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How I Made Over $70,000 in My First Year as a Nurse
One question I remember Googling all the time while I was in nursing school was: “what nurses make the most money? ” . . . or “how much do nurses make?”
I never went into nursing FOR the money, but, long story short, my salary doubled my first year as a new grad nurse. I didn’t work in any special field . . . I just learned how to game the system to max my pay.
To spare you the lengthy (boring) details, I will simply say that I debated entering the field for nearly 5 years. I was accepted twice into different schools only to back out at the last minute for various reasons.
Eventually, I took a job as a buyer with a large sporting goods store. It sounded like the PERFECT job for me. After my first day on the job I came home and told my wife I had made the wrong decision. It was simply mind-numbing, soul-crushing work! To top it off the job only paid about $38,000/year. We were hoping to eventually have children and we knew that wasn’t enough money to support a growing family.
Back to Nursing School
I was lucky to gain admittance to an accelerated BSN program and in 2013 I finally completed my BSN. Prior to entering school, I spent a lot of time investigating salaries and pay in the DFW area (that’s where we lived). If my calculations were right I figured I would make about $10,000 – $15,000 more as a nurse and have a couple more days off a week to maybe mow yards or something to make ends meet.
I was lucky out of school to get a job in a Level I Trauma ICU right out of school (how I did that is a discussion for another time). The starting pay for the job was $23/hour base salary. Not a ton of money (about $41,000 base) so I knew I would have to find ways to make a bit more money.
Working the System
Most hospitals pay a premium for working nights and weekends. Mine did . . . so I took advantage of this. Here are how the differentials worked out at my hospital:
Base Pay: $23/hr
Weekends: $6/hr (Friday – Sunday)
So even as a new grad, I was able to make up to $33/hour if I worked nights and weekends. Well, that’s what I did.
During my entire first year, I only worked nights. This immediately brought my base pay up to $27/hr. Since I am married and have two kids I don’t usually go out and do anything crazy on the weekends so working Friday and Saturday nights was not a huge sacrifice for me. For the most part during the entire first year I worked 2 weekend nights a month. Doing this brought my average pay for the 3 – 12 hour shifts to about $31/hour.
So, if you have done the math:
$31/hr * 36 hours/week * 50 work weeks/yr = $55,800
That’s obviously not more than $70,000 . . . how did I make the extra $15,000?
Like most hospitals, my hospital has a retention program for all nurses as well as a clinical ladder. By simply staying at my job I continue to make more money.
Here’s how it works:
After six months I was given an additional $1/hr raise.
After 1 year I was given another $1/hr raise.
I worked hard to learn all that I could and to be a “good nurse”. Doing this lead to preceptor opportunities. Every time I was a preceptor I made an additional $1/hr.
Overtime Pays Big $$$
It is not uncommon for you to hear nurses complain about overtime in movies and TV shows. It is a VERY common issue within hospitals for them to have a hard time finding qualified nursing staff. Once you have your foot in the door and simply do your job, show up on time, and basically know your crap, there is an opportunity to work as many hours as you want.
With minimal exception . . . not a week has passed that overtime or BONUS shifts have not been offered to the nursing staff. Pay for extra shifts starts at $7/hr on top of ALL other differentials, and all hours worked over 40 are paid at time and a half. If there were critical needs within the hospital the bonus pay would go up to $10/hr extra.
That means that during a bonus shift I could make as much as $600 – $700 (about $50/hr)
For a brand new grad nurse that is great pay.
I found that by clumping a few extra shifts together I could pound out the long weeks and then have time off as well. I think I did like two months of bonus shifts out of the 12 months in the year.
“It sounds like you were just working all the time!” . . . here’s the deal. I am actually in the middle of an 18-day off stent from work!
18 days off!
This isn’t the first time that I have taken an extended amount of time off either. When you only have to work 3 days per week you can manipulate your schedule to work the first three days of one week and the last 3 days of the next week . . . BOOM. . . right there you have 8 days off between shifts. If you take just three days off you can have over two weeks off.
With very simple planning you can work out to have VERY long vacations! Even after taking a FEW extended vacation I still have extra PTO saved up that I will be able to cash out (at my base rate) at the end of the year.
$70,000/yr So What??
First of all . . . I KNOW. $70,000 is peanuts in places like CA, WA, NY, etc but keep in mind, that Texas is about 1/3 cheaper to live in than these other places. So, $70,000 in Texas is more like $100,000 in a more expensive state/city.
$70,000 won’t make me a millionaire any time soon. But check this out. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average starting pay for new college grads (Class of 2013) was $44,259 . . . which means my starting pay as a new grad was about 1.6 times higher. (the argument can be made about advancement for nurses). I am guaranteed 3 raises this coming year too. These raises will take my base pay up an additional about $5,000/year. Not a ton, but there are SO many ways that nurses can make more (education, position change, certification, career ladder). I am not worried about being able to make more.
According to the NACE website, they list the highest starting salary was for Engineers at ~$62,000 . . . as a new nurse, I made more than that.
Wikipedia lists the median household income in the US at about $52,000. With those holding advanced degrees averaging $72,000.
A recent study by NPR listed that 80% of ALL individuals in the United States make LESS than $70,000 (image posted below . . . see the article here).
CONCLUSION: Why do I share all these numbers. . . . ?
I disagree with the notion that nursing is a LOW paying job. Is it a HARD job . . . Hell yes!!! But there are ways to make a GREAT living as a nurse. You simply need to play the system a bit and find ways to make the highest wages at your hospital or employer.
Is it ALL about the money . . . NO!
But listen, I have a wife and two kids . . . I don’t really have a choice but to MAKE money. I actually have to feed my kids and provide them with a place to live. So, while I work as a nurse changing the world (and bedpans) I also want to make a good living for my family.
While I would never suggest nursing to someone just for the money if you wonder what kind of nurse makes the most money it really comes down to playing the differentials and system more than anything else.
I think that nurses can make good money and should make good money. It is HELL staying up all night answering strange call lights and trying to learn everything you can to not kill a patient. This is a VERY hard job, but at the end of the day you can feel good about the work that you do and sometimes you REALLY do make a difference and in the end you can even make a good living doing it.