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Understanding Military Pay

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Updated January 25, 2011

How much you will make in the military is a little more complicated than "do eight hours of work, and get paid for eight hours." How much you will make in the military depends on several individual factors.

Base Pay. This is sometimes called "basic pay." Everyone on active duty receives base pay. The amount depends on your rank, and how long (years) you've been in the military. For example, the lowest ranking enlisted member -- someone in the paygrade of E-1 -- with less than two years of service, makes a base pay of $1,467 per month. A 4-star general (O-10), who's been in the military for 30 years, takes home $17,176 per month in base pay. For other ranks, see our 2011 base pay charts.

Drill Pay. While members on active duty (full-time duty) receive base pay, members of the National Guard and military Reserves get monthly "drill pay." The amount of monthly drill pay depends on how many drill periods a person works during the month, their military rank, and the number of years they have been in the military. Most Guard and Reserve members perform one weekend of drill per month. Each weekend counts as four drill periods. A member of the National Guard or Reserves receives one day's worth of base pay for each drill period. A Guard/Reserve member in the lowest enlisted rank (E-1), with less than two years in the military, would draw $195.68 for a weekend of drill. A full-bird colonel (O-6), with more than 20 years in the military, would make $1,538.76 for a weekend of drill. When a member of the National Guard or reserves is performing full-time duty (such as in basic training, military job school, or deployed), they receive the same pay as active duty members.

Housing Allowance. Military recruiters promise "free room and board." The "room" part of this promise is accomplished through the military's housing program. Enlisted members who are fairly new to the military, and do not have a spouse and/or children generally live in a military barracks (dormitory). Because military barracks generally do not meet minimum military housing standards required by law, most people who live in the barracks also receive a few bucks each month for their inconvenience, in the form of Partial Housing Allowance. With the exception of basic training and military job school, the new "standards" for most of the services now include a single room for each person, with a bathroom shared by one or more others. As enlisted members progress in rank to above E-4, they are usually given the opportunity to move off base, and rent a house or apartment -- receiving a monthly housing allowance. At many locations, lower-ranking enlisted members can also choose to move off base, if they wish, but it will be at their own expense.

Individuals who are married and/or reside with dependents either receive an on-base family house rent free, or they receive a monthly housing allowance to rent (or buy) a place off base. The amount of the monthly housing allowance depends on the member's rank, location of assignment, and whether or not he/she has dependents (spouse and/or children).

Members of the National Guard and Reserves are also entitled to a housing allowance when on full-time active duty. However, it works a little differently. If the Guard/Reserve member is on active duty (full-time duty) for 30 days or longer, they receive the same monthly housing allowance as do active duty members. However, if they perform active duty for less than 30 days, they receive a different housing allowance, which usually pays less, and doesn't depend on the member's location. Guard and Reserve members do not receive a housing allowance when performing weekend drill duty.

Food Allowance. All active duty military members receive a monthly allowance for food, called Basic Allowance for Subsistence. Commissioned and warrant officers receive $223.84 per month, while enlisted members receive a monthly food allowance of $325.04. However, lower ranking enlisted members who live in the barracks are generally required to consume their meals in the dining facility (chow hall), so the amount of the food allowance is immediately deducted from their pay checks. Therefore, they get free meals, as long as they eat those meals in the Chow Hall.

Officers, and enlisted members who live off base or in family housing, as well as higher-ranking enlisted members do not receive free meals in the chow hall -- instead they receive the monthly food allowance. If they choose to eat in the chow hall, they must pay for each meal. Those on a "meal card" (free meals in the chow hall), can claim a "missed meal" if they are not able to eat a meal in the chow hall due to duty reasons. If the commander approves the "missed meal," then the member receives the cost of that meal in their next paycheck.

Family Separation Allowance (FSA). Military members who are assigned or deployed to a location where their spouse and/or children are not allowed to travel at government expense are entitled to a monthly Family Separation Allowance, for each month they have been forceably separated from their dependents, after the first month. The amount of the allowance is $250 per month for all ranks. The purpose of FSA is that it costs more to maintain two separate house-holds than it costs to maintain a single residence.

This includes military basic training (after 30 days), and military job school (if dependents are not authorized).

Through September 30, 1980, FSA was payable to a member serving in pay grade E-4 (over 4 years of service) or above as a member with dependents. Effective October 1, 1980, FSA became payable to a member serving in any grade as a member with dependents.

FSA has increased significantly since the first Gulf War:

1. Effective October 1, 1985 through January 14, 1991: $60 per month.
2. Effective January 15, 1991 through December 31, 1997: $75.
3. Effective January 1, 1998 through September 30, 2002: $100.
4. Effective October 1, 2002: $250.

Warning: If the dependents are authorized to accompany the military member at Government expense to the location, but the member voluntarily elects to serve an unacompanied tour, FSA is not payable.

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