A jaunt through the internet will yield plenty of news stories about uniformed service members facing financial hardships common to working-class civilians. The annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey by Blue Star Families, an organization that advocates for U.S. military members and their spouses and children, routinely finds financial struggles to be one of the main concerns of military families, along with the stress caused by the time service members spend away from family.
Many Americans who choose to enlist in the U.S. armed forces do so for patriotic reasons. But the military is also a good opportunity for many young adults to learn marketable technical skills, obtain a higher education, or simply find order and discipline in their lives. A degree of financial security is also a perk, but as many enlisted service members would tell you: You don’t serve to get rich.
Indeed, newly recruited Army or Marine Corps privates earn less than they would flipping burgers full time: roughly $20,000 per year. But that is just if someone remains a private. Pay in the U.S. armed forces increases significantly by rank and time served, so the longer someone spends in uniform and the more successful they are in meeting the challenges of climbing the ranks, they could reach significantly higher pay.
To find the military pay grades that pay the most, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed 2022 basic pay tables from the Defense Finance and Accounting Service for the Department of Defense. Pay grades are ordered by maximum possible base pay (we used the monthly pay to calculate annual pay). Comparable ranks for each pay grade also came from the DOD. Coast Guard ranks are mostly the same as Navy ranks.
Monthly pay ranges from about $1,695 for a newbie private to $16,975 per month, or about $204,000 per year, for a four-star general or admiral who has served at least 20 years in the armed forces. (These are the highest paying jobs you can have in America.)
One interesting feature of the U.S. military pay structure is the difference between enlisted and officer ranks. The lofty position of the top advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest enlisted pay, is only the eighth best-paying military rank, at about $112,000 per year.
All the pays on the list, however, are just base pay. Many enlisted personnel, warrant officers, and officers receive additional special pay that can boost their overall wages. For example, there is hazardous duty incentive pay and assignment incentive pay. There are also accession and retention bonuses for certain professions, such as medical professionals, nuclear professions, and certain engineers. (Here is what it takes to be in 16 of America’s elite military forces.)
Uniformed service members who serve full time also pay zero out-of-pocket costs for health care, including coverage for family members, through the DOD’s Tricare program, which offers benefits that would be much less attainable in the private sector.
Here is how much US military are paid at every pay grade.
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