Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt has revealed the NHS made a small surplus in 2006-07, but said this does not mean nurses will get the 2.5% pay award in one go.
Figures show the health service recorded a surplus of £510m, but 22% of NHS organisations are still in debt and unable to balance their books.
The gross deficit of the NHS now stands at £911m, down from £1.3bn in 2005-06.
The unaudited figures, which exclude NHS foundation trusts, show that primary care trusts (PCTs) now account for 69% of the gross deficit, compared with 47% in the year before.
A total of 73% of PCTs broke even or achieved a surplus, with debts found mostly in the east of England, the government report added.
In 2005-06, the NHS ended the year £547m in the red.
Ms Hewitt said: "I want to thank NHS staff who have worked incredibly hard to turn the NHS around while minimising the impact on patients and cutting waiting lists to their lowest level ever."
But she added the decision to stagger nurses' pay rises is based on the whole economy - and not on how well the NHS is doing.
Mike Jackson, senior national officer for Unison, said: "We welcome the fact that the NHS is in a stronger financial position, but the £510m underspend shows that staff and patients have been put through an unnecessary year of pain, job losses and cuts.
"The government's knee-jerk reaction to the deficits last year has led to 20,000 job losses and damaged morale and patient services."
"Staff morale has never been so low, not only because of fiancial constraints but becuase of the uneccessary expensive changes such as PCGs and PCTs case management, which have not added any value to care patients recieve and only added to the financial burden the NHS finds its self in" -Name and address witheld