What’s Your Walk Away Number?


I made an offer on a house a few weeks ago. It wasn’t my dream house, but it had its charms. I was thrilled when the seller accepted. After that, things got a little confusing.

The mortgage rate I was quoted wasn’t as low as I’d hoped. I’d need to replace a lot of the plumbing, and part of the roof. Over a glass of wine, I did some calculations and came up with my Walk Away Number. If the total costs were lower than my number, I’d buy. Higher, and I would not.

It was close. But higher is higher, and I walked. There would be other houses. And though it is easy to forget when you are interviewing for a promising job, there also will be other jobs.

Most of us go into job interviews with a rough idea of what we want to earn. We want a nice bump up from our current salary. If we’re changing careers, we might be willing to accept a pay cut. Regardless of what we expect, things can get cloudy during the process. Having a walk away number firmly in mind when you’re job hunting can help you answer one of the most awkward questions during an interview: What salary are you looking for?

Salary isn’t the only, or even the most important, consideration when deciding on a job.  In fact, most people say their job satisfaction is more dependent on the quality of the work, the management, and their colleagues than compensation.

But here’s the problem. You can’t be sure that you will love a job until you have it. If it turns out that you aren’t all that happy, knowing you accepted less compensation than you wanted might really start to rankle. Suppose you find out that your colleagues—much as you might love them—are being paid more. That’s not going to feel good. And salary has the advantage of being easy to measure.

Before you blurt out any number during an interview, do the math. Research salaries in your industry, at your level and a few levels above. Consider your particular skills and how much demand there is for them right now. Imagine that you do get the job—at several different salaries. Do they all feel good? Or does the job become less appealing at a specific number? If so, you’re pretty close to your walk away number.

Once you’ve set a specific salary that is the lowest you will accept, add 10 to 20 percent to it so you have room to negotiate. That’s your answer to the salary question.

During the interview process, wait as long as you can before disclosing that number to your interviewer. Be sure to find out about the total compensation package before answering. If you have to pay more for health insurance or if the company isn’t matching your retirement contribution as your current company does, those should impact your walk away number.

Keep your efforts focused on landing the job. If the offer doesn’t meet your goal, before you accept it, remind yourself it isn’t the only company in town.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and, among others.