What’s your desired salary? It’s a question that can make any job candidate’s stomach drop, whether they’re reading it on an application or hearing it from an interviewer. And I completely understand the stress around this—you don’t want to give a lowball answer and have to settle for less money than you’re worth, but you also don’t want to seem like you have crazy-high, unrealistic expectations.
Here’s what you need to know about answering the desired salary question in the way that will benefit you most in the long run.
What Is Desired Salary?
Desired salary is simply the amount of money you’d like to make at your new job. It’s also the realistic amount of money you expect to make at your new job based on your level of skill and experience. (Otherwise, we’d probably all have a desired salary of $10 million.)
When a potential employer asks you this question, they’re expecting an honest, realistic answer—but giving your answer too soon could actually end up hurting your chances of making the amount of money you’re worth. More on that in a minute. First, let’s talk about how to figure out your true desired salary.
How to Determine Desired Salary
Before you can even think about giving a concrete answer to this question on an application or in an interview, you should have an actual number in mind—even if you don’t reveal that number right away (or at all). You should know what you’re aiming for so you can be confident about the salary offers you will and won’t accept. But I get that it can be difficult to land on a number or range, so here are a few factors that will help you figure it out:
1. Do some research.
A quick Google search can usually tell you the industry standards for salary in your desired position, and most job search websites will let you search for the standards in your geographical location as well. Sometimes pay ranges vary depending on state or region. The size of the company you’re looking at and its level of success will also affect the pay scale.
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Another way to research is by asking other employees in similar roles what their pay is like, but keep in mind that it’s personal information that not everyone might be comfortable sharing. You could also ask any recruiters in the field (who don’t work at the company you’re applying to) if they can share the average salaries they see for the type of position you want.
2. Account for your skill level and experience.
If you know me, you know I’m a big believer that you don’t have to get a four-year degree to get a great-paying job—and I stand by that! But education and training will still be taken into consideration at many companies, depending on the role. Having more years of experience working in a given industry will usually mean higher pay too. So, even if you don’t have a ton of education but you’ve spent years getting hands-on experience in jobs that are related to the one you want now, your pay should reflect that.
Another thing to consider is skill level. Of course, you can expect to be paid less for entry-level skill than for high skill. But skill level isn’t necessarily equivalent to the amount of time you’ve spent working in an industry—some people graduate from college with a higher level of skill than somebody who’s already been working in the field for a while. Be honest with yourself about your skill level, and if you know you’ve got a competitive edge, factor that into the amount you think you should be paid.
3. Think about your cost of living.
This is a real consideration, especially if you’ve got a family to provide for. How much do you realistically need to make in order to take care of all your family’s expenses (or even just your own expenses)? How much do you need to make in order to live comfortably? How much do you need to make in order to pay off debt, save up for a car or house, or be able to put money in your kids’ college fund? Would you need to relocate if you were to take a certain job?
Of course, we all need to use any amount of money wisely by budgeting and living below our means as much as possible, but there’s no denying that income can make or break our ability to reach our financial goals.
4. Take a look at the benefits being offered.
Things like health insurance, paid time off, and 401(k) options can make a big difference in your desired salary. Maybe you want to make $75K a year, and you’re looking at a company that offers a little less than that, but they also offer unlimited PTO (yes, that’s a real thing at some places). You might be willing to adjust your desired salary because that benefit is worth it to you. Or maybe you’re looking at a company that does offer your desired salary, but they wouldn’t give you the opportunity to have a 401(k). That could be an issue for you!
Once you’ve taken all these factors into consideration, decide on your deal-breaker salary—in other words, what’s the absolute lowest salary you’d accept before walking away from the job offer? This may or may not be the same as your desired salary. It’s up to you to decide if you’re firm at one number or if there’s a salary range you’d be willing to work with, and only you can know what’s right for you.
How to Answer “What Is Your Desired Salary?”
Now that you have your desired salary in mind, the next step is to stand strong when you’re asked about it! Here are two common scenarios where you might have to answer this question, plus the best ways to answer.
On a Job Application
Like I mentioned earlier, it’s better to not reveal your desired salary too early in the hiring process because it can limit you if the company is prepared to pay more. Not all applications will ask for your desired salary, so if they don’t ask, there’s no need to give one. And if they do ask, keep things simple by saying something like “salary is negotiable” or “salary may be discussed during the interview process.”
If you’re unable to enter text into that field on the application, I’d recommend leaving it blank or giving a loose range and then adding a note somewhere else on the application saying salary may be negotiated later. It’s important to be honest here, though. If you know you won’t be open to negotiation, don’t use the word negotiate—stick to discuss. (And if you’re really not willing to budge, you might as well state your firm desired salary on the application.)
In an Interview
Interviews can be nerve-racking, so it’s a good idea to think about how you’ll respond ahead of time. Again, you aren’t obligated to give a concrete number, and you shouldn’t let a recruiter pressure you into giving one if you’re not ready. There are plenty of respectful and professional ways to answer this question that won’t tie you down to a specific dollar amount.
Here are a few example answers to “What’s your desired salary?”:
I don’t have a specific number in mind, but I’d expect to be paid what you think is fair based on the industry standard and my level of experience.
I don’t have a concrete number in mind. What do you have budgeted for this position?
My top priority is finding a job that’s a great match for my skill set at a company I’m passionate about. I’m open to talking about the salary you feel is fair as we advance in the interview process.
I usually don’t discuss salary until the point when I’m being offered the job. Would it be alright if we continue the interview process to see if I’d be a good match for this position before discussing salary?
On my application, I listed my desired salary range as $70–80K, and after further consideration, I believe that $80K would be the fair salary to ask for based on the requirements of the role, my level of experience, and the fact that I would need to relocate for this position.
Hear me on this: There’s nothing wrong with stating your desired salary or salary range if that’s the number you’ve decided on and you feel comfortable asking for that amount. This could be met with a few different responses:
The first, which is ideal, is that the company offers you the salary you want (or more) if it’s the amount they have budgeted for the role and they think your qualifications line up.
If the amount you want is on the higher end, they may ask you why you’re asking for that amount or ask you to back up your request with evidence. But luckily, you’ve already done your research on industry standards, and you can give concrete examples of the skills and experience you bring to the table, which may be enough to show them that’s the amount you deserve.
The other possible outcome is they offer you a lower amount than what you wanted. In that case, you can either choose to walk away—because you’ve already set your deal-breaker salary—or to work with them anyway. In situations like this, you could always ask about the possibility of creating a growth plan with your leader that will allow you to grow both professionally and financially as your time with the company increases.
The bottom line is, there are many ways to talk about your desired salary without putting yourself in a box. Honesty paired with standing firm in what you want and need will go a long way. You have what it takes, so don’t let this question intimidate you!
For more tips on nailing the interview process so you can start making your desired salary a reality, check out my free Interview Guide.