Ask Brianna: I Got a Job Offer and I’ve Heard I Should Negotiate. Where Do I Start?

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“Ask Brianna” is a column for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I’m here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to askbrianna@nerdwallet.com.

This week’s question:

“I got a job offer, and I’ve heard I should negotiate for a higher salary than they initially offered me. I’m scared I’ll offend my future employer by asking for more money. What should I do?”

Negotiating your salary is as vital to your job search as proofreading your cover letter or attaching your resume to an application email. Think of it as one more step before you sign that offer letter saying you’ll take the job. Instead of avoiding it or getting caught up in how nervous it makes you, focus your energy on preparing for the negotiation conversation so you can do it with confidence. Here’s what you can do to master your next negotiation and get the salary you deserve.

Psych yourself up

The first step is to put an end to your fear that negotiating will make you look bad. If it helps, write, “I’m scared I’ll offend my future employer by asking for more money” or “I’m scared I’ll seem entitled by asking for more money” on a piece of paper, rip it up and throw it out.

Employers expect you to negotiate. And they won’t penalize you for asking for more money. A study conducted by the personal finance website I write for, NerdWallet, found that nine out of 10 hiring managers said they had never withdrawn a job offer because an entry-level candidate tried to negotiate his or her salary. And three-quarters of employers left room for candidates to ask for an additional 5% to 10% more than they had offered. If you don’t negotiate, you’re actually losing out on income your employer assumes you’ll ask for.

I understand how hard it is to internalize all this. Since I worked for the government right after graduating, I was locked into a pay grade that dictated my salary based on my experience and education. I got to avoid the scary business of negotiating, which means I missed a critical opportunity to practice. When my future boss called to offer me my next job, I was so grateful that I accepted the starting salary of $35,000, no questions asked. I didn’t even try to negotiate, because I didn’t want to seem unappreciative or greedy. And it was a nonprofit, after all; I knew it didn’t have a lot of extra cash to spare.

But living in New York City on that salary was hard. I ended up feeling resentful that I hadn’t asked for more. I learned some of my colleagues had successfully negotiated their job offers, and that their managers actually saw them as more desirable and confident for doing so. I vowed never to feel too intimidated to negotiate again. Remember: Negotiating is a completely natural part of the process, and it shows you value yourself. If you need to, the next time you’re preparing to negotiate, repeat that sentence aloud in the mirror while “Eye of the Tiger” plays.

>> MORE: 15 Ways to Negotiate a Higher Salary

Know how much to ask for

You’ll feel way more confident going into negotiations if you know how much you’re worth. You’ll also be able to point to your research during the conversation with a hiring manager to support your case. Come up with a range for what you want to make before the job offer comes through, but base it on reliable sources that will give you a realistic understanding of how much you should ask for.

The best time to do your research is after your second interview, when you have a good sense for what your role would be and where you’d fit in at the company. A job title alone doesn’t always demonstrate whether you’ll manage others or what performance metrics you’ll be accountable for — which are both important factors in how much you should be paid. If there’s a chance you’ll be offered the job on the spot at the end of your second interview, prepare beforehand. Do your research using these methods:

  • Search the websites Glassdoor, Salary.com and PayScale to see what others are making at your position in your city or state.
  • Search the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ wage data by occupation and state or metropolitan statistical area. The bureau has tons of compensation data available online, but make sure you use the information that applies to your position and where you live. National data won’t be specific enough.
  • Talk to friends who are in the field, even if that seems awkward. Ask in what range their salary falls, like between $40,000 and $50,000, or in what range they were offered.
  • Ask your former college professors or career services director what they’ve been hearing from alums in your field. Chances are they’re in touch with alumni like you who have been letting them know what they’ve been offered for similar positions.

Practice what you’ll say

Now it’s time to figure out exactly what you’ll say when you negotiate. In a job interview, scripted responses to questions can sound forced. But since negotiating is especially intimidating for a lot of job seekers, planning how you’ll react when you’re offered a job is a great way to ease your fears.

Whether the offer will come via phone call or email depends on your employer. Some employers will email you to set up a phone call, others will call you out of the blue and still others will send an email only. Your response should be essentially the same, no matter the medium.

If the hiring manager offers you a salary that is below the market value of the job — say, $40,000 — you have two options: Thank him or her and say you’d like to take time to think about it, or come back with a counteroffer right away. Since it’s likely the offer will include benefits beyond your salary, like health care, stock options or a cellphone reimbursement, it’s worthwhile to consider their value in your compensation package too. If you decide to think about the offer before responding, tell the hiring manager a specific day and time by which you’ll get back to him or her, preferably within 24 hours.

When you’re ready, respond in a way that incorporates both gratitude for the offer and a suggestion for a more appropriate salary range.

Say: “Thank you so much for this opportunity. I’m really excited to join your team and to bring my experience and skills to the company. I’ve done some research and I see the salary range for comparable positions is $45,000 to $55,000. I think what would be fair for me is $50,000.”

It’s possible the hiring manager will say he or she needs to run your request by the executive at the company who gives salary approvals. That’s a common response, and it shouldn’t worry you. If the manager says there’s no room for salary negotiation in this position but you want to accept the offer, consider asking if you can discuss your compensation in the future once you’ve shown the company your value.

Say: “I’m happy to accept your offer, and I am looking forward to getting started in the role. But I’m sensitive to the market value of this position. Can we revisit my compensation in six months?”

Most importantly, stay calm, respectful and self-assured. You’re making the right decision to negotiate your salary, even when you’re entry-level, if your employer hasn’t offered to pay you what you’re worth. Remember that starting off with a higher salary means your raises will be based on a higher amount in the future, so you’ll make more over time. You’ll thank yourself a few years from now for having the courage to stand up for yourself.

How to make your salary go further

There are ways to pad your bank account beyond negotiating for a higher salary. Use these tips to build up extra spending money, short-term savings and retirement funds.

Refinance your student loans: The average monthly student loan payment for 20- to 30-year olds was $351 in 2015, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. That’s a big chunk out of your paycheck. If your credit score is in the 700s or above and you have solid, full-time income, you might qualify for student loan refinancing. A lender will replace your prior loans with a new one at a lower interest rate, saving you money over time.

Send part of your paycheck straight to a savings account: It’s harder to spend money you never see in your checking account. Ask your payroll administrator at work to direct-deposit a percentage of your after-tax pay in a savings account that isn’t connected to checking — perhaps an online, high-yield savings account. That will keep it out of sight, and you might see your hard-earned money grow faster than if you kept it in an easily accessible place.

Get your employer 401(k) match: You won’t necessarily feel the effects now, but taking advantage of matching contributions at work will give your retirement savings a serious boost. When your company matches your retirement contributions, you’ll get free money in your account up to a specified amount that you contribute — say, 3% of your salary. Don’t miss out.

Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Follow her on Twitter: @briannamcscribe.