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Money Talks

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How much are you worth? It’s a hefty question, but one you’ll need to confront when an employer brings up salary during the interview process. Understandably, many new grads are uncertain about how to approach compensation—either they’re not sure what they’re worth, they’re uncomfortable talking moolah, or they’re satisfied just to get a job offer.

Yet it’s important to think about salary early on. It’s one of the few times you’ll have an opportunity to negotiate your value with a company. Once you sign on the dotted line, though, the chance to openly renegotiate may be rare. Plus, employers take the matter seriously and expect that you have perspective on your own worth. “We have a certain budget for every new position, and we ask because we want to be sure you’re a good match,” says Bridget Graham, co-author of Working World 101: The New Grad’s Guide to Getting a Job.

Handling the money question clumsily—suggesting a number that’s far out of range or one that’s so low it cheapens you—could knock you out of the running. To ensure that doesn’t happen, be prepared to talk dollars and cents.

Know Your Worth
“The salary question should never catch you off guard,” says Graham. Before starting your search, establish an appropriate salary range. Research industry standards using survey websites, such as (see sidebar), read trade news, and conduct informational interviews. Then gauge where you fall within that range given your particular education, skills, and experience. Also, calculate your personal budget, such as rent, gas, and food expenses, to make sure your requirements are realistic. Thorough preparation will give you confidence during negotiations.

State Your Case
When a job post asks for salary history or range, it’s important to provide an answer so you don’t get passed over for ignoring directions. For salary requirements, provide your range (no more than a $10,000 window), but state that you’re flexible. Be truthful about salary history. However, if you have low hourly wages in your history, use your cover letter to emphasize what you bring to the new position, not what you’ve done in previous jobs. Be prepared to compare the work of previous positions to the new position’s requirements in order to justify any large jump in compensation.

Try Not To Show Your Cards First
By revealing your number early on, you risk undercutting a higher offer the employer might have had in mind. When an interviewer asks for your requirements, say, “I have a number in mind, but I’d like to hear your offer.” If their offer is sufficient, acknowledge that and move on. If not, say you were hoping for more and set the stage for negotiation by talking about the job’s requirements and your qualifications. If the interviewer insists you make the first move, provide a number and justify it with your research and worth. Don’t say a range works if it doesn’t.

Don’t Jump the Gun
“Some people get into the interview and think, ‘I’m a top candidate. Let’s talk money,’” says Graham. “But you don’t know for a fact that you’re the top candidate until you have the offer in hand.” Once an employer has made you an offer, you know it’s ready to invest time and money into bringing you on board, giving you the upper hand in negotiations. Before this time, though, focus on your interest in the job and what you can bring to the table, rather than money.

Show Your Worth
You don’t have to negotiate if the terms of the offer fit your requirements, but don’t settle if you’re not satisfied. Start negotiating by saying you were hoping for a higher number, and demonstrate the value you’ll bring to the company: your experience, work ethic, willingness to surpass job requirements, and unique knowledge or skills. “Prove that you deserve a higher salary,” says J.R. Parrish, author of You Don’t Have to Learn the Hard Way, Making it in the Real World: A Guide for Graduates. Confidence is key, so practice with a friend or family member.

Everything Is Negotiable
Salary is just one part of a job offer. There’s usually a long list of benefits on the table as well, which are also up for negotiation. Benefits include vacation time, hours, health benefits, telecommuting opportunities, bonuses, and more. “If I don’t have your salary requirement in my budget, I may be willing to give you more vacation days or more flexible work hours,” says Graham. “Candidates should be open-minded about these things if they can’t get money.” Consider what benefits might help sweeten the offer—and remember that your starting salary won’t remain the same throughout your career.
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