Your Guide to Negotiating Your Salary for the First Time

The prospect of negotiating your salary can feel daunting. In one study, 71% of U.S. workers – and even more women – didn’t try to negotiate their salary in their current or most recent role. That’s a lot of people who are just accepting the first offer they’re given.

Negotiating your salary is extremely important, especially if it’s your first job or if you’ve never negotiated over money before. Your starting salary serves as an anchor throughout your career, with raises, bonuses, and even retirement savings influenced by that initial amount. Starting too low could be a costly mistake.

Salary negotiation is also challenging because our culture can be pretty secretive about money. Many of us were taught growing up that it’s rude to talk about it, so we don’t have much practice. You might be new to the workforce and have never had the opportunity to talk about compensation with an employer. Or you might not know what your skills and experience are worth financially, so you feel like you don’t have ground to stand on.

Whatever has held you back from negotiating in the past, it’s OK! But you can and should be negotiating your salary. Let’s discuss some ways to feel more confident and some concrete action steps to set up your first salary negotiation.

Address & get past anxiety about asking for money

Part of the reason it’s so difficult to negotiate is the nagging feeling that you’re replaceable and that there is someone out there who will do your job for less. You don’t want to jeopardize your chances of landing – or retaining – a good job. Even though it might feel scary and presumptuous, negotiating may actually improve your standing in your manager’s eyes. It demonstrates that you are confident in the value you bring to the table.

If you’re negotiating salary for a new job, remember: by the time an employer has gone through the hiring process and decided to make you an offer, they are invested in you. Salary negotiation is a perfectly normal part of the employment process. So even entry-level candidates have some bargaining power.

And if you’re negotiating at your current job, don’t forget that you’ve already proven yourself. Hopefully you’ve been delivering real value to your company, and you can demonstrate that as the reason for a raise.

TIP: Acknowledge your successes – it helps to write them down! – to pump yourself up before asking to negotiate.

How to prepare for your first negotiation

It might be impossible to over-prepare for your first salary negotiation. You’re probably going to be nervous in the conversation, so it’s especially important to document what you want to say and bring it to the meeting.

Work ahead of time to document these three talking points:

  • Your key skills and expertise that are valuable to the company. If you’re already working there, list your top accomplishments since you got hired. You’ll be making a case for why you’re qualified and are worth the money you’re asking for.
  • Your “market value,” which is the salary range that’s standard for your job title, industry, experience level, and location. You get these numbers by doing online salary research (more info below)!
  • Your ask. Write down the salary you’ll be asking for, as well as anything else that’s up for negotiation; you can negotiate more than money. Think vacation time, transportation or parking assistance, and other benefits.  

TIP: It’s also a good idea to draft an email before your negotiation that includes all of the above information. That way you can follow up after your meeting with what you said and what the conclusion.

While you have plenty of personal reasons to want more money, it’s important to approach the negotiation as objectively as possible. Build an evidence-based case for your desired salary. Don’t mention personal needs. Instead, focus on market statistics and the value you bring to the organization.

Speaking of statistics, let’s talk about the power of data. Anyone with an internet connection has access to real salary data that can be searched by industry, roles and responsibilities, experience, expertise and education, and geographic location. That means you can find out how much real people in similar situations are getting paid. That gives you real leverage to work with in a salary negotiation, and it should help you feel confident when you ask for what you want, because it’s also what you could be getting somewhere else.

Ready to find your market value? Check out Mac’s List’s Salary Research Guide to find reliable online sources of salary data.

You’ll find a range of numbers online, and you can adjust what you find to tailor it to your situation. For your negotiation, you should have a range that you want to land in, but ask for the top of that range.

Once you have your numbers in order, practice. Print out your list of skills and accomplishments, your market value, and your ask, and practice speaking about them. Know what you want to say and how you want to say it, before you schedule your meeting. Rehearse your pitch at least once before the actual negotiations. It might feel silly, but it will help you feel relaxed when the big moment arrives.

How to Ask to Negotiate Salary, and Deal With What’s Next

When you have the information you need, it’s time to set up the negotiation. If you’re approaching a new job and negotiating your starting salary, you should avoid accepting the first offer. How? By asking for a day or so to review the offer. Even if you love what they’re offering, you need time to look at it and prepare your talking points to negotiate the pay. Schedule your next meeting for the next day or two, and come back with your talking points.

If you want to negotiate your salary at your current job, it may be trickier to get a meeting right now. Look for opportunities to bring up your salary beyond an annual review: at 3-, 6-, and 9-month anniversaries of your hire; after you’ve been assigned a new project or taken on more responsibility.

TIP: When you’re talking with your boss, look for moments when they’re acknowledging your hard work or thanking you for staying late last night. Take one of those opportunities to pivot into a salary conversation with your boss that approaches your salary.

Once you’ve broached the subject, follow up with an email requesting a formal salary discussion. Get your meeting on the books!  

Next, here are a few tips for what to do in the meeting:

  • Keep your demeanor friendly and professional. Whether you’re talking to your current or future boss, you need to keep that relationship healthy!
  • Imagine that you’re negotiating for a friend. Some studies show that people tend to do better when they negotiate for someone else.
  • Know when to stop. Make your ask, and allow them to respond. If they say no outright, be diplomatic. Ask for feedback on ways to improve your work, and request another salary review on a set date.
  • Have a plan B and a plan C. Don’t forget you can negotiate for your benefits package. If your employer offers a salary lower than your ask, counter with a request for more vacation, flexible schedule options or other opportunities that might be easier on their budget but would improve your life. Be creative in your thinking about a solution that will work for both you and the employer!
  • Finally, be gracious. No matter the outcome, be understanding, appreciative, and thankful for the opportunity.