5 Ways to Talk About Money in a Job Interview

Talking about money in a job interview is taboo, or is it? Being asked, “What are your salary expectations?” might be the most nerve-wracking question of all. I asked a few of my colleagues from different job titles, departments, industries, and levels of experience for advice on how to answer this question smartly. Here’s what they had to say:

  • Before the interview, figure out the market rate of your role, or what people in similar jobs, in your location, and with your level of experience, are making.
  • Use your research to prepare a data-driven argument. Building the conversation based on facts and data is key to avoiding confrontation.
  • If you’re unsure in the moment, ask for the salary band for the role — the low-end and top-end of what an organization is willing to pay someone for that position. Believe it or not, some organizations will disclose this information.
  • Aim higher than you want to — negotiating down is easier than negotiating up. Take your current salary, up it by a bit, and then tell them that number.
  • Use the opportunity to ask about the entire benefits package. A new employee (early career) might prioritize securing health insurance, a steady paycheck, and a work-life balance versus a higher paycheck with a tight work schedule. close.

What’s the hardest question to answer during a job interview? Here are a few common ones that I find especially difficult:

  • Where do you want to be in 5 years? (Not sure. I just want to be happy).
  • What do you do badly? (How can I make this look good?)
  • Say something about yourself. (This isn’t a real question.)

But … the most nerve-wracking question of all might just be: What are your salary expectations?

Choosing your “desired compensation” feels like a “make or break” statement for some reason. What if I say too much and the hiring manager decides I’m not a good fit? What if I don’t say enough and end up making a lot less money than I could have?

To gain more insight into how to answer this question smartly, I reached out to a few of my colleagues — across job titles, departments, expertise, and levels of experience — for advice.

How to Answer: What Are Your Salary Expectations?

→ Before the interview, determine the market rate of the position.

Talk about money in a job interview an I froze when I was asked this question during my first job interview. I didn’t know what to say, so I asked, “How much are you willing to pay for this part?” That was a very bad idea. I didn’t find out until much later that I started with a lower salary than two other people who started at the same time as me. What makes us different? They had talked about it.

Before you even go to the interview, you should know the market rate for your role. This means you should know how much people with similar jobs in your area and with your level of experience are making.

You can find out by asking people you know how much they make or by looking at sites like salary.com. If you look on Glassdoor, you can sometimes even find out how much people get paid at the company you’re applying to.

When you know this, you’ll be better able to answer the question. I’d suggest giving a price range that makes sense for your experience and potential. Asking for too much will make you look ignorant (because you won’t know what the average range is for this type of job) and arrogant (because you’ll think it’s okay to ask for a lot more money than your experience and skills are worth). If you ask for too little, you’ll shortchange yourself and lose money. Your starting salary is the basis for all of your future salaries, including raises and bonuses. If you get off to a bad start, it could cost you a lot over the course of your career.

→ Research to prepare a data-driven defense of what you desire.

Since I was from the middle class, my family told me to never ask for a higher salary and that it was fine to take the salary that the organization offered.

I can still remember my first answer to this question in a job interview: “Right now in my career, learning and the quality of my work are much more important than the pay.” So, I’ll be happy with the organization’s standard salary.”

I think it’s fine to follow this rule when you’re just starting out in your career, but as you get better at your job or become an expert in your field, you might be leaving money on the table by answering this way.

I think the best way to get what you want is to make a strong case for yourself based on facts. You can do this by researching the role and looking online to see what your market value is. If you want to avoid an argument, stick to facts and figures. You can say, “From what I’ve learned, the average worker in our city who has this job makes [salary range].” Based on what I know and what I’ve done, I think [this range] is fair.” You can show that you are willing to negotiate by giving a range.

Show the hiring manager that you’re flexible by saying something like, “I’m really excited about this opportunity and willing to talk more about it.” This shows that you are reasonable and willing to work with others (a good quality for a job candidate).

Don’t just think about yourself when you talk about money in a job interview. Instead, think about what you can do for the company with your experience and skills. (“I deserve this because I’m awesome, talented, and dependable.”)

→ If you’re unsure, ask for the salary band for the role.

I can still remember the first time I needed to talk about money in a job interview. This “what are you looking for” question was asked of me in an interview. I was 21 years old and excited to get my first real job in health care, which I thought I would love. I didn’t expect to be asked about pay at my first interview, and to be honest, I hadn’t done my homework. I said, “Whatever you think is fair for a clinical coordinator.” A big no-no because I gave up all my negotiating power.

I really liked my job, but it was hard. I worked a lot of hours in the lab and outside of it. The salary wasn’t enough to live on. Now that I know what I know, I should have asked, “What is the pay range for this job?” In other words, the lowest and highest amounts that a company is willing to pay for that position. Even if you don’t believe it, some organizations will give this information out.

If I knew this, I would ask for a price just below the top end of the market, not the average. For example, if the middle salary was $40,000 and the highest salary was $60,000, I would ask for $57,000. This gives you room to talk about a fair wage.

∼ Umaar (he/him), Senior Product Manager, Incubator

→ Aim higher than you want to — negotiating down is easier.

If I’m applying to work at a nonprofit, I always look up the organization’s 990 beforehand to see what the highest compensated employees are being paid and base my salary answer off that. If I know what the top is, I can frame my expectations accordingly.

Today, if I were asked that question, I would be mostly transparent about what my salary expectations are. I say mostly because, like everyone, I have a range of acceptable salaries, but I would only tell a company the high end of that range. I find it easier to negotiate down than negotiate up. I take my current salary, up it by a bit, and then tell them that number. If I like my current job, I better be making more money at my next job.

I am a firm believer in asking for what I want. How will I get what I want if I don’t ask for it? Think of it this way: If the hiring manager wants to hire you, then it is HR’s job to close the deal. If a place did just outright reject me for giving too high of a salary, is that a place I would even want to work?

→ Question to pivot to understand their entire benefits package.

In my professional life, I’ve had a lot of job interviews, and when talking about money in a job interview, this question always comes up at the end of the first interview, during the screening phase, or in the final round.

My answer is based on some advice I got from a friend who worked at Raymond James as a senior financial consultant. He told me I should never just pick a number. Instead, ask the people you’re interviewing with what benefits they can offer. He told me to look at more than just the salary when thinking about a potential employer.

For example, a new worker (early in their career) might value health insurance, a steady paycheck, and a good balance between work and life over a higher salary and a tight work schedule. On the other hand, someone who is having trouble meeting financial obligations, like taking care of a family, may need to put negotiating a higher income at the top of their list of priorities.

The problem with focusing only on benefits, though, is that it could make it hard to understand what you want out of your salary in general. This hasn’t helped me out in the past. I’ve learned that when the job market is competitive, employers tend to offer candidates less money to save money on labor. A well-rounded professional should know how much value they bring to the table and rank themselves in line with market metrics.

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