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How much should you ask for?

Rule 1: Selling yourself cheap to get a foot in the door can mean a broken toe. Good employers aren't looking for bargain employees; they want ones with commitment and self-value. A common salary boost when changing jobs is 10 to 20 percent. Giving up salary in exchange for nebulous prospects of advancement is iffy; a new post is a chance for a jump in pay that will reverberate for years as raises compound on your higher base (the same is true of any benefits tied to salary).

Rule 2: Don't forget the halo effect. Compensation experts say someone whose pay starts high is likely to get a hefty boost at the first salary review as well. One strategy is to advance the date when the first salary review will come–perhaps to six months instead of a year.

Rule 3: Think signing bonus. Thorndike Deland Associates, a New York search firm, says three quarters of 700 firms it surveyed now offer signing bonuses. Such bonuses vary widely; $2,000 to $5,000 is common, sometimes more. A number of firms pay on the day you start, others wait three to six months or even a year. Bonuses ostensibly cover the expense and strain of adjusting to a new job, but they're also a way for a firm to offer a fillip without upsetting an established salary scale.

Rule 4: The cost of living varies widely. A $75,000 salary in Atlanta may buy the same as a $98,000 one in Boston or a $68,000 salary in San Antonio, according to calculations for midlevel managerial and professional lifestyles by Dowden & Associates, which analyzes compensation. Such comparisons are only a rough guideline, but you can use an online calculator at to check Dowden comparisons for other cities. Another site,, offers many job resources, including a breakdown of specific living costs by area. Pay scales at many national companies for middle- and upper-level personnel are sometimes fairly standard across the country, so moving from a high-cost area to a low-cost one may pay off. A third site,, has links to salary surveys for a variety of industries and positions.

Rule 5: Pay attention to stock options, both coming and going. Start-up firms are often cash poor, and many offer incentives such as stock options and other deferred compensation to make up for modest pay and fringe benefits. The upside is that you'll get stock at a bargain price if the firm and its shares prosper; the downside is that you assume more risk. If your current firm offers deferred incentives, check out the rules. Stock options may need to be exercised before you leave, but exercising them might subject you to a noncompete agreement that limits whom you can work for or the clients you can solicit.

Rule 6: Forget about a contract. They're rare except for the topmost spots and special situations. But it's smart to ask for a letter detailing your agreement and any promises that were made to you.

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