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Ever heard of a salary calculator? You’re probably imagining some kind of tool that spews out a number that tells you what you should be making (and could be making)—and yes, that’s, in the broad sense, what it is.

In the not-so-broad sense, it’s an online resource for job seekers, career changers, and employees to compare their salary to others in their field, their industry, their city, or even their own company. What’s great about it is that you can do more research into your current situation as well as predict around what your future income could be.

I tried five salary calculators just to see if there was any huge differences (and, because like any good experiment, you have to try more than one to get an accurate result).

Here are the five I went with:

The first three ask for a job title and location, then use that information to give you a list of salaries for various companies in the area. The last two are more specific, asking for all sorts of credentials in order to paint a vivid picture of your ideal income.

While none of them are 100% accurate (and should therefore not be used as hard evidence), they all can be useful at different points in your career to help you along. And because I’m no expert, I decided to speak with Career Coach Melody J. Wilding LMSW to get some more insight into what you can (and can’t do) with one.


1. You Can Use it to Get an Average Salary in Your Field



The first, and most obvious, use of a salary calculator is to see how your current paycheck compares to other people in your field and in your city. And that’s why that’s typically the first thing most people do when they come across one—to see how much they are likely to make if they pursue a certain path.

But again, the results aren’t completely accurate. The first and biggest reason, Wilding suggests, is because it’s based on standard, straightforward information. But the thing is, no one job is the same, and most just don’t fit into that cookie cutter model of “account executive” or “sales manager.” This is why it’s hard to get an exact number for startups or freelance roles. The other reason is that each field has a different pool of candidates. So while you’re likely to find a ton of information on engineering and finance jobs, the statistics on designers or writers are a bit less robust.

The takeaway? Consider the number an estimate, not an exact calculation. If a job offer suggests more or less, but isn’t that much off from the average, there’s probably a good reason why.


2. You Can Use it if You’re (Considering) Moving



Let’s say you’re thinking of moving to an entirely new city without a job. Or, let’s say you have an offer for a new position in another state and you want to see what the future holds for you there. Plug in your title in a few different zip codes as well as the job titles a few rungs higher than you. From doing that, you’ll be able to get a better idea of what your path looks like, and if the move is really feasible for you.

Of course, the other numbers you’ll want to consider involve the city’s average prices. Sure, the salary may be lower, but is the standard of living also lower? Same goes for the other way around—you might make more money in New York City, but you’ll also be paying more in rent.


3. You Can Use it to Negotiate Your Salary



And what happens when you get an offer that is lower than you expected? Well, one thing you should do is turn to a calculator and see if you’re within the average range. (Actually, truth be told, you should know this before you even begin this part of the process in case you’re asked for your ideal salary.)

If you learn that you’re making below what your peers are in your field, this offers the perfect opportunity to negotiate a better offer. As Matt Mickiewicz, the Co-founder and Chief Product Officer for Hired, says, “If you go in knowing what someone in your role should be making, you’ll know if you’re being low-balled, and you’ll have the facts handy to back up why you should make more.”

But Wilding also told me that sometimes a hiring manager will mention what you’ve found in your research even before you can. In this case, which is a great case to be in, you can use this as a pivot point to argue why you deserve to earn more. The conversation would look something like this:

Hiring Manager: The market rate for this kind of role is $40 to $50K.

You: That’s actually what I’ve come across in my research as well. But that’s only the average, and if you look at my accomplishments, you can see that I am more at the $50 to $60K range because…”

Or, if a pay raise doesn’t seem possible, a salary calculator’s also a great jumping off point to negotiate other benefits, such as working from home, more stock options, or better health benefits.

One point I’ll stress is that saying “But this salary calculator said…” in the interview is a huge no-no—it instantly makes you look like an amateur. Instead, focus on why you’re deserving of more, rather than placing emphasis on one variable tool.


4. You Can Use it to Evaluate a Career Change



If you’re looking to explore an entirely different industry, you probably know little about how much you should be making.

And whether you’re someone who’s going to be starting back at the beginning or just moving to a lower-paying field in general, you have to know going into the process how much of a pay cut you’re willing to take (that information determines a lot!). The first step in making this hard decision? Knowing the typical salary range for the roles you’d be applying to.

But your own experiences are still so important in this process. Wilding found that a lot of her clients sell themselves short when making this kind of move. She stresses that if you’ve been in a role for 10 years and are switching gears, this doesn’t mean you have to start over salary-wise just because an online tool tells you so.


5. You Can Use it to Help You Decide if That Degree’s Worth It



For those who are considering going back to school or picking up a new skill through online classes, you can also use a salary calculator to see how your income might fluctuate—for example, how much more you could make if you got an MBA or learned how to code. In certain fields it’s well-worth it, in others—not so much. Before you jump into a new project or investment, take a look at the stats.


6. You Can Use it to Ask for a Raise



And finally, if you’re looking at all these calculators and realizing that you’re making a lot less money than most people—and you have more qualifications than those positions—this could be a good jumping off point to approach your boss about getting a fair salary bump during the next round of annual reviews.

Now, shoving salary calculator results in your boss’ face and telling him or her I told you so isn’t the solution, either. Asking for a raise is a tricky and deliberate process—you have to do your research (hint: Use more than one resource), and you have to back it up with your own accomplishments. But knowing average pay is definitely a good start.


The point is, a salary calculator isn’t your token to exchange for more money. Talking to real employees, reading blogs, and trying out lots of different tools are all just as important in the job search process. However, it is a great starting point for people who want to earn the paycheck they truly deserve.

Plus, it is pretty fun to play around with—I know I learned I have something to look forward to as I continue to grow in my career.