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Diplomats make the “medium bucks”

Updated: May 14, 2018

A diplomat I know once called the salary diplomats make “the medium bucks”. In contrast, lots of people think that diplomats make bucketfuls of money. So which one is it?


Well, anyone who is interested in how much diplomats make can find it online. All the amounts are right here on the State Department’s website, and this website breaks it down even further – the base pay, the hardship differential, the living cost adjustment, and the danger pay.


Basically, standard overseas salaries range from $48,000 a year for entry-level officers without experience or degrees to $162,000 for those who have advanced degrees and/or get promoted all the way to the top.


HOW DIPLOMATS FEEL ABOUT THEIR SALARIES


I’m not a diplomat yet, but because my husband is I’ve been living on this salary for a while now and I think it’s pretty nice. It’s high enough to where I don’t have to worry about money. If we owned a home (which we don’t) it would be high enough to make mortgage payments. It’s also high enough to take an annual vacation, buy clothes for every climate, and still put a little bit in savings. But – when I look at how we and other diplomats live – it’s not much more than that.


Recently, a military spouse (married to an active duty military officer) asked me how much I will make once I join the Foreign Service. I told her that, based on my experience and current salary level, it’s probably going to be around $60,000. She couldn’t believe it and exclaimed: “that’s poverty level”! Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But when you live in the DC area, it’s almost true. Reportedly, the median DC household makes over $70,000 a year.


MORE THAN JUST MONEY


Now if you still think that diplomats make more than normal people, let’s look at a couple of other factors.


It’s true that diplomats receive various benefits in addition to their salaries, like free housing. If you have kids, school is paid for. Also, diplomats get paid annual and sick leave, and have access to special health plans, retirement plans, insurance, and student loan repayment programs (you still have to pay into these things, of course). Those are awesome, generous benefits.


But even when housing and children’s education are free, it doesn’t mean that diplomats can afford to live large or that they always live in luxury. Living conditions very much depend on wherever you are posted.


In poor countries houses are often big, but in large cities apartments are typically modest in size. In some countries it is affordable to drive a big car, but in others it is not (because of gas prices, road tax and parking fees). In some countries the international schools are top-notch; in other countries you have little choice, or the school is tiny and has a second-rate curriculum.


WHAT DIPLOMATS DON'T MAKE


In my experience, only Foreign Service families with a double income are truly “comfortable” – financially, at least. Think about it. When a diplomat makes somewhere between 50,000 and 120,000 a year, and the spouse adds another 40,000 or more to the pot – you end up with a nice amount.


Unfortunately, most diplomatic spouses are not employed, at least not permanently. And diplomatic spouses not only lose out because they don’t have a (high) salary – they also lose out on job security and the opportunity to advance their careers in general because they have to move constantly and take whatever job is available.


Diplomats also miss out on potential income by staying loyal to their employer – the State Department. Diplomats commit to a 20-year career without knowing how much money they will make during that time. They have no influence over the government pay scale or where they land on it. I mean, who does that anymore?! Imagine giving such a blanket commitment to any other employer!


So diplomats are subject to the government pay scale, whatever that may be, and there are no bonuses. And if the government decides to “freeze wages”, like it did from 2011 until 2013, there is nothing you can do about it. Also, did you know that diplomats (once tenured) do not get paid overtime?


Finally, I will ad that diplomats spend ridiculous amounts of money on their R&Rs. Frankly, it is so expensive to go back home for some well-deserved rest and relaxation that it is almost as stressful as staying at post and work. R&R is designed to give diplomatic families a break, but even though the government pays for the flights, just imagine the money that goes into several weeks of lodging, car rental, eating out, and stuff you never even think about, like hiring pet-sitters!


WHAT IT COMES DOWN TO


Not to be sappy or anything, but what it comes down to is this: a lot of diplomats are not in it for the money. If you ask them, I’m pretty sure many of them will tell you that. But it doesn’t mean that money is never an issue. Some diplomats worry about money like everyone else. Others just don’t look at their paychecks and simply enjoy the lifestyle. And a small – very small – percentage leaves the Foreign Service to get a better job in the private sector.

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