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How to Talk Money in a Job Interview

Here's how to nail the big question: "What are your salary expectations?"

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Pallavi Kenkare Former editor
Pallavi was previously an editor for CNET Money, covering topics from Gen Z to student loans. She's a graduate of Cornell University and hails from Atlanta, Georgia. When she's not editing, you can find her practicing bookbinding skills or running at a very low speed through the streets of Charlotte.
Pallavi Kenkare
5 min read
two women negotiating benefits at a job interview
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"How much do you want to make in this role?" It's one of the most dreaded interview questions, and candidates often feel like there's no right answer. After all, if you pick a number too low, you may have limited your potential salary. If you pick a number too high, the recruiter might simply decide you're not a good fit for the position.

Despite moves toward increased salary transparency, it's still an interview question that most of us will have to prepare for sooner or later. And it doesn't help that your answer could potentially disqualify you from the position you want. Farnoosh Torabi, CNET editor at large and So Money podcast host, offers some tips on how to handle this query with confidence and finesse, to land you a role and compensation that matches your worth. 

How to prepare for 'the salary question'

Do your research. Check out the given job description and compare this to compensation and responsibilities of other jobs in the market at a similar experience level to get an idea of a fair salary range. The internet is at your disposal -- sites such as Glassdoor and Indeed have accumulated vast amounts of data regarding salary bands for positions across hundreds of companies worldwide. You should also use your LinkedIn network: Reach out to a senior colleague you trust at that company who might be able to have an honest, offline conversation with you about compensation. 

Be realistic. It's easy to fall into the trap of believing you should get paid an imaginary number that you "deserve." But remember that salary is a data point based purely upon matching the value of the experience and skills you bring to the job -- and that number is supported by the research you've already done. Torabi points out: "Your pay is not an arbitrary number or a reward you receive. It's based upon tangible factors. So do your research on those components, and prove your value."

Advocate for yourself. Especially for younger job-seekers, it may be difficult to feel you hold any clout in the interview process. But difficult salary questions can be a great opportunity to practice speaking with power and confidence. This is your chance to show your ability to converse and negotiate.

Occasionally, salary talks can become uncomfortable, and candidates may even feel that they're being bullied. A company that doesn't make you feel welcome and respected during the interview process may not be the right environment for you, so don't be afraid to walk away. Torabi advises: "Not all negotiations are winnable, because you have to keep your dignity." 

How to answer during the interview:

You've done your preparation, and now you're in your interview, face-to-face with a recruiter.  They've asked you the big question: "How much do you want to make?" Although you may have a number in mind, there are a few ways you can approach the discussion. 

1. Deflect the question

If you're at an early point in the interview process, you don't have to disclose your number right off the bat. Answer the question in a relaxed, tactful and reassuring manner that makes it clear that you understand compensation is an important factor for both parties, and that you'll be willing to provide a more concrete answer at a later point in the process. 

Example: "It's a little early to be talking numbers, but if this position is a good fit, I'm sure together we can come up with a fair salary for this job."

2. Counter-question

Alternatively, you can put the ball in the recruiter's court, asking them questions regarding the job and its description, or the company's salary band. Torabi suggests: "Keep pushing the conversation. Establish yourself as an intelligent, curious person and make it difficult for the company to lowball you. Get them to show their cards." 

Example: "Actually, as a recruiter and someone who has a good grasp of what the company is willing to offer, I'd love to hear what you have in mind regarding the salary range for this role."

Example: "As this role is different from my current/previous role, in order for me to give you a fair salary, I would love to learn more about this job and how you envision me executing the position."

3. Provide a salary range

If you're at a point in time where you feel comfortable providing a more specific answer, or if your recruiter is pressing the question, don't limit yourself by giving a single number answer. Based on your research and knowledge of the company's salary points, give a range of numbers anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 apart. Though a wide range might appear to provide you with more salary options, the larger your range, the less meaning your numbers hold. 

Torabi recommends: "Give your best case scenario -- what you would absolutely love to make, maybe plus 10% -- as your high, and on the lower end, give what you absolutely need to make in order for this job to make sense for you. That way, no matter what they give to you, it'll be a win."

Example: "Ideally, this position would pay between $50,000 and $55,000 annually."

4. Don't overlook benefits outside of compensation

You can and should bring the negotiation of other components of your compensation package into your salary discussion. Think about the starting bonus, PTO, equity, stock options and other benefits you want to receive. If the position would require you to move to another city, for example, ask if the company could offer a housing subsidy. 

Though everyone should consider these factors, they can be especially helpful if there is a negative discrepancy between your ideal salary and the figure the recruiter is offering. 

Example: "While my ideal salary range is between $50,000 and $55,000 annually, I would be open to accepting this offer if we can negotiate a starting bonus and increased PTO."

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