“I Would Have Started My Reserve Pension By Now!”

I get that pension comment every month from readers who are in their 60s… or even older.

Most of them are doing fine, both financially and in life. They usually served some active duty before the Reserves or National Guard, and a few were even drafted for Vietnam. They decided not to gut it out to 20 years of active duty and they moved to the Reserves or Guard.

Image of military vehicle in Middle East with windshield sign "One weekend a month my ass!" It's a sarcastic comment on the Reserve and National Guard drill routine of "one weekend a month and two weeks a year." | The-Military-Guide.com

Rumored to be a Reservist from early 1991 in Kuwait.

They attended monthly drill weekends and went on their annual two weeks of active duty. They did their unit’s administrative readiness requirements for a good year. If they had kept that routine for long enough then those years of active duty (and their good years of Reserve or Guard duty) would have added up to a total of 20 good years.  At that point they would have received their service’s Notice Of Eligibility that they could file for “retired awaiting pay”. They would gone into their gray-area years and started their Reserve pension at age 60.

But for various reasons, they decided not to keep going for 20 good years. The perpetual sacrifices of work/life balance were too much.  Their benefits as drilling Reservists weren’t enough incentive to stay in uniform. They finished their service obligation and saw no reason to continue. The prospect of an inflation-fighting pension and cheap healthcare in their later years was not worth the current cost in life energy.

Leaving the military seemed like the best option at the time.

Now that they’re older, these vets have a life perspective which servicemembers in their 30s or 40s might not have thought about yet. I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind about staying in uniform, but it’s worth considering their experiences as you make your plans.

What About Other Benefits Before The Pension?

For those Reservists who left before 20, their immediate benefits of retired awaiting pay (until age 60) weren’t enough. They gave up their Tricare Retired Reserve health insurance (if they ever had it in the first place) and their Reserve Component Survivor Benefit Plan. (They’d either reached financial independence or they had similar corporate benefits.) They no longer had Space A military aircraft flights or military base access.

Why Did They Stop Drilling And Deploying?

Image of Jeff Bacon "Broadside" cartoon of a military spouse giving her spouse their fitness report for supporting the family. The caption is "If Spouses Wrote Fitness Reports" and the recipient is saying "Brutal." | The-Military-Guide.com

Sure, it’s funny now, but…

Quality of life is the biggest problem with drilling in the Reserves or Guard, even when they’re not on active duty.

There’s a saying that you’ve achieved work/life balance when your civilian company, your unit, and your family are all equally annoyed with you.

If you’re holding a civilian job alongside a Reserve drill billet, then just about every month you have 12 straight workdays (including the weekend). Even if you’re not drilling that month, you’re probably doing extra days of Reserve paperwork and correspondence. Sometimes those extra days (often unpaid) are every week.

Then there’s the vital war-fighting skills of mobilizing and deploying. (The active duty troops need the practice just as much as the Reservists and Guard members.) Ideally they’re exercised every few years– not every year, and not just once a decade.

Unfortunately it’s tough to perceive that they’re adequately planned and well-executed.

Is it worth mobilizing in your unit to work at the command where you drill and do your active duty? Sure. That’s aligned with your mission and you already know the people you’re supporting.

Mobilizing and deploying to the desert because it’s “your turn” and you need the experience? That’s good too. It would help if the chain of command (I’m lookin’ at you, BUPERS) would pick a set of dates and stick to them, which would enable families to make mobilization plans (and stick to them). It would also help if families had more flexibility in planning those dates (and committing to them) instead of “Oh, hey, it’s your third year since your last deployment, let’s do it again somewhere!”

Along with mobilizations or training orders, it would be a happy surprise to have a Defense Travel System that works for the

Image of ancient, moldy, ragged hardcover books to make fun of the military's Joint Travel Regulations. | The-Military-Guide.com

“Yeah, you just need to check the Joint Travel Regs.”

servicemember instead of only for DoD’s databases. (Note to active-duty members: if you think DTS sucks now, wait until you take Reserve 89-day orders across two fiscal years to travel thousands of miles for a training course where you’ll need base lodging and a rental car. For extra bonus points, do it while you or your spouse are pregnant.) Do we really need to make the Reserves and Guard services suffer just as much as the active-duty ones?

