Few nurses have a solid grounding in personal finance about making decisions about their own financial future. Money management can be overwhelming. But you don’t need to learn the fine points of microeconomics – just the fiscal facts that pack a wallop on your wallet.

The good news is that the economic outlook for most nurses is rosy. Employment prospects are strong, says Donna Cardillo, RN, nurse entrepreneur and inspirational/motivational speaker. “The job market for nurses is much better. The market is cyclical and always has been. The last slump lasted about seven years, but that has all changed and many employers are now offering sign-up bonuses,” she explains.

The bad news? Many nurses still struggle to lead financially empowered lives, rather than being slaves to debt or just getting by paycheck to paycheck. Here are nine ways to make powerful personal and career decisions.

Evaluate an Employer’s Salary and Benefits Package

Often nurses decide to accept a job offer based only on the hourly wage, without being aware of the entire salary structure and how it can drastically pump up your pay.

Jon Haws, RN, CCRN, nurse educator and founder of NRSNG, wrote a popular article about how he doubled his first-year earnings as a new nurse. In “How I Made Over $70,000 My First Year as a Nurse (how I learned to game the system),” he recounts his experience as a newly graduated critical care nurse at a Level I Trauma center in Dallas, Texas.

According to Haws, that article “is a bit dated and I realize the $70,000 is nothing to a California nurse, but I outline some step-by-step ways to really maximize what you can make right out of school.”

Some of his steps included grabbing the pay differential for nights and weekends, getting an automatic raise after 6 months and a year, and working overtime and bonus shifts. That strategy requires that you make yourself an expert on your HR department or union contract rules, of course, which may be difficult before you’re hired. Not every employer is transparent about its pay policies. It’s easy enough to check Payscale.com or Salary.com for comparisons. Also, be sure to consult with a tax professional about the ramifications of higher compensation—you want to be ready when the tax bill arrives.

“The benefits package is something that employees don’t always take into consideration, but it can be significant,” says Launette Woolforde, EdD, DNP, RN-BC, vice president for nursing education and professional development at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York.

She encourages nurses to plan for the next step of their education and especially note those related benefits. “Some organizations offer employees some sort of tuition reimbursement plan. When you get a job and get through adapting to your new role as nurse, that’s the time to take advantage of those benefits.”

According to Woolforde, some organizations provide employees with a discounted rate or deferred payment options for a number of nursing schools. “So a $500 a credit may be reduced to $400 a credit and the student isn’t invoiced until after the class is over. By then the tuition reimbursement will have kicked in so students don’t suffer out of pocket expenses that disrupt their cashflow,” she says.

In addition, many organizations pay a stipend or differential based on a nurse’s educational achievements. “For example, let’s say the salary is $50,000 a year to start, but if a nurse has a bachelor’s degree, they may add $5,000 a year. If you’re certified they may add even more,” she explains.

Decide on Your Financial Priorities and Make Every Step a Learning Point

There may be a sunny employment outlook for nurses, but you still have to earn and save to fund your priorities. Not every nurse will have the same financial needs and not every nurse will experience life transitions in the same order. Yet, there are some goals, such as starting a family, buying a house, or early retirement, which many nurses aim to achieve and can—with some work on their inner and outer game.

“I made $35,000 or $45,000 my first years in nursing and had to figure out a way to increase income or reduce spending,” says Brittney Wilson, RN, BSN, nurse influencer at TheNerdyNurse.com. “I opened the door to those possibilities.” Wilson carried $40,000 in student debt that she now believes was avoidable, if she’d lived at home, attended a community college, worked a part-time job, etc.

As a young wife and mother, she tried many methods to economize, as she wasn’t emotionally able to work more hours at the bedside. “One example, I tried extreme couponing and was able to take our $600 grocery bill down to $100. I had to figure out a way to get diapers and formula for my baby,” she explains. Wilson started her blog a couple of years later, mainly for personal expression, but she also started getting free products and fees from brands. “People kept offering me money but initially I felt some guilt about it,” she says. “When I came to terms with it and actively decided to monetize my blog, I hung the ‘I’m available to be paid’ shingle directly, and even more offers came in.”

As Wilson felt more and more confident that she was providing a valuable service, she increased her ad and consulting rates, and focused her blog on her nursing specialty. “Earning extra income is like walking down a hospital hallway. It’s a journey. You can open each door and look around or keep going down the path. Just keep opening doors until you find the one that is right for you,” she advises other nurses.

Wilson got so good at earning and saving that she and her husband are on-track to pay off their house mortgage in a little over five years.

