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Ep224: How I Made Over $70,000 My First Year as a Nurse (how I learned to game the system)

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One question I remember Googling all the time while I was in nursing school was: “what nurses make the most money?”.

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.

My Salary Used to Suck

My journey into nursing was a long one . . .

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 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.

My First Job

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
  • Nights: $4/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.

Check out our FREE EKG Cheat Sheet Here

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 opportunity to work as many hours as you want.

My hospital is no exception to this . . .

With very little exception . . . not a week has passed that overtime or BONUS shifts has 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.

Check out our FREE EKG Cheat Sheet Here

Time Off

“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 you 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 week off.

With very simple planning you can workout to have VERY long vacations!  Even after taking a FEW extended vacations 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, 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 . . . that 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).

average salary for nurses

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 the 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.

Share your thoughts below!

how to make money as a nurse


10 Common EKG Heart RhythmsQuick! What does an Atrial Flutter heart rhythm look like? Feel Anxious? Our Free Cheat Sheet can make it easy...
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Date Published - Jan 9, 2017
Date Modified - Jan 6, 2017

Jon Haws

Written by Jon Haws

Jon RN CCRN is a critical care nurse at a Level I Trauma center in Dallas, TX. His passions include learning about anatomy and physiology and teaching. When he isn't busting out content for NRSNG.com he loves spending time with his family.


  1. Christian

    Hey Jon, came across your article amidst mid college life crisis due to absurd financial aid issues. I am a nursing student currently looking at about $140,000 in student loan debt by the end of my education (scary number, I know). I’ve been looking for tips and pointers and am curious if this is realistically manageable with a nursing career. I am passionate about the practice and can’t wait to fully experience it. I am also aware of certain loan forgiveness programs available to us nurses. Any input on this issue I am facing? Thanks!

    • Jon Haws

      Jon Haws

      Oh my! I would say that yes, there are ways to manage that debt. The program I’ve heard most of would be working for a government agency (VA, Native American Health) which generally have like a 10 year loan forgiveness program. You could also look at military service as a way to pay them down. Not sure on the loan aspect but they do have signon bonuses for health care providers and maybe a loan forgiveness option. Also, check into hospitals in your area that offer signon or loan repayment.

  2. Julian

    Hi Jon, I could tell that your site is a blessing in disguise, know why? I am actually working in a call center here in Philippines to start my story why I am here, I was working in a hospital before, the salary and working hours is unbelievable here (every filipino nurses knows that) but because I wanted to have a better career I have decided to go back working in a hospital, needing a 2-3 years working experience in a tertiary hospital to be able to apply for a job abroad to have a better future. Thank you for very inspiring short story and for a free reviewer. I hope I can share a successful story here in your site soon. God Bless.

    • Jon Haws

      Jon Haws

      Thank you so much Julian. How wonderful that you have found us and I hope we are able to help you in your journey. Thank you so much for reaching out! -Jon

  3. Jon

    CA nurse here.

    The first full year of nursing – after I got off orientation/training – I made $130,000.

    $46 base w/ $6 PM differential + overtime.

    I was able to pay off my 60k in student loans in <2 years.

    To all of the new grads out there: Hustle! Work hard and get ;yourself into a strong financial position. Don't settle for average, aka broke and buried in student debt.

  4. Jessica

    Thanks for all of this great information! I’m still in school and like you, I’m always researching to find the best possible outcome to increase my skills and my income. I’m a non traditional student who also played with the idea of going back for 4 years before diving in. I have no regrets and hope to be the best nurse I can be for others, but I’m also no stranger to having an upper level degree and it not showing the financial benefits! So, now I’m on to something I truly love and it’d be nice to see the financial benefits along with the real and true reward of helping others! I also want to work nights and move to Texas when I’m done, I hope it works out!!!

  5. Hope RN, BSN

    Though not all hospitals/ employers offer these rates, I would agree with these points! But a big issue that is omitted here is taxes related to overtime!!! Do your research about your taxes – you will likely find that working LOTS of OT will increase your taxes significantly (many of my coworkers say there is an OT cutoff after which you start paying taxed more). I’m not suggesting to not take overtime, but rather to educate yourself on all aspects of your paycheck. Thanks for the article!

  6. Dayane

    You do NOT find readings like this all the time! You are doing it beautifully. Keep up the good work. Thanks for sharing it!

  7. Wendy V.

    I loved reading this! Thank you for all of this information I will put it to good use in the future.

  8. Andrea

    This is inspirational! -and I hope to be making more money soon! I am a new grad working in an ICU and going to nights. They dayshift pay is sad, hoping nights with that extra 4/hr will help. It’d be nice to get out of the ghetto after working my ass off for a BSN with honors😒

    • Jon Haws

      Jon Haws

      I hear you Andrea. I honestly always wondered how new grad day shift nurses made the finances work out! Working nights brings challenges, but totally worth it financially.