Where Do RNs Earn Top Dollar?

where RNs earn top dollar and highest pay

By Linda Beattie, Contributor

Nurses, like everyone else, are interested in moving up the pay scale as much as possible, especially in leaner economic times. While they can raise their pay over the long term by increasing their level of education, changing specialties or 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.

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

FIND high-pay travel nursing jobs across the U.S.

Where to find the top nursing salaries

In terms of the highest average (mean) salaries for RNs, California lives up to its name as The Golden State, offering the best statewide average pay for nurses at $48.68 per hour or $101,260, based on the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. The next-best paying states include Hawaii ($43.33 per hour), Massachusetts ($42.82), Alaska ($42.55) and Oregon ($40.29).

California is also home to all of the top 10 highest-paying metropolitan areas in the country for nurses.

The Bay Area dominates the list of top nursing salaries, starting with the San Francisco metropolitan area, where the average nursing pay is $64.26 per hour, or $133,650 annually for nurses working full-time.

The Fairfield–Vallejo area, in the northeast part of The Bay Area, ranks second with an average nursing pay rate of $61.77 per hour, followed by the Oakland area ($60.05) and San Rafael ($59.59). Rounding out the top five is the Santa Cruz area, 70 miles south of San Francisco, where nursing pay averages $59.25 per hour.

The affordability factor

While San Francisco’s average RN salary of $133,650 may sound like a lot of money to a nurse in Phoenix who is making the regional average of $73,510 per year, the two amounts are actually 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 45 percent lower overall in Phoenix. Cost of living comparisons factor in the necessities such as housing, groceries, transportation, utilities and health care.

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 Business Insider in 2014, and by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance in 2008.

At Houston’s 397-bed Woman’s Hospital of Texas, nursing recruitment and retention is made easier by the affordability factor and other benefits 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. Woman's typically employs more than 500 nurses.

Crunching the numbers: Is it worth a move?

One way to compare nursing salaries and affordability in several locations around the country is with free online tools, 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, PhD, director of qualitative analysis. “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 of moving from City A to City B.

The information generated can be 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 is earning the “typical” annual RN salary rate of $56,400 (per PayScale) 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 $73,000 per year in Philadelphia in order to enjoy an equivalent lifestyle.

The data also shows that the typical nursing salary in Philadelphia is just under $70,000, so this RN would need to consider each job offer carefully, and in context. Earning anything close to her current pay in Indianapolis wouldn’t cut it because of the 29 percent higher cost of living in Philadelphia. 

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 could find a job with pay similar to their current compensation.

Another option

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.

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PayScale’s Cost-of-Living Calculator

U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics - 2015 Data for RNs

Updated 2/16/17

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