What you need to know about negotiating your first salary

College student negotiating first salary, shaking hands

Advice on negotiation tactics from a former recruiter.

How to negotiate salary - Amanda Abella - 200x200As a 2010 graduate of Florida’s Ave Maria University, Amanda Abella struggled to find a full-time position right out of school. Like many of her peers, when offered a job internally at a career placement agency, she took the salary she was offered — no negotiations. Now as a full-time personal finance writer, an online business coach, and a Millennial money expert, Amanda shares what she wishes she had known back then.

The year was 2011. I was sitting in my future boss’ office interviewing for my first real job out of college as a personnel administrator in South Florida. I’d graduated almost a year prior, and all I’d managed to find in that time was a part-time job teaching English for about six months.

He asked me what my salary requirements were, and I replied, “Whatever you think is fair for the position.” To this day, it’s one of my biggest regrets.

In the wake of 2008’s recession, college grads like myself were struggling to find full-time jobs. Once we finally landed an offer, we simply took the salary that was proposed to us. We were in the mindset of just taking whatever we could get, and that’s exactly what I did.

Ironically, that job actually taught me how to sell and negotiate. As a personnel administrator at a career counseling and career placement agency, we had to coach job candidates through the interview process, and I watched my boss negotiate with clients all the time. I learned a lot about negotiations, career advancement, and how to be professional in corporate America.

But I still wonder how much more money I’d have in savings or in my 401(k) had I just tried to negotiate my first salary. And sadly, I’m not alone. Many new grads don’t negotiate their first salary, simply because they don’t know that they should.

Why you should negotiate your salary

As my story shows, when you accept your first job offer it can be easy to just go along with whatever salary is proposed. But speaking as a former recruiter, salary offers are partially based on what you were making previously. If and when you leave that first job for a new one, most recruiters will ask your current salary and base an offer for your new job off of it. If you have a $4,000 head start out of the gate that could equate to a lot more money over time.

So you know it’s important to negotiate, but how do you do it? Is it the same as haggling for a lower price at the car dealership? Not quite.

We were in the mindset of just taking whatever offer we could get, and that’s exactly what I did. To this day, it’s one of my biggest regrets.

— Amanda Abella

Step 1: Realize it’s not about winning or losing

Negotiating is simply making sure that both parties are happy. According to the best-selling book, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, a good agreement is meant to improve the relationship of both parties. Good agreements take into account the interest of both parties and are meant to be fair to everyone involved. In other words, it has nothing to do with winning or losing because everyone is supposed to win. You win because you feel like you’re appropriately compensated, and the company wins because they have a satisfied new employee coming onboard and fulfilling a need.

This one small lesson blew my mind and changed my life. From that point forward I realized that negotiating was just making sure that everyone involved, including myself, was happy.

Step 2: Do your homework

During my time as a recruiter, I saw a lot of people completely fail at salary negotiations simply because they hadn’t done their research before bringing an offer to the metaphorical table. If they were asking for too much and weren’t able to negotiate, we weren’t able to offer them a position.

Jobs and salaries depend heavily on where you are, so you really need to do your research. You may find out that you’re asking for too much money, or that you’re not asking for enough. You can start with the Department of Labor, which has data broken down by locations and industry. You can also try websites like Glassdoor to see what specific companies are paying, or PayScale , to see what you’re worth based on experience and location. Or, if you have contacts in your industry that you know and trust — say, a former classmate who graduated a year before you — you can ask them for advice about starting salaries. The more information you have on your side, the easier the negotiations will go.

Step 3: Know what you bring to the table

Negotiating your starting salary is a bit like sales. Essentially, you’re going to have to prove to people why they should pay you the salary you’re requesting.

For example, if you were working while you were in school, did you go beyond your job duties and edit photos for your employer’s website, saving them the expense of contracting this work to a freelancer? Do you have skills beyond those outlined in the job description? Numbers talk, so the more quantitative examples you can provide, the better. And these examples don’t all have to come from work experience: For example, if you tutored other students on Excel and consider yourself an expert, and if it’s an additional skill beyond what the job warrants, it can help make the case for a higher starting salary.

Stories where you had to step up to the plate also work well. I once negotiated a raise because I ended up covering for a recruiter who simply stopped showing up to work one day. At the time I was only the personnel administrator, so when my boss saw that I was capable of stepping in, I got a promotion and a raise.

Step 4: Consider benefits as part of your package

Benefits are a part of your salary, so don’t be afraid to negotiate those as well, and take them into consideration when weighing an offer. Perhaps your potential employer has an onsite gym, which will save you $50 a month in a gym membership, or maybe your employer will offer to cover your train or bus pass each month. While those expenses may seem small, they add up over time. Also, consider asking for extra benefits, such as another week of vacation or a work-from-home day each week; these personal benefits can make up for the slightly lower starting salary you were offered.

While there is a lot riding on whether or not you negotiate your first salary, it doesn’t have to be terrifying. By using these tips you’ll be far more prepared and better able to ask for what you want.

Once you’ve successfully negotiated your salary and are on the payroll, make sure you set up direct deposit.

Related articles