First Job Offer: How Important Is That Entry-Level Salary?

First Job Offer: How Important Is That Entry-Level Salary?
Michele Lando is one of our Career Contessa mentors. Book a one-on-one session with her to get advice specifically tailored to you and your career. 
When it's your first job offer, salary negotiation isn't exactly the first thing on your mind. Here's how to negotiate your first salary in style, regardless of industry or education.
There has been a lot of debate lately over the ever-prominent question of “how important is my first salary?” and it is absolutely something you should be thinking about.

There is not one right solution for everyone, and in this case, the answer depends on which of two major career groups you fall into—people starting out at the bottom and working their way up in their career vs people starting at a higher level or specialized position and working up from there.

People Starting at The Bottom and Working Their Way Up in Their CareerS

In many industries, you’ll find yourself starting at the very bottom working your way up the ladder of authority. Such industries include marketing, design, and some forms of IT (among many others). In these industries, people often start as an intern, assistant, or in admin which are known for lower pay grades. If you are starting out with a low authority or unspecialized job, your first salary isn’t very important because you will most likely move on (and up) from there, however you do need to see how low you can go to still be able to live within your means. Salary negotiation here means figuring out what you need to survive while you find your way.

Determining How Low of a Salary You Can Afford to Take at Your First Job

  1. Map Out How Much Money You Spend: If you’re new at creating a budget, there are a lot of great apps such as Mint ( that let you input your information so you can see your total spending. This app will also give you tips and notifications to make sure you’re on top of your finances.
  2. Determine How Much You Want to Save: Once you’ve determined how much you spend, you can then determine how much you want to save. Mint can help you do that, or you can always set up an appointment with a financial advisor at your bank. Consultations and advice are usually free of charge, so this is a great option if you want to speak with someone face to face when discussing your finances.
  3. Determine What the Average Salary Is for Your Job and Region: It is important to be aware of the average salary for your position based on location in order to ensure you are not being underpaid or taken advantage of. A great tool for this is the Bureau of Labor Statistics where you can see average wage data based on job, state, and metropolitan area. While your first salary may not be very important in determining your salary throughout your career, it is important to make sure you are being fairly compensated for your time and effort.
  4. Consider All of the Numbers: Once you’ve done the three steps above, you can now consider all of the numbers to determine the realistic lowest salary you can accept. While experience is important, the bottom line is that you need to be able to pay your bills. If you need to cut back here and there, (i.e. take public transportation instead of Uber, or start packing your lunches) so be it, but you must be able to afford necessities such as food, housing, and medical expenses with a little extra to spare in case of emergency.
The most important aspect of your first job is to gain necessary industry experience (and "get your foot in the door), but make sure you accept a salary that is realistic for you—one that you can survive on. Companies are often open to negotiation, so don’t feel pressure to take the first number offered to you. Want more information on negotiating your salary? Here’s a step-by-step guide on salary negotiation. No one started out as a marketing exec or magazine editor without doing a lot of grunt work prior to it, so no one will expect you to be the highest paid person in the company when you’re first starting out.
The most important aspect of your first job is to gain necessary industry experience (and "get your foot in the door), but make sure you accept a salary that is realistic for you—one that you can survive on.

People Starting Out with Specialized Skills and/or Training

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are a lot of people who go into a specialized career, or one that requires extra schooling, (i.e. the medical field, engineering, coding/programming, etc.). People with postgraduate degrees often start out with a relatively high level of authority, meaning that you couldn’t just jump into the position and learn as you go. You need to know what you’re doing and have specialized training or education in order to be in that role. For these kind of jobs, your first salary does matter. The reason behind this is that you are coming in at a higher level than other people, therefor you have less room to grow. Think of it this way: If you start out as an administrative assistant but work your way up to an executive or CEO, you’ve basically gone from zero to one hundred. However if you start off as a doctor, engineer, or manager, you really can only become more experienced in your role and be given more authority, so instead of going from zero to one hundred in your career, you’re starting off at sixty five or seventy and moving up to one hundred.

Because there is less growth in specialized careers, your first salary sets the tone for all the jobs to come. Companies often ask what your previous salary is so that they can give you a proportional salary increase, and sometimes save themselves a little bit of money. In a specialized career, your first salary does matter, but if you do find yourself underpaid and overachieving, there is a way to remedy the situation. It all comes down to knowledge and confidence.

How to negotiate salary If You’ve Been Underpaid

This actually goes for both specialized and unspecialized positions: let’s say you find yourself severely underpaid based on statistics and your accomplishments. When you go to interview for other positions, make sure you are armed with facts and evidence to support your desired pay increase.

A great way to explain your situation to an interviewer is as follows:

“I am aware that I am being underpaid at my current job, however I have learned x, y, and z from this experience/job, and based off of information posted by The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average pay for this position in this area is x. Due to my accomplishments of a and b, I’m aiming for a salary of $x”.

If you give a statement like this, you will come off as knowledgeable, confident, and motivated. Having evidence of your achievements and statistics will also make you appear researched and show interviewers that you have put effort into getting fairly compensated.

The Salary Requirements Checklist

When you’re sitting there wondering “How important is my first salary?” think about the many different factors that go into it. Make a checklist and answer the following questions:
  • Is your position specialized/did you need special training to qualify for the position?
  • If you’re not in a specialized position, is there room for growth in your career?
  • How much money do you need to make to pay off your current expenses?
  • How much money do you want to be able to save each month/year?
  • How much money does the average person in your job/region make? (consult the Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • Are you willing to take a lower salary (that’s still realistic) to take a job that you love or one that will provide you a lot of experience?
  • And, if so, are there areas that you can cut back on your spending in order to accommodate for this? 
If you’re already past the point of a low first salary, do your research, itemize your accomplishments, and show people why you deserve the higher pay!
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Did you take a low-paying first job? Was it the right choice?