Anthony Swain, 32, and his wife earn six-figure incomes while traveling the country for work. And they pay tax on just a fraction of their income. Such is the life of a travel nurse. These health care professionals earn excellent pay — much of it non-taxable — filling temporarily open spots at health care facilities around the country.
And, thanks to an exodus of nurses during the pandemic, demand for travel nurses is strong, with some 20,000 more open travel nurse positions than at this time last year, according to Adzuna, a job search engine. Average pay for travel nurses also soared nearly 50% from five years ago to nearly $125,000 on average.
Moreover an aging Baby Boom population almost guarantees high demand for nurses of all types for decades.
What is travel nursing? Why should you care? What does it take to qualify, if you’re not already a nurse? And where do you find these jobs? Here’s a question and answer look.
What is travel nursing?
The main difference between travel nursing and ordinary nursing is that travel nurses are assigned to temporary positions — usually lasting about three months — outside of their home cities or states. By and large, they’re able to pick and choose among assignments, opting to work in cities or facilities that are attractive to them.
Because this work is too far away from home to commute, travel nurses also are entitled to “per diem” compensation for food, lodging and incidental expenses (such as dry cleaning and tips). That’s in addition to their hourly or weekly pay. And, generally speaking the per diem pay is non-taxable.
How much do you get in per diem pay?
That depends on where you travel and your contract. However, the General Services Administration publishes per diem rates that range from about $166 per day to well over $350 per day, depending on the city and state where you travel.
So, in a typical month, a travel nurse might earn $6,000 for the job and $9,000 for the per-diem (calculated here as $300 per day for 30 days). And, because the aim of per diem compensation is to help you recover additional work expenses that you wouldn’t normally have, this portion of your pay is tax-free.
Why would I care about this if I’m not already a nurse?
You wouldn’t, unless you’re unhappy or insecure in your current profession. If either of those is the case, nursing is worth considering.
Nursing is one of a handful of professions that has a fairly low barrier to entry. You can secure entry-level nursing positions after completing just a few classes that you can complete while working at another full-time job.
To be sure, the best-paid nursing jobs require at least some college and more training. However, many nurses complete both the educational and practical requirements while working, often with economic support from the medical facilities where they work.
And the demand for nurses is likely to remain strong for decades, which makes this a profession that offers a great deal of job security. (The University of St. Augustine has a nice primer on the different types of nursing and the education and testing required.)
When not to consider nursing
That said, don’t consider nursing unless you’re able to handle the physical demands, which require you to be on your feet the bulk of the day. Additionally, you need to be empathetic and psychologically strong enough to handle dealing with people who are sick and, sometimes, dying.
You also need to be good in a crisis. In this field, crises are literally about life and death and one could strike at any time.
Can I be a travel nurse as soon as I get a nursing degree or certification?
No. Generally, you’ll need at least one and, preferably, two years of practical experience to qualify as a travel nurse.
Explain the per diem pay again. You’re saying I wouldn’t pay tax on the $9,000 per month — $108,000 per year — in your example? What’s the catch?
You do need to follow a bunch of tax rules to establish that your “domicile” is far enough away from your work that you can’t simply go home to eat and sleep. And you must spend enough time in this “domicile” every year to convince the IRS that it’s legitimately your home base.
You also need to only accept assignments of less than a year in states and/or cities away from your home.
Moreover, you’ll need to keep records showing that you paid for accommodations and food during these temporary assignments — as well as records showing the expenses you paid for your home.
So you do need two homes. Does that eliminate the economic benefit?
It could. But most travel nurses are smart enough to economize in ways that make the arrangement work to their financial advantage. It’s best when your home base is in a low-cost city or state and your nursing position is in a high-cost area, Swain explains.
Swain, for example, says his home state is in a small town in Pennsylvania. In his home town, you can rent a 3-bedroom home for less than $1,200. Meanwhile, he and his wife have worked in California, Washington, D.C., Maryland and many other high cost states, where per diem rates can hit $350 per day.
Because they both work in travel nursing and both get per diem stipends, they “economize ” by living together. And, since the per diem is non-taxable, they only pay tax on about 60% of their income. Better yet, they’re using travel nursing to decide where they want to permanently settle. Most jobs don’t offer that type of geographic flexibility.
Where can you find travel nursing work?
Dozens of agencies around the country offer travel nursing positions. These agencies typically hire travel nurses as employees and then farm them out to health care facilities around the country that have a temporary need.
Some worth noting:
American Mobile Healthcare, Cross Country Nurses, and Trusted Health. All three of these companies serve as agent/employers. So, nurses sign up, choose and apply to nursing assignments offered through these agencies. The agency gets paid by the health care facility. The agency pays and employs the nurse.
That means that nurses are likely to get benefits, such as health insurance and retirement plans, which might otherwise be unavailable for temporary workers.
Vivian Health is another good option. This site is a health care marketplace where nurses can find both travel and local nursing positions posted by health care facilities and staffing agencies. This provides a substantially wider variety of work options than traditional staffing agencies. To be specific, on a recent check, Vivian posted more than 149,000 travel nursing openings vs. 6,400 travel nursing jobs posted at Cross Country Nurses.