As you can tell, I don’t have solutions to these problems. (I’ve watched the military “solving” them for at least 40 years.) Be aware that they exist and cope with them as best you can. Consider them in your personal list of why you’d want to stay in a drill billet or go to the inactive Reserves.

What About Their Civilian Career?

Every corporation where you want to work should support the Guard and Reserves. It’s the right thing to do.  (Especially if there’s financial incentives from the government.)  If they don’t support your military career then you won’t want to work there anyway.

But “supporting the Guard and Reserve” and “supporting your workload” are two completely different priorities. At some point the daily routine piles up into overload. It might be a quarterly report (at work or in the unit), the final week of a challenging project, or excessive travel. It might be difficult supervisors or teammates at either place. It could simply be an exceptionally bad case of chronic fatigue or burnout that accumulated over months.

If you’re running your own business then you end up juggling clients with your military duties. It’s never easy to separate one from the other, and compromises are inevitable. When you’re on active duty for training, or mobilized, or even deployed then you have to bring in a business partner or simply suspend operations.

Even so, the military can boost your civilian career. Here’s a quote from a retired Reservist to keep in mind:

“One other aspect is that while in the Reserves, you get training in areas that may complement or enhance your civilian skills and help you progress more rapidly in that career. Juggling can get difficult and you may end up sacrificing in one or both of your careers, but it does expand the opportunities available to you and provide another pre-retirement stream of income.”

(Thanks, Deserat!)

The military can also help cope with unemployment. Drill weekends won’t replace your income (unless you volunteer for a great set of orders) but the money can certainly help pay the bills and maybe even network to your next job.

Ironically, a successful civilian career can stop your military one. If you’re promoted at your job or move to a new location or simply take on more responsibilities, there may be “no time left” for drill weekends and unit administration. How’s your family feel about this? How hard do you want to work?

If you’re suddenly earning a lot more money from your civilian career then it’s easy to choose to go inactive– or even resign.

Heading To The Individual Ready Reserve (or the Voluntary Training Unit)

With all of the issues between a military career and a civilian one, at some point it might make sense to transfer to the IRR.

From what other readers have shared about their Reserve or Guard service, this is the beginning of the end of the military career.

Without drill weekends, life suddenly gets easier. The problems don’t disappear, but they’re easier to handle. You have more bandwidth for other opportunities– or crises.

While you can hypothetically earn enough points in the IRR to keep logging good years, it’s a new challenge. Opportunities are limited. It’s harder to access the resources you need, and it’s a lot easier to get behind on your milestones. One small step at a time, family and civilian career assert their higher priorities until there’s scant attention paid to your military duties.

I haven’t seen any statistics on IRR retention rates, but they’re well below those of servicemembers on active duty or in drill billets. And, depending on your branch of service, it can be very difficult to earn enough points in the IRR to qualify for retirement.

It’s Personal Now

I’ve had these thoughts sitting on my hard drive for years. When I was in my 40s and 50s there were lots of other things to write about, and this post didn’t have a very high priority.

However I was born in 1960. In 2020, this subject suddenly gained an entirely new relevance.

In 1993 I’d been on active duty for 11 years and my career hit its nadir. We had started our family (a personal zenith!) and our midwatch baby kept me short on sleep (for a good cause). I was on shore duty but it was a combination of on-call operations staff (endless crisis management) with two bosses who were… difficult… in the middle of the biggest drawdown since WWII. I was technically selected for submarine XO but I never got the job, and I was at my terminal rank.

I couldn’t see any other path than active duty. Out of fear, ignorance, and fatigue, one decision point at a time I spent the next nine years gutting it out to 20.

In 1993 if I’d left active duty for the Reserves, then I would have taken a contractor job at the tactics shop on the same staff. I might even have become an at-home parent while my active-duty spouse supported the family. As a lifelong computer nerd, my free time would have eventually gravitated toward the Web and I would have refreshed my programming skills.

