Editor's Note: For the latest developments regarding federal student loan debt repayment, check out our student debt guide.
The member’s experience below is not a typical member representation. While their story is extraordinary and inspirational, not all members should expect the same results.
When Jennifer S. clocked in on her first day of work as a nurse at a major hospital in the South, she remembers thinking, “I’ve got this.” And she did. Nursing school had prepared her well for working in the emergency room.
She felt less confident about navigating her finances, however. Jennifer had to figure out how to balance her living expenses and long-term goals with $40,000 in nursing student loans—while earning $25 an hour.
She cooked meals at home and kept her expenses low. Jennifer also created a monthly nursing budget to help organize her finances. “I saw that I should start saving a little extra during the second half of the month, when I usually had leftover money, in case I needed it for the next month’s bills,” she says.
In addition, Jennifer discovered ways she could make extra money. Consider this nursing budget example: She switched to overnight shifts making an additional $7,000 a year. When a hurricane hit her state, she worked around the clock at the hospital for a week—and earned roughly $6,000, which she put toward a down payment on a home. The hospital paid her an extra $14 per hour during the early days of the pandemic. And she routinely picked up per diem and travel assignments.
Why You Need a Nursing Budget
It’s an interesting time to be a nurse. On one hand, staffing shortages and burnout worsened during the pandemic. The rising cost of higher education, including how to pay for nursing school, has resulted in a growing number of students graduating with debt. According to the latest figures from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), roughly 70% of nurses take out loans to pay for school, and the median student loan debt is between $40,000 and $55,000.
On the plus side, nurses have some leverage. The profession is in such high demand right now that some hospitals are offering incentives like sign-on bonuses, relocation costs, and student loan repayments.
And in general, nurses can earn a good salary. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for a registered nurse in 2021 is $77,600. The median income for a licensed practical nurse or licensed vocational nurse is $48,070. The median income for a nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife, or nurse practitioner– fields that typically require a master’s degree–is $123,780 per year. Nurses who are willing and able to take on additional shifts, work overnight, or accept lucrative travel assignments stand to make even more.
If you’re a new nurse who is figuring out your finances, a nursing budget is a good place to start. But there are other steps to take as well. Here’s how to make the most of the money you earn to achieve your financial goals.
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Watch Your Spending
With different ways to supplement your income as a nurse, it can be easy to give in to overspending. “When I was doing travel assignments, I just kept working,” Jennifer says. “At the time, I didn’t realize it would stop, so I didn’t think to save as much as I could have.”
In fact, lifestyle creep can be a common pitfall, especially when you start earning more money, says Brian Walsh, CFP, senior manager, financial planning for SoFi. Spending more on nonessentials as your income rises can potentially wreak havoc on your savings goals and financial health. That’s why budgeting for nurses is so important.
While you’re starting to establish your spending habits, Walsh recommends using cash or a debit card for purchases. Automate your finances whenever possible by doing things like pre-scheduling bill payments.
Develop Your Savings Strategy
A sound savings plan can help you make progress toward your short- and long-term goals and provide a sense of security. Walsh suggests nurses set aside 20% of their income for retirement and other savings, like building up an emergency fund that can cover three to six months’ worth of your total living expenses. He recommends placing it in an easy-to-access vehicle, like money market funds, short-term bonds, CDs, or a high-yield savings account. The remaining 80% of your income should go toward lifestyle expenses, including monthly student loan payments.
Jennifer found success by adopting a set-it-and-forget-it approach to saving. “Whenever I worked a per diem shift, I got in the habit of putting $100 or $200 of every check into a savings account,” she says. Before long, she had a decent-sized nest egg and peace of mind.
Explore Different Investments
One simple way to build up savings is to contribute to your employer’s 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plan, if one is available to you, and tap into a matching funds program. There’s a limit to how much you can contribute annually to one of these plans. In 2022, the amount is $20,500; if you’re 50 or older, you can contribute up to an additional $6,500, for a total of $27,000.
