What are the top paying locations for nurses?

When looking for the top paying locations for nurses, you need to take into consideration not only salaries, but also benefits. Furthermore, you must consider the cost of living. Because a dollar in Memphis will not buy the same goods and services as a dollar in Houston or a dollar in Bangor or a dollar in Chicago.

So let’s look at top salaries first.

Top Salaries

While we can speculate (and we may very well turn out to be right), the United States government gathers this data as a matter of course. This is, in part, where your tax dollars are going, and all of this information is free online! So let’s take a look at it.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) puts together a National Compensation Survey on a quarterly basis. The Employment Cost Index looks at employers’ costs. According to the survey, wages at hospitals have gone up by about one-quarter since 2005. This is a national average.

Median wages for registered nurses are about $67,000. And the top-paying states (sorted by hourly mean wage) are as follows:

State Employment Employment per thousand jobs Location quotient Hourly mean wage Annual mean wage
California 255,010 16.46 0.83 $48.68 $101,260
Hawaii 10,990 17.73 0.89 $43.33 $90,130
Massachusetts 83,780 24.66 1.24 $42.62 $88,650
Alaska 5,910 18.05 0.91 $42.55 $88,510
Oregon 32,490 18.72 0.94 $40.29 $83,800

Did Oregon surprise you?

What happens when we break the numbers down by metropolitan area? Then the survey says:

Metropolitan area Employment  Employment per thousand jobs Location quotient  Hourly mean wage Annual mean wage
San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, CA Metropolitan Division 12,160 11.92 0.60 $64.26 $133,650
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA 2,860 22.84 1.15 $61.77 $128,480
Oakland-Hayward-Berkeley, CA Metropolitan Division 19,200 18.22 0.92 $60.05 $124,910
San Rafael, CA Metropolitan Division 1,770 15.75 0.79 $59.59 $123,940
Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA 1,500 16.72 0.84 $59.25 $123,250
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 13,720 13.56 0.68 $58.47 $121,610
Sacramento–Roseville–Arden-Arcade, CA 17,460 19.97 1.00 $54.33 $113,000
Salinas, CA 2,470 15.28 0.77 $50.05 $104,110
Modesto, CA 3,040 18.30 0.92 $49.39 $102,730
Stockton-Lodi, CA 3,780 17.29 0.87 $48.26 $100,380

It’s not too surprising to discover that California dominates this list.

Pacific Coast Highway at southern end of Big Sur, California. (Photo by Doug Meek)

Pacific Coast Highway at southern end of Big Sur, California. At a median RN annual salary of $100,400, California is where registered nurses are paid the most. (Photo by Doug Meek)


Glassdoor is a survey company with information on salaries for all kinds of jobs. However, their registered nurse data is pretty close. For San Francisco, they list an average salary of $108,110. The real surprise is in Santa Cruz; Glassdoor says the average salary for a registered nurse is $70,135.

But what if you’re not in a true metropolitan area? The survey also looked at top annual wages for non-metropolitan areas.

Nonmetropolitan area Employment  Employment per thousand jobs Location quotient Hourly mean wage Annual mean wage
Mother Lode Region of California nonmetropolitan area 810 20.11 1.01 $48.84 $101,580
North Valley Region of California nonmetropolitan area 310 10.65 0.53 $45.91 $95,490
Border Region of Texas nonmetropolitan area 680 11.79 0.59 $43.18 $89,810
Hawaii / Maui / Kauai nonmetropolitan area 1,750 18.43 0.93 $41.42 $86,160
Balance of Alaska nonmetropolitan area 860 11.32 0.57 $40.55 $84,330

The Mother Lode Region of California encompasses Amador, Calaveras, Mariposa, and Tuolumne Counties. These counties lie to the east of Sacramento. This region is inland in California, and is near the Sierra Nevada mountains. The biggest city in the area is California’s state capital, Sacramento.  Glassdoor comes in a lot higher for Sacramento; their average salary for a registered nurse is $100,000!

The North Valley Region of California encompasses Lassen, Modoc, Nevada, Plumas, Sierra, Siskiyou, and Trinity Counties. The region is close to Stockton and Merced. It, too, is an inland area, with some counties bordering Nevada. Siskiyou County borders Oregon. Many of these areas include national forest areas and wildlife refuges. Glassdoor calculates the average salary for a registered nurse in Stockton as being $67,272.

