How do I decide how low or high of a salary to ask for in a job interview situation?
May 27, 2009 8:42 AM   Subscribe

Should I take a lower salary?

Here's a (hopefully) relatively short amount of background information.

I live in Chicago. I work in social media and word of mouth marketing. I have a track record of excellence, expertise in multiple areas, and a ton of great testimonials on LinkedIn. I've also been unemployed for four months and a day -- 121 days -- as of today.

Yesterday, I went to a second interview with a small PR and marketing agency in Appleton, Wisconsin. The day went very well. I met and interviewed with several of the company's senior staff, was driven around the community on a personal tour from the firm's CEO, and was taken out for dinner before starting the four hour drive home. I definitely received some very strong and positive signals.

Then at one point during dinner, I was asked about compensation. I don't play BS games, so I came right out and told them what I made at my last job (a high five figures, not unreasonable). I said that I was not greedy, and not looking for more than 5-10% more than what I made at that last job. I would also appreciate relocation assistance since I would have to sell my condo, move to Wisconsin from Chicago, etc. The two founders looked at each other, and then said, "That's a bit higher than we were thinking." I didn't pursue the issue or try to pin them down on what they *were* thinking, even though in hindsight I wish I had. We talked about other things during dinner, but I could tell that this was the only "sticky" and uncomfortable part of the entire day's events.

To reiterate, I've been unemployed for 121 days. I've been fortunate to have many interviews, but have mostly been the "#2 choice" at several companies. I can sense that things are starting pick up again and the economy is starting to get a little less crappy. But I am also running out of time. Savings are starting to dip into precarious territory, and I'm trying very hard to avoid getting desperate.



They haven't made an offer yet, but I'm 90% sure one will be coming shortly. When they do:

* Should I insist on the 5-10% increase plus relo?

* Should I take a lower salary?

I really like these folks. I made that clear during the interview and in my follow-up thank you email this morning. My wife and I have discussed it, and I would be okay with taking a slightly lower salary on account of the fact that it's a lower cost of living in Appleton, it's a smaller agency, etc.

I want to do the right thing here. I'm a reasonable person, consider myself an honorable guy, and operate as a straight shooter. I'm not interested in brinkmanship or mind games. I am not out to screw them over, and I genuinely believe that they're not out to screw me over in return.

But if I do take a lower salary, how do I even begin to figure out what my "red line" is? I don't think it's reasonable for them to expect me to take $20,000 less than what I made before, but I have no idea how to even begin calculating exactly how low (or how high) I should be asking.

Thoughts, suggestions, advice, and even prayers are more than welcome.
posted by zooropa to Work & Money (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It doesn't hurt to ask, although I wouldn't expect to get it all.

I was in a situation like this, although I didn't feel as good as the management there as you do. I asked for at least my previous salary, and they ended up offering halfway between their initial offer and what I wanted. I ended up taking a different job, anyway, but it was interesting to see how far they were willing to come up, just as a result of saying, "Well, that's not what I expected coming into this."

As for figuring out your red line, take a look at how much you would like to live and how much you would like to save, and go from there.

And if you do take it and move, be prepared to find the job is not what you thought it was. Interviews can only tell you so much.
posted by ignignokt at 8:56 AM on May 27, 2009

Start researching the cost of living in Appleton.. it's surely considerably less than Chicago...

Your "pay cut" may still be a "raise" even if it's $15k-$20k less than what you made in Chicago.

If what you made before is completely crazy for them to even come close to, then your entire question is moot: You're not going to get a job offer. They're very unlikely to make you an offer for $50k if you were previously making $75k... they'll just move on to the next candidate...

If they like you as much as you think they did, they'll try and meet you in the middle somewhere... If it's a small company, especially, they may simply not be able to afford to pay you what you made at your last job...
posted by twiggy at 9:00 AM on May 27, 2009

Relocation assistance would be a deal-breaker for me.

