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How NOT to Determine Your Salary

Last week I was chatting with a rad young lady who is about to start her final semester of college. When the subject of careers and negotiation came up, I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. (“Teaching young people how to negotiate their salaries” is what I write down on the religion line on surveys.)

I asked what salary range she was asking for, and she quickly answered: “$37,000.”

It struck me as an unusual number for two reasons:

  • First, it seemed mighty low. Many people live happy, stable lives on as much or less—but she was a high-achieving college student entering a STEM field in one of the ten most expensive American cities. I expected double or triple that amount.
  • Second, what’s with the non-round number? Usually when people talk about hypothetical large numbers, they do so in intervals of fives and tens. It’s why the JonBenét ransom note haunts us all to this day! (And by “us” I mean rubberneckers who were alive in the 90s and/or true crime nerds. Surely everyone belongs in one of those demographics.)

So I dug deeper. “Why that number?”

She explained that she sat down with a notebook and wrote down all the expenses she might have in a given month. “Rent, internet, groceries, student loans, car insurance… I added it all up, multiplied by twelve, and added 10% for savings. It came out to $36,200, so I rounded up just to be safe.”

My nurturing altruism joined forces with my baser capitalist instincts to manifest a camera to do a dolly zoom on my horrified face.

Starting with your personal budget and working backward

Nothing this girl said was wrong or foolish. I made a very similar calculation to determine my first salary. Lots of young people do.

In my first corporate job, I learned that the only girl on the team younger than me was planning to ask for a raise. I volunteered to pretend to be our boss, Tina, and let her practice her pitch on me. The second slide she pulled up (after a title card) was a spreadsheet detailing her personal household budget, showing that her current salary didn’t meet her needs. I didn’t know as much then as I do now—but I knew enough to do a spit-take, then scream “shoot her, SHOOT HERRRR” until the presentation was safely scrapped in the recycling bin.

To be clear: your personal budget is of no interest to your employer. They don’t want to know about it, and you don’t want to tell them about it! Never involve them in it. It’s literally not their business.

Yet so many young people seem to base salary negotiations around their personal budget. I spent my morning poop daily ablutions contemplating why this would be. Why is this the method young people turn to for negotiating a salary?

The answer is actually pretty obvious. We’re doing it correctly! Correctly, if you assume it’s a math word problem.

And it must be, right? There are numbers involved! Young people don’t know how much employers are willing to pay them—but they do know how much money they need for rent and groceries. So we do what we’ve been taught to do: work backwards to solve for x, where x equals the amount of money you need to Eat Food and Not Die™.

How many jellybeans are in the jar?

Unfortunately, as our podcast theme song notes, we live in a patriarchal capitalist hellscape. And in hellscapes such as these, you have to be much more strategic in order to avoid being exploited.

Choosing the right number for your salary is like guessing how many jellybeans there are in a jar, without going over. But instead of winning the jar of jellybeans, you win the ability to pay your bills in-full and on-time and sleep peacefully at night without the gnawing fear of imminent ruin. Great system, guys!

Working backwards from your budget is sort of like formulating your guess around how many jellybeans you personally want to eat, right now.

“I really only want a handful. So I will guess twelve—are there twelve??”

Not a winning strategy.

It’s also unwise to make an uninformed guess based on no information, like blurting out some random number and hoping it will be right.

“Are there two hundred and ten? Because I told the universe that I wanted the answer to be two hundred and ten, and I’m trying to manifest my will into reality.”

Stop that. The Secret is not a thing.

How to find the right number

The “go with your gut” strategy is fine for low stakes church fundraisers where the prize is actually jellybeans. But setting your salary is the highest stakes guessing game you’ll ever play. (Though I would hear arguments that it’s second to marriage.) It’s imperative that you use every tool and strategy you can to maximize your odds of being right.

A quick Google search tells me…

  • There are 930 jellybeans in a gallon.
  • A jellybean jar is usually about 20% air by volume.
  • The volume of a container is its length times width times height.

With the right information, the unknowable starts to look pretty dang knowable. With that in mind, here are our suggestions…

Start by determining your bare minimum

The girl I mentioned did step one correctly. The first thing you should do is to look at your expenses and determine the absolute bare minimum you can accept.

