much it costs to start a therapy practice.
This post is to be used for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal, business, or tax advice. Each person should consult his or her own attorney, business advisor, or tax advisor with respect to matters referenced in this post.
Ben Behnen is a therapist who loves helping other beginning therapists. He's getting close to attaining his license in marriage in family therapy and is using his experience and love for writing to help other beginning therapists on their journey to licensure. You can follow him on Twitter where he posts daily or subscribe to his free newsletter that he sends every other Friday with practical ways to grow as a therapist.