There would have been plenty of life changes and a few more disruptions, but the money would’ve worked out about the same. Instead of waaaaay overshooting the financial independence goal in 2002 with an active-duty pension, we would have reached FI at about the same time while knowing that our assets only had to last until my Reserve pension would have taken up the slack in 2020.

Back in 1993 I was too tired and burned out to make the time to learn about the Reserves, let alone think about life in 2020.

Your Call To Action

As I’ve said many times before, I am not a role model member of the Command Retention Team.

I’m a competent author, but I certainly can’t assemble a magical combination of words and logic to suddenly motivate you to rack up those 20 good years.

All I can do is call your attention to the analysis and sentiments of those who’ve gone before us you.

If you’re no longer challenged & fulfilled by active duty, then it’s time to move to the Reserves or Guard.

If you’re at that Reserve work/life balance where everyone’s equally annoyed with you, then maybe it’s time to rethink your career priorities. Just be sure to give it enough thought today to avoid having regrets in your 60s.

[Note: The Reserve pension generally starts at age 60. Servicemembers who were mobilized after 28 January 2008 may be eligible to start their pensions three months earlier for every 90 days in a combat zone, or for a natural disaster, or during a national emergency.
The laws behind this benefit have been modified several times and there are additional restrictions & caveats, so read the post at that link carefully and then check your DD-214s.]

[earnist ref=”the-military-guide-to-financial-independence” id=”70177″]

[earnist ref=”book-raising-your-money-savvy-family-for-next-generation-financial-independence” id=”82363″]

Related articles:
Don’t Gut It Out To 20: Leave Active Duty For The Reserves Or National Guard
How To Calculate A Reserve Retirement
National Guard and Reserve Early Retirement Age
Should I Stop Drilling And Go To The Individual Ready Reserve?
What You Need To Know About National Guard Retirement
Finding Your Military Work-Life Balance

About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
This entry was posted in Career, Military Retirement. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to “I Would Have Started My Reserve Pension By Now!”

  1. Joe M says:

    The IRR program is a points only program, so guessing that would be a reason for the lower retention rate. IMA ( Individual Mobility Augmentee ) is a similar program but with pay. I’m more familiar with the IRR as I was in that program for 3 years as a PIRR ( Participating member years ago ) I was fortunate that my civilian employer paid the difference in my pay while I was a active Guardsman. When I transferred to the IRR my civilian employer paid my salary in full, up to 15 days a year.

    Used Form 40A which gave me 2 points for those 15 day annual training for a total of 30 points, 15 membership gave me 45. One year I took a PME course which counted for points that put me easily over the 50 points to have a good year.

    It’s a good program to take time out of the more regimented active Guard/Reserve program if you wanted to continue working to getting your 20 year letter.

    • Doug Nordman says:

      Thanks, Joe, it’s an option to get good years for those who have the discipline and the resources.

      And, of course, it makes it a little easier for the service to mobilize the servicemember if necessary.

  2. leftbucket says:


    Every situation is different (health/disability, spousal employment, dual-military couple, etc.), but I generally recommend staying on active duty unless it is going to significantly harm one’s health or family. We have discussed this in the past and it seems like every time I hear your story, it actually lends more credence to STAYING on active duty.

    If you had made that decision to leave AD in 1993, where would we be today? I highly doubt there would be any “Military Guide” website or book or book part 2! Couldn’t we agree that decision gave you the past 18 years of your life by allowing you to truly retire? or at least ~15 of them?

    For those already in the Guard/Reserve or for those who absolutely need to leave active duty, I likewise recommend staying in the Guard/Reserves if one has done more than the standard 6 yr enlistment. Like your article describes, it’s certainly worth some serious thought before deciding that having you and your spouse taken care of from ~age 60 on is not worth a decade of inconvenience in your 30’s.

    On a personal anecdote, my office is right next to where people check out after being released from a Guard unit. Just about everyone says they will come back sometime to finish their 20…almost no one ever does.


