How to answer “what are your salary expectations” in a job interview

When you think about interviewing for a job, what is the hardest interview question to answer? Is it figuring out how to spin your weaknesses into strengths? Or maybe it’s knowing where you see yourself in five years? Nope. We think the hardest interview question is, “What are your salary expectations?”

Every job seeker knows this question and we all dread it. It’s an intimidating one, because people think naming a high salary might price them out of the job, whereas naming too low a salary might mean leaving money on the table.

Not to worry. Next time you’re asked this question, you will be prepared with a few key strategies for how to answer.

First, though, a point of clarification: Asking about your salary expectations is different from asking about your current salary or salary history. Not so long ago, many companies would require a candidate to disclose their salary history. This is an awful question because it can widen wage gaps and perpetuate discrimination. Fortunately, asking for a candidate’s salary history is now illegal in quite a few places.

What is the point of the question?

Why do employers ask about salary expectations in an interview? Companies have already budgeted a salary range for every open position, so what’s the point of asking candidates for their salary expectations? There are a few things this question can reveal.

  • Calibration: Do the salary expectations of their candidate pool match their budget? If most candidates name a much higher salary range, it could be a sign they’ve benchmarked the job incorrectly and need to adjust the pay range for the position and the budget accordingly.
  • Affordability: Aside from calibrating their own budget, an organization might ask about salary expectations to assess if a candidate is affordable without discriminating based on gender or race.
  • Assessment: The person who asks you about your salary expectations might be trying to assess your understanding of the job’s worth, the market, or even your own professional level. If you name a higher salary than they were expecting, it could mean you are more senior than they realized, and they’d want to dig more deeply into your experience.

How to prepare for questions about your salary expectations

We want to take a moment to note that pay transparency legislation is becoming more common across the United States, which means that more organizations are posting salary ranges with their job listings. This is excellent news for job candidates and will hopefully become the standard everywhere. However, until that time, questions about salary expectations can still come up in interviews.

Before you can get into strategies for how to answer these questions, you need to do your research to determine the salary range for yourself. By “salary range,” we don’t mean what you want to be paid, but rather what the position is worth based on market value.

There are several ways to research fair market salary ranges. First, you can start with the Payscale Salary Survey. It can help you determine where you fall on the salary range as well as what the range is, as the survey produces a report that factors in your years of experience, education level, certifications, special skills, and more. The results are based on data points from thousands of peers in your field. Of course, free online data sources aren’t 100 percent accurate, but they can give you an idea of a reasonable range.

Next, compare your survey results with job listings for similar roles that include salary ranges. If you can’t find any, reach out to your network. Talk to colleagues at other organizations in your industry and ask them if your projected salary range seems realistic compared to what their organization might pay.

Once you’ve determined a salary range for the role you’re interviewing for, you’re ready to figure out how you will answer the salary question in an interview.

Three strategies for talking about your salary expectations in an interview

There are several strategies for how to answer questions about your salary expectations. The one you choose depends on your exact situation. In this section, we will discuss how the strategies work and what they might sound like in an interview. We will also give the pros and cons of each strategy to help you decide which will work best for you.

Our advice is to start with the first strategy whenever possible and go from there.

1) Turn the question around

Instead of immediately giving a salary range, you can turn the question around to the interviewer. If you choose this strategy, you can ask about the salary range for the position. Now, your interviewer might be cagey here, but for the purposes of this strategy, let’s assume they give you a straight answer.

Pros:

  1. You will learn if their range is in line with your own research. If it is, you can feel more confident.
  2. If the range they name is lower it can help you determine if your research is correct, or if you need to check your numbers again. It may also be that the job title is not accurate.

Cons:

  1. If the range is lower than your expectations, you must decide if you want to move forward.
  2. They might turn the question back around on you, refusing to share their range. In this case, you will need to decide if you want to go ahead with sharing the range you’ve researched, or if you want to continue to refuse to answer.

What will this strategy sound like in practice? Here are a few quick scenarios of how it might play out.

“What are your salary expectations?”

“That’s a great question. I understand the starting salary for this role will be determined based on things like experience, proficiency, etc., and that you can’t share the starting salary at this time. But what is the budgeted salary range for this role?”

“We’ve budgeted a range of $X-$Y for this role.”

“That’s in line with my expectations.”

“Great!”

We hope all salary conversations are that quick and easy during the interview process, but we know it isn’t always so simple. It could go like this, instead:

“What are your salary expectations?”

“That’s a great question. Can you please share the budgeted salary range for this role?”

“No, we don’t share that information with candidates. We’d like to know your salary expectations.”

This leads us to the next strategy.

2) Don’t answer

If your interviewer is refusing to share the salary range for the role, you aren’t out of options. You can refuse to answer — especially if it’s very early in the interview process, like during the initial phone screen or first interview.

In this case, you would politely explain that you are still learning about the details of the role and that it’s too early for you to talk about salary, but that you look forward to that conversation if everyone feels that you might be a good fit for the position.

Pros:

  1. This strategy buys you some time, allowing you to continue in the interview process to learn what you need to learn about the role.
  2. This strategy also keeps you from boxing yourself in by naming a salary range that’s too low too early.

Cons:

  1. You might feel pressured to answer, especially if you are in desperate need of a job.
  2. The interviewer could still push for an answer.

Here’s how this strategy could sound in practice.

“We don’t share salary ranges with candidates. What are your salary expectations?”

“Without knowing the budgeted salary range and because I’m still learning the specifics of this role, it’s too early for us to talk about salary, but I look forward to that conversation further down the road when we all feel like this is a good fit.”

Again, your interviewer could push you to name a range. You should be prepared to decide if you will name it or if you will walk away. Caginess around budgeted salary could be a sign the organization isn’t transparent about things like compensation, and it’s okay to decide that won’t work for you. In this case, you would thank them for the opportunity and let them know why you don’t think this is the right fit at this time.

If you decide to proceed, read on.

3) Give a salary range

Remember when you did your research to come up with an appropriate salary range? Now is the time to you decide if you are ready to share it. Again, it’s not great that you’ve been pushed to this point and it’s okay if you decide you want to tap out. But if you are excited about the role and confident that the organization will make you an acceptable offer, then answering might speed the process along.

Some job seekers worry that giving a range that is lower than the budgeted range means they will leave money on the table — and that is a risk. But if your research is solid and you can tie your salary expectations to your proficiency and experience, you may feel that it is a risk worth taking.

Pros:

  1. Offering a range helps move the process forward and shows you are excited and collaborative.
  2. Offering a range can also help you and your interviewer determine if continuing the process is a good idea or a waste of time. If your named range is within their budget, they will likely continue the interview process with you. If it’s way outside, they will likely let you know.
  3. You can use this as an opportunity to tie your range to your skills, proficiency, and previous experience.

Cons:

  1. When you name a range first, you risk being offered a starting salary at the bottom of it.
  2. Giving your range too early might leave you with less room to negotiate later.

“So, what are your salary expectations?”

“It’s early to say because I’m still learning about the role. From what I can tell at this point, I’m comfortable with a range of $X-$Y. This range is based on my X years in this field/role, my certifications/skills, and the salary ranges for similar roles at other companies in our industry/city. Of course, as I learn more about the role and responsibilities, I may feel that the value of the work requires more compensation than my current understanding.”

What happens next?

No matter what strategy you choose, you should walk away from the conversation with more information than you had before. Plus, you can feel confident in the strategy you choose because you know how to determine salary expectations for yourself.

Get started with the Payscale Online Salary Survey today.


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