You need to be sure and view the salary through the lens of different costs of living in Chicago vs. Appleton, however. $60k in Appleton may be a step up (in terms of how comfortably you can live, and how much you can save each year) from $80k in Chicago.
posted by Doofus Magoo at 9:02 AM on May 27, 2009

Response by poster: Yeah, that's what I am afraid of, and honestly, I'm a bit torn about this. I don't want them to not make an offer in the first place just because they feel they wouldn't be able to come close. On the other hand, I feel justified in asking for around or about what I made previously because the skillset and expertise I can offer is lucrative.
posted by zooropa at 9:05 AM on May 27, 2009

How hellish would relocation be for you? If you and two friends could do it in one trip with a smallish U-Haul, I'd worry less about that. You don't want to be contractually locked in if in for a year if in six months you decide this position isn't you and the offer of a lifetime comes down the pike.

I'd definitely investigate the cost of living in Appleton. Vaguely remembering the shock I felt when a friend told me what she pays in rent in Chicago, I'd imagine that going from $100,000 a year there to $25,000 a year in Appleton might feel like a raise.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:25 AM on May 27, 2009

If you really want this job then you need to make sure that you re-open the lines of communication with this company on the salary topic. If you haven't already followed up with them after your interview then do it now. Let them know that you were really impressed with them and that you're very interested in working there. Tell them that you are very open to negotiating your compensation with them and that you have done a little research on the town and that you realize your dollar may go farther there. Tell them that you'd like to hear what they're willing to offer. Then sit back and hopefully you're the candidate they want and they'll be on the phone with you and willing to talk about it.

If the salary is a little lower then you think you'd be comfortable with then see if you can negotiate an extra weeks vacation out of it.
posted by amanda at 9:53 AM on May 27, 2009

Some years ago I interviewed for a job in a college town in a resort/rural area. I got an offer for something like 65% of my big-city salary. They didn't have much room to come up, and I declined the offer. I have regretted that decision ever since. Do you want the job? Does the salary allow you to live a decent lifestyle in a place you want to live? Then take it and don't look back. What you made before doesn't matter.
posted by libraryhead at 10:13 AM on May 27, 2009

Response by poster: Y'all are offering some terrific answers. I offer you my humblest thanks.

Here's my question -- how do I figure out what cost of living is? I have a vague idea of how much real estate costs, and besides, we would rent for the first 6-12 months regardless of what happens just so we don't get locked into a mortgage right off the bat.


Kid charlemagne -- I appreciate what you're saying, but moving is a bit more involved than just throwing everything into a U-Haul. :)

Relo assistance is important because I have to sell my condo, which involves taxes, agent fees, etc. And since this is a crummy economy, there's a real chance that we'd be paying the rent on a new place in Appleton AND the mortgage on a condo sitting empty in Chicago while we try to sell it.

I don't think it's unrealistic to expect relo assistance when you reach a certain point of your career and you're moving someone from state to state. Relo assistance could be as 'simple' as they cover closing costs on the condo sale, for example.


Amanda -- Yep, I did that first thing this morning. I haven't heard back yet. I love your idea of asking for a few weeks vacation vis-a-vis outright salary.
posted by zooropa at 10:14 AM on May 27, 2009

To be clear, I regretted it because it was a dream job in an ideal (for me) location that will likely never come around again. If it's not an ideal fit, then calculations will likely vary.
posted by libraryhead at 10:16 AM on May 27, 2009

Relo assistance is usually a "big company" benefit - in my experience small companies rarely offer it. And keep in mind, you aren't the only unemployed social media / WOM marketing person out there right now. Supply and demand is probably in the firm's favor.

Is there a revenue generation / biz dev component to the job? Maybe you can ask for a higher commission rate to offset the lower base salary.
posted by COD at 10:23 AM on May 27, 2009

how do I figure out what cost of living is?

1. Click on housing. Plug in Appleton WI. Set some parameters. Browse. Looks cheap to me. These are asking prices so figure 10%+ off?

2. Talk to a realtor. Tell them what you already have (condo, size, location, etc.). Ask for comparisons in Appleton. RE is probably apples and oranges, but it should help. Maybe you'd have cheaper housing, shorter commute, etc. Ask about taxes etc.

3. Find/call a mortgage broker. See what you qualify for. Do you have 20%? Then ask for a quote on the total mortgage per month (mortgage, ins. taxes, etc.). Compare with what you pay in Chicago.

See if a new colleague can recommend a realtor. It might be worth renting for a while in an area you think you might like, just to get the hang of the place. The downside is another move in a year or so.

moving is a bit more involved than just throwing everything into a U-Haul

If you haven't experienced this before, ask them to pay for a packer. We did. It was awesome.
posted by carter at 10:36 AM on May 27, 2009

To figure out cost of living, you can look at cost of living calculators. Take these with a grain of salt, because the cost of living varies widely based on your neighborhood, your lifestyle, etc.

