A Scary Question

Ken ColemanBy Ken Coleman7 Minutes

So, what is your desired salary?

This is a question that can make any job candidate’s stomach drop, whether they’re reading it on an application or hearing it from an interviewer. You don’t want to give a lowball answer, but you also don’t want to seem like you have unrealistic expectations.

Before you can give a concrete answer to this question, you should have an actual number in mind. You should know what you’re aiming for, and what’s realistic, so you can be confident about the salary offers you will and won’t accept. Here are a few things to help you figure it out:

  1. Research

A Google search can usually tell you the industry standards for salary in your desired position. Most job search websites will let you search for the standards in your geographical location, as well. Sometimes pay ranges vary depending on state or region. The size of the company you’re looking at and its level of success will also affect the pay scale.

Another way to research is by asking other employees in similar roles what their pay is like. Keep in mind, though, this is personal information and not everyone may be comfortable sharing. You could also ask any recruiters in the field (who don’t work at the company you’re applying to) if they can share the average salaries they see for the type of position you want.

  1. Skill level and experience are factors

If you know me, you know I’m a big believer that you don’t have to get a four-year degree to get a great-paying job. Still, education and training will still be taken into consideration at many companies, depending on the role. Having more years of experience in a given industry will usually mean higher pay. So, even if you don’t have a ton of education but you’ve spent years getting hands-on experience in jobs that are related to the one you want now, your pay should reflect that.

Another thing to consider is skill level. Skill level isn’t necessarily equivalent to the amount of time you’ve spent working in an industry. Be honest with yourself about your skill level, and if you’ve got a competitive edge, factor that into the amount you think you should be paid.

  1. Cost of living

How much do you realistically need to make to take care of all your family’s expenses (or if you’re single, even just your own)? How much do you need to make to live comfortably? Would you need to relocate if you were to take a certain job?

We all need to budget our money and live below our means. However, there’s no denying an income can make or break the ability to reach our financial goals.

  1. What about the benefits?

Things like health insurance, paid time off, and 401(k) options can make a big difference in your desired salary. Maybe you want to make $75K a year, and you’re looking at a company that offers a little less than that. But, they also offer unlimited PTO (yes, that’s a real thing at some places). You might be willing to adjust your desired salary because a certain benefit is worth it.

Once you’ve taken all these factors into consideration, decide on your deal-breaker salary — what’s the absolute lowest salary you’d accept before walking away from the job offer? It’s up to you to decide if you’re firm at one number, or if there’s a salary range you’d be willing to work with. It’s better to not reveal your desired salary too early in the hiring process because it can limit you if the company is prepared to pay more. Not all applications will ask for your desired salary, so if they don’t ask, there’s no need to give one. And if they do ask, keep things simple by saying “salary is negotiable” or “salary may be discussed during the interview process.”

When it comes to face-to-face interviews, it’s a good idea to think about how you’ll respond ahead of time. Again, you aren’t obligated to give a concrete number, and you shouldn’t let a recruiter pressure you into giving one if you’re not ready. There are plenty of respectful and professional ways to answer this question that won’t tie you down to a specific dollar amount:

I don’t have a specific number in mind, but I’d expect to be paid what you think is fair based on the industry standard and my level of experience.

My top priority is finding a job that’s a great match for my skill set at a company I’m passionate about. I’m open to talking about the salary you feel is fair as we advance in the interview process.

I usually don’t discuss salary until the point when I’m being offered the job. Would it be alright if we continue the interview process to see if I’d be a good match for this position before discussing salary?

There are many ways to talk about your desired salary professionally without putting yourself in a box. Honesty, paired with standing firm in what you want and need, will go a long way!