When you’re in the middle of a job interview, a question like “What are your salary expectations?” can make you panic. You don’t want to say something too high and price yourself out of a job you want or need, and you don’t want to say something too low and end up not getting paid as much as you could or should be making.
Some of this concern is warranted. When career coach Joyel Crawford worked in recruiting, the main reason she asked about salary was to gauge a job candidate’s expectations relative to the budget allocated for the role. So unlike many other common interview questions, your response to “What is your desired salary?” could disqualify you from consideration for a job. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since you might not be able to accept or enjoy a job that doesn’t pay enough for you.
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You might also be afraid that the interviewer will judge you harshly if you price yourself too high or too low, but that generally isn’t the goal. This question is more about finding a salary match, says Crawford, who is also host of the podcast Career View Mirror.
Discussing salary early on ensures neither the candidate nor the company will “waste time and effort on several rounds of interviews to find out that the salary is wildly off from what you want,” says Muse career coach Jennifer Fink, CEO and founder of Fink Development. “Ideally, employers and recruiters would be upfront with [salary] information and volunteer it first, but that’s not often the case,” Fink says. When a job posting lists pay, candidates will avoid applying if it’s out of their range, and when an interviewer mentions it first candidates can respond without any guesswork. Unfortunately, not every employer has a culture of transparency surrounding pay, Fink says.
There are several strategies for answering interview questions about your salary expectations, but the basis of all of them is doing your research ahead of an interview.
Pro tip: “What are your salary expectations?” is a different question from “What is your current salary?” which is illegal in some states and cities. Get advice on answering questions about your salary history here.
Figure Out Your Salary Expectations Ahead of Time
Pay can come up in different ways in a job interview and you can use different strategies to answer these questions (see below). But no matter how you choose to respond, you should still know what your ideal salary is. Maybe the interviewer needs you to state a number, or maybe they tell you what they’re offering and ask you to react. Either way, “Some processes won’t move forward until they know that a candidate is a good fit salary-wise,” Fink says.
Start your salary research by looking up your desired job title by name, geographic location, and years of experience through free resources like the Department of Labor, Payscale.com, and Salary.com. Fink also recommends 81cents, which helps job candidates, especially women and underrepresented minorities, improve the outcome of salary negotiations. You have to pay for their in-depth, personalized reports on your individual market value, but you can also check out their resource library for general information on salary and negotiation.
Asking people in your network who have the job you want what they’re making is another way to gain insight, Fink says. Use multiple sources to get a good sense of the going rate for the kind of job you’re interviewing for and take into account any additional skills and qualifications you have, the size of the company, the industry, and the location. This should give you a reasonable idea of what you can expect a company to offer to pay you.
Next figure out how much pay you personally need (and want). Look at your predicted expenses and goals. If it’s your first job and you’ll be moving out of your parents’ house, if you’ll now have to pay for childcare, or if you’ll have to finance a car to get to the office, this job is going to cause a major budget shift. If you’d be relocating, consider moving expenses and the cost of living near your new job. Take all these factors into account ahead of time so you’re prepared to respond based on your actual needs and don’t accidentally accept a salary “where you’re eating Top Ramen and Moon Pies for dinner each day,” Crawford says.
Crawford also recommends thinking beyond base pay alone. “Ask yourself: What do you value?” This might include stock options, paid time off, a yearly bonus, commuter benefits, or childcare benefits. Think about how the presence or absence of these would affect your salary expectations. For example, you might decide tuition assistance or the ability to bring your dog to work is worth more to you than another $5K a year. On the flip side, major gaps in benefits—like the lack of an employee health insurance plan—might raise your salary requirements drastically. Check the job posting or the company’s website or Muse profile ahead of all your interviews to get a sense of what benefits and perks each company offers.
Use all this to come up with an acceptable salary range for you, so that regardless of how you plan to respond to questions about your salary expectations, you know what number you’re ultimately looking for.