Look at rental listings on Craigslist for that area. That will give you a sense of what the kind of place you want to live in will go for. If you are thinking of renting an apartment, try

If you have lived most of your life in a city like Chicago, life in Appleton is likely to be a shock. You'll probably find a lot of things to miss about Chicago. You might eventually love it, but it will probably be a tough adjustment.

I have made two of these big-city-to-smaller-place moves. First Houston to Wichita, and more recently Denver to Greensboro, NC. It is really easy to underestimate how much awesomeness you are leaving behind when you move away from a big city.

On preview, we had packers when we moved about a year ago as part of my husband's relocation package. It was a nightmare. It sounds good, but oh god but what a pain. YMMV, obviously.

posted by jeoc at 10:41 AM on May 27, 2009

I used this salary calculator to make a comparison. These results suggest that employers in Appleton typically pay 9.1% less than employers in Chicago, but the cost of living there is 20.4% lower.
posted by jon1270 at 10:59 AM on May 27, 2009

Zooropa, if you were currently employed and requesting a 10% salary increase, I'd say that was completely reasonable. However, you are a) currently out of work and b) looking at a company in a much smaller town. Asking for the increase plus relo actually makes you look a little bit greedy.

I'd advise you to first ask yourself if, salary aside, you are excited about the job and the opportunity it presents. If so and money truly is the only sticking point, then carefully look at the cost of living using the exellent tools suggested above. After all, a salary is just a number - it's your quality of life that's important.

The bottom line is that you have to be happy with whatever you decide to accept. This may mean that you don't accept the job because the salary is too low - or it may mean that you find a way to live happily on less.
posted by widdershins at 11:45 AM on May 27, 2009

Response by poster: Wow! Thank you for the amazing links and answers to my questions. jon1270, jeoc, and carter -- that's exactly the kind of data I'm looking for.


widdershins -- I respect your position, but politely disagree. I don't think I'm being greedy at all. I've bent over backward to tell them in word and deed that I am NOT being greedy. I have been very open and honest, with no gamesmanship at all. Obviously, I want what's best for my wife and I, but I also want what's best for them. Surely the two don't have to be mutually exclusive?

I agree with your bottom line that you have to be happy with what you decide to accept. Salary is most definitely NOT the only factor at work here. The idea of moving to a smaller community where you can actually breathe and not have to worry about leaving an extra hour of drive time because it takes you an hour-plus to get anywhere is tremendously appealing.

The salary issue is important because I want to make sure I'm not accepting something out of ignorance -- or asking for something out of ignorance, for that matter. I genuinely believe that if they make me an offer, it can be win-win-win all around.
posted by zooropa at 1:32 PM on May 27, 2009

I've taken pay cuts, and every time ended up getting increases or promotions.
posted by theora55 at 3:09 PM on May 27, 2009

I'm glad the link I provided was helpful, but your disagreement w/Widdershins doesn't make much sense to me. Telling someone that you're not greedy doesn't make you not-greedy, and I'm also not having much luck imagining what greed-free deeds you could be referring to. You want a raise, and you want them to increase their stake in you by covering (to some extent) relocation costs. Are you offering some sort of good-faith gestures that you haven't mentioned?

More importantly, I think that worrying about greed (or its absence) may not be all that useful here. What I think Widdershins is saying is that, given your sustained unemployment, your expectations may be unrealistic. If you don't have other solid offers then you've got no bargaining power unless you have a lot of money in the bank... which you don't. You're asking for a substantial raise over your last salary even though the economy is in the dumper, unemployment is high and average salaries are backsliding. Unless you've got a mind-blowingly great, rare-find sort of resume, it's hard not to see your expectations as naive.

Another way to look at this is to consider what position you'd find yourself in if you take this job at a compromise salary and THEN the economy improves. When the economy improves, your market value will increase and you'll be in a position to renegotiate, but at that point you'll already have moved to Appleton. Are there other potential employers in the Appleton area, or will you find yourself with no options but to accept feeling underpaid or uproot your family again?
posted by jon1270 at 5:47 PM on May 27, 2009

« Older Help me wake up   |   cystoscopy - eep Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.