If you’d like to get better at the nuts and bolts of budgeting, bill paying, and tracking various financial accounts, you may want to try apps and programs like Mint.com. By corralling everything into one place, you get a better handle on your spending and saving, and can see in charts and graphs how well you’re doing with your finances.

There are also minority personal finance experts you can follow for advice from someone who figuratively speaks your language. For example, African American pros include Michelle Singletary, who writes “The Color of Money,” for The Washington Post and syndicates. Or, if you prefer podcasts, Rich Jones and Marcus Garrett host Paychecks & Balances for Millennials aiming to pay down debt

Decide When to Make Major Purchases

Even if a purchase is appropriate for your life stage, try to minimize your total household overhead. Even well-paid nurses risk fatigue from worry or overwork to manage bills and payments for one-time splurges or ongoing financial commitments.

Woolforde encourages nurses to carefully consider whether a major purchase is a sound money investment. “I see this often—the first thing a nurse graduate buys is a flashy, brand new car, as a reward for all that hard work in school. A flashy new car is nice but it’s a rapidly depreciating item as opposed maybe holding out for a down payment on a new home that appreciates for a good long-term return,” she explains.

You might decide that your next major investment will be in your own higher education or specialized training. If so, be sure to take advantage of employer-provided assistance programs before taking out large student loans. Maybe your current workplace has a tuition reimbursement plan if you’ll commit to working there after graduation, but you hesitate to limit your options. Find out how often graduates using that program decide to stay with that employer; usually the figure is high. If your circumstances and goals match theirs, you’re likely safe in taking the same route.

So many students lament how little they knew about educational loans that a free interactive game called Payback was created by a financial literacy non-profit. The makers warn: “College can help you realize your dreams, unless it leaves you with a student loan nightmare.” Students navigate an online maze of decisions: What school to attend, what major to declare, whether to focus on studies for a higher GPA or social life for more connections, etc. At the end, if a player does decide to borrow educational funds, it’s with eyes wide open.

Choose a Specialty That’s Fulfilling—And Remunerative

Whether you’re a new nurse graduate or you’ve been in the field for years, now might be a good time to switch to a specialty or workplace with better long-term prospects for pay and benefits.

Cardillo encourages nurses to explore non-traditional career options and to take risks. “Your next job may not pay as much, but may have many other advantages. When it comes to being a bedside clinical nurse in a hospital, there’s only so much you can make, even with overtime. Some other health care related industries have greater earning potential over the long run even if you have to take a pay cut in the short term,” she says.

Cardillo points to a variety of popular nurse settings and roles that pay well, such as: Nurse informatics, quality management nurse, corporate wellness nurse, insurance nurse, or nurse consultant.

You may also want to check out DiscoverNursing.com for interactive features that guide you through the process of choosing from scores of specialties. Some under-the-radar titles have surprising rewards, including high demand or ease of entry. You’ll get information on the education, training, and certification required to fill a role, as well as its average salary and employment outlook.

Decide to Cut Hours or Leave the Bedside Altogether

Reducing your hours to, say, care for a family can be a difficult choice that depends on many conditions, but it can be the right choice, if done right.

“If you opt to get out of the job market for a while, stay in touch with nursing colleagues through professional associations [and] keep up with credentials and licenses,” advises Cardillo. “Keep yourself current, marketable, and connected.” She warns that nurses who let their licenses lapse—accidentally or not—won’t be ready to jump back in when they need to or want to.

“Some nurses drop out of the workforce to take care of elderly parents, but then the parents die and they’re left with literally nothing and can’t find a job,” she warns.

Cardillo recommends that you first explore opportunities to work at home, which are more common today for nurses. If that’s not possible, check to see if your state allows for an inactive status license, rather than outright letting it lapse.

Another life stage when nurses may be tempted to let their license lapse is at retirement, but Cardillo sees downsides to that. “Nurses retire, but after so many years they get bored or financially need to work again because they don’t want a lower standard of living.”

Care for Yourself and Your Career Longevity

“Nurses are leaders—they advocate for their patients, but they struggle with advocating for themselves,” says Diane Neustadt, director of operations at New York-based Forest Hills Financial Group.

Her firm supports the National Association of Hispanic Nurses New York chapter, of which Neustadt is an active member. Because of her involvement with the chapter, she’s able to explain the importance of managing one’s own financial life in terms that nurses relate to. “I tell them it’s like being proactive about your own health. Nurses work long, unpredictable hours so self-care is so important: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I’m a spiritual person and also know the importance of financial well-being—live one day at a time but not just for today.”

