29-year-old travel nurse seized a chance to make $187,000 and only work 9 months a year: It's 'a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity'
This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which details how people around the world earn, spend and save their money.
In 2020, while working as a staff nurse at a hospital in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Aspen Tucker came across a job posting for a travel nurse.
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, a hospital in Amarillo, Texas, needed extra staff in a hurry. The position paid $6,700 per 48-hour workweek.
"It clicked in my head. I said, 'I have to do this. I can't wait around. I can't sit around and wait on money,'" said Tucker, now age 29.
For Tucker, who estimates he was making about $2,000 per biweekly paycheck at the time, there was no time to lose. "I hate to say this, but I didn't give notice. I got my stuff, went to Texas, and told my manager when I got there, 'I'm sorry, I've got to go. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.'"
Since his first gig, Tucker has traveled from coast to coast, working travel nursing contracts that typically range from four to 13 weeks. He tries to fit as much work in as possible when he's on contract, often logging 48- to 60-hour weeks to maximize his overtime pay.
As result, Tucker can pull in an impressive salary while working only eight or nine months out of the year. In 2022, he made $187,000, leaving him plenty of time and money to fulfill a lifelong wanderlust.
When he's not working, "The first thing I'm doing is booking a vacation," he says. "When I was younger, I wrote down a list of places I always wanted to travel. I try to knock out every place on that list."
Places he's crossed off so far include Belize, Colombia, Seychelles, Qatar and Kenya.
Tucker's planning goes beyond trips, however. He's also building a solid financial future while giving back to the people and community that helped shape him.
Learning to save from family role models
Although his work and travel have taken him far and wide, Tucker has always called Spartanburg home.
Growing up there, he had no shortage of powerful financial role models. His grandfather managed to build a small fortune, despite having just a sixth-grade education, Tucker says. "He wasn't a great reader or writer, but the one thing I tried to follow him in is that he always worked and he always believed in ownership."
By the time he died, Tucker says, his grandfather owned a handful of revenue-generating properties that his father was unfortunately unable to hang onto.
In his mother, Tucker found another mentor. After having her first of three children at age 13 (she'd have another at 18 and Aspen, the youngest, at 23) working hard to make ends meet wasn't optional for her.
Tucker knows that things were occasionally rough for his family, "but I'd never really seen it because of her hard work and how she persevered." She was even able to buy her first home at 19, Tucker says.
After graduating high school in 2012, Tucker held a variety of jobs, including working at big box retailers and at the local BMW plant, the latter a "dream job" for many of his hometown peers, Tucker says.
He always managed to save, thanks in part to his mother's generosity. She and her husband, Tucker's stepfather, were both travel nurses and let him live in their home rent-free until age 27.
Taking more inspiration from his mother, Tucker enrolled in a nursing program, graduating in 2020 with an associate's degree and $50,000 in student debt. That same year, he used his savings to buy home, putting down $4,000 on a $93,000 townhome in Spartanburg.
When the opportunity to travel and drastically increase his income presented itself, Tucker felt keeping his home base in South Carolina was the best of both worlds. "I'm able to have a high salary as a travel nurse, but also come back to where the cost of living is low," he says.
How he spends his money
Here's how Tucker spent his money in December 2022.
- Housing: $2,748 for rent and utilities on his townhome, plus an Airbnb in Fresno, California
- Support for friends and family: $1,642
- Discretionary: $1,615 for clothing, laundry and shopping, as well as payments to people who look after his house and dog while he's away
- Transportation: $1,586 for a rental car, gasoline and Uber rides, as well as payments on his vehicles back home
- Food: $1,440 for groceries and dining out
- Travel and entertainment: $1,062 for tickets to concerts and sporting events and a trip back to Spartanburg
- Insurance: $893 for auto, health and homeowners insurance premiums
- Subscriptions: $132 for a gym membership and subscriptions to Apple Music, Netflix, Roku and Scott's Cheap Flights
- Phone: $105 for his cell phone plan
December was a five-paycheck month, which allowed Tucker to pull in in more than $20,000 while on contract in Fresno, California. But it's not hard to see where being on the road put a dent in his budget.
That month he split an Airbnb with his girlfriend (also a travel nurse who occasionally takes jobs at the same hospitals) in addition to paying his mortgage and utilities back home. Additionally, he paid friends to keep an eye on his house and cars and to take care of his dog, a husky named Skye.
In addition to car payments on his truck (he owns two cars as well), Tucker paid for a rental car in California.
And while on the road, he's nearly constantly eating out, as neither he nor his girlfriend cook much.
Another financial variable Tucker has to keep an eye on: insurance. He pays premiums for coverage when he's on a contract, but between contracts he's uninsured.
"I try to think smart and get everything done while I'm under that contract," he says.
That recently meant getting some aching wisdom teeth pulled while working in California. But now that he's on break? "You gotta be wary," he says. "I used to play a lot of basketball and stuff. And now I'm like, 'If I don't have health insurance, I can't go ahead and break my leg.'"
Real estate investing and building community in Spartanburg
Even with a high monthly expenses, Tucker has been able to save prodigiously. He recently closed on a second Spartanburg home — a duplex with a $57,000 down payment.
In February he welcomed a long-term renter on one side of the property, whose rent covers a good portion of the home's $1,200 monthly mortgage payment. Tucker plans to rent the other half of the home, as well as two spare rooms in his townhome, on Airbnb.
In the future, Tucker hopes to eventually settle down and rely more on real estate investments and other business investments (and less on wages) for income. "I want to create more real estate opportunities for myself [so] that I can work less and less."
Still, Tucker is focused on giving back to the community that raised him. Some of that is informal: In December, a large chunk of Tucker's spending went toward cash gifts to family and friends during the holiday season, including several payments to a friend who is currently incarcerated.
"At the end of the day, that could be me," Tucker says. "A lot of times when you come from our communities, especially poor, African-American communities, you don't have a lot of opportunities. So any way I can help, I'm always going to be willing to help. He would do it for me as well."
Tucker recently established a scholarship in his mother's name to help nursing students of color at her alma mater.
For Tucker, it all comes back to the values he was raised on. "I always followed my grandfather's blueprint. He helped everybody," he says. "I think that's the way I tried to do it. You can say it's an investment. Maybe it's not. Maybe it's just bad spending. But I do want to help the people that I love and care about because sometimes what's considered small to me means a lot to them."
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