How to Answer ‘What Are Your Salary Expectations?’

During the job interview process, you’re likely to get a question about your salary expectations. Here’s how to approach it so you don’t leave money on the table.

Written by Adriana Herrera
How to Answer ‘What Are Your Salary Expectations?’
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
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Brennan Whitfield | Dec 20, 2023

Are you worried about what to say when asked about salary expectations?

If so, you’re not alone. Most people feel anxious when discussing money, especially when negotiating salary. But don’t worry: This article contains information to help you answer, “What are your salary expectations?” You’ll also get information on what not to say when answering this question and sample language on what to say to help you maximize your pay.

By the end of this article, you’ll feel informed and confident to discuss your salary expectations with a potential employer. If you’re ready to learn what to say when asked this question, then keep reading!

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Why Are Candidates Asked About Salary Expectations?

A salary expectation is the amount of money you would like to earn in a year. This number can be expressed as an hourly wage, annual salary, or monthly salary. The two primary reasons potential employers ask about salary expectations is to:

  1. Verify if the position’s budget fits what you want in pay.
  2. Set an anchor for a salary negotiation.

When you answer a salary expectation question, you’re establishing a number, also known as an anchor value, that the other person (a recruiter, hiring manager, or human resources representative) can use as a reference point to determine what salary to offer you.

To prevent receiving a low offer, you need to be thoughtful about what you say when asked for your salary expectations. Giving specific answers can limit both your short-term and long-term potential earnings. Once you give a number negotiating up is very difficult, though not impossible.


Don’t Give Specific Salary Expectations

Early in my career, I knew nothing about employer salary negotiation tactics. Frankly, I didn’t even know it was possible to negotiate salary; it wasn’t something that came up in school or with family. So, when I graduated from college and was asked for my salary expectations for the first time, I gave them without hesitation.

Unfortunately, I did so without:

  • Learning the ins and outs of the job to ensure the job description accurately reflected all the duties and responsibilities it entailed.
  • Confirming I would have the resources I needed to fulfill the job’s duties without added (and unnecessary) time and effort.
  • Performing research on what companies at a similar stage were paying someone with my skills, education, experience, and track record of success, regardless of age, to perform the job.

And you know what happened? I lowballed myself and left tens of thousands of dollars on the table. It wasn’t until I was being recruited by another organization to perform similar duties that I realized how underpaid I was. Freely and naively sharing my salary expectations cost me, very literally.

When interviewing for a new job, it’s natural to want to be amicable and please the person you’re speaking with by answering all their questions. There are some questions that you shouldn’t answer, however. Among these are ones about salary or compensation expectations. Examples include:

Types of Salary Expectation Questions

  • What are your salary expectations?
  • What are your salary requirements?
  • What is your desired salary? 
  • What salary are you looking for?
  • What are your compensation expectations?
  • What is your desired compensation?
  • What is your expected total compensation?

Unfortunately, due to the fast-paced nature of most startups, very few companies take the time to teach team members how to hire. This deficiency results in interviewers asking salary expectation questions in a myriad of different ways.

For example, you might be asked “What are your compensation expectations?” when the person is really trying to get information about your salary expectations. These two questions feel the same, but they mean very different things. Generally, in most companies, compensation refers comprehensively to your base pay, stock options, benefits, job perks, and other incentives, whereas salary just refers to base pay.

To prevent miscommunication (that can result in you leaving money on the table) and to ensure that you and the interviewer are on the same page about what is being discussed, you can ask questions to clarify what they’re asking. For example, in response to the question “What are your compensation expectations?” you could say “What makes up the company’s compensation package?” or “Are you referring to total rewards or just base pay?” 

Not only may salary expectation questions take many different forms, but they may be asked at different times during an interview process, including when:

  • You’re submitting your information to an online job platform
  • You’re filling out a job application
  • You’re being interviewed for a job
  • You’ve been extended a job offer but no salary has been communicated

Before we dive into the details of what to say when asked about salary expectations, let’s first get into what not to say.


What Not to Say When Asked About Salary Expectations

When you’re asked about salary expectations, you should never do the following:

What Not to Say When Asked About Salary Expectations

  • Don’t give a specific salary amount.
  • Don’t give a salary range.
  • Don’t provide your current salary.

Before going further, I feel it’s important to point out my perspective on this issue. This view comes from my professional journey, from someone who was underpaid to becoming a startup founder and operator responsible for setting and communicating hiring budgets. So, the perspectives I share here are drawn from lessons and information learned throughout my career that I wish I knew when I started working.

Other people, especially recruiters or human resource managers, may disagree with my advice. They would do so because not receiving salary expectation information from applicants makes it harder for them to do their job, which is to hire within a designated budget or under budget.

Consequently, when you’re searching for salary expectation information online or asking people for advice, consider any variables, like a job function, that can influence and potentially shape or distort a viewpoint. My own bias is in favor of pulling back the curtain on compensation processes and tactics to prevent others from being underpaid. 

Now, let’s break down each one of the mistakes above in more detail.


Don’t Give a Specific Salary Amount

When you give a specific number, you limit your potential earnings by setting an anchor. Giving a number makes negotiating up substantially difficult.