Neustadt believes in “protection first,” which means having enough insurance and the right kind. “Employer-sponsored benefits are a good thing,” she explains, “but not only may company benefits not be portable and go with you, generally those employer-provided benefits are minimum benefits and should be viewed as the base of benefits to build upon. Three areas that normally need attention are disability, additional retirement income, and long-term care.”

Make the Most of Expertise from Family, Friends, and Coworkers

Woolforde received informal money mentorship from two unexpected sources who guided her to become financially savvy. The first was her older brother, who went to college when she was in her senior year in high school and was surprised at the expenses beyond tuition that he hadn’t anticipated. “When he came home at his first break he told me frankly, ‘You’re going to have to get scholarship money if you plan on going to college.’ So, we spent countless hours in the library combing through books and catalogs looking for scholarships. That was before everything was available online.”

She was doubtful about her ability to garner scholarship funds—others will have a higher GPA, more financial need, better applications. “At first, I said, ‘there’s no way I’m going to get it’ and he said, ‘you don’t know until you try,’” she explains. After piecing together several small scholarships—$600 here and $2,000 there from various sources—Woolforde was able to fund her freshman year at a commuter college. Good grades allowed her to garner full scholarship funding for the rest of her bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Woolforde next got valuable advice from a nurse preceptor who insisted they visit the hospital credit union after one shift. “She helped me open a retirement account and set up direct deposit of part of my paycheck into that account. I was just starting my career, so retirement was the farthest thing from my mind as a 21-year-old,” she says.

Try to find a money mentor who understands your situation and connects or relates to you in that way, advises Woolforde. “My brother understood the home situation and my preceptor maybe recognized me as her younger self—she was an African American female, too. Everyone who has walked this path, grown in professionalism, grown in a nursing career, it’s our responsibility to share what we’ve learned,” she says.

Make the Most of Your Employer’s Financial Programs

Your organization may offer employee benefit education, such as having an HR representative provide short updates at staff meetings, or making a vendor available for one-on-one consultations. Take advantage of these resources if they can help you fill in the financial puzzle pieces of your life.

“My family emigrated from Armenia when I was nine years old,” says Anna Dermenchyan, RN, MSN, CCRN-K, senior clinical quality specialist in the Department of Medicine at UCLA Health and a PhD student at UCLA School of Nursing. “At the time, my parents didn’t know the language or the culture, and thus we struggled financially as a family.”  When she worked at a bank as a senior in high school, she learned about financial concepts and became more proactive about managing money.

Dermenchyan now actively engages with the University of California system’s excellent financial program for employees and students, which include onsite classes as well as live webinars on financial wellness and retirement.

“I’m an early Millennial and we think about work-life balance and living in the moment, and this necessarily doesn’t help us save enough money for the future. We want to earn, spend, travel, and just enjoy life,” she explains. “However, financial health is part of achieving wellness and maximizing potential benefits for the future. Just like with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—personal finance is at the basic level, and everything rests on it.”

Most nursing schools don’t include a financial component in the curriculum, so many workplaces fill in the gaps with seminars, consultations, and program “nudges” to encourage fiscal health. “At first, I just put in $100 a month towards retirement; that’s what I could afford after paying loans and family expenses,” says Dermenchyan. “The automatic deduction from each paycheck makes it easier, and some institutions make a matching contribution. In addition, I was advised by a financial consultant that with every salary increase, I should increase my contribution to retirement,” and she has continued to ramp up her rate of saving and investing.

Prepare for Retirement

Some nurse leaders point to numbers of disengaged older nurses who are forced to continue working because of under-funded retirement plans. They didn’t put aside enough money for the future, and early social security payouts at 64 are too small to support even modest lifestyles.

“Nurses are unlike other caring professions—police, firefighters, and teachers—because they don’t earn pensions from municipal government employers,” says Ric Edelman, a #1 New York Times bestselling author of personal finance books such as The Truth About Money and The Truth About Retirement Plans and IRAs. “That puts their financial future in jeopardy.”

Edelman is also the founder of Edelman Financial, one of the nation’s largest independent financial planning firms. His firm offers a free financial plan to nurses, waiving its customary fee for the two-meeting process—either in person or via teleconferencing—which results in recommendations for investments, insurance, estate planning, and more.

By starting the process toward financial stability and independence, you can empower yourself as an earner, saver, and investor. It is possible to experience the feeling of security that comes from having your financial life firmly in hand. This moment is the best time to take that first step.

Jebra Turner

Jebra Turner

Jebra Turner is a freelance health and business writer based in Portland, Oregon. She frequently contributes to the Minority Nurse magazine and website. Visit her online at www.jebra.com.
Jebra Turner

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