Nursing News

Where do RNs Earn Top Dollar?


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By Linda Beattie, contributor

Nurses, like everyone else, are interested in moving up the pay scale as much as possible, especially in these tough economic times. While they can raise their pay over the long term by increasing their level of education, pursuing a higher paying specialty or by adding years of experience to their résumés, nurses may be able to achieve a quicker bump in pay by taking a job in another part of the country.

RN Pay Rates
In terms of the highest average salaries for RNs, California lays claim to four of the top five paying metropolitan areas in the country.

So where can registered nurses make the most money, or at least stretch their salaries the farthest?

In terms of the highest average salaries for RNs, California lives up to its name as the Golden State, laying claim to four of the top five paying metropolitan areas in the country, based on data from the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the top of the list is the San Jose area, where the average nursing pay is approximately $46 per hour, or $95,000 annually for nurses working full-time.

Salinas, located on the central California coast, ranks second with an average nursing pay rate of over $44 per hour, followed closely by the Oakland area ($43.88 per hour) and San Francisco ($43.36 per hour). Rounding out the top five is Midland, Texas, where the average nursing pay rate is approximately $42 per hour.

While $95,000 may sound like a lot of money to a nurse in Phoenix who is making the regional average of $60,000 per year, the reality is that the two amounts are very comparable in terms of what lifestyle he or she can afford in these cities.

It all comes down to the cost of living—which happens to be 55 percent higher overall in San Jose. Cost of living comparisons factor in the necessities such as housing, groceries, transportation, utilities and health care.

Thus, looking at both compensation and cost of living allows you to find out where you can “live well” on a nurse’s salary.

One area that offers good compensation and an affordable cost of living is Houston, Texas, the nation’s fourth largest city, which was named as the #1 Best City to Live by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance in 2008.

At Houston’s 397-bed Woman’s Hospital of Texas, which recently underwent a $75 million expansion, nursing recruitment and retention is made easier by the benefits that the area has to offer. “Houston is a great place to call home and our nurses can enjoy an excellent work atmosphere at Woman’s along with a comfortable lifestyle,” said Kris Muller, director of marketing.

“With Houston being the highest paid market in Texas, our nurses enjoy a competitive salary and benefits package” added Lisa Waters, nurse recruiter at Woman’s. “We also provide benefits that offset the daily costs associated with working, such as free onsite parking, ride share programs, discounts and other incentives.” Woman's currently employs more than 500 nurses and plans to add more.

“We just opened our new West Tower adding 122 licensed beds,” Waters continued. “The expansion is expected to increase our deliveries by 26 percent, therefore increasing our need for qualified nurses.”

One way to compare nursing salaries and affordability in several locations around the country is with some of the free tools you can find online, such as those offered by PayScale.

“PayScale pioneered the concept of anonymously comparing your salary online–in detail—to other real people with similar individual and job characteristics,” said Al Lee, Ph.D., director of qualitative analysis at PayScale. “Our advanced search algorithms are used to find apples-to-apples matches to similar people, to determine your unique market value.”

PayScale’s Cost of Living Calculator brings together the salaries of thousands of nurses working in 30 specialties across the country, and the United States’ official cost of living index for hundreds of the nation’s major metropolitan areas. Users can set up a quick profile and find real-time comparisons based on their specialty and experience level, or simply evaluate the salary and cost of living differential they would encounter if they moved from City A to City B on the calculator.

The information generated can be very helpful in determining your “value” in another city, negotiating your salary for a new job offer or evaluating the pros and cons of relocating.

Consider this example:

A registered nurse in Indianapolis, Indiana, is earning the average annual salary rate of $59,430 (per U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data) and considering a move to Philadelphia, which is a day’s drive and 650 miles due east. Using the cost of living calculator, she finds out that she would need to make approximately $79,660 per year in Philadelphia in order to enjoy an equivalent lifestyle.

The average salary in Philadelphia, however, is closer to $66,000 per year, so this RN would likely be faced with scaling back on her present expenditures unless she has a solid job offer at the higher pay rate. It could mean renting a home instead of owning, or getting by without a car.

The reverse scenario also shows that a nurse in Philadelphia or another city with a higher cost of living could live a very comfortable life in Indianapolis if they can find a job with pay similar to their current compensation level.

Short of pulling up permanent roots, another option for nurses who want to increase their current pay is to take a job as a travel nurse, where the hourly pay rates are generally higher than staff nurses and housing costs are taken care of during the contract period. These short-term assignments also allow a nurse to try out new locations before making a permanent move.

So, is it better to live more modestly in your dream city or live it up in a community with a lower cost of living? Only you can decide. After all, true wealth is in the eye of the beholder.

Additional resources:

NurseZone’s Salary Calculator (powered by PayScale)

Pay Scale’s Cost of Living Calculator

U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Data for RNs

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