    • Doug Nordman says:

      Thanks, LB, and as you say: every situation is different.

      We’ll never know what more I might have achieved during the 1990s if I’d enjoyed a better quality of life, more family time, and more sleep.

      I’m helping people learn about their options so that they can make an informed decision for their situation… or at least avoid repeating my fear and ignorance.

      • leftbucket says:

        In the spirit of helping people learn about their options, there is one more lesser known option for active duty folks that can be a fantastic deal for some…we have active duty transfer into a Reserve or Guard unit as Active Guard and Reserve (called AGR for Army and Air Force)…think “full time reservist”…generally no more PCS and they get to stay with the same unit and finish out their AD career in the same place. I have seen this be a great option for some troops and their families and can be a great help getting to 20 years AD.

        The other services have a similar program for full-time reservists as well. I’m sure you or your wife could speak to the Navy’s.

        I have seen these this type of program be a great “family saver.” It’s definitely another option worth checking into.

        Keep up the good work, sir.


      • Doug Nordman says:

        Thanks, LB, and in the Navy it’s “Full-Time Support.”

        The FTS program has a good reputation, and it’s definitely worth considering as an alternative to a traditional active-duty career in one of the core warfare communities.

  3. peter gregory says:

    Having had an encore career post Navy, in mental health/counseling which fully retired from last year. I continued to work because my personality type was not to sit in a chair and had yet to develop a hobby or advocation to address time issues. And yes 23yrs service, O-5, transition far easier than the Reserve, IRR, Guard. Also left active service at 50, vice 30 or 40, so maybe a bit more seasoned or experienced in world view when it was time to punch out.

    The concepts of family, work life balance, stressors, long separations are common in many professions not just the military. In heath care I dealt with the same presenting issues from nurses and doctors as in the Navy. Career burn out, feelings of letting loved ones downs, isolation, throw in the whole pandemic storms of this past year and yes, just like the military, many docs and nurses dream of opening a coffee shop on the Big Island. Point being only thing we cannot make more of is time. And yes, at 60 a defined pension, be it active, reserve, combo of two makes those remaining decades of life far better to navigate, than life decisions made at 30 or 35, and once made, you cannot undo or take a time machine back and do over. As I told many folks over the years, Navy and civilian, never confuse the now, the immediate, crises of the moment, and project the same assumptions and conditions 30 years forward. You confuse the present, and rob the future.

  4. Urs Gsteiger says:

    Do not underestimate IRR as a way to get to 20 years. After 12 years active Army I spent another 10 as an IRR. I usually did 3 weeks active duty, plus trained ROTC cadets, did correspondence courses, graded CGSC papers and did a host of other things to earn points. I was able to get 10 consecutive good years and then retired after getting 3 years TIG as an 05. Getting my 20 year letter was a key part of my early retirement plan and it sure paid off. It did help that I was self employed for most of my Reserve time, but it also meant few vacations for those 10 years.

    • Urs Gsteiger says:

      Should clarify I was actually an IMA, but same rules apply.

    • Doug Nordman says:

      Thanks for your comment, Urs!

      Each service has its own policies for their IRR programs, and there are different obstacles among them.

      Before I left a drill billet for the IRR, I’d have a very clear plan on how I’d earn at least 35 points for a good year. I’d also be concerned about having a Reserve ID card that enabled me to log in on the service’s websites for remote-work access, which has been an issue for a couple of the services over the last few years.

  5. RetireorNot says:

    Doug, big fan here, purchased your book and decided to get off active-duty after 10 years with an intent to make it 20 years via SELRES.

    I’m now re-evaluating going all the way, either SELRES or IRR but leaning IRR.

    The biggest reason: A likely year-long mobilization to a desk job in the middle-east (been there/done that) in the next 10 years is likely in the SELRES. In the IRR, it’s unlikely.

    Thanks for re-visiting this timely topic, happy new year!

    Best, HW

    • Doug Nordman says:

      Thanks for buying the book, HW, and I understand your concerns about another mobilization!

