What Commanders Need to Know About Money: Thoughts from a Comptroller Squadron Commander

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Joshua Mann

Congratulations! You have just been selected as a squadron, group, or wing commander. For some of you, this is not your first time; for others, welcome to “They.” “They” deal with various issues internal to the unit as well as external issues initiated by higher headquarters, Congress, and other senior leaders, which you now get to own on behalf of the department. Some of these external issues get more attention than others, but for all commanders, a common concern is funding. Some questions that immediately come to mind for commanders are: How do I get enough money for my unit? Can I buy this equipment? Is this the correct “color” of money, or am I going to jail? Through the lens of a commander, this article will walk through the basics of money dealt with across the Department of the Air Force, which largely applies to the entire Department of Defense (DoD). Considering and adhering to these thoughts will keep you far, far away from an Anti-Deficiency Act violation or the dreaded “loss in trust and confidence” from your boss.

Budget Basics

First, there is no need to become an expert with appropriated or even DoD non-appropriated funds. There are experts within the confines of the installation to help you, namely the Comptroller Squadron (CPTS), sometimes called the FM (Financial Management) or the A-8 for certain staff. Additionally, contracting experts (CONS), services (FSS), and even the resource manager in your unit can typically guide you in the right direction. However, these offices and individuals are just advisors. Commanders own their budgets and the decisions that are made for their funds. Simultaneously, many fiscal liabilities and processes reside with CPTS and CONS. With these points in mind, you should communicate with those offices and individuals, pay attention to your budget during key times such as the end of the fiscal year, and attend the short quarterly governance meetings so you are not blindsided by financial decisions at higher headquarters.

Colors of Money

Wanting a breakdown of DoD appropriations is typically the first financial topic new commanders want to cover. Unfortunately, this question is more complicated and time-consuming to understand than commanders want or frankly need to know. Most commanders outside of acquisitions, civil engineering, CPTS, CONS, and, to a lesser degree, FSS should not be concerned with “colors” of money. Most units will have access to one-year appropriated O&M (Operations and Maintenance) funds for day-to-day operations and a small amount of non-appropriated funds (NAF) to be used for morale events. Other appropriations and subdivisions of O&M are managed, controlled, and monitored by CPTS, which you will be notified about on an as-needed basis. One example is a Communication Squadron’s division of O&M funds from the MAJCOM (Major Command) versus the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center. Rather than discuss the details of each appropriation and the various nuances, it is easier to know what requirements or purchases approach gray areas of legal use.

O&M Cautions

First, it is important to note that Congress lists items the Air Force can purchase with appropriated funds rather than establish items that are prohibited.[1] Through this paradigm, here are a few items that can be purchased with O&M under very specific circumstances. First, coins, stationery, and business cards cannot be personalized; rather, these items can only be position-specific and able to be utilized by anyone holding that office.[2] Second, water, food, beverages, and food service items have very few exceptions for O&M funding. Installation commanders own a few exceptions as do contingency and emergency operations.[3] In addition to these two examples, additional communication and caution should be taken with guest speakers, quarterly/annual awards, vehicles, equipment more than $350,000, facility construction and modifications, voluntary services, IT equipment, books or periodicals, appliances, and uniform items. Once again, there are circumstances where these items can be purchased with a unit’s day-to-day O&M funding. However, these purchases often cause fiscal issues, which can quickly morph into personal liability or contractual issues. The good news is these errors rarely rise to a legal issue especially at lower dollar amounts.

Fiscal Law Basics

Fiscal law is another topic new commanders often want to discuss upon taking the stick. Like appropriation divisions, fiscal law is a complicated subject with nuances that are best discussed by CPTS, JAG, and CONS. As previously mentioned, these professionals have processes, personnel, training, and cross-communications that ensure the statutes within the U.S. Code concerning the time, purpose, and amount are properly adhered.[4] Most comptrollers would not give the following advice directly to another commander, but if following the advice above, at the wing level and below, it is actually difficult to commit an Anti-Deficiency Act violation. In most cases, it is likely that a higher headquarters unit has the correct funds to cover a wing’s erroneous purchase, but likely at the expense of a higher priority requirement and accompanied by a fuming general officer. With that said, unit commanders should generally focus on the “what” or the requirement they want to buy, and allow finance and contracting experts to best determine “how.”

Spending Money

Most commanders are already aware of methods to execute funds. Supply purchases, inter-governmental invoices, cross-servicing agreements, and more well-known methods such as contracts, Government Purchase Card (GPC) purchases, payroll, and travel costs are all methods to execute your funds. More unique execution methods, such as inter-governmental invoices, will typically be discussed with units and commanders on an as-needed basis. Contracts and GPC purchases are managed by CONS. It is important to understand that even if a purchase is fiscally legal, contracting has separate laws and stipulations that must be followed, which could require additional coordination. From a payroll perspective, it is important that each unit utilizes supervisors to approve and certify time cards, not someone who will rubber stamp an employee’s hours. Similarly, travel expenses are typically internally managed through DTS (Defense Travel System). As long as individuals follow travel and lodging guidance from the TDY location, it is rare to find erroneous payments; however, when individuals rely on others’ “travel tips” or hearsay to stay off-base or travel under unique circumstances, issues may arise.

