Do Nurses Make a Lot of Money?

Dec 1, 2020
The Trusted Team

Maybe you're thinking about pursuing nursing as an academic and professional vocation. You may be asking yourself, "How much do nurses make?" Before we just dive in and answer that question, let’s be clear: you do not become a nurse to make money; you become a nurse to make a difference. If competitive pay follows, so be it.

Just remember that. Any experienced nurse will tell you that if you join for the pay, you likely won't last more than two years. That said, compared to the national average in the United States, a nursing salary can be quite competitive, especially depending on which state you work in (cue travel nursing), what nursing specialty or role you work in, and how much you work.

For starters, these are the highest paying nursing jobs of 2021:

  1. Certified Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) - $140,000–$263,000/year
  2. Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) - $100,000–$150,000/year
  3. Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) - $100,000–$125,000/year
  4. Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM) - $90,000–$155,000/year
  5. Nursing Administrator - $90,000–$134,000/year
  6. Nurse Researcher - $90,000–$105,000/year
  7. Informatics Nurse - $80,000–$100,000/year

The Facts: Do Nurses Make a Lot of Money?

Based on the report of over 121,000 nurse salaries, the average base salary for staff nurses across the country is about $65,097 per year (or $30.50 per hour). This is often accompanied by about $11,250 of overtime pay per year as well, bringing the total average salary of a nurse in the US to about $76,347 per year.

Nurses also receive some more competitive benefits than a lot of other professions, for example:

  • Loan forgiveness
  • Dental, vision, health, and life insurance options
  • License and/or certificate reimbursement 
  • Dependent care reimbursement
  • Tuition reimbursement 
  • Access to 401(k) and 403(b) accounts, sometimes with company matching

For comparison, the typical American earned an average of about $61,372 last year. (Note: these salaries listed are for individual contributions, not household incomes.) Now, while there is a clear difference of about $3,725, you may be asking: for all the hard—and sometimes dangerous (especially now during a pandemic)—work that nurses do, shouldn’t they be paid more? The short answer: yes

A survey of nearly 5,000 nurses found that only about 63% of registered nurses in the US believe their salaries to be commensurate with the cost of living in their area.

While some nurses and unions will hold strikes or advocate for greater increases to nursing salaries, those are likely longer-term strategies. 

US bills and coins lying on table next to succulent and candle do nurses make a lot of money

Three Strategies You Can Try to Increase Your Pay as a Nurse

#1: Try Travel Nursing

In short, travel nurses are typically compensated more than staff nurses. This is often the case in bigger cities and particularly during times when demand for additional nursing staff is heightened (i.e. during a pandemic or flu season).

Compared to the above salary for staff nurses of $30.50 per hour, travel nurses make closer to $50 per hour (or nearly $100,000 per year), depending on the facility, shift type, or unit they’re on. This also depends on how much they work. Many travel nurses work a 13-week contract and then travel for a month before beginning another assignment. 

Here's a look at the highest paying travel nursing jobs of 2021:

  1. Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Nurse
  2. Emergency Room (ER) Nurse
  3. Labor and Delivery (L&D) Nurse
  4. Medical-Surgical/Telemetry Nurse (MedSurg)
  5. Vaccination Nurse

Additionally, unlike the more rigid annual salary of a staff nurse, travel nursing pay packages include both taxable and non-taxable income (in the form of reimbursements and stipends). This means that a large portion of your nursing salary is not taxed at the end of the fiscal year. In other words, if you compared a staff salary and a travel nurse salary set at the same base amount, the travel nurse would actually get to keep more of that in their pocket.

Keep in mind that travel nursing isn't all about the money, it’s about gaining new experience in new places (and it, too, comes with its own challenges). However, money is still an important factor in your decision making. If you're looking to increase your nursing compensation and meet specific short-term savings goals, travel nursing may be what you’re looking for.

You can learn more about getting started as a travel nurse here.

surgical mask laying on top of US money on a table how much do nurses make

#2: Choose Your Home Based on Local Nursing Salary

Where you live (primary state of residence) and where you work will largely determine how much money you make as a nurse. Some states, or even cities, will pay noticeably higher salaries to nurses based on their needs or the cost of living in the area. 

Many destinations are sought after for their competitive nursing compensation, while others for their culture, social ambience, or even natural beauty. California, for example, is one of the top-paying states for nurses across the board, although the cost of living is significantly higher than in some other states.

Now, of course you shouldn’t necessarily choose a state or city to live in solely because of pay, but if you’re looking to move anyway, it might be worth scoping out in which area you might make the most money as a nurse. 

To help get you started, here are some of the most popular cities for travel nurses to work in as well as the highest-paying cities for nurses throughout 2020-2021. We used nursing’s most comprehensive salary calculator to put together these lists (don’t forget to check it out when you’re done with these articles)!

Now, you might say, what if I’m not a travel nurse? Even if you’re not travel nursing, the competitiveness of pay between travelers and staff nurses usually correlates based on the location, so the locations in this list are also some of the best paying for staff nurses as well.

#3: Start Investing and Pick Up Some Side Hustles

Personal finance and investing are a lot less complicated than most bankers and financial advisors make them seem. From the beginning, taking the time to set up your retirement accounts can lead to hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars later down the line. 

By simply understanding and implementing these strategies early, it’s in fact possible for nurses to retire wealthier than doctors. You don’t have to work at the bedside until your body gives out as a registered nurse (unless you want to, of course). You will be free to do what you love, whatever that is!

In short, nursing offers:

  • Great pay with an undergraduate degree
  • The ability to work three-day weeks (full-time)
  • Competitive health benefits
  • And access to some of the best retirement accounts around 

For more on investing and preparing for early retirement (and freedom), check out this article on Financial Independence / Retire Early (FIRE).

But what else can you do right now? Try out some nursing side hustles

Everybody wants to make a little extra cash on the side, and doing so can lead to big gains in the long term when it comes to securing your financial independence. As we saw above, although nursing jobs pay comparatively well, earning additional income is always a bonus.

Having an additional income stream (or side hustle) can make a pretty significant impact on your personal finances. According to statistics, at least half of all working Americans have some side hustle or another that they use to supplement their primary source of income.

Here are some options for you to consider:

  • Paid medical surveys
  • Immunization nursing
  • Freelance health writing
  • Telehealth nursing
  • Sell old scrubs and nursing gear or textbooks
  • Rent out your (extra) space
  • Pet (or house) sitting and dog walking

Now, while this is plenty to get you started, let’s recap the question that started this all: Do nurses make a lot of money? Yes, they can. And some do — even more than many doctors. It’s all about how you use your own time and resources, and we hope this short guide will help to get you motivated! 

Start Exploring Your Worth Today!

Whether it's travel nursing, more lucrative cities, or a side hustle for you, it all starts with knowing your worth. For more information on how your pay stacks up and what you can try next, check out our Nurse Salary Explorer