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Debunking 5 Travel Nursing Salary Myths

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about travel nursing salaries. Let’s take a moment to debunk some of the most popular myths.

Myth #1: Travel nurses make less than permanent nurses.

Now, we already know that travel nursing salaries are famously complex. So it’s possible that this myth persists because it’s more difficult to pin down what travel nurses make than it is to find out the average RN salary ($67,490 annually).

In general, travel nursing pay rates are higher than permanent nursing pay rates. How much higher varies from hospital to hospital and from town to town. A travel nurse in California can expect to take home $2,000+ per week, for example, while in San Antonio, weekly rates are closer to $1,600.

Myth #2: Travel nurses make six figures.

It’d be easy to look at those weekly pay rates and think that travel nurses are pulling more than $100,000 per year. While travel nursing salaries are healthy, six figures aren’t the norm.

Keep in mind that travel nurses often takes breaks between gigs. Downtime, sick time, and vacation is all unpaid for travel nurses. So while the weekly pay is handsome, the annual salary usually doesn’t rise much above $85,000.

Myth #3: Travel nurses get “free money.”

It’s important to remember that every single aspect of a travel nurse’s compensation package is part of their salary. So, though the majority of travel nurses earn tax-free stipends and bonuses on top of their base pay, this money is not “free.” Travel nurses earn every cent in long shifts, patient rounds, and hard work.

It’s easy to be seduced by the idea that stipends and bonuses are extra money. So, to cut through the confusion, it can be helpful to break down every aspect of the travel nursing compensation package into its hourly value. This will give you the clearest sense of the value of each of the different pieces of your contract offer and how much money you’ll earn overall. It will also make it much easier to compare the actual value of two different contracts.

Myth #4: All travel nurses are eligible for housing stipends.

The housing stipend is often seen as a big perk of travel nursing. You get to travel to a new place and get your lodging heavily subsidized. What a boon!

What can get lost in the shuffle is that housing stipends are a part of the tax-free package of the travel nursing compensation. And to be eligible for tax-free funds, a travel nurse must meet two IRS criteria: be designated a temporary worker and maintain a tax home.

A temporary worker can’t work in a single location more than a year. This means that you have to move around enough not to file taxes in the same location for more than 12 months out of every 24.

Maintaining a tax home is a little bit trickier. You must meet at least two of the following criteria:

  1. Earn significant income in a single location (meaning a town or metropolitan area, not a single hospital)
  2. Duplicate expenses by traveling for work (i.e., pay a mortgage and pay for temporary housing during your travel gigs)
  3. Don’t ditch your tax home to work somewhere else (usually, this means you pay taxes in the area where you earn significant income)

Only travel nurses who successfully meet the tax criteria can benefit from housing stipends.

Myth 5: Travel nursing bonuses are tax-free.

Bonuses sound like free money, don’t they? But, bonuses are often taxed at a higher rate than traditional income. The different bonuses that are part of a travel nursing compensation package — from signing and completion bonuses to referral bonuses — will be taxed. Be sure to look into the tax structure for each of the bonuses that are a part of your compensation package.

Looking for more? Check out our 5 personal finance hacks for travel nurses.

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