Top Misconceptions

Beyond the fiscal stereotypes or rumors already addressed, a few more misconceptions warrant discussion. First, continuing resolutions (CR) that typically run from October to December each year have little effect on installation-level operations. CRs rarely prevent O&M expenditures, however, government shutdowns are a whole other can-of-worms. Second, many individuals believe that if you do not spend all of your appropriated funds, you will lose it in the following year. This is somewhat applicable to acquisition programs as well as MAJCOM levels and higher, but not at the wing level and below. In most cases, if a group or squadron has extra funds, it is better to push those to the wing to pay for higher priority requirements instead of buying in-mass furniture, televisions, or computer monitors at the end of the fiscal year. Finally, reverting back to the topic of “colors” of money, it is important to know that there are a variety of types of fenced funds come. Some of these fences are legal, others are prescribed, and many lose their “color” once the Air Force meets certain Congressional and legal thresholds. This provides additional flexibility at the end of the fiscal year, which may result in a unit’s unused “fenced funds” being used to buy the wing commander’s top unfunded requirement.

Fraud, Waste, and Abuse

Finally, you may be asking yourself, “If I don’t have to worry about ADA violations or fiscal law, why do I need to pay attention to money?” Although my intent is to put new commanders at ease, there are still fiscal issues and concerns within the Air Force that you will need to pay careful attention to. Individuals may initially circumvent financial processes, but follow-up audits and inspections can uncover both minor financial mistakes as well as more criminal fraudulent activities.

A case from Columbus Air Force Base in 2021 highlights the need to be cautious about certain types of purchases. As previously mentioned, purchasing uniform items with O&M funds requires extra caution as individual service members usually have their uniform purchases funded through enlisted clothing allowances or officer basic pay. Congress appropriates these pay and entitlements in the Military Personnel appropriation, not the day-to-day O&M appropriation. Therefore, when a O&M-funded unit used a GPC to purchase $1,200 of new multi-cam ballcaps for individual use, it was highlighted in the monthly GPC review as an erroneous purchase, also known as an unauthorized commitment. Unauthorized commitments lead to numerous administrative issues, as well as identifying individuals who must reimburse the government.

More serious issues, such fraud, are another major concern. In 2018, a secretary at Langley Air Force Base used another employee's login information to falsify overtime, sick, and vacation hours in the civilian pay system. This fraudulent scheme occurred over 17 years and totaled almost $1.5M dollars, leading to a sentence of 15 years in prison.[5] Beyond the CPTS and Civilian Personnel Office checks and balances that should have identified these payments after some time, the supervisors of this individual should have been more involved with their employee’s timecard.

Best Practices

So, now that you know what can go wrong, what are the best ways to ensure your unit is postured for financial success? As a commander, it is important to be involved with increased awareness of budget activities during key times. This will allow you to communicate any unique financial situations or requirements early with CPTS, CONS, and JA.

First, be involved as a commander. As previously stated, there are too many tasks from numerous functional areas to lead within a unit, but prioritizing tasks within those functional areas is doable. From a budget standpoint, appoint a trusted NCO, junior officer, or civilian as your resource advisor. The resource advisor receives necessary training from CPTS and CONS and leads the tactical budget work of which you are ultimately responsible. Meet with your resource advisor monthly for effective communication, and include them in any reoccurring staff meetings.

Second, increase awareness of budget activities at key times during the fiscal year. During the Spring, the execution plan justifies your future budget to higher headquarters and ultimately determines if your requirements are properly funded. Specifically, ensure your justification narratives detail the importance and risk to the mission if not fully funded. During the summer, fight for your unfunded requirements to receive fallout funds while also recognizing there are likely other projects within the wing that could have a greater impact.

Third, communicate unique financial situations or requirements early with CPTS, CONS, and JA. We can usually find a legal way to “yes” in most financial situations, but it is sometimes not the most obvious way to get there. Utilizing funds from the Combined Federal Campaign, Chapel tithes and offerings, Department of Energy grants, intelligence agencies, and other unorthodox sources can add complexity but also legal legitimacy. It is much more difficult to legally, morally, and ethically to get to “yes” if decisions are made prior to this coordination.


Once again, commanders at all levels are task-saturated, with unit finances being just one of the duties they need to complete. There are legalities and complexities to navigate through, but functional experts are available to assist. Of course, this article is only a basic introduction to the financial complexities in order to give commanders and leaders at all levels a basic understanding of DoD budgets. Adhering to these ideas will not only keep you legal but also get the most out of scarce resources.


Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Mann
Lt Col Mann is a career financial management officer and a 2023 graduate of Air Command and Staff College.  He has financial management experience at the wing, acquisition center, and Air Staff levels, as well as in deployed and joint environments. He holds an MBA from Colorado State University and currently serves as the Commander of the 86th Comptroller Squadron at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.


This paper was written as part of the Dirty Money elective at ACSC.



[1.] U.S. Department of the Air Force (DAF), Budget Guidance and Procedures DAFMAN 65-601v1 (Washington, DC: Department of the Air Force – Financial Management and Comptroller, 2022), 5.

[2.] DAF, Budget Guidance and Procedures, 57.

[3.] DAF, Budget Guidance and Procedures, 58.

[4.] DAF, Budget Guidance and Procedures, 4.

[5.] Peter Dujardin, “Langley Air Force Base Secretary Faked Payroll for 17 Years, Giving Herself An Extra $1.46 Million,” Task and Purpose, December 13, 2018, https://taskandpurpose.com/news/langley-air-force-base-secretary-fraud/.