Pay and Allowances: Fair, or Not?

Over at’s spouse blog, SpouseBUZZ, there is an interesting conversation about whether family programs should be rank-based.  While that is a fascinating topic, it isn’t a Paycheck Chronicles topic, but in the comments there is a brewing debate that seems appropriate for us here.

The comment exchange started like this:

“Like the “progressive” tax structure our country has in place, this is punitive for those who have attained some measure of success in their career. Like requiring an Officer pay for uniforms and patches when Enlisted get them for free. What is the reason for the slightly higher pay again”

Well, as you can imagine, commenters were not about to let that statement go unchallenged.  The conversation continued:

” ‘Enlisted get them for free’? Really? Because my E4 husband just spent the last of his paycheck on a new uniform and patches when he changed units”


“Think he was referring to the clothing allowance that enlisted get but officers don’t”


“I won’t complain about getting a little extra help, but I don’t think a clothing allowance of like $300/year really covers the cost of uniforms. So, “free” is rather inaccurate. Considering that officers easily make double what enlisted make (and get much higher BAH since apparently it costs a lot more to live if you are a higher rank), I really don’t think you have much room to complain about pay”


“Free? My husband just laid three hundred dollars out of one paycheck on deployment gear. It was his first deployment and his packing list was given to him 10 days before he left. You remind me of an E5 I know that complains about how much gas is for his BMW”

I was thinking about an appropriate comment to leave, and then I decided to bring the conversation over here instead.  I didn’t want to throw fuel on the brewing fire, I didn’t think these comments were really completely relative to the original post, and well, it is about money!  What I was going to comment was something about how we can all agree that the military pay structure is messy.  However, these comments seemed to be going beyond the pure economics of any perceived inequity.

It is easy to characterize this as an enlisted vs. officer topic.  Officers make more in base pay, enlisted folks get clothing allowances that officers do not, and enlisted get more BAS than officers.  (I STILL haven’t figured that out!)  However, with over 70 different pays and allowances, total military compensation is about much more than rank.  Variations for occupation, time in service, duty station, and deployment status mean that a lower-ranking service member can make much more  than a higher ranking service member.  Assignment incentive pay can, in extreme circumstances, be even more than base pay.   There are even special allowances, such as BAH-Diff and Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance, specifically for unusual family situations.  And bonuses – we could write pages on the relative merits of various bonus programs.

Even with all its complexity and chaos, I think that the military compensation package is relatively well-thought out and generally fair.  Sure, there are people who are making more money for less work, but that is true in any employment environment.  Most people in the military increase their income by taking on more responsibility, doing jobs that are valuable to the military, or sticking around despite the rough times.

I imagine that many of you have thoughts on this subject, and I’d love to hear them!  Do you think that military compensation comes together in a sensible fashion, or not?  Do you see huge inequities in pay, or do you think that it is general fair?  What’s your experience?

About the Author

Kate Horrell
Kate Horrell is a military financial coach, mom of four teens, and Navy spouse. She has a background in taxes and mortgage banking, and a trove of experience helping other military families with their money. Follow her on twitter @realKateHorrell.
  • billy

    Can you folks pay for anything ???? you want every thing free……dang how nice it must be.

  • jessica

    im the wife of an E4 and really have no complaints about the military pay system. i think that officers make more (just like they would in the civilian world) because of their education and job description. some one has to start at the bottom. my husband just happens to be one of those people. but i do NOT like when i hear a wife of an officer making comments against what extras us junior enlisted might get. because the truth is, we make VERY little. an O1 compared to an E5 makes more then double. and that E5 works the same hours, and in most cases deals with alot more. its their job to take care of the soldiers. you dont see a commander going to a privates home when there an issue. its the first sgt. in my personal oppinion i feel like our sergeats deserve alot more credit then what they are sometimes given. i really cant believe that an officers wife would put up that kind of argument on a public forum. but maybe she doesnt realize how much more she is making. so i gues my issue would be more towards the wives having this argument. then the pay system. its the same as anywhere. the more you make the less your *perceived* to do. and usually the small guy at the bottom making nothing feels like he’s overworked and abused. but to me its no different then the real world. just dont be complaining about it. whether your the small guy, or the well payed.

    • Mike

      An E5 works MORE hours than any officer, at least I know I did as a NCO. I love how everyone thinks we get what we’re due…while in Germany, during the 39 mths there, I seen my family a total of three months. My wife and kids kept notes on our calender. My work hours were at the most 20 hrs a day and at the least 16. The military gets paid by salary not by the hours!

    • realist

      This is why I love my job. Part of the reason an officer makes more is because of the education and part of it is the job description. As on officer you are expected to run a range or to run a platoon of 40 people. As an E4, you maybe have a team of three people you have to take care of. When someone gets a DUI, guess who is getting that phone call every time…the officer. Officers have to take responsibility no matter what happens, so that means that if something goes wrong it is their fault regardless if they had anything to do about it. A private does something stupid, sure he will get yelled at but its his platoon leader or his company commander that get their rear end handed to them.

  • Debbie

    Dearest Billy, if your envious of the military way of life, same opportunities are there for you, go for it!!

