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How to negotiate your first salary

Ciara Bears is a writer for BUILT BY GIRLS, which prepares the next generation of female and non-binary leaders to step into their power and break into their careers. WAVE is the backbone of BUILT BY GIRLS: it’s a 1:1 matching program that connects high school and college students with top tech professionals across the country. For more information and to sign up check out

So you just graduated from college and are ready to get out there and get your first “real” job. This can be an overwhelming task, and there can be so much to think about.

From finding open positions to creating a resume and interviews, often thinking about that final victory lap of negotiating your salary can feel like a far-off destination. To top it all off, it can be nerve-wracking when you know you need this first gig to break into your field and you don’t want to mess this opportunity up.

But the consequences of not earning what you’re worth from the start are bleak. Raises are usually given based on a percentage of your salary, so over time the aggregate of money lost could be larger than you imagine. Adding to this, we often find ourselves negotiating salaries at new companies based on our previous salaries, leading to even more lost income.

I know personally I was coming from working two barely-above-minimum-wage jobs as a nanny and server/pie-maker and I happily took my first offered rate that was already twice as much per hour as what I was making.

(Photo: Photo by LinkedIn Sales Navigator on Unsplash)
(Photo: Photo by LinkedIn Sales Navigator on Unsplash)

Turns out it was pretty fair for my experience level, and I now know I was lucky. I started my career working for some pretty cool empowered women who were all about empowering young women like myself at the time, and I was lucky to have this be my first professional position.

Looking back, I realize I was set up for a really great trajectory to continue to earn what I was worth. It also allowed me to really fight for what I was worth when it came to finding new opportunities.

So how do you make sure you get what you’re worth? Here are some tips:

Never take the first offer

That’s right. Sometimes we feel so excited and maybe even impressed with the first offer that we quickly snag it up. The secret is that there is usually built-in room to negotiate.

When job positions are made, they are assigned a salary range, and they are not going to offer you the top of that at first go. The worst that can happen is they say no. Don’t worry, they’re not going to withdraw the job offer — they went through too much to find and select you.

Arm yourself with information

There are lots of awesome tools out there where folks share their salaries to help others ensure they’re earning what they’re worth.

Unemployed young woman searching for a job online.
(Photo: Getty Images) (RgStudio via Getty Images)

Use a tool like PayScale or Glassdoor to input your experience, target role, and location to show you the range of what others are making. This will help you make an informed decision when they ask your desired salary range, or even when negotiating for something higher.

And make sure to “pay” it forward once you have your role. Sharing and being as transparent with your salary as you’re comfortable helps to ensure everyone is getting the equity they deserve.

It’s never too late to renegotiate

So maybe you panicked and took that first offer, or couldn’t negotiate it up as high as you wanted.

While it is tough to lose out on that money in your first year or two, it’s never too late to change this trajectory. Some state laws prohibit employers interviewing you from asking what you are currently making or did make.

When job searching, don’t be afraid to ask for what you now know you’re worth. Love your current job but want more money? Talk to your manager now about what it will take to get a promotion, and check in often to see how you’re tracking against it.

Another tried and true method is to get another job offer (I know, easier said than done). With another job offer on the table as a negotiating tactic, you can pressure your company to match or exceed what you would make if you left.

Back view of female candidate apply for position, interview in modern office, recruiters consider applicant candidature, reading resume, HR managers look through employee cv. Hiring concept
(Photo: Getty Images) (fizkes via Getty Images)

Don’t forget your benefits

Finally, always remember that benefits from a job are a big bonus and can be a part of your negotiation. How much do they give to your retirement? Is there equity? How much paid time off do you get? Are there bonuses?

During your interviews, ask the HR folks for a comprehensive overview of the benefits they offer so you have something extra to negotiate when it looks like the salary number just isn’t going to budge.

At the end of the day, it is never easy to talk about money, and especially as women, BIPOC, and young people, we can undersell ourselves and our worth. Remember to tell yourself you are worth it and other people less qualified than you make this. Make sure you have a cheerleading squad reinforcing all of this. Try to act like you have nothing to lose by negotiating this amount.

If you don’t get what you wanted and deserve, remember that your sanity and economic security are valuable, too, and that practice and experience will only make you more prepared for next time.

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