Do military service members make more money than civilians over a career?
For example, would 18-year-olds who graduated high school in 2000 be wealthier today if they had enlisted and served through 2018, or would they have made more money if they had spent those years working in the civilian workforce?
It’s a question separate from the many noble reasons that motivate troops to enlist. It’s a straight money question, aimed at calculating the dollars that result from an important life choice
There is no simple answer. Comparing civilian pay to military compensation can seem like apples and oranges. In addition to basic pay, troops get generous tax-free housing allowances as well as bonuses, special pays and more.
Yet troops surrender more control over their career moves, commit to potentially dangerous work assignments and make frequent family moves that can jeopardize spouses’ earning potential.
Moreover, military personnel typically advance along a standardized career path, but in the civilian sector, promotions and career advancements are far more varied and less predictable.
“The general challenge in military and civilian compensation is that we don’t have a way to track civilian earnings like we track service members’,” said Brooke Goldberg, director of military family policy at the Military Officers Association of America.
Nevertheless, it’s a question that generates a lot of interesting discussion.
Military pay got a big boost in the years immediately following 2001, when a surge of patriotism and overseas operations prompted Congress to grant a series of annual pay raises that were quite generous by historic standards.
Yet in more recent years, budget battles in Washington have led to historically small military pay raises that have failed to keep up with civilian wage growth and have eroded the total value of military compensation packages.
Nevertheless, some evidence suggests that service members who joined the military in 2000 are making more than their civilian counterparts. Overall, military pay raises during the past 18 years have slightly outpaced the growth in average civilian wages (as defined by the government’s Employment Cost Index).
Average military pay from 2000 through 2018 grew by 76 percent, compared to civilian wage growth over the same period of 63 percent, according to government data. Yet the news is not so good for troops who missed out on those big pay bumps after 2001.
For troops who joined the military after January 2010, pay raises have failed to keep up with civilian sector wages. Since 2010, civilian pay rose a total of about 19 percent, while military pay climbed by about 16 percent.
Pay in the civilian sector is highly dependent on career field, while military pay charts standardize pay for service members of all occupational specialties, said Dan Merry, MOAA’s vice president of government relations.
In 2018, an officer at the O-5 paygrade is making more than $105,000. That’s on par with some civilian jobs for people at a similar age and level of experience.
But “a squared-away engineer on the outside could easily be making $200,000 to $300,000 a year,” Merry said. “Our four-star generals don’t make that.”
Merry is familiar with the military vs. civilian choice.
“I’m prior enlisted. I joined late in life,” Merry said. “I tried college, I tried work, I tried whatever. I made as much money as I needed to make.”
Merry said he got his “Eureka” moment years ago when he was working in a construction job under a retired officer. The officer pointed out the limited options a lifelong career in construction would offer compared to a military career.
Merry later joined the Air Force and retired as a colonel.
Goldberg’s family made a different choice. Her husband, an Air Force pilot, graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2000. She graduated from law school in 2002. She gave up a job offer to move with him to Hurlburt Field in Florida, where they spent the next 10 years.
That move impacted her ability to earn for the family, so, in the final year of her husband’s military service commitment, they opted to do one additional year to ensure GI Bill transferability for their daughter. They turned down the extra $150,000 the Air Force was offering for him to remain in the service.
“$150,000 was not enough to allow the Air Force to decide what our potential was,” Goldberg said. Her husband separated from the Air Force in 2013 and they moved to Washington, D.C., to look for work — just as the government shut down and defense contractors froze hiring.
“So, my pilot husband with an engineering degree and an MBA was unemployed,” Goldberg said. “There was a chunk of about two years where we asked, ‘Should we have stayed in the military?’ Was that more lucrative choice? But the freedom factor to be able to choose — to us that had more value.”
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.
Tara Copp is the Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times and author of the award-winning military nonfiction "The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story."