Choose Your Strategy for Answering the Question
Depending on where you are in the interview process and your personal situation, there are three main strategies for answering “What are your salary expectations?” in an interview, Fink says.
1. Give a Salary Range
Responding to questions about salary with a single number limits your ability to make something work with the company, Crawford says. Her secret recipe for successful negotiations is to “come from a place of collaboration and service.” By giving a salary range, you show that you’re willing to be flexible and work with your prospective employer.
And by giving any numbers at all you’re “voicing the value you bring to the table,” Crawford says. Showing that you’ve done your research and you know what you’re worth tells an interviewer that you’re serious about your skills and what you can bring to their company.
Of course there are some drawbacks to giving salary numbers in an early round interview. Waiting until you have a job offer could give you more leverage to negotiate, Fink says. You might also fear leaving money on the table by going too low or losing the opportunity by going too high. But if you’ve done your research, going too low is less likely and going too high means the job wasn’t right for you.
When giving your salary range in an interview, “try to keep the bottom of your range toward the mid-to-high point of what you’re looking for,” Fink says. For example, if you’re personally looking for $85,000 to $100,000 and your best guess of what the company has budgeted is $80,000 to $95,000, you could give a range of $92,000 to $100,000, so that even if the company negotiates below the range you stated in your interview, you’re still happy.
In your answer, “it’s usually worth pointing out that the salary is only one component of what you’re looking for, and that you are considering salary as part of an overall opportunity,” Fink says. You might also want to reiterate what you bring to the table for a prospective employer when formulating your answer to support the range that you’re giving, Crawford says. The company is getting something for their investment—a great employee.
So what does this strategy sound like in practice?
“Taking into account my experience and Excel certifications, which you mentioned earlier would be very helpful to the team, I’m looking for somewhere between $42,000 and $46,000 annually for this role. But for me, benefits definitely matter as well. Your free on-site gym, the commuter benefits, and other perks could definitely allow me to be a bit flexible with salary.”
2. Flip the Question
You can also respond to “What are your salary expectations?” by simply asking what the company is looking to pay. “You could say something like, ‘That's a great question—it would be helpful if you could share what the range is for this role,’’’ Fink says.
Once the interviewer answers your question, they’ll expect you to say if the salary works for you. So you still need to do your research, but now you’ll be able to tailor your response to the budget the company has. If the interviewer gives you a number or range in line with what you expected or higher, great! You can talk about how that sounds perfect for you. But if the response is lower than you’re happy with, you have to come up with a plan to respond.
For example, if the interviewer says a job pays $55,000, and that’s a bit below where you were hoping to make, you might say something like:
“I was hoping for something more in the $60-to-$65K range, but I’m definitely open to negotiating based on the entire compensation package.”
You can then follow up with questions about the benefits that matter most to you like 401(k) matching or additional PTO.
But if you’re looking for a lot more than $55,000, you might have discovered an impasse:
“Unfortunately with my experience and current salary, I don’t know if I can accept anything for less than $80,000 a year. Do you know if there is any flexibility in the budget for this role?”
3. Delay Answering
When you’re still learning the scope of a position and what benefits the company offers, you might prefer to delay answering questions about your salary expectations.
If you choose this strategy, you might say that salary is important to you, but a well-rounded offer and opportunity are more important, and you’d prefer to share your salary expectations later on, Fink says.
This could sound like:
“Right now, finding the right position for me is more important than salary. I’d love to learn more about the job, the company, and the entire benefits package before we talk about numbers.”
One warning: Don’t default to this strategy just because you’re afraid of missing out on a position. When you feel like you really need a job, it might be tempting to take whatever salary you can get, but you’re ultimately doing yourself a disservice.
Remember that you bring value to any company you work for. Figuring out what that value is and telling potential employers will only help you ultimately get the pay you deserve. Crawford points out that in an interview, you’re essentially being asked, “Why should we invest in you?” Knowing what that investment is worth is an essential piece of the puzzle—for you and your potential employer.