What Constitutes a Good Salary in the U.S.?

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Although many factors come into play when evaluating a job, salary is a very important one. Whether you’re choosing a career, negotiating a starting salary, or asking for a raise, it’s beneficial to have an idea of the appropriate pay range for your experience, industry, and location. This will empower you in any conversations you have about your salary.

Of course, determining the salary you should be receiving is easier said than done. There are many components that can affect the amount of pay you receive, including your level of education or type of degree, your professional experience, your skill set, your references, and how you perform in an interview. External factors may impact your salary as well.

How to Get Salary Information

Salary data is a great starting point to get a sense of what constitutes fair pay for your role, experience level, and location. You can start by checking the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which produces a survey of wages that includes mean and median salary figures.

The BLS data also lists salary levels by percentile for 10 percent, 25 percent, 75 percent, and 90 percent of workers surveyed in that occupation. For example, construction managers’ average annual wage was $101,000, but at the 75th percentile, they earned $121,570 on average. This means that those managers earned more than 74 percent of workers in the same field. This data can help employees determine whether they have a good salary compared to others in their occupation.

In addition to the BLS data, there are many other sites like Payscale.com, Indeed.com, and Salary.com that provide salary information for various job titles and occupations. If you’re interested in learning about salaries at a specific company, you can check sites like Glassdoor.com. You can also look at salary data for a certain location. For example, Zippia ranks the top 100 job markets, with the average salary for each location.

Networking with others in your field, such as college alumni, members of professional associations, and family contacts, can help you to determine a good salary in your field. In general, you should refrain from asking someone else’s salary outright. Rather, frame your approach as a question about yourself. For example, you can ask, "Given your understanding of my background, what would be a good salary for me?"

Salary Variations Based on Location

When you’re researching salaries, keep in mind that salaries can vary drastically based on where the position is located. For example, a good salary in Topeka, Kansas, would likely not be considered good in New York City. This is because the cost of living, the state of the economy, and the supply and demand of workers in the field can all impact the amount companies pay to hire quality talent. Salary may also vary based on the unemployment rate and job outlook for the state.

You can search the BLS for salary by state and then compare that to national data for the same occupation. Salary calculators such as the Payscale Cost of Living Indicator enable you to factor in how location can impact salary. For example, if you are currently earning $50,000 in Omaha, Nebraska, as a marketing manager, you would need to earn $97,989 to maintain the same standard of living in San Francisco, California.

This can make things a little trickier when you’re trying to determine a fair salary for a remote job, especially if a company is entirely based in a different city or state. In general, focus on what constitutes fair pay for your location, as you’ll be the one paying for your living costs.

Other Factors to Consider

Another angle for evaluating a salary is to think about the organization’s expectations for its employees. If you will be expected to work 80 hours a week in an intense, high-pressure environment, then a “good” salary might be considerably higher than for another company that offers greater work-life balance, flexible hours, and less stress. Ultimately, it’s up to you to determine your priorities.

Also, keep in mind that salary is only one component of total compensation. You need to consider employee benefits, such as health insurance, vacation time, and 401(k) matching, when evaluating salary. A somewhat lower salary can still be good if the employer pays most of the premium for a high-quality health plan and matches up to 8 percent of your 401(k) contributions, for example. Try to get a full picture of the compensation package—including any perks such as relocation funds, commuter benefits, gym memberships, and complimentary lunches—when considering a job offer.

Lastly, when evaluating a salary for a new position or a career change, you should keep in mind the potential for growth at the organization. For example, you might be comfortable with a lower starting salary if the employer has a proven track record for training and promoting employees from your initial title.

The Best Salary for You

Ultimately, a “good” salary is a very individual decision that is dependent on not just your marketability but also your personal priorities. It can be important to have a clear idea of your requirements for a position beyond just the salary, enabling you to enter any conversation about pay with a comprehensive understanding of what you need from your employer.