August 5, 2013

How Much Does a Travel Nurse Make?

You may have wondered: How much does a travel nurse make? You probably heard rumors about travel nurse salaries. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons you decided to become a travel nurse was so that you could save enough money to take that trip around the world you’ve always wanted. So, now you need to know if your continent-hopping adventures will start in three months or three years. Well, there are a few things that will help you determine exactly when you should start updating that passport photo.

When agencies advertise “competitive pay” what do they mean? What is their definition of “competitive”? Does that mean you get more money per hour but have no housing, benefits, or travel pay? Does it mean that you get less per hour with housing, insurance, and travel pay?

In most cases, agencies are all billing the hospital the same amount. So why do you see different rates?  If you know all the ways the pie can be cut up, then you know how to figure out what you want. The “slices” of the payroll pie are Base pay, Housing, Insurance, Meals and Incidentals, Taxes, and Travel Reimbursement. Some travel nurse agencies load up more in base pay where others divide it more evenly and still others help you customize what best fits your goals.  So….how do all of these items slice up?

Healthcare Traveler Housing

This is, without a doubt, the largest cost factor in your “payroll pie”.  Housing rentals are considerably more when you are not signing a 12-month lease.  Management companies apply both higher charges and fees for a short-term lease and those can add up quickly.  Location is also a major factor. The cost of housing in St. Louis, Missouri is ridiculously less than that of San Diego, California. Yeah, they may both have nice bridges but only one has that sweet ocean breeze and boy will you pay for it!

And, if you don’t want company-provided housing, agencies will offer what is known as a “housing subsidy”. This is where the agency will compensate you for finding and securing your housing.  Each assignment has a set “housing budget”. With a housing subsidy you find and secure your own housing and the agency pays you the housing budget cost.  If your agency pays for your housing, they sign the lease. If you choose the housing subsidy option, you sign the lease. TNAA has a unique housing program, that works like a housing subsidy but they do all the leg work for you.

Health Insurance for Travelers

Health insurance is another piece of pie. If you don’t have a portable insurance policy or coverage under a spouse’s insurance, chances are you will be very interested in what kind of health benefits an agency offers. You will find that agency health plans have more flavors than  Baskin-Robbins!

Many agencies provide health insurance to the traveler for little to no cost; however some offer more coverage for a higher premium just as if you were a staff nurse. If you wish to add a spouse or child there is generally a charge for that. In the case that you have your own insurance or simply choose not to accept insurance, most agencies will offer some amount of subsidy to you that may increase your pay. This also stands true for dental, vision and life insurance, if your agency offers it. Be sure you know what is available and fits your financial and medical needs.

It’s also best to make sure you understand if there is a waiting period before your insurance benefits go into effect. This can be a major factor in your decision and should be given due consideration. Some companies offer coverage starting your first day and it is essential you clarify whether this means the true first day or the first day of the following month, which can leave you without coverage for a period of time. Learn more about TNAA’s Travel Nurse insurance plans.

Healthcare Traveler Bonuses

If anything could give insurance a run for its money for number of variables, it would be bonuses. These come in more shapes and sizes than a box of Legos. But there are two things you need to ask no matter what kind of bonus it is.

#1) When will this be paid?

#2) Will it be taxed?

Some bonuses are paid right away and others at the end of the assignment. Be sure you know when to expect it.

When it comes to taxing bonuses, non-taxed bonus seems so much bigger at the moment and that makes you smile. But when it comes time to give Uncle Sam his due, well that may just make you cry. If you get a 1099 at end of the year for a $500 bonus, the taxes are steep. Most nurses would probably agree that it’s just much easier to take it as W-2 income and let the agency handle those taxes up front rather than you having to drop off a chunk of change to settle up with the IRS.

Make sure you are aware and understand each bonus program your agency offer to ensure you are maximizing your salary and not leaving any money on the table.

Tax Allowances

You couldn’t find a topic any more debated unless you tuned into C-Span on an election year. These tax allowance programs (sometimes referred to as Tax Advantage) are basically just the way an agency administers the IRS guidelines that govern traveling employees. These can bring you a considerably larger amount of take home pay but beware of any agency that takes a “one size fits all” approach. Be assured, few things in life are worth being audited by the IRS.

Generally speaking, the IRS recognizes the fact that, as a traveler, you may have living expenses and allows you to deduct that from your income. This is known as per diem allowance. It is designed for employees who maintain a primary residence and require temporary housing for their assignment.

Be very leery of any agency that says you qualify without asking you a number of pre-qualifying questions and having you fill out the appropriate forms. To get a full explanation of how this works and the qualifications required you can visit this link at

Travel Expenses

A travel allowance is designed to provide for the expenses incurred for you to make your initial commute to your assignment. This can be in the form of a reimbursement where the agency requires receipts or it can be paid in a flat rate stipend. Make sure you know the details of what your agency offers because if they offer to reimburse up to $800 and you spend $750 but fail to save your receipts you may be left with nothing but a bad feeling and an empty pocket.

License Reimbursement

Some agencies will provide additional funds or reimburse the cost for you to obtain a license in a different state that you are accepting an assignment in. And, as an additional benefit, it’s very nice to have an agency that can help you navigate the complicated process and even expedite it.

So, is the grass really greener? Remember when comparing travel nurse agencies… always get all the facts, so you can make an accurate comparison to find out what is truly best for you. It makes a BIG difference on the your net pay and the success of your assignment!