Hack the Nursing Pay Scale

After being a staff nurse again, I realized that the whole nursing pay scale according to years of experience really sucks if you are towards the bottom end. I found that the travel nurse pay scale significantly boosted my income.

After 3-4 years of experience in my nursing specialty, I found I could do everything my colleagues who had 20-30 years of experience but my nurse salary was significantly less. Since I was younger and usually more in shape both physically and mentally, I could do my job more efficiently than they could. Yet I was getting paid significantly less. This struck me as profoundly unfair.

No disrespect if you’ve been a nurse for a long time with a large nurse salary. I just envy your spot on the nurse pay scale.

Travel nursing or per diem nursing is a great way for relatively inexperienced nurses to hack the nurse pay scale. In 2013, I left my first nursing job with 2 years of experience and started travel nursing. I did travel nursing for about two years and only stopped because I met my wife.

A couple years later in 2016, I left my job at a downtown hospital to take a travel nurse contract at a hospital in the same city. I stopped doing travel nursing or taking contracts due to nurse practitioner school and worked instead as a per diem nurse directly with the hospital. 

A Missed Opportunity

I didn’t take advantage of the financial edge that travel nursing offered the first couple of years I did travel nursing. I rather pursued travel nursing for the lifestyle and adventure that travel nursing can offer. It is amazing you can go live in almost any major city in the US temporarily and get paid well. Travel nursing is a great way to see the US and figure out where you might want to live. 

I also met some of the most interesting and amazing people travel nursing. There is a strong community of travel nurses and tons of info on the internet about it. It wasn’t until after I stopped travel nursing for the first time and took a job at a local downtown hospital as a staff nurse that I realized the financial power of travel nursing. I took at least a 20% pay cut to work at the same hospital I was previously travel nursing at. It was worth it at the time because I was seriously dating my now wife, but only after taking a staff nurse job again did I realize the financial power of travel nursing. 

The Power of Travel Nursing

The power of travel nursing is the ability to take control of your career and work environment. When the work culture became toxic at the downtown hospital due to a huge feud between the management of the nursing union, it was powerful knowing I did not have to put up with the toxic work culture and could move along at anytime without harming my nursing career or my financial situation. 

I discovered I could do local travel nursing contracts since I live in a large metropolitan area. I realized that the downtown hospital I was working at paid their nurses the least. I would instantly make close to $8-10 an hour more if I did my same job at a hospital a couple miles away. Money is not everything at a job, but when work culture goes toxic, there’s not much reason to stay. Amazingly, lots of nurses do stay in toxic, low paying jobs. 

Travel nursing pays everyone the same no matter how many years of experience you have. After 10-15 years of nursing experience, travel nursing no longer makes financial sense. From a purely monetary point of view, travel nursing allows you to hack the silly nursing pay scale for 10-15 years

Travel Nursing Pitfalls 

Of course there are huge drawbacks to travel nursing for 10-15 years. You can only stay at a hospital for up to one year then you have to move on. It is hard to develop close friends and community when your job is always in flux. It is also hard to date someone who is not into your travel nurse lifestyle. 

Travel nurses are also usually coming into a hospital situation that is in some kind of crisis. This either means your co-workers are profoundly grateful to have you or, in the worst case, you are the outcast who gets all the crappy work. It is also very easy to spend the extra money you’ve earned since you’re always exploring a new place.  A huge drawback of travel nursing is the uncertainty of having work. For the past several years, there have been plenty of travel nurse contracts but that is not always the case. Demand for travel nurses goes through cycles and as a traveller you never know when that demand will disappear.

The Power of Per Diem Nursing

Per diem nursing was the answer to a lot of these long-term drawbacks to travel nursing. Per diem nursing allows me to set my own schedule but still hack the nursing pay scale since per diem nurses usually get paid a nice premium. In my case, it is close to 20% more than if I was full-time staff. 

As a per diem nurse, I made almost as much as I did as a travel nurse without having to find contracts. Hospitals can afford to pay per diem nurses more because they do not pay for any benefits such as medical insurance and paid time off. This worked well for my situation because I can get insurance through my wife’s employer for about the same amount as I would if I was a full-time staff employee. 

As a staff nurse, paid time off is a great perk. I have found it is often difficult to use the paid time off with the flexibility I would prefer though. Paid time off is a strange concept in many ways. I’d rather get a larger paycheck for the work I do rather than spread my paycheck out with 3-4 weeks of paid time off. It also seems way too easy to use my paid time off when I want to go home early which happens almost every Friday afternoon. This results in siphoning off my valuable vacation time. Then there’s the problem of getting vacation time off approved. I’ll take unpaid time off and a larger paycheck with more flexibility.

Time to Hack the Nurse Pay scale

I worked per diem until I became a nurse practitioner because it pays similar to what a travel nurse contract would pay with more flexibility and no time limits.  Hospitals will pay an enormous amount for flexible skilled nurses. The hospital was paying my travel company almost $100 per hour for my services. I was only getting $50 an hour, so clearly my company was making serious money off of me. On the other hand, I was getting paid much higher than a staff nurse who had similar years of experience. 

I only worked 3 out of 7 years as a full-time staff nurse. The other 4 years I hacked the nursing pay scale as either a travel nurse or a per diem nurse. New grad nurses probably need to work a steady staff nurse job for at least 1 year because you’re learning and developing your nursing skills. The constant flux of travel nursing or per diem nursing is not a good idea. Once you get 1-2 years of staff nurse experience, I’d hack the nursing pay scale and pursue travel nursing or per diem nursing for the huge financial benefits.