A «no» worth 80k and counting

by | Apr 28, 2021 | Life Planning | 2 comments

If there is one thing that people underestimate, it’s the importance of the first salary. Because whatever salary you get the first year, you will get the second year, and the third, hopefully with little increases. So one thousand more per year means 40 thousands of additional lifetime earnings. That’s something…

In 2009, I was facing a major life altering choice: which Master’s degree to apply to? I was doing a Bachelor’s in Physics so the natural choice would have been… well… a Master’s in Physics. The thing is: I had a hard time picturing how I could be a valuable potential employee with a degree in physics. I knew that graduates from my school didn’t have a hard time finding a first job, but I couldn’t really see it.

In the mean time, the physics department had just opened a new Master’s degree in Nuclear Engineering. At the time, Switzerland had at least two new plants in the works and desperately needed qualified engineers. That, I could picture: if I had a Nuclear Engineering degree, I could apply for a job at a power plant and be taken seriously. I didn’t really have a passion for nuclear but I didn’t have a passion for physics either. Studies are not meant to be enjoyed anyway 😉

So here I am, two years later, in the final stages of writing my Master thesis, and I get invited by General Electrics to a nuclear safety assessment conference in South Carolina. And at the Zürich airport, waiting for my plane, I watch the Fukushima Daiichi reactors explode. My job prospects were melting together with the uranium fuel rods of the Japanese reactors. The whole trip is overshadowed by that gloom and doom.

Coming back from the conference, I present my thesis. In the mean time, Switzerland is talking about canceling the new plant projects. Plant licensees are overwhelmed with safety proofs requirements from the regulator. Everyone is bracing. The soufflé is collapsing.

Through what can only be explained by a miracle, I manage to get a job interview at a Swiss power plant. The interview is in German and my German is poor. They need someone with experience and I don’t have any. But they want someone now, and I can start the coming week.

I know the salary I want: 95k per year. Why? Because that’s the high-end of the scale for entry levels according to statistics. So I tell them. They say that 80k is more than fair and that’s what they offer.

I need that job. There aren’t much other opportunities in my field. And going to another field would mean to be at a disadvantage compared to anyone else who has the proper degree. I know that. They know that. And yet, I say no. They look at me in disbelief. « But you’re young and inexperienced ». All true. Still no.

I didn’t bluff: I told them exactly what would happen if they didn’t up their offer: I would still take the job but I wouldn’t be fully committed. And they would lose me after 6/12/18 months because I would find something better elsewhere. That could have blown up in my face, but it didn’t!

The next day, they call me with an offer at 88k and I accept. That’s 10% more. Not too shabby. But that’s not the most important part.

The most important part is that I secured for myself 8k more per year, every year, for the next 40 years. Because every year I’ll get the same salary as the year before, plus, hopefully, a small raise. And when I switch companies, I am going to get my previous salary plus a decent raise, because nobody will seriously expect you to switch for less money.

8k per year, every year, for 40 years, that’s 320k in additional lifetime earnings. In some countries, that’s a house! Not in Switzerland though. Since I’m only 10 years into my career, I’ve already earned an additional 80k… hence the title of the article.

But that’s not all: 320k is low-ball estimate for the total impact of this decision, because I’m neglecting all the investment gains. Let’s say that I can invest 8k every year at 7%. After 40 years, that’s around… 1.6 million. Now, that’s the price of a house in Switzerland! Yes, you need the discipline to save and invest that money and most importantly stick to your guns over the long run. But even if you only invest half your raise, that’s life changing money. It even impacts the level of your pension because you will have contributed on a higher basis for your whole career.

And there is more! Yes, I got a 10% higher salary but I actually doubled my saving rate. With 80k, I could have saved around 8k per year. That means that with 88k, I could save 16k! It was only a 10% salary increase but it was a 100% savings increase.

That’s the beauty of additional money. If you don’t change your spending, it goes straight to your investment account and usually makes a big difference. Maybe getting 50 francs more per month looks small but if you had been saving 100 francs a month until now, you can now save 150. A 50% increase. And if next year you get another 50 francs, that’s another 33% increase. Switch jobs the year after that and get an additional 200 per month, that’s 100% increase. That’s powerful. You’re now saving 4 times what you used to.

So if you’re interviewing for a new job, know that the salary you negotiate represents much more than the face value. Any increase you manage to get will have a huge lifetime impact. It’s worth being uncomfortable for a few minutes. It’s worth saying no to a first offer.

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