Military Finance: Advance Pay, Special Pay & Bonuses

Updated: December 23, 2022
In this Article

    When it comes to military finance, there are several different ways to get paid as a uniformed service member. You’ll receive your basic pay–the very minimum you earn while serving–but also you will be eligible throughout your military career for advance pay, special pay, and bonuses.

    While many service members may draw all of the above, many have unique combinations of these bonuses and other offerings. Some qualify for more money because they must perform hazardous duty, others qualify for certain bonuses because they are professionally fluent in more than one language.

    Still others may qualify for special pay because their jobs are in high demand–pilots are just one group of military people compensated more because of special skills.

    See 2024 military pay rates and charts here.

    Advance Pay

    The first thing we’re examining here is also one of the most common types of military pay above and beyond your basic pay not associated with housing, separate rations, or other entitlements officially known as “allowances”. Allowances are not like special pay and bonuses (see below) in that they are not subject to federal taxes.

    Advance pay is not an allowance, but nor is it “special pay” with specific criteria requiring certain conditions to be met such as a re-enlistment, remaining in a specific short-handed career field, etc. Instead, advance pay is something all service members may be entitled to apply for in connection with a permanent change of station move.

    Essentially an interest-free loan on your paycheck, you are required to repay the loan with a series of automatically deducted payments (the DoD takes the funds out of your paycheck before you get it) that can stretch over a full year.

    Some people believe advance pay is a bad idea, noting that the amount you must pay per month over the repayment year will reduce your monthly cash flow.

    Think It Over First

    Those already on tight budgets may need to consider that detail before making the plunge. But it’s not always a bad move to take advance pay–an interest-free loan is cost effective if you plan on using the money you are borrowing from yourself wisely.

    One such use? Offsetting the expense of relocating to another assignment, especially if you have to move family members.

    Some troops are assigned from cities with a typical cost-of-living into a more expensive region. Imagine being reassigned from an Air Force Base in the midwest to one in Southern California. Advance pay could be a big help in making purchases associated with the relocation, getting a vehicle up to emissions standards in the new state, etc.

    Advance pay is best when you have a plan and a financial goal to inform your decision to borrow from your own paycheck.

    Advance Travel Pay 

    One type of advance pay is specifically limited to official travel. According to the Department of Defense, advance travel pay is authorized for those who do not yet have a government travel card. Advance travel payments may be authorized for certain allowances including per diem, and the Dislocation Allowance.

    This is applicable, “if the Member is not a Government Travel Charge Card (GTCC) holder or an advance is not specifically prohibited in the orders.” Those who do have a government travel card are NOT authorized for such advance travel pay.

    If a member is a card holder, the GTCC must be used for PCS travel and advances are not authorized.

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    Special Pay

    Aside from your basic pay and advance pay, many in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Space Force and Coast Guard may qualify for special pay offered by their branch of service as a retention and recruiting incentive.

    For example, troops who pull “hardship duty” may be authorized Hardship Duty Pay, typically offered to those who are assigned overseas in “hardship locations” which, according to the Defense Finance And Accounting Service official site, where living conditions are “substantially below the standard most members in the continental United States would generally experience.”

    The DoD has a set of criteria for special pay and there are often minimum time-on-station requirements. For example, for Hardship Duty Pay, the qualifying criteria includes:

    • Serving on PCS in a designated area, or serving in a temporary duty or deployed status for over 30 consecutive days in a designated area
    • Those who relocate to a designated area as part of a permanent change of station move are eligible from the day of arrival
    • Troops who are TDY in such areas are not eligible during the first 30 days of consecutive service at the designated location

    Not all special pay has those specific instructions, but it’s easy to see that the DoD prefers specific qualifying duty, dates, and other conditions in order to draw some special pay. Not all special pay is hardship-related. Some is offered for hazardous duty, and some may be offered as an incentive to accept a specific military assignment.


    Recruiting and retention is very important in the military, and that is one reason why the DoD offers bonuses to those enlisting or commissioning into critical career fields, and to those who are currently serving with hard-to-replace skills.

    When it comes to recruiting bonuses, a new enlistee may earn a bonus for signing up for a specific career field or MOS, but there are also “quick ship” bonuses paid to those who are willing to go to basic training fairly quickly after making the commitment. The U.S. Army Recruiting official site offers qualifying new recruits as much as $12,000 “just for shipping to training within 30 days of enlistment.”

    And then there are the “retention bonuses” aimed at those who are already serving with an eye toward keeping them motivated to re-enlist and/or remain in the career field. These service members include pilots, military doctors, linguists, explosive ordnance disposal techs, and many others qualify for these incentives every year.

    Qualifying Service Or Service Commitments Required

    These bonuses are usually quite specific and don’t apply in an “open/general” way. A good example? You may be allowed to receive a Foreign Language Proficiency Bonus for example, but in most cases you may have to take a test showing your capacity to use other languages professionally.

    Others may qualify for a Selective Retention Bonus which is paid to those who agree to re-enlist for a specific qualifying amount of time. These bonuses are usually paid to those in career fields that are difficult to maintain staffing levels for; a good example of this type of pay is offered to Army soldiers in hard-to-fill MOS slots who agree to re-enlist for a minimum of three years.

    Such bonuses may be paid in flat-rate, lump sum payments and it’s important to remember that military bonuses are considered income by the IRS and are subject to taxation.

    Where To Get Information About Advance Pay, Special Pay, And Bonuses

    In some cases, if you qualify for a bonus or for special pay, you’ll be informed by your command support staff–especially if you must test for proficiency pay. The tests required are not optional, and scheduling will be something you’ll need to arrange with your orderly room or the organization responsible for scheduling and processing such tests.

    In most cases, the base Finance Office will have all the information you need, but at a higher level the Defense Accounting and Finance Service official site has a wealth of general information about all forms of military pay and the requirements for drawing it.

    About The Author

    Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team