Salary: Don't negotiate the dollars

At this point in my life many people call me for friendly career advice. Usually I’m just an ear to act as a sounding board.

However, one topic comes up over and over. What should I negotiate for when I am offered a new position? The gorilla in the room seems to always be the dollars. The dollars are important, but these days people are also looking for quality of life.

It’s a topic for another article, about how society has changed in the last few generations from IBM stability, to hippies, to money, to technology and dreams of rock star CEO, to the present where quality of life has a notable value. The point of this post is to say that you should negotiate based on the facts on the ground, which these days are lifestyle not just dollars.

Seeing that we are in a place where the “economy of happiness” is becoming greater than the brute force pursuit of money (see: Do We Need $75,000 a Year to Be Happy?), when you are considering negotiating salary keep in mind what you really want.

Another way to say it is, what do you want money for? As a cold hearted economist, I see money simply as a tool. A very useful tool to be sure, but a tool nonetheless. What do you want this tool to do? Buy a bigger, better house? Take better vacations? Make sure your children can attend a Tier One School? Save enough for retirement? Acquire more toys?

If these things are your ‘Definition of Success’, then ask yourself, is there another way to get these things? Or, what is the true value you place on them? Water Ski boats are fun, no one questions that, but so is not being stressed all the time. If you take the cost of the boat, in pure hourly wages, is it worth it? Would you rather have that $40,000 purchase price plus $4,000 a year, in unpaid time off?

Of course, depending on your stage in life these numbers and your motivations change, but I always recommend people look at what they really WANT from their jobs, rather than what they can GET from their jobs. If you want to grow as a person, have enough income to support your desired lifestyle, and enjoy yourself, I suggest negotiating for the things you want other than the dollars.

In my previous life I was always looking for employees who looked at life in general. Simply speaking, they were more effective employees. I would always view someone who negotiated more than just the dollars, respectfully, as someone to keep on the list of people moving up. For legitimacy I should say that of my team, now 6 years after I’ve left, 90% are still with the company and most have grown into middle or executive management.

So, more than anything, once you hit your number (ahem, $75k) I say negotiate only benefits - including paid and unpaid time off - and education.

For my part. Since moving to the Vail Valley I’ve experienced about a 40% pay decrease, and an estimated 200% life increase.


But hey what do I know?