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February 18, 2011
Salary Expectations: How Low Do You Go?
I’m convinced that time travel is possible. How do I know?
My employer decided to cut all employee salaries by 50 percent with no reduction in hours. The reasoning was that the economy was bad and the survival of the agency was in the balance. I was instantly transported back to 1983 in earnings, and the only thing missing was my long hair and platform shoes.
I could have hung on and in a few months been back to my original pay, but there were no guarantees. The Draconian cut weighed heavy on me and I had to consider all of the agency attributes—culture, management philosophy, potential, and future—along with what I had already experienced from working there. I decided to give my notice.
Many people are going through a similar experience. If you already have a job—and you love it—a pay cut of 10 or 20 percent is tolerable, particularly if it coincides with reduced hours. Many times these adjustments in pay are only a temporary measure.
But what if you’re applying to jobs and the salary is 10 to 20 percent—or more—lower than your previous job? How low do you go? My feeling is, like my decision to leave when my pay was cut, it’s going to be a personal choice based on your circumstances. But here are a few things to think about.
How desperate are you? The jobs you’re applying for may be the best available that allow you to support yourself or your family. In that case, you could bite the bullet, take a lower paying gig temporarily and go at it with a positive attitude. That last part is important. You may find that you like the job and you don’t want to give the employer the impression that you will bolt if a higher-paying job comes along. Plus, if you perform the job well, you build a case for more money later on.
Would the work make you happy? The job may be lower paying than what you’re used to, but maybe it’s easier to do with less responsibility, a more flexible work schedule, and less stress. And less is more. More time to work on other creative projects. More time to spend with your family and friends. And perhaps you’ll become a more amiable person without all the job hassles hanging over you.
Are there educational or training opportunities? There could be a chance to learn some new skills and try new techniques that may offset the lower pay. Or it could be a chance to apply the knowledge you have to train others. (The latter may not be a bad thing to mention in your cover letter when applying for the job, by the way.)
Is the job a complete career change? If you’ve decided to pursue a completely new field, your present experience isn’t going to be worth as much as it was in your former career—so you’d probably take lower pay initially. The key would be if an opportunity exists to make your current abilities work in different ways within your new field.
Are you a person whose self-worth is linked to the size of your paycheck? That’s a problem you don’t need and you would have to get over yourself. Michael Zwell, Ph.D, author of Six-Figure Salary Negotiation, recommends that “instead of thinking about salary as a measure of your worth, think of it as what the market is willing to pay for your skills, knowledge, and experience at this point in time.”
Are you looking for a lifestyle change? Many people would consider a tradeoff of income for the lifestyle they would really prefer. Perhaps they would like to live on a secluded lakefront, near mountains, in a warmer climate, or in a loft in a downtown metropolis.
Ultimately, working for less money is not the greatest thing to happen in your career, but it’s certainly not as bad as having no income at all. My advice is to use that time machine to your advantage and look to the future.

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Steve James owned and creative directed an advertising and design studio in Buffalo, NY with the un-snappy name of SteveJamesDesign, Inc. Steve and his family now live in Indianapolis where he worked as a Creative Director and he is currently in transition, flux, metamorphosis, segue, or whatever looking for work is now called.

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