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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Money

What You Should Learn From My $10,000 Career Mistake

I should remember it fondly as one of the best conversations of my career: I was getting offered my dream job.

The stakes were high. We’d recently moved for my husband’s job, but until I secured a new position as well, we were staying with his family an hour drive away—which, coupled with his demanding work schedule, made it so I barely saw him at all.

But I was searching for a role that would do more than help us afford our own apartment. All of the jobs I’d held in the rural town we’d moved from were for minimum wage and solely based on what was available. (Seriously—at one point, I photographed brake calipers in the back of a warehouse from 7 AM to 3 PM each day because it was an open full-time job and those were hard to come by.) I saw this as my chance to dive back into the sector I wanted to work in and get my career back on track.

I’d been sending out numerous applications, but this was the role I was so excited about that I literally jumped up and down when I heard I’d made it to the in-person interview. It was exactly what I wanted to be doing—in the exact field, with the exact people, and the exact impact—and only a couple of miles from my husband’s new job.

Better yet, they wanted me, too. I know that, because, mere hours after my interview, the phone rang. My future boss was offering me the job.

The call started off great: She told me how much they liked me, and then she said the salary was $36,000—but before she could even finish her sentence I practically cut her off to declare, “I accept!”

Compared to my most recent (minimum-wage) roles and the weeks I’d spent applying to jobs all day long; well, it seemed crazy to say anything else.

Reflecting later, I remembered my future boss saying, “Oh,” with a tinge of surprise in her voice, but then she went on to discuss benefits and my start date and that was that.

My Wake-up Call

I loved everything about my job. To date, I still look back on it as an incredible experience. But I’ll never forget the day I learned one thing could’ve been vastly different—my compensation.

We were hiring for a new role, and the salary range was advertised as $40,000 to $50,000. A colleague who was very similar to me in age and experience made an off-hand comment about how great it was to work somewhere where we were all compensated at that level.

I froze. I was most certainly not compensated at that level. I ran through a list in my head of all the reasons that could be:

Was I much younger or less experienced than she was? No.
Was I working in an incomparable role in the company? No.
Had I tried to negotiate and been told that was the salary cap? No.

It had nothing to do with my background and everything to do with how I handled my offer.

If I’d negotiated—at all, really—I’d be making a lot more. While I’ll never know exactly how much, based on everything I learned since about what my co-workers’ salaries, I believe I made a $10,000 mistake.

Let’s let that sink in for a moment—$10,000 freaking dollars. $10,000 toward car payments, toward a down payment, toward making up for the years I put nothing into retirement. $10,000 is a winning lottery ticket or a second job, and I wouldn’t have even had to work any harder or longer for it; I simply would’ve needed to go about one conversation differently.

Not to mention, all told, my mistake cost me even more than that. (No, I’m not going to dive into the technicalities of the compounding interest in my retirement match, though sure it probably affected that, too.) My raises were off of a base that was 25% lower than it could’ve been. And whenever I listed my salary range in future applications, I was listing a lower range.

What I Learned

The more you want—or even, need—a job, the more terrifying it is to negotiate. You fear that if you say anything other than “Yes!” the other person might change their mind, and say, “Oh, well, we’re going to go with a candidate who appreciates this offer as is.” Plus, it’s less stressful if you avoid negotiating: If you assume you’re going to work for straight shooters who’ll name a fair price and that’ll be that.

But that logic is flawed, because it doesn’t take into account how highly the company thinks of you. I was their first choice, and so, my boss gave me enough credit to think I’d be a savvy negotiator. If she’d just given me their best offer, and then I asked for something more, she wouldn’t have anywhere to go—and then she’d be the one worried about losing me! She had to give me that number so that if I was a shark, we could still land on something in budget and both be happy.

When I said, “I accept!” I sealed my own fate. It’s not her place to say, “Oh, actually we have around $10,000 more in the budget, so I’ll just pretend you asked for more!” Negotiation is something you have to do for yourself.

How to Avoid My Mistake

The biggest lesson I learned is a classic: You won’t get it if you don’t ask for it. To be clear, the salary I was offered was fair. And actually, that made it harder: If I’d felt like it was unreasonable, I would’ve been forced to say something. But since I didn’t have to negotiate, I agreed on the spot—and never explored what I could’ve gotten if I’d only tried.

The main reason I didn’t speak up was because I lacked confidence. I was so fearful of losing out on this job that I psyched myself out. I wish I’d reminded myself that the fact I was getting an offer meant they wanted me, and asking for more wasn’t going to make it all go away.

While you never want to go into an interview stressing about the negotiation, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t think about the salary discussion until you get the offer. Practice what you’ll say, and if need be, reach out to an expert (like a negotiation coach) for help with how to have the discussion.

Nowadays, in my work as a freelance writer and editor, negotiating my rate is a part of my job. And while I can’t get that original $10,000 back, I can make sure I speak up and never sell myself short again. I know firsthand that having that uncomfortable few minutes of conversation is worth it.

Photo of upset person courtesy of g-stockstudio/Getty Images.