  • Billy, you are incredibly ignorant – we pay for everything! With blood, sweat and tears every single day of service. Some of us pay with a leg or an arm, or a fully functional brain. Others pay with their lives.

  • Rob

    Why fix it if it isn’t broken? Without things to complain about this rock would cease to turn.

  • Dawn

    We’re enlisted never got uniforms or patches for free and we’re not whining!nor do we complain about smaller quarters compaired to offices excreta …

    • cokyma

      Hi Dawn. We were actually told that enlisted members didn’t qualify for houses with air conditioning at one point. We had to buy a window unit! That has since changed on our base but if they needed to put officers in our area, they had to sign and acknowledge they were getting “sub-standard” housing!

      I was always happy with our quarters until I was told those two things. It seems very disprespectful to the enlisted members.

      • Dawn

        That is HORRIBLE!!!! The point I was trying to make (on my cell which is small and hard to type a lot on) was that Officers have NO reason for complaint that they have it far far better then most if not all enlisted.

  • If there is ever a place to complain about pay I believe it lies with senior enlisted and new officers. It is a disgrace, in my opinion, that a seasoned veteran with years of experience, schooling, and hard work, not to mention years of deployments, will be paid equally or less than a new officer who has just completed college. I can respect that an officer has added responsibility but, so do senior enlisted, they tend to carry out the requested duties as commanded by the senior officers. But, as far as military life (which I’m new to) it is something I’m glad I’ve gotten to experience. To be married to a national hero (at least in my eyes) is something money can’t buy and the government can’t take away.

  • cokyma

    I don’t think Housing allowances or moving allowances should be rank based. That gives an officer with just a wife more funds and weight allowances than an enlisted family with kids. Rank should not be the deciding factor for how much a family gets for a home or how much stuff they get moved. That seems very backwards.

  • Russell Lewis

    The two issues I used to have with P & A were (I’m ready for the flame spraying for the first on);
    1. Family Separation Allowance… WTF… we all volunteered to be away from our families. Why because it’s a wife/husband is it a “special” occasion. They didn’t come in your sea bag… etc., etc. And don’t get me started on WHAT many sailors spent their FSA on overseas… whole different discussion.
    2. Sea Pay. If you joined the Navy, ummm, I would think you would expect you would be going to sea as part of your job, why the “extra” pay. OK, that being said, I took the SP and was happy to get it… Now who was the genius (translated: desk jockey) who decided you could go to sea as an E-1 but had to be an E-4 before you could get SP, the same as the guy sleeping in the rack next to you on the same ship… out to sea. My LPO told me once it was “your incentive to make rate.” I almost slapped him and told him, “you stupid SOB, I would take all the rating tests up to CPO if I could, right now but the system makes me wait.” Silence, end of discussion.
    So, there is my $0.02… probably pay, so it’s taxable.

    • Echo November

      Couldn’t agree more

  • Echo November

    I really think there needs to be an overhaul of the military pay scale, the gap in pay between officers and enlisted is steep. A college education is nice but in our current economy many college grads are entering the military as enlisted because the officer slots are filled. I definitely am not saying there shouldn’t be an increase in pay for a college degree but currently the economy is making the enlisted and officer line blurred. As someone who is about to graduate college one thing that would bother me about the military is if I joined and was receiving half the pay of someone else in the same position.

  • Patrick

    One more thing to add is a 1st Lt at 8 years has a higher base pay than an E-7 with 20 years of service.

    • clmr

      I believe that this is a bad comparison. a 1st LT at 8 years is more than likely prior enlisted and it should be higher. E7 with 20 years should be lower because incentive is to make rank and higher pay. I agree that there is definite gap issue on pay of all types (BAS, BAH, Base). Times have change and the military needs to upgrade the standards. Everybody is a soldier and the rank (class system) should only be pertinent to the job not on living and pay standards. I believe it defiantly hurts morale of both enlisted and officer to see a enlisted soldier’s family push into tight quarters or substandard living just because of rank.

  • Thanku

    I’m sorry for being so out of touch but a friend just told me that the best our country has ( you folks in the service of our country) have to pay for uniforms and food while serving on active duty in Afganistan ( at least the officers do). I can’t believe it !!!!! That’s the most outrageous thing I have ever heard, my friend said his son- in- law had to buy his own sleeping bag before being deployed. What has happened to our country where politicians are becoming wealthy from their “public service”, unemployment pay can last for a year, where food stamps usage has increased 4x and yet the govt is making our servicemen and women pay for the privilege of being shot in a foreign country that doesn’t even appreciate you being there. I would like to apologize to you active service folks for being unaware of this situation and again thank you for your service. It saddens me that our country has our priorities so screwed up.

    • Proud Grammie

      Yes I couldn’t agree more…my grandson who is getting ready for deployment training is in Italy and is being asked to pay $800.00 for all the clothes and equipment needed..he just got out of basic training and while we were there for his graduation we went to an army store for boots, special glasses, and socks that he would need..I thought that was strange then … Now he tells us this …we need to get Americans working and stop the food stamp program and especially the high politician pay and provide what the soldiers need FREE…of charge…The armed forces needs to be ranked top priority!

      • Kate

        Proud Grammie, just for the record: your grandson gets a clothing allowance of several hundred dollars each year. You’re right, it may not cover all of his needs, but it is there.