If you don’t have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan, there are other ways to save for the future. “Start by figuring out what your targeted savings goal is,” Walsh says. If you’re going to save a few thousand dollars, you can consider a traditional IRA or Roth IRA. Both can offer tax advantages.
Contributions made to a traditional IRA are tax-deductible, and no taxes are due until you withdraw the money. Contributions to a Roth IRA are made with after-tax dollars; your money grows tax-free and you don’t pay taxes when you withdraw the funds. However, there are limits on how much you can contribute each year and on your income.
But ideally, Walsh says, you’re saving more than a few thousand dollars for retirement. If that’s the case, then a Simplified Employee Pension IRA (SEP IRA) may be worth considering. “Depending on how your employment status is set up, a SEP IRA could be a very good vehicle because the total contributions can be just like they are with an employer-sponsored plan, but you control how much to contribute, up to a limit,” he says. What’s more, contributions are tax-deductible, and you won’t pay taxes on growth until you withdraw the money when you retire.
Another option is a health savings account (HSA), which may be available if you have a high deductible health plan. HSAs provide a triple tax benefit: contributions reduce taxable income, earnings are tax-free, and money used for qualified medical expenses is also tax-free.
Depending on your financial goals, you may also want to consider after-tax brokerage accounts. They offer no tax benefits but give you the flexibility to withdraw money at any time without being taxed or penalized.
Recommended: Exploring Different Types of Investments
Take Control of Your Student Loans
Chances are, you have different priorities competing for a piece of your paycheck, and nursing school loans are one of them. You may need to start repaying loans six months after graduation, and options vary based on the type of loan you have.
If you have federal loans and need extra help making payments, for example, you can look into a loan forgiveness program or an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan, which can lower monthly payments for eligible borrowers based on their income and household size. If you’re struggling to make payments, you may qualify for a student loan deferment or a forbearance. Both options temporarily suspend your payments, but interest will continue to accrue and add to your total balance.
You should also be aware that the Biden administration’s new federal student loan forgiveness plan extends the pause on federal loan payments through December 31, 2022. In addition, the program cancels up to $10,000 in federal student loan debt for individuals who make less than $125,000 a year ($250,000 for married couples) and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients who qualify.
Chipping away at a student loan debt can feel overwhelming. And while there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, there are a couple of different approaches you may want to consider. With the avalanche approach, you prioritize debt repayment based on interest rate, from highest to lowest. With the snowball approach, you pay off the smallest balance first and then work your way up to the highest balance.
While both have their benefits, Walsh says he often sees greater success with the snowball approach. “Most people should start with paying off the smallest balance first because then they’ll see progress, and progress leads to persistence,” he explains. But, he adds, the right approach is the one you can stick with.
Consider Whether Student Loan Refinancing Is Right For You
When you refinance, a private lender pays off your existing loans and issues you a new loan. This combines all of your loans into a single monthly bill, potentially reduces your monthly payments, and may give you a chance to lock in a lower interest rate than you’re currently paying. A quarter of a percentage point difference in an interest rate could translate into meaningful savings if you have a big loan balance, Walsh points out.
Still, refinancing your student loans may not be right for everyone. By choosing to refinance federal student loans, you could lose access to benefits and protections, like the current pause on payment and interest or federal loan forgiveness plans. Be sure to weigh all the options and decide what makes sense for you.
Nursing can be a rewarding career, with flexibility and opportunities to add to your income. However, as a new nurse, you are likely trying to stretch your paycheck to cover student loan debt and everyday expenses. Fortunately, by using a few smart strategies, you can start to pay down your loans—and save for the future.
If refinancing your student loans is one of the strategies you’re considering, SoFi can help. When you refinance with SoFi, you get benefits like flexible terms. And with our medical professional refinancing, you may be able to qualify for special low rates for nurses.
Photo credit: iStock/FatCamera
SoFi Student Loan Refinance
If you are a federal student loan borrower, you should consider all of your repayment opportunities including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. Please note that once you refinance federal student loans you will no longer be eligible for current or future flexible payment options available to federal loan borrowers, including but not limited to income-based repayment plans or extended repayment plans.
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