Finding the right job may take some time. Sometimes it’s wise to settle for something less-than-stellar just to pay the bills while you job hunt, or to buy yourself time to complete school, or establish yourself in a new city.

If the pay for a temporary job is below that minimum threshold, it probably makes more financial sense to job hunt on a full-time basis.

Target a few job titles

Figure out the common name for the job you want.

Sometimes this is straightforward, but sometimes not. The difference between a Registered Nurse (RN) and a Nurse Practitioner (NP), for example, is very clear. But if you’re looking for something in customer service, you have to wade through all of this buffoonery describing the exact same call center job:

  • Customer Support Representative
  • Customer Account Manager
  • Help Desk Analyst
  • Client Care Specialist
  • Customer Success Manager
  • Relationship Manager
  • Engagement Supervisor

Job titles vary vastly by industry. The word “manager” in “customer account manager” isn’t a synonym for someone who supervises others, as it might be for other industries.

Pay special attention to the presence of modifying words in the title, as that can give away the level of the job. In my industry, an “associate graphic designer” is more junior than a regular old “graphic designer.” It’s not always intuitive, either—a “creative director” makes a lot more money than an “art director.”

So do your homework. Be precise. Make a list of all the job titles you’re trying for, and add to it as you find different variations during the course of your job search.

Research

Salary aggregators

Many websites exist to collect salary data. My favorite is Glassdoor, because they have additional information based on your industry, company size, location, and career tenure—all of which can have a huge influence on the final number.

The more typical your job is, the more accurate these websites will be. I plugged in my own entry level job information, and they were only $1,500 off. Now that I’ve moved up the chain a lot into a more specialized role, Glassdoor has fewer people to compare me to. Their best guess for me today is about $20,000 less than I actually make. So take that data with a grain of salt.

Company reports

Once you start interviewing at a company, research them. Do they have a reputation for paying above market? Below market? For very large companies, SalaryList is a good place to check. Check your LinkedIn to see if you know anyone who’s worked there in the past—most people are messy enough to happily give you dirt on old employers. (Piggy here. This worked for me! I tracked down a former employee who happened to share my alma mater, and she spilled aaaaaallll the tea, so much so that I avoided working for a monster.)

Industry reports

Lots of industries put out salary guides and annual salary reports. Please feel free to add any into the comments on this article!

If you’re a creative professional like me, you’ll find The Creative Group’s annual Creative & Marketing Salary Guide to be incredibly helpful. In addition to breaking down salaries in my industry, it describes which skills are surging in popularity among recruiters and hiring managers, and how to adjust salary expectations based on your city and state.

Industry insiders

You’d be surprised how gracious people can be to newbies in their industry. Try reaching out to people on LinkedIn, visiting industry forums, joining a Facebook group specific to that role, or asking friends, mentors, and family members if they know anyone who’d be open to an “informational interview.”

Consider your location

I felt as rich as Midas when I, at 26, was making the same amount of money as my mother did at the top of her career.

But I failed to consider the fact that my mother lives in the cornfields of rural Illinois, while I lived in one of America’s most expensive cities. The mortgage payment on her three bedroom home was cheaper than the rent on the shared one-bedroom I split with Piggy.

A $100,000 salary is king-size-candy-bars-on-Halloween rich in some areas, fun-size bars in others. So don’t make the same mistake I did, and forget how different a dollar can look in every zip code.

Use your Google-Fu

At one point in my career, I joined a brand new company. They were too new to have salary data collected by aggregators. They basically had no reputation at all. It was hard for me to make a decision when I had so little information to go on. So what did I do?

I had the names of the two people who’d interviewed me: my potential new boss and his boss. So I commenced extensive Googling. His address was publicly listed, so I pulled up his house on Google Maps, and clicked the Street View.

Lo: a beautiful, newly renovated brownstone with a roof deck!

I did the same thing for his boss. She lived in one of those classy, understated mansions that looks like a merely stately old house from the outside but you can just smell the marble foyer floor within.

I also looked up the salary data on the company they both used to work for. People rarely willingly move down on the pay scale—if they worked at places with generous salaries in the past, they’d create a company with generous salaries too. Glassdoor reviews for their past companies agreed that salaries were on-point—and also gave me my first hints that they weren’t well-regarded as people managers. The fact that they still had so many empty roles to fill told me people at their last company weren’t eager to follow them into a new venture. Meaning: they were desperate.

