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6 Tips for Negotiating a Higher Salary

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Every year, thousands of people accept a salary offer that’s less than what they deserve. College graduates are the most susceptible to this. Employers always seem to have the upper hand when it comes to salary negotiation, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

When you understand your worth and negotiate confidently, you can control the negotiating process and get hired at the salary you deserve. Here are 6 proven strategies you can use to negotiate a higher salary.

1. Research the Market

Before your interview, spend time researching the market. Find out what the current salary is for similar positions in similar geographic locations. It’s not enough to look up the average salary for New York City or San Francisco. You have to get specific. A web designer might be worth $100k or more in Manhattan, but only $50k in upstate New York. The cost of living and the demand for such an employee varies greatly between geographic locations.

Bankrate.com created a handy cost of living calculator that you can use to see how far your salary will go in another city.

Update: As of 2019, ADT Security has published their own comprehensive analysis of the cost of living across the U.S. (complete with helpful infographics!)

With this knowledge, you can more accurately determine if the offers you’re receiving are appropriate for the market. If not, you’ll have factual data in your back pocket to help you negotiate toward a higher salary.

2. The Employer Makes the First Offer

Employers are notorious for keeping the salary they’re willing to pay a secret. In fact, most employers start the negotiating process by asking “What kind of salary/compensation are you looking for?”. That puts you in an unfair position using an unfair negotiation tactic.

Employers know that when job applicants (especially students) are under pressure, they respond with a number that’s less than what they really want. They fear losing the opportunity, underestimate themselves, or don’t understand the value they bring to the company. Employers can save can save tens of thousands annually by using this strategy to hire staff at below-market rate salaries. That’s why it’s in your best interest to make the employer say the first number.

Navigating the Conversation

To combat this selfish tactic, remember that employers always have a number in mind. Before interviewing candidates, they’ve identified a number they can’t go below and a number they aren’t willing to go above for that position. So when you’re asked about what kind of salary or compensation you’re looking for, it’s perfectly acceptable to respond with “I was hoping you’d be able to make me an offer for this position”.

At this point, some employers will respect your confidence and put a number on the metaphorical table. You can either accept it or counter-offer with, “I appreciate your offer, but I was expecting something more like $X.” and the negotiation can continue with you in the driver’s seat.

If the employer insists on you stating the first number, play it safe by stating a range. For example, “After researching the market, I’ve found that $50,000 – $70,000 is appropriate compensation for this position”This shows you’ve done your homework while answering their question appropriately. It’s now up to the employer to counteroffer with a more specific number or range.

It’s the employer’s responsibility to offer you a salary, not to make you guess on their behalf.

If all else fails and the employer insists that you state a specific number, stand your ground. Your final response can be something like “I trust that you know the market and are willing to compensate me fairly for this position.” and stay silent. Wait for them to respond. It might seem awkward at first, but it’s now their turn to respond and you’ve just forced them to either make you an offer or stop the conversation altogether. If they’re genuinely interested in hiring you, they will and make you an offer.

Note: An intense negotiation process is not necessarily indicative of the day-to-day lifestyle you’ll experience at that company. Things tend to lighten up after a healthy negotiation process.

3. You Can’t Negotiate Up

If you’re pressured into revealing your salary expectations, always start out high because you can never negotiate up. However, an employer can negotiate down. If you start out with $50,000 and they agree, it’s no longer acceptable to ask for more money than that. Furthermore, not taking that job will reflect poorly on you.

Don’t ever negotiate a salary for a job you don’t plan on taking. That’s unprofessional and will earn you a bad reputation.

However, if you start out high and ask for $60,000, but the company only budgeted $55,000 for the position, you are now negotiating above what you otherwise would’ve been. Don’t forget to do some market research on comparable positions and salaries so your initial number isn’t too unrealistic. If your initial number is too far out of the employer’s price range, the conversation could end prematurely and you will lose the opportunity.

4. Multiple Skills Have Value

If you have multiple skills that your potential employer could benefit from, that’s leverage you can use to negotiate a higher salary. Let me be clear that if you’re looking for a job as a car mechanic, but you’re also really proficient at painting, you cannot use that as a part of your negotiation strategy.

However, if you’re applying for a job as a UI/UX designer and you also know how to write HTML/CSS code, that makes you more valuable than another candidate who doesn’t. Having skills in one or more related fields increases your value to a potential employer even if they don’t need those skills right away.

Having skills in one or more related fields increases your value to a potential employer even if they don’t need those skills right away.

How does that work? Well, suppose one of their front-end developers quits unexpectedly or there is a big new client that your company want’s to impress with a prototype. You could offer your HTML and CSS skills to fill a temporary gap or meet a critical need whereas another candidate may not be able to. Your ability to meet those unexpected needs is valuable to an employer and you can use that as leverage to negotiate a higher salary.

5. Maintain Confidence & Control

Don’t forget that the only reason a company wants to hire you is because they need you. Very few companies hire out of anticipation as that would be risky and expensive. Most likely, someone quit (or was fired) and there is an open position that needs to be filled or the company is growing and needs more people to support the influx of work. Either way, remember that they need you even though most employers will act like you need them.

When you finally receive an offer from a company, you must do two things:

  • Ask them to send you a formal offer in writing
  • Take 1-3 days to make a final decision

Doing this puts you in control of the situation and allows you time to think everything over in detail when you are not under pressure. Even if the offer is absolutely perfect, nothing is final until the paper is signed. Read it over carefully and take a few days to make a final decision. Most employers will respect this completely, but don’t take too long or they may withdraw the offer.

This is an especially important tactic for students negotiating multiple salaries at once. While I don’t recommend leveraging one against the other, those few days of “decision time” might be long enough for another company to make you a better offer. Then, you’ll be able to turn one down without going back on a premature verbal acceptance.

6. Leverage the Signing Bonus

If you’re close to making a deal, but still aren’t totally happy with the salary being offered, try leveraging the power of the signing bonus. For example, when I graduated college I knew I was qualified to make at least $60k the first year and I found myself negotiating with one particular company. The first offer was $47k, which I politely declined as it was too far below my acceptable range. Knowing that I was worth $60k, they countered with $58k (the first offer was merely a tactic to see if they could snag me up below market rate).

At that point, I proposed a one-time $2,000 signing bonus which would get me to the $60k for the first year. It would also be instant cash to help me relocate. By the end of the first year, I would likely be due for a small raise anyway. They accepted and everyone was happy.

Signing bonuses can be a great way to finalize a negotiation without coming off as too demanding. It also doesn’t keep the company on the hook for next year, which is the obvious benefit for them. Signing bonuses should be instant cash in your pocket once the contract is signed and can typically range from $2,000 – $5,000 for new graduates.

In Conclusion

Negotiating your salary upfront is always better and easier than trying to get a raise later on. Don’t accept a salary you aren’t happy with in anticipation or promise of a raise the following year. Unless it’s in writing, the company is not legally obligated to pay you more.

If you put these tips into practice, I guarantee you will have a better chance at getting the salary you deserve while maintaining confidence and control during the negotiation process. Done correctly, you’ll also earn the respect of your employer and set the tone for a healthy, respectful working relationship.

Last updated on June 12th, 2023

About Matt Olpinski
I've been freelancing since 2009 and have worked with over 100+ clients including some of the biggest brands in the world. I later started my own company Matthew’s Design Co. and now teaches 50,000+ freelancers each year how to succeed through his personal blog, newsletter, and community for freelancers.