      You’d want to check on the deployment timing with your unit or your local Reserve Coordinator. For example, Navy Reservists are frequently scheduled for their mobilization during their third year in the Reserves after leaving active duty. The first two years they’re left to affiliate with a unit, get trained in their drill billet, and (presumably) figure out the rest of their work/life balance.

      I’d also be very cautious about taking any bonus money to join the Reserves… that commitment might require staying in a drill billet and maintaining eligibility to mobilize/deploy.

  6. Kaye says:

    Doug, I have a unique situation and would love some help navigating the process!
    I spend around 10 years AD then went in the Reserve for 6 years. I left the Reserve to go back full AD and will reach 20 years TIS in May. Although I know i will not have 20 years active service, I will have 20 years. Is it possible to retire out of AD at my 20 years in service mark and get my Reserve retirement? Or do I have to go back into the Reserve to accomplish this?

  7. Kag Cagnoni says:

    Sir, I am a final pay reservist (06) who has a date of rank, 01JUN21. How long do I have to retain that rank before I can retire as an 06? No one seems to know. I will turn 60 in April of 22. Thanks

    • Doug Nordman says:

      Kag,retiring as an O-6 requires three years’ time in grade, although each service can waive that time down to two years. The federal law is in Title 10 U.S. Code section 1370(a)(2)(A):
      “In order to be eligible for voluntary retirement under any provision of this title in a grade above major or lieutenant commander, a commissioned officer of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps must have served on active duty in that grade for not less than three years, except that the Secretary of Defense may authorize the Secretary of a military department to reduce such period to a period not less than two years.”
      The waiver depends on your service’s policies at the time you request it, and those policies are constantly changing. You have to request the waiver in order to get an approval, regardless of whether you’ve been told that it’ll be approved or disapproved.

      I’m assuming that you’re in one of those four services. The Coast Guard uses a different section of federal law, so let me know if you’re a USCG O-6.

      Retiring after age 62 requires an additional waiver:
      “(a)General Rule.—
      Unless retired or separated earlier, each regular commissioned officer of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps (other than an officer covered by section 1252 of this title or a commissioned warrant officer) serving in a grade below brigadier general or rear admiral (lower half), in the case of an officer in the Navy, shall be retired on the first day of the month following the month in which the officer becomes 62 years of age.”
      Section 1251 goes into more details about extensions for chaplains or health professions officers. Section 1252 addresses Permanent Military Professors at the service academies. There’s no formal waiver process for other officers, but again the only possible way to get an approval is to request an age waiver.

      I’ve heard from a number of servicemembers who prefer to stay in uniform to retire at a higher rank, even if it costs them money. In your case, the soonest you could retire as an O-6 (with a waiver for only two years of time in grade) is 1 June 2023. However that means you’ve given up at least 13 months of O-5 Reserve pension deposits. Using the 2021 pay tables,
      the difference is $12,638.40 – $10,111.20 = $2527.20/month.
      You’ll have to do the math for your point count and your specific retirement dates to determine how much longer you’ll have to collect your O-6 pension to make up for deferring your O-5 pension.

      If you’re eligible for an early retirement then you might be losing even more money. If you were mobilized to deploy to a combat zone after 28 January 2008, or for some national emergencies or natural disasters, then you might be eligible to start your pension three months earlier for every 90 days of those orders. I’ve oversimplified a complicated law that’s been amended several times, and you should read all of the details here:

      You probably already know that there are very few Final Pay servicemembers still in uniform. You would have had to enter military service before 8 September 1980 (over 40 years ago), and on that date it switched to the High Three pension calculation.

      Let me know if I’ve misunderstood part of your question, or if you have more questions.

  8. John Oldershaw says:

    Hi Doug,
    I recently started receiving Retired Reserve Pay. I spent 5 years Active Duty, then joined the Reserves. I currently work for the VA. Is it true that if I apply (buy back) my 5 years Active Duty time to my VA (FERS) retirement, that I forfeit Military Reserve Retirement Pay?
    Thank you,

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