How to Answer “How Much Do You Want”?

Let’s be honest: salary is one of the first things we check when we’re looking at a job advertisement. First we need to make sure there actually is a salary and it isn’t either an unpaid internship or an unpaid internship pretending to be a real job, and then we need to make sure the salary it states is reasonable. You know, if it bothers to mention one at all. Tell me, jobseekers, how many of the last ten advertisements you looked at gave a number rather than "competitive salary" or worse, "please state your salary expectations on application"?

You see, this is yet another part of the mind game known as So You’re Looking For a Job? First they suck you in with an advertisement that probably doesn’t offer that much information, and then they avoid mentioning the salary you can expect because they want you to say your number: never mind that they have the number they paid your predecessor, or a certain budget regarding how much they can offer you, they would instead like you to state the starting number. Why? Because if you say a number way less than what they were planning to offer, they’ll see that as an opportunity to take advantage and save themselves some money.

So, we’ve mentioned what can happen if you go too low. On the other hand, if you say a number that’s too high, you either look like you think far too much of yourself or you price yourself out the job because it’s way more than they were thinking. Let’s see how you should answer:

1. Know Your Number

sheldon cooper

Or rather, your range. If you offer a specific number, then the negotiations are limited, or they might even just accept whatever you say and not take it any further - and then you’re likely to find out later that you could be making far more. If you answer with a salary range, then both parties have something to work with while they try to get you to go down and you try to get them to go up.

Your range should have three parts:

  1. X: Your absolute minimum. What is the minimum salary you need in order to pay rent, travel and other expenses? Keep your qualifications and experience in mind when deciding this, as you don’t want to undervalue yourself. Have this number in mind during the negotiations, and if they start saying this minimum is all they can offer then consider whether a higher paying job would be better.
  2. Y: The fair salary. You’ve done your research and you’ve seen what other people with the same job and the same amount of experience are making in your region: if they force you to give a specific number as an answer, use this number or go a little higher.
  3. Z: Your dream salary. Keep it realistic, but what is the number they could offer that would make you accept it on the spot and then never have to worry about money again?

When giving a salary range, give Y as the minimum and Z as the maximum; Z should be the absolute highest you could hope to get, and giving Y instead of X gives some leeway to negotiate down. Giving a range not only neatly starts off negotiations, but it gives you a better chance of including a number that overlaps with the number they’re thinking.

2. Don't Answer Immediately

Emma Watson

As mentioned in the introduction, they’re trying to find out how little they can get away with paying you. While they wouldn’t be interviewing you if they didn’t need someone, there are likely so many applicants that they aren’t desperate to take you specifically and could probably easily find someone who would take less.

Rather than feeling overwhelmed by their power and meekly giving the first number that comes to mind, try to deflect. Of course you’re going to have to answer eventually, but there are several things you can say to give yourself a little leverage and to give you an idea of whether the number you think you want is the number they’re thinking of giving:

  • "Well, this job is quite different from my previous job, so let’s discuss what my responsibilities would be here and determine what would be fair." Obviously you can’t use this if the jobs are the same, but if you’re making a career change then it’s perfectly reasonable that you might need to know more, and you’re mentioning key words like ’fair’ and ’responsibilities’.
  • "I believe I’m a great candidate because I offer XYZ, which matches the role requirements of..." Letting them know you know exactly what they’re looking for and what they’re expecting you to do makes you look knowledgeable and like you’ve done your research, which you should have. You could also finish this answer by turning it back on them and asking what salary range they think the job - and you - are worth.

Be careful not to take this too far, however. If deflecting isn’t getting anywhere, know when it’s time to stop and move on rather than becoming so argumentative that they decide they don’t want you. You don’t want them to think you’re a pushover, but you also want to make a good impression. The point of this step is to try and find out the honest number they know they should be giving you.

3. Remember to Negotiate

You have a voice - use it! They’re focusing on the lowest salary they can get you to agree to, while you should be thinking about benefits too: if they’re sticking to the lower end of your salary range, can you get them to make up for it with the benefits on offer? While salary is important, it’s only a part of the full compensation package, which includes benefits such as a company car, travel expenses, health care and vacation time.

There are two sides to this:

  1. While you want to get the highest salary you can, a lower salary with good benefits can be just as good, as these benefits may help with the expenses you were considering when deciding your minimum salary. Be cautious of going below your minimum though, as you never know when the company might run into trouble and have to change the benefits package - or worse, fire you and leave you with less savings than you would have had if you hadn’t gone so low.
  2. Experience changes how much you can expect for your salary, and so do their demands; are they expecting a lot of overtime, or are they not offering many benefits? In that case these deficits should be made up for with a higher salary.

Yes it’s true, job interviews are nerve wracking enough without having to be worried about being cheated out of the salary you deserve. Unfortunately, it’s all a part of the game, and the same way you didn’t get the interview by sitting back and waiting for them to come to you and offer you a chance, you can’t just sit back now and wait for them to give you the salary you’re looking for. Consider it an early start on the confidence and persuasion skills you’re going to need later on when you have the job and you’re jumping the next hurdles: promotion and raise.

How did you handle this question in your last interview? As an employer, what answers do you look for? Let us know in the comments section below.

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