How To Determine Your Ideal Salary Before Starting Negotiations

A job offer is one of the best feelings in the world.

But looking at the salary number can be enough to send your stomach churning again, especially when you have no idea if it’s good.

You probably already know that it’s important to negotiate. That skipping it just one time might mean losing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, over a lifetime.

But it’s not easy to know what salary to ask for.

“First I would tell an applicant or someone trying to get a new job to think about their accomplishments and what makes them valuable,” said Ben Wurzel, Money Sense program manager at the University of Colorado-Boulder career services office.

Make a mental check: you’ve got three years in the field already — nice. You graduated with a bachelor’s degree — awesome. You’ve won a few industry awards since then — rad.

Those are all things that can help you get a sense of your value to the potential employer, Wurzel said, and by extension, how much leverage you have to negotiate.

But when you’re just starting out in the professional world, it can be hard to know if an offer is on-par for the career field, or if it’s totally coming out of left field.

Do your research

The offer might be the first time you’re hearing an actual number associated with the job you applied for. These days, employers don’t often include salary ranges on job postings.

Illustration of three people bringing different things to a new job. Ideal Salary pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
If you go into negotiations well-researched and confident, you’re likely to come out happy.

You can surf other similar job listings — on job boards, or at similar organizations — to see if any of those have listed salaries, and compare.

While different industries come with different salary expectations — you’ll likely earn more in the computer science field than in secondary education — that’s not the only thing to keep in mind.

A reasonable salary in the Midwest might be low for the East Coast.

So when you compare, you should make sure it’s apples-to-apples, in the same state or region. And if you’re considering a cross-country move, make sure the salary offer is on par for the new location.

If you need to do more research, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has data on the average hourly wage and salary in each state, broken down by industry and title.

Other websites, like Salary.com and Linkedin’s salary feature, can give you similar info.

Once you’ve done all the research, Wurzel said, the next step is to make yourself a salary range.

Knowing what you know about average salaries for the type of gig you want, and throwing in your professional accomplishments and years of experience, come up with the ideal amount you want to be paid.

At the other end is your walk away point: the lowest number you’d accept before you’d walk away from an offer.

Should your cost of living factor into that at all?

It’s always a good idea, Wurzel said. The lowest number should also be something you can live on. But keep in mind that there’s usually a ceiling to whatever a hiring manager can offer.

If your cost of living is too high to afford the salary averages you’re seeing, you might consider jumping into a different field altogether.

“You might consider transferable skills to different industries where it pays more,” Wurzel said. “So maybe a similar job in education doesn’t pay what that job would pay in the tech field.”

Don’t forget about benefits

While a lot of offer talk revolves around the salary, there’s typically a benefits package included. Don’t skimp on including that into your calculations — a benefits package can be worth 30 percent or more of your yearly salary, Wurzel said.

So, if an offer falls on the lower end of your salary scale, but comes with stellar bennies, that might be worth taking.

You’re also allowed to negotiate benefits packages, and those often come with more wiggle room than the salary. For instance, if the boss won’t budge on a $40,000 salary, see if you might be able to negotiate for more paid time off or sick days.

To Wurzel, one of the most important parts of salary talk is being patient.

If you haven’t received a job offer yet, don’t talk to the potential employer about salary. At all.

That means deflecting any questions you receive about it, and not bringing it up in the interview.

Some job applications might ask for an expected salary or salary history. Leave those blank if you can.

Many states and cities ban employers from asking you for this information at all. (In others, there are laws on the books ensuring the opposite).

Some say asking for your salary history perpetuates the pay gap by encouraging employers to pay you less.

Be confident

The way Wurzel sees it, if you go into negotiations well-researched and confident, you’re likely to come out happy.

He said some students he works with feel more comfortable negotiating via email, and that’s OK. The important thing is that they’re negotiating at all.

It’s much harder to negotiate a salary once you’re already inside a company and know your manager.

“Most everyone should try to negotiate when they have a job offer because you don’t get a whole lot of those throughout your life,” he said.

Gretchen Brown

Gretchen has reported on the criminal justice system in rural Minnesota and covered everything from politics to millennial truck drivers for Wisconsin Public Radio. She is passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.