The Border Region of Texas consists of the following counties: Dimmit, Edwards, Kinney, La Salle, Maverick, Real, Uvalde, Val Verde, and Zavala. These counties are mainly to the south and west of San Antonio, and some of them lie along the border with Mexico. Glassdoor says the average salary for a registered nurse in San Antonio is $63,000.

The Hawaii/Maui/Kauai area encompasses all of Hawaii except for metropolitan Honolulu which is located in Honolulu County. Glassdoor comes in lower; their average for Maui Meadows (for a registered nurse) is $63,070.

And finally, the ‘balance’ of Alaska is pretty much everywhere outside of cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks, and outside of the southeast area. It includes the Aleutians East, Bristol Bay, Denali, Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island, Lake and Peninsula, North Slope, and the Northwest Arctic Boroughs; the Aleutians West, Bethel, Dillingham, Nome, Southeast Fairbanks, Valdez-Cordova, Wade Hampton, and the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Areas, and Kusivak. As you can imagine, many of these are rather large geographic areas with small populations and an abundance of conservation areas and national preserves.

Glassdoor bears out these numbers, listing an average salary for a registered nurse in Nome as being $63,070.

Now let’s look at areas with higher and lower costs of living.

Costs of Living

The Bureau also puts together a Consumer Price Index, and it divides it up geographically. For example, the Los Angeles area (this includes Orange County) breaks down to housing costing over 37% of all annual expenses (average annual cost is about $21,850). Transportation clocks in at about 15% (average annual cost is about $8800). Food is nearly 12.5% (average annual cost is about $7200). Average registered nurse wages come in at $45.80/hour, some of the highest in the country.

Contrast this to Boulder, Colorado, where housing is 33.8% of all annual expenditures (average annual cost is just under $21,000), transportation is 15.7% (average annual cost is just above $9600), and food is 12.7% (average annual cost is just under $7800). Average wage for a registered nurse is $36.29/hour. However, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, housing is 31.8% (average annual cost is $16,518), transportation is 18.5% (average annual cost is just under $9600), and food is 12.7% (average annual cost is just over $6600). Average registered nurse wages are $27.00/hour.

Hence in Boulder, your top three expenditures would be pretty close to those in LA. Except you’d be expected to pay for all that with $9.51 less per hour.

Who knew Los Angeles could be a better deal than, well, anywhere?

Finally, let’s look at the special case of travel nursing.

Travel Nursing

As the Bureau of Labor Statistics points out, housing takes out an enormous bite. From city to city, housing costs generally run to about one-third of all expenditures. However, a standard perk for travel nurses is housing.

So let’s go back to our earlier examples of LA, Boulder, and Fayetteville, Arkansas.

A travel nurse in LA, on average (according to Glassdoor) makes $69,366. However, per the BLS, the average annual cost for housing is about $21,850. Including housing in your LA travel nurse compensation raises it to, effectively, a cool $91,216.

On average, a travel nurse in Boulder (per Glassdoor) makes $65,083. The BLS says the average annual cost for housing is just under $21,000. When housing is factored in, the compensation for a Boulder, Colorado travel nurse goes up to an effective $86,083.

In Fayetteville, according to Glassdoor, a travel nurse, on average, makes $60,505. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual cost is just over $6600. And when housing is included, your average Fayetteville, Arkansas travel nurse compensation goes to, effectively, $67,105.

Arkansas and Colorado are Nurse Licensure Compact states, along with Arizona, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

California, on the other hand, is not a Nurse Licensure Compact state. In fact, except for the Border Region of Texas, none of the highest-paying states or metropolitan areas or non-metropolitan areas listed above are a part of the compact. But that’s where the biggest perk of travel nursing – housing – really stands out.

Because, while you might, on average, make more in Los Angeles than in Fayetteville, Arkansas, if you’re a travel nurse in Arkansas, and housing is included, you will be able to keep almost as much of your earnings as a non-travel registered nurse in LA.

Travel nursing puts money in your pocket.

Janet Gershen-Siegel

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