This story was originally published on June 10, 2016. Interested in contributing your salary story?
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In our new series My Salary Story, women with at least 10 years of career experience open up about the most intimate details of their jobs: compensation. It’s an honest look at how real people navigate the complicated world of negotiating, raises, promotions, and job loss, with the hope it will give young women more insight into how to advocate for themselves — and maybe take a few risks along the way.
First up, a 36-year-old New Yorker who works in media and took a big pay cut to make a career change.
Starting salary: $28,500 Current salary: $85,000 Number of years employed: 13 Biggest salary jump: $15,000 Biggest salary drop: $20,000 Biggest salary regret: That it took me so long to negotiate for myself in the first place! I had more than 10 years of experience before I ever tried to argue for more money. It wasn’t until recently that I realized you have to be your own biggest advocate. Best salary-related advice: Don’t be scared to take a pay cut. Yeah, I like making money, but the happiest I’ve been in my career was when I took a risk and lower salary to try something new. It was scary, but it led to so many new, amazing opportunities.
I moved to New York City with no job and signed up with a temp agency that promised to place me in creative positions. They would call the day ahead with an assignment that could last anywhere from a day to several weeks and pay anywhere between $10 and $20 an hour for companies ranging from David Yurman to
GQ. If you didn’t get an assignment the day before, you could go into the office in the morning and hope that something came along. If nothing came up during a three-hour window, you were paid $150 for your time. It didn’t pay the rent ($900 a month for a room in a three-bedroom apartment on the Lower East Side), so my parents helped me until I found a full-time job.
I interviewed for over three months for three different jobs with six different people before I landed my first real job as an editorial assistant at a small book publisher. I didn’t try to negotiate my salary. The day after I accepted, I turned down a chance to interview for a full-time position at the fashion magazine where I interned. I always wonder if that was a huge mistake.
The perks at the new job were amazing. My health insurance was fully covered. I started in early December, and I got a small year-end bonus (it was a percentage of my salary) and an iPod for a holiday gift.
After one year on the job, I was given a “cost-of-living” raise (even though it was far more than the standard cost-of-living raise). My year-end bonus was $10,000, and I thought I was rich. Our boss gave us all flat-screen TVs for holiday gifts.
At the end of the my second year, I was promoted to assistant editor and got a decent salary increase. I didn't ask for the raise or the promotion. Bonus went up to $15,000. Christmas gift must not have been too exciting, because I have no memory of it.
Another cost-of-living raise. Year-end bonus was $15,000. The holiday gift was gift cards to a high-end boutique and a subscription to a local CSA to be delivered to the office each week during the summer.
I was promoted to associate editor at the same time as the other two assistant editors. I think the boss raised our salary to $45,000. One of the assistant editors was mad, so she went back and requested more. I did no negotiating on my own. He boosted all of our salaries to $50,000. I got a $20,000 bonus that year and an iPhone. My boyfriend was shocked.
I didn’t get a raise or a promotion for two years, but the big bonus kept me in the job. It was beginning to feel like a ploy to keep us with the company without promoting us. I was restless, so it was time to leave.
I made a lateral move — same title, very small raise — to work for a bigger media company. I started paying for my healthcare. I didn’t get a year-end bonus. There were no holiday gifts, or any perks really, except the occasional treat from the test kitchen. I hated the job and started looking for a new gig almost immediately. I lasted 18 months and was laid off in October 2011. My severance package covered me through the end of the year (I was pretty lucky). And then, I signed up for unemployment.
I hated being unemployed. I was miserable. My LinkedIn profile said I was a “freelancer,” but I didn’t actually get any freelance work the five months I was unemployed. I spent most of my time job-hunting, interviewing, and talking with anyone who would take 15 minutes to meet me. I signed up for a project management class at NYU and an intensive Adobe Design Suite workshop at Pace University. I watched a lot of TV. I whined a lot to my husband.
I took a job working for a tiny book publisher. I was paid $30 per hour, plus overtime. I felt
so rich, and most weeks, I made overtime. The job was terrible, but I was so happy to be working again, I didn’t care. I also knew it wasn’t permanent, so I put up with a lot of bullshit. It was the first time in a long while that I realized I was good at what I do, and I was so happy to be working again.
I interviewed over a few months for this job, and I wanted it SO bad. It was the first job interview in forever that made me feel excited. The interviews were long and intense. In the end, the owner took me out for lunch to offer me the job. He said, “I’m embarrassed to tell you what the salary is because it’s so small.” There was no health insurance, no 401(k), nothing. I negotiated for an extra week of vacation (three total) because I wanted to feel like I had some power. I took basically no vacation the entire time I was there.
After six months, my boss raised my salary to $50,000. No year-end bonus. He gave me a $100 gift card for a fancy cheese shop as a holiday gift and took the small team out for a nice dinner. My salary didn’t matter so much. I loved the job. I got amazing feedback. For the first time in my career, I’d go out to lunch with my boss, and he’d tell me I was good at my job and important to the company.
I was working there a full year when I found out we either had to sell or go under. I couldn’t fucking believe I had to start looking for another job. I did a lot of crying in Central Park that spring.
After months of job-hunting, running the start-up essentially on my own, and juggling a freelance book project (for which I was way underpaid at $8,000 for hundreds of hours of work), I landed a job at a bigger media start-up. It wasn’t a dream job, but I was desperate, and I was just happy for the work.
The freelance gig became permanent, and I was offered $60,000 per year, plus stock options. I got health insurance just as my husband was laid off. The timing couldn’t have been better.
I’d been working for the media company for a year when I started to get restless. I applied for a different job within the organization. We got a new boss, and she ushered me into a better role that fall. I got a bonus for hitting a goal, but there was no talk of a raise. I got drunk at the holiday party and asked my boss what was up. She told me I had to ask someone else.
Inspired by a junior colleague, I drew up a list of all my accomplishments and scheduled a meeting to ask for a raise. I was unsure what number to ask for, so I threw out $90,000 with a $10,000 bonus. I got $75,000 with a $5,000 bonus. It was $5,000 less than the number I thought I would settle for, but I didn’t push back or try to negotiate more.
This was the first time in my entire career when I had a boss advocating for me. We discussed my new title and responsibilities, and she asked what salary I wanted. I asked for $95,000. They came back with an offer of $80,000. I was disappointed, but I was going to let it go. It didn’t feel like the right time to fight, but my manager said she would do the advocating for me. Senior management raised my salary to $85,000 with a bonus of $4,000. I was still disappointed that the bonus was smaller than last year's, but happy that they came through with a bigger raise.