All of this convinced me I could ask for a high number—and I was right. I took that job for just a few months, and it nearly doubled my salary.

If my life is on the line, I am not above snooping. (Which is distinct from stalking. Please do not stalk anyone.) But the more information you have, the better choices you can make. I don’t think it’s creepy or wrong if you’re doing it in the limited scope of your self-interest.

But do it discreetly. You don’t want your new boss to see their home address pop up on your auto-complete.

What to do if the number scares you

Most of our readers are young people who aren’t shocked by how low the number is—they’re shocked by how high it is. Welcome to adulthood, baby! There’s a lot of bullshit but in theory it comes with some perks!

There’s a staggering leap from entry-level, part-time service jobs, retail jobs, gig work, and babysitting to your very first salaried position.

But don’t let imposter syndrome pull you down. Extra money will help you gain independence from your family, get rid of debts faster, build your emergency fund, save for a down payment on a home, and pursue whatever hobbies and interests you have that make life exciting.

If you settle for less than you are worth, all you’re doing is pulling expectations down—both for yourself, and for the next person your company will hire in that position. We have a lot of great articles on psyching yourself up for this important moment!

Bitch Nation: how do you determine your salary? What strategies and resources have you used? Tell us about them in the comments below!

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8 thoughts to “How NOT to Determine Your Salary”

  1. One thing that your excellent post doesn’t even touch on is Taxes! Uncle Sam gonna get his cut, and most likely your state is coming with their hand out, too. Sometimes even your city or county!! So you gotta know how taxes are going to affect your take-home pay.
    Our beloved friend Kara from Bravely likes to say: “know your worth, and then add tax.”

  2. I started doing customer service work which here paid. around $10 to $12 an hour at the time. However I wasn’t getting hired on as an employee but instead a contractor meaning I had to tack on 15.3% to my taxes. So I asked for more than I thought was standard ($15) and luckily it was the same number my boss had in mind. Granted it still wasn’t a ton of money, but for the work involved it was really more than fair. (Happily, I’ve had plenty of raises since so it’s now a very livable wage.)

  3. For some companies/jobs, if you list the expected salary too low, that might actually be a bad thing from the “getting the job” perspective. If it’s way too low, the employer could just think that you have no understanding of the industry and/or what you are getting into and, therefore, would be a bad employer.

  4. Just want to add that if you’re in a field where “technical” or “hard” skills are important, this isn’t a one time effort. Take a hard look at your salary within 2 years (when you should probably be job hunting anyhow). A 10% raise seems like a lot, but it doesn’t properly reflect your new value (again, if you’re a programmer or data scientist). At about two or three years of experience, you should earn at least 50% more than you did when your first started. With six years of experience, my base salary is now 120% more than it was when I first started, and I have much higher bonus potential too.

  5. Ahh, one of the many reasons to come to BGR—you *think* you know the standard advice (“oh ya I def know how to check Glassdoor “) and then y’all throw you out a fresh new idea. I love your “sensitive and discreet stalking” idea for a company for which there’s no data! Very scheming, yet much tasteful; A+

    🙂

  6. If you’re looking at a nonprofit, LOOK UP THEIR 990 FORM!!! It’s basically their tax return and is LEGALLY required to be publicly available. You can find through Guidestar or even on the orgs website, if they’re transparent. They will list the salaries of the highest paid/”key” employees. While your position might not be listed, if the Executive Director is making less than what you are looking for, that’s a good indicator that you would not get much there.

    You can also see how they’re doing financially, which can be a big red flag!

    1. 1000000%!!!! Use the staff page on the nonprofit’s website to determine how many layers of management are between you and the highest paid employees, and then extrapolate what they are willing to pay for the position. This is an excellent way to screen out employers before you even apply. *blows raspberries in the general direction of salary opaqueness*

      Hot tip: bring a binder to interviews with NPO’s. Fill it with copies* of your resume, references, the org’s recent blog articles, recent press, AND the most recent 990 form. In my experience, they’re usually impressed by the 990, and you really only need to be able to read and understand the first page. Even better if you can ask a question based on the information you found there.

      *Do not sweat this if you don’t have the money to print. You can still ask hard-hitting questions re: the 990 form.

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