How to Negotiate Your Salary

Snagging your first “real” job after graduating from college is one of the most exciting — and nerve-wracking — parts of being out in the world. It’s the beginning of the rest of your life, the culmination of all the work you’ve put in so far. Getting your first official job offer on spiffy company letterhead is a major validation, too. But as a new grad in your first big job, how can you make sure you’re earning what you deserve for your expertise? And what if you need to negotiate your salary? Check out our advice, including what you can practice saying during salary negotiations.

1. Go in with realistic expectations.

Whether you start your career as a junior engineer, an apprentice architect, a social media manager, there are generally accepted salary ranges both for your industry and where your job is located, to account for cost of living disparities. For example, a web designer in New York will likely command a higher salary than a web designer in Savannah, Georgia. Websites like LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and PayScale can help you set market-based expectations for your first salary. Reach out to your connections, career services office at your college, and friends for advice, too.

2. Your salary is more than just your pay stub.

Naturally, your take-home salary is important—it’s what will cover your living expenses—but your overall compensation package is just as important, and you should weigh it against your starting salary and what’s important to you. Some things that you should think about and try to quantify in terms of their financial value or how much they mean to you: benefits such as health, dental, vision, commuter stipends, vacation time, flexible work arrangements, company cell phone or car, etc. For example, having your health plan fully subsidized by your employer can easily be worth $4,000 a year in money you don’t have to spend. A generous vacation policy or the ability to work remotely may not have an exact dollar value, but don’t sleep on those lifestyle benefits. Retirement benefits matter too. A company with a 401k matching program can help you begin saving early by matching some of what you save. It’s literally “free” money.

3. Know your number.

After setting realistic expectations for yourself and doing your research, you’ll come up with a salary range that’s going to be acceptable to you. This number will need to be sufficient, ideally, to cover all your expenses and allow you to have some fun and stash some money into savings. Do not stray from this number. If you’ve come up with a fair market rate for yourself, don’t be so excited by your first job offer that you accept something below your value. If an employer can’t pay you what you’re worth or what you need, try to stick it out for another job offer if you’re able to wait.

4. Boost your value.

Many new graduates tend to undervalue their experience and expertise, and omit work experience from resumés and salary negotiations because it wasn’t paid, or because they don’t think it sounds impressive enough. Be judicious, but don’t forget to include things like your long-term volunteering gig, your college tutoring experience, and significant freelance work. Built websites for all your friends? Took stellar photos for your roommate’s dog’s Instagram account? That can all count and can make you more valuable.

5. Evaluate your offer.

So, you got your first offer and it’s… not what you expected. First of all, you don’t have to say yes or no right away. It’s perfectly ok to ask for a few days to think about it before replying. Look back at your research and determine whether this offer is fair or if you can reasonably ask for more money. If you decide you need more, it’s time to make a plan. If the salary you were offered is well below what you were expecting, you might have to go back to your research to make sure you have your numbers right. If the number is close, but not quite what you were hoping, it’s still worth it to negotiate your salary. You won’t get what you don’t ask for.

6. Practice your ask, then ask.

This is going to be a little nerve-racking, so you’ll want to practice. You can either reply to your offer letter via email, or call the person who sent it to you on the phone. You’re going to say something like this: “I’m so excited about the company and this role, and I appreciate the job offer. From my understanding of this role and how my peers are compensated, I believe the salary should be X dollars, or closer to X dollars. Is there a budget to increase my base salary?” You might hear that they’ll need some time and that you’ll hear back soon. Or, you might hear a yes, a no, or an agreement for some, but not all of what you want. This is when you go back to step 5 and reevaluate. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what you can live with and if the salary offer is fair for you. Whatever you do, do not compromise your value because you’re young, or less experienced. They think you can do the job, so they should pay you accordingly.

7. There are times when you should not negotiate your salary.

Some positions in government or that are government funded, as well as many roles that are unionized, have pre-determined salary “bands” and each specific job is assigned to band that corresponds to a salary tier. For example, a communications manager role for a large city is in tier X, and tier X roles pay between $50,000 and $60,000 depending on experience. Your room to negotiate will then be on the lower end of $50,000, but you should not expect to make more than the top end of that tier.

8. It is okay to turn down a job.

There is no need for you to feel bad about turning down a job offer that doesn’t meet your needs. A job is an exchange of your services for remuneration from your employer. If you can’t make the starting salary work for you, don’t take it. If you do, and have to struggle with bills or take on more work outside of your full-time job to make ends meet, you won’t be happy.

9. Accept graciously.

The other interesting thing about negotiating is what to do when someone just… agrees. If you ask for a higher salary and your employer accepts. Thank them, accept the offer, and stop talking. If you asked for more and got it, take yourself out for a nice meal, celebrate, and whatever you do, don’t “talk past the sale.”