Don’t Give a Salary Range

Typically, when you dodge giving a specific salary expectation number, you’ll be asked to give a range instead. By giving a range, though, you just create a broader anchor and give the employer the option to choose the lower end of your pay range, which still means less money for you.


Don’t Provide Your Current Salary 

When you’re asked about salary expectations, you might attempt to dodge the question by providing your current salary or your salary history. Your current salary or salary history is not relevant to the job you’re applying for. Therefore, avoid bringing it up.

Your salary history isn’t relevant because the company and its compensation processes are different, the job duties and responsibilities are rarely ever identical, and you’ve gained skills and experience since you were last hired.

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Ways to Answer “What Are Your Salary Expectations?”

The best time to discuss salary is after the employer has made you a job offer. This gives you leverage in the salary negotiation process because the company has already expressed an interest in hiring you. It rarely happens that you’ll be offered a job and then asked for your salary expectations, however. So, you should be prepared to professionally and politely answer the question.

Sample Response 1: Asking for More Role Information 

“Thanks for your interest! I would like to find out more about the position and what it entails before discussing salary. What does a typical day and week look like?”

In this response you:

  • Express gratitude (which makes you more likable and persuasive)
  • Communicate that you don’t have the information you need to discuss salary
  • Leverage the opportunity to gather information about the job’s complete duties and responsibilities


Sample Response 2: Asking About the Role’s Budget

“I appreciate your interest in me for this position! I am comfortable with a salary that is competitive for our industry for someone with my skills and experience. What is your budget for this role?”

In this response you:

  • Express gratitude (which makes you more likable and persuasive)
  • Set an industry-standard salary expectation
  • Leverage the opportunity to ask the employer what their budget is for the role


Sample Response 3: Asking How Salary Is Calculated

“I’m excited to learn more about the company and position. Thank you for your mutual interest! I think it’s important to align salary expectations with a company’s operational practices. How does the company calculate salary for each of its employees? What is the budget for this position?”

In this response you:

  • Express gratitude (which makes you more likable and persuasive)
  • Leverage the opportunity to ask how the company calculates salary which communicates an expectation to be compensated equitably
  • Leverage the opportunity to ask for the budget for the role, to get a sense of whether or not considering the position makes sense for you


Sample Response 4: Asking for an Industry-Standard Salary

“I’m very happy to be considered for this position. Thank you for your mutual interest. I am comfortable with an industry-standard salary for someone with my skills and experience. What is your budget for this role?”

In this response you:

  • Express gratitude (which makes you more likable and persuasive)
  • Express that you are looking for "industry-standard salary" despite a lack of experience, which you don’t mention

If you’ve just graduated from school, are switching job tracks, or switching industries, many people will advise taking a lower-paying job and to set low salary expectations to get a foot in the door. Often, women, Black and Latine professionals get this advice. This advice is potentially harmful, however, as professionals from these groups are statistically underpaid. 

Lowballing yourself because you have no experience has negative short-term and long-term earning implications. No experience doesn’t mean the work you’ll perform once trained doesn’t have market value; it just means you’ll require a larger investment and more time to train to get to a productive level. Communicating that you’re looking for industry-standard salary when you have no experience is perfectly acceptable.

The sample answers I provided here are intended to help you, the job applicant, maximize earnings. Some recruiters, human resource managers, and employers may push back for a specific value. Although being pushed to give a specific answer can feel uncomfortable and intimidating, remind yourself that they want the number to help them perform their job function, not to help you negotiate maximum pay.

If you find yourself being pushed for a specific salary expectation, kindly reiterate what you initially said. In extreme cases, if you don’t provide a specific salary expectation, the person asking for your salary expectations may stop communicating with you altogether. If this happens, their ghosting you has nothing to do with you (so long as you were friendly, polite, and professional) and has everything to do with the information they’re expected to collect as part of their job duties and/or their personality.

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What to Do When Asked for Salary Expectations

When asked for your salary expectations, remember that the company is trying to understand if their budget fits what you are looking for and/or is trying to set a salary negotiation anchor.

You don’t need to give a specific answer; in fact, doing so can hurt your short-term and long-term earnings. Instead, provide an answer that expresses gratitude for their interest in you and leverages the moment to gather information about the company to determine if you want to move forward with the opportunity.


Frequently Asked Questions

When asked if a salary falls within your expectations and you are not satisfied with the offer, it's best not to immediately say "yes".

Answer this question by asking for more information about the role (such as specific duties and responsibilities) or about the company's budget for the role, and negotiate based on the insights provided.

It may be helpful to write down "negotiable", "flexible" or "market rate" when writing about your salary expectations on a job application, email or letter. This allows expectations to remain open and able to be discussed further during the interview process.

It is best not write down a specific salary number or range, as this leaves little opportunity for negotiation.

Some of the best answers for the question "What are your salary expectations?" include:

  • Asking for additional role information (i.e. what a typical day or week at work looks like)
  • Asking about the role's budget
  • Asking how the company calculates salaries for employees
  • Asking for an industry-standard salary based on your role

Asking for an industry-standard salary as well as the budget for the role can be an effective answer when asked about your salary expectations as a candidate with no work experience.

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