You will never starve to death. You will never die of dehydration. And if you graduate from this college, you will be among the wealthiest in the world. Never forget these things when looking at a starting salary.
With that in mind, here's one question that excites all of us: how much money can I expect upon graduation? One simple answer is to check the average accepted salaries for graduating seniors of your major. While the simplest answer is usually correct, the numbers provided by Career Services can be a little misleading. Without the context of these numbers (including industry, cost of living, job position, etc), you have no way of knowing what is a reasonable deviation. $90k is a large amount of money, but it can mean different things depending on whether the city you’d live in has monthly rent averaging $700 or $2000.
The industry that you commit to already has an expectation of what people in similar lines of work should make. Mid-career, seniors, management, and then us, fresh out of college. The value that people can provide varies deeply on the kind of market that you’re playing to, and depending on the type of company that you work for, you will only be able to earn so much. Government jobs are limited by law in terms of how much can be offered, but come with an assortment of other benefits, including annual salary increases. Private industry pays much more and comes with expected benefits, but job stability can be very different if you’re consulting. Even within industry—professors in a university have a different expectation concerning salary than CEO’s of a Fortune 500.
Don’t think too hard about it. Let’s assume that you know what industry you want to work in; then the numbers that you receive between your offers are tethered to a predetermined range (hopefully competitive). Should those numbers vary by more than $10k, then you can expect cost-of-living to be a factor. That being said, don’t rely on online cost-of-living calculators to absolve your understanding of what’s reasonable. Cost-of-living calculators are incredibly simple to use, but the tradeoff comes with accuracy. Any cost-of-living calculator will tell you that Rose’s average accepted salary in an area with a relatively low cost-of-living translates to a ludicrously high figure in a big city like New York or San Francisco. Does this mean that companies from these big cities that don’t provide these ‘cost-of-living calculator’ salaries are lowballing you? Common sense tells us otherwise.
Unlike cost-of-living calculators, we have the luxury of information on our potential situation. Quotes on apartment rents close to the office, daily commuting distance, car mileages, gas prices, grocery costs, typical salary ranges of a company—these figures are no mystery to those with Internet access. Calculating your cost of living by hand is relatively straightforward, and even better, they are magnitudes more accurate and trustworthy. With cost of living out of the way, you should end up with a common denominator that can be compared across all of the companies from whom you are given an offer: discretionary income. After rent, utilities, medical, transportation, food, and taxes, your discretionary income is what you have left in your pocket. And typically, your discretionary income will balance out across all of your offers.
Although the discretionary income is the number that can be reasonably compared among companies, don’t let it be the sole reason for choosing a job. There’s no point in taking a job if you’re only going to quit a year later. The debt accumulated from a couple months of unemployment is especially painful with student loans to pay off. Even if you quit a year later because of a slightly higher offer, a trail of short-term relationships will do your résumé no favors. Pick a company with the intention of working with them for years.
Regardless of the salary that you’re offered, never forget the important things. You will never starve to death. You will never die of dehydration. You’re already among the wealthiest in the world.