I'm a traveling nurse. Here's how I budget

Myelle Lansat


Myelle Lansat

Myelle Lansat

News Editor

Myelle Lansat is a news editor at Policygenius, where she writes the Easy Money newsletter and covers insurance and personal finance. Previously, she was a personal finance writer at CNBC and Acorns, and a reporter for Business Insider.

Published February 4, 2021 | 4 min read

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Kylee Nelson is a traveling neonatal intenstive care nurse who works with premature babies in hospitals across the country. She writes about her experience on the blog Preemies & Passports and on her Instagram page.

The Omaha, Nebraska, native works a few assignments per year, spending a three-month contracted stay at each hospital, with three 13-hour shifts per week. Nelson typically cares for one to three patients during an assignment. She performs routine checks on the patients, feeds them, administers medication, changes diapers and makes sure their respiratory needs are met. She’s paid on a weekly basis, making an average of $10,000 per month.

Her job takes her across the country, from California to Arizona, Washington, Nebraska and Texas. We asked her how she budgets.

How do travel nurses make money?

Nelson works with Fusion, a medical staffing company for traveling nurses. Travel nurse companies connect workers with open jobs across the country and help cover related expenses. Fusion alerts her of any new job openings and covers some of Nelson’s essentials, including travel, food and housing.

On top of her hourly wage, she receives an untaxed housing and food stipend. A travel nurse’s contract is broken down into three things: hourly wage, housing and meal stipend.

“The reason travel nurses make a lot of money is because your hourly rate is taxed but your housing and meal segment is untaxed," Nelson said.

Nelson makes an average of $2,500 per week. Her paycheck varies depending on where she’s stationed.

“In Nebraska I got paid $1,300 a week. Now I'm working in San Francisco and I'm making $2,500 a week,” she said.

Nelson usually takes time off between contracts to prevent burnout. Without taking time off, Nelson estimates she would net between $100,000 and $120,000 per year. In 2020 she took 14 weeks off, so she made $86,000.

As a traveling nurse, Nelson has to be licensed and certified in every state, the cost of which is reimbursed by Fusion. The company also pays for other medical appointments, including drug screens, physical exams and tuberculosis tests. Nelson gets tested for COVID-19 before every assignment.

What does it cost to be a traveling nurse?

Nelson graduated from Clemson University in 2013 with a degree in biology. She went on to enroll in Emory University’s accelerated nursing program and graduated in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science in nursing. She had $20,000 in debt of student loans and paid it off in 2017.

Before nurses can start traveling they have to be a registered nurse for two years. During those first years Nelson was a NICU nurse in Kansas City, Missouri. As a staff nurse, Nelson had a 401(k) and health insurance benefits. But as a traveling nurse, she no longer gets those benefits.

“When I was working a more typical job, I wasn’t worried about savings as much because of the 401(k) and I was earning PTO, so I didn’t need a chunk of money set aside for a couple weeks of vacation,” she said. “Now I really have to think ahead of time. If I want to take a month off I have to be smart about how much money I’m saving.”

Fusion also helps Nelson with work-related travel expenses. The company pays a flat fee of $300 for transportation, “so it’s not always totally covered,” she said. Fusion does not pay for Nelson’s paid time off or health coverage.

“You can have health insurance through your company, but that's not beneficial if you take a lot of time off of work.” said Nelson. She said Fusion does offer insurance but if Nelson takes 26 days off of work, she’d lose coverage on the 27th day. She usually takes off five to six months at a time. To compensate, she pays $150 per month for private insurance through UnitedHealthcare.

Nelson also budgets for any personal trips. She works Monday through Wednesday and spends the rest of her week relaxing and traveling.

“30% of my income goes towards weekend and day trips,” she said. She doesn’t have a car, so she walks or pays for ride-sharing services.

Whenever Nelson makes a purchase she uses her Chase Sapphire Reserve travel credit card and has racked up nearly 70,000 points. “Anyone that likes to travel definitely needs a good card for traveling.”

What’s your budget breakdown?

Nelson is paid on a weekly basis and averages $10,000 in earnings per month. Some aspects of Nelson's budget can range depending on the city she works in and her weekly credit card bill. The first thing she does is pay off her credit card bill for the week and expenses. She automatically contributes to her savings account. Her 2021 financial goal is to start investing. Here’s her monthly budget breakdown:

Image: Nastia Kobzarenko