Are Active Military Personnel Paid Less than Minimum Wage?

Chelsy Meyer  | 

For many civilians, paychecks are relatively simple to understand. You receive a either a salary or an hourly rate, you work your hours, you have taxes withheld, and you get paid.

For active military personnel, paychecks aren’t as cut and dry. The big picture of military pay involves a lot of channels, conditions, and types of income. Salary or hourly pay depends on each situation, and calculating hours worked is highly situational as well. Answering this controversial question, “Do active military receive less than minimum wage?” isn’t cut and dry. Comparing the advantages, and understanding the disadvantages, are important aspects to understanding how active members are paid.

The Big Picture of Military Pay

The U.S. military is extremely large and intricate. There are different branches of the military, service members have different ranks, they hold different jobs, and some personnel have been in the service longer than others. Some soldiers live on base, some off. There are allowances available in some cases, and there are bonuses paid in others. There are benefits of different kinds for different types of military members.

Understanding the big picture of military pay begins with understanding that pay doesn’t start and stop with salary and/or hours worked. Pay is designed for each individual, and bonuses and allowances are still an aspect of the big picture even if they aren’t an aspect of base salary. Joining the military tends to cause a positive trajectory in finances that can help credit and overall spending power as a result of a pay system designed for each situation.

The different levels of pay depend on various aspects of a soldier’s life from credit history to having children. Some aspects aren’t added to a salary or hourly rate, but do make a difference in an active service member’s net income each year. Some of those levels include:

  • Base Pay: Not to be confused with a military base, this is a foundational level of compensation, or starting point. Everyone on active duty receives a base pay, determined mostly by rank and how long you’ve served in the military.
  • Drill Pay: Service members of the National Guard or Military Reserves participate in drill weekends (usually one weekend a month) and their pay depends on how many drill periods they participate in, their rank, and how long they’ve been in the military.
  • Housing Allowance: Recruits without a spouse or children can live in the barracks for free. However, if you move higher up in rank you can move off base and receive a housing allowance to help pay your room and board. Those that are married or with dependents can be given a home on base rent free, housing allowance for a place off base, or receive perks like better mortgage rates to buy a home due to military status.
  • Food Allowance: All active members are given a food allowance, it just works differently for each person depending on rank. Lower ranking members have food allowances taken out of their paycheck and have to eat in the chow hall; those that live off base are given a monthly food allowance.
  • Family Separation Allowance: Service members that are forced to deploy or move to an area that their spouse or children cannot relocate to are given a family separation allowance.
  • Combat Pay: If a military member is deployed or sent to work in a combat zone, they are paid combat pay due to the danger associated with the task.
  • Other Allowances and Bonuses: There are also allowances for uniforms, not all pay is subject to tax, there are bonuses and reenlistment bonuses, supplemental allowances, child support allowances, etc.
  • Special Pay: Certain jobs get higher pay depending on the danger associated with them. Flight pay, hazard pay, diving duty pay, sea pay, and submarine duty pay are all types of pay that are associated with specialized roles and assignments.

Salary vs. Hourly Pay

Now we can see that there are a ton of different funnels of pay in terms of each soldier, marine, airman, and sailor. Answering the question, “How much does someone in the military get paid?” is as difficult as answering the question, “How much does someone in the medical field get paid?” because they are two extremely broad fields that encompass a variety of different situations and professionals. However, at the very basic level, active military members do not get paid less than minimum wage. For instance, an E1 private with less than 2 years experience can make $19,198.80 annually, not counting any of the allowances or bonuses discussed earlier. Someone that makes minimum wage (currently $7.25) and works full-time makes $13,920 as their gross annual income.

Comparing pay to pay, it’s clear an active military member does not make less than minimum wage. However, if you compare salary and hourly pay, the story may be different. How many hours you work is as situationally dependent as anything else — whether you’re deployed, where you’re stationed, and what your job assignment is are all factors in deciding when you work.

In a civilian minimum wage job, you work 40 hours, you get paid for those 40 hours. In a military setting, you work 40 you get paid for 40, but you also may work 100 hours and still get paid for 40. This is yet another reason why comparing the two is so difficult. Some members work a lot of hours, some fewer, and those that are deployed are basically working constantly, as they have nowhere to go that isn’t determined by the military. In this sense, does an active military member make less than minimum wage? In some cases, that answer is probably yes, but only from a certain point of view.

Comparing the Advantages

If you join the military, you run the risk of having a job that requires you to work a lot of hours for the same pay — at least up front. However, what are the advantages to this? There must be something that makes active duty and deploying financially worth it for each service member.

  • Benefits: Along with base pay, allowances, and bonuses, come the added perk of military benefits. Pension, healthcare, and life insurance are a few of them. Others include educational benefits, access to loans you may not get otherwise, and training. To the extent that these benefits continue even after active duty has ended, it could be argued that earning “less than minimum wage” in terms of hours worked is balanced out by the residual savings and perks that accumulate over time.
  • Security: The average job may not require as many hours, but the military offers security. Soldiers are given meals, housing, and bonuses. For this reason, military members can save more money since a bulk of it doesn’t have to go towards the average living expenses. As a retired veteran, you’re still given military benefits and security as well – something extremely important to the aging veteran population.
  • Honor: Many military members don’t go into their military career looking at the numbers: it’s an honor for them to serve with the U.S. military, and that alone can make all the difference in their decision to serve despite the possibility of working more hours than they are paid.

Understanding the Disadvantages

There’s a reason why the military offers so much to new recruits. Different kinds of pay, bonuses, allowances, benefits, etc., can be a small compensation when the job requires so much sacrifice. Time away from family, long hours, physically demanding work, overseas deployments, and being in imminent danger are all aspects to a military career that aren’t altogether strange or unheard of — quite the opposite. It’s a job that takes up a large portion of your life. It’s not a 9 to 5, it’s not something you can easily “leave at work,” and it’s something that tends to be a defining part of your life long after you leave the service. The disadvantage to life in the military is that it’s hard work that not everyone can do, and you may lose your life doing it.

At the end of the day, the total amount of money in your bank account will be more in the military than it will be as part of working a minimum wage job as a civilian. However, your hours worked may not reflect that pay precisely. Military pay is confusing to distill down, and the logistics tend to be different for everyone. As a member of the military, you run the risk of working long hours in a hazardous atmosphere. However, you are also given many benefits, bonuses, and allowances that others are not able to access. It’s impossible to find a number that properly quantifies the sacrifices made by those that serve in our military, but thank goodness for the ones that do.


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Chelsy is a writer from Montana who now lives in Boise, Idaho. She graduated with her journalism degree from the University of Montana in 2012. She enjoys talk radio, cold coffee, and playing Frisbee with her dog, Titan. Follow Chelsy on Twitter @Chelsy5

This post was updated August 29, 2017. It was originally published August 27, 2017.