I was on unemployment for a few months when I got a job offer. As it is a government job, I know the pay range. I was prepared to place near the top as I could take the hit in salary, but the salary they offered me was at the bottom of the range, half of what I'd been making before. I cannot survive on the low salary--it will not pay my bills.

The reason why I accepted was that I panicked: refusing any job offer is grounds for losing unemployment benefits and I didn't feel I could negotiate more. This was obviously a mistake and won't do this again.

I don't want to sound like sour grapes: I know how much my skills are worth and have a really tight reign on my budget, so I know what I can and cannot live on. If I stay in this job, I will not have enough money to pay my bills in about 5-6 months.

Update, to clarify: Every month I have to dip into my savings to make ends meet. If I stay here longer than 5-6 months, I will exhaust my savings. My bills are as low as they can go, so short of becoming homeless (and carless), I'm stuck.

I will need to look for a new job at a livable salary, but I don't want to screw the employer by leaving. My first week on the job, they literally said I was the best person they've ever had in this position and I did more my first week than the previous crew (of 4) did in a year.

For my expenditures, the biggest pieces of the pie are rent + insurance. Where I live, we have lease agreements, which incur an unaffordable penalty for breaking. I am taking steps to mitigate this, but I won't be able to do anything about this until next year. For reasons I won't go into, my current insurance levels are required. As for food... you'd be surprised how far you can stretch beans and rice.

My conundrum is that it isn't their fault I messed up the salary negotiation, so I want to make it right. How can I do it honorably?


@Wesley's answer was dead on: I discovered there was no way to negotiate any higher -- it was simply not possible to get a salary adjustment (even for market), as the salary for that position was set in stone.

Any move to another position could take months as the hiring process was very slow, and none of the available positions would pay anything close to what I needed.

I ended up lining up another job, giving my notice, and documenting everything as best I could for the next person.


5 Answers 5


First, you should know that government jobs (and yes, I'm stereotyping here) are pretty much non-negotiable to begin with. The job classification may have a range, but the department also has a budget. If I'm the manager, and I have a job that's classified at $50K - $65K salary range, but I only have $55K in my annual budget, guess what my maximum allowable offer actually is?

Do you think I set that? No, my director did. Did s/he set it? Well, maybe, in that the approved budget that was given to our department had to be allocated, and the director probably did that, but their goal was to cover as much ground as possible with the funds assigned. I doubt your negotiating skills were the determining factor. Government bureaucracies are not there to help people, whether they are "customer" or employees. (In fact, when the mob shows up to drag them in the street, their first thought is generally as to whether or not the sales tax on the pitchforks and torches was properly collected and reported.)

Second, you were in a bad spot. Your "Market value" is what you can get for your skills at the time. While people that do your task may generally make more, YOU weren't. You improved your position by taking this job, correct?

Third, maybe you are the best person who's ever been in this role. Congratulations. Don't let it go to your head. You're under-employed. A lot of people are these days. That doesn't mean that you "owe" your employer anything. You took the job knowing the pay. They accepted you knowing that the market could offer you better. There's no expectation of loyalty beyond that on either side. They're probably going out of their way to make your work environment comfortable and accepting because they know the pay is below market. Accept that graciously, but don't feel indebted.

Finally, you should ALWAYS be looking for another job. Whether actively or passively, you don't want to let golden opportunities get by you.

Incorporating @RualStorge 's contribution before the comments are cleaned up:

I will add not only should you always be looking so you don't miss that golden opportunity you also should always be looking because you never know when a job will disappear. I've heard countless stories of that person shows up at the office to find they no longer have a job. no warning and by no fault of their own. If you start looking after you're let go you're already playing catch up.

As to your bills: You probably need to make some very hard choices. Most can cut their bills 20% or so without giving up their "comforts." It sounds like you've done that part already. However, there are entire families that live on less than $1,000 / month in this country all over the place. I grew up in such a family. I don't wish it on anyone, but if you don't find a job at the financial level you expect, you need to prepare yourself for some very hard choices, and soon. Don't go bankrupt because of your pride about your "Station in life." I don't know you or your situation well enough to offer specific advice, but you need to make plans to adjust to this income level as soon as possible.

  • 8
    most can cut their bills 20% or so without giving up their "comforts." sigh, coffee coffee coffee May 15, 2015 at 17:06
  • 8
    @Adel - As a fellow caffeine junkie, I understand. But I spent $45 on Craigslist for an espresso maker and a grinder. I make mine at home for a month now on less than it cost for 3 days' stops at my old "supplier." May 15, 2015 at 17:09
  • 9
    I will add not only should you always be looking so you don't miss that golden opportunity you also should always be looking because you never know when a job will disappear. I've heard countless stories of that person shows up at the office to find they no longer have a job. no warning and by no fault of their own. If you start looking after you're let go you're already playing catch up. May 15, 2015 at 18:06
  • 5
    I was going to answer this but this pretty much covers everything negotiating govt jobs in US. Note that the only thing I would add is - if you are really good at a govt job they will probably never let you change positions and the jobs are more secure than non-govt. If you take a govt. job and want to advance you have to think "mediocrity" and brown nosing.
    – blankip
    May 15, 2015 at 19:55
  • 4
    This answer is dead-on accurate. After poking around a bunch, I found there was/is no way to get a salary bump, and I couldn't switch job titles (to a higher-paying one) and keep the same desk. The annual raise was 3.5%, set in stone. Job security after the 6-month probationary period was pretty solid, politics was rampant, and very few folks went out of their way to do anything extra, because there was no reward (monetary, promotion, whatever) at all.
    – BryanH
    Sep 24, 2015 at 21:11

If you quit, you'll end up being on unemployment, based on the new salary that is too low to pay your bills. So you don't want to quit, you want a job with a higher salary.

The only realistic way to get a large salary increase in most government jobs is to switch from employee to contractor. Sometimes these are paid from different budgets.

You can explore that option but you'd better look on the job market. Don't worry about leaving them, because as you said you already did a year's worth of work for them - they got the better end of the bargain. Once you got a job offer with a viable salary, you can ask your current employer if they can offer a matching salary as a contractor. If they can't, you hand in your notice and work as usual during the notice period.

There is nothing dishonorable about quitting a job. It's dishonorable to refuse work during the notice period, to call in sick during the notice period (unless you are sick, of course), to refuse to train a successor during the notice period, or to try to make others quit alongside you. All of these are unfortunately quite common, so by not doing any of these you'll make your employer quite happy. When you and your employer signed the contract, both sides agreed that they can terminate the agreement at any time, with a notice period.

In case you're worried about how it will look on the CV, just tell your interviewer that you preferred working to being on unemployment, but were aware that it wasn't a long term solution.


If you want to...

"Hey, boss... I'm really sorry about this, and I know it isn't your fault, but it looks like I really can't cover my expenses on this salary and I'm going to have to start looking for something that pays better. What should I focus on to best use my skills while I'm here and to improve how quickly the next guy will come up to speed?"

Worst they can do is fire you, and since you're already on the way out I think you can afford to recognize that this is going to be a hassle for them.

Unless quittiing sooner increases you unemployment benefits, i'd also point out that the longer they pay you anything, the longer your savings will stretch.

  • 2
    I think this is a bit abrupt. Yes, it's honest, but if someone was on for a week and asked me what they should do to get the next bloke up to speed because they're leaving asap I'd be incredibly irritated. Something about it just seems presumptuous and arrogant. I think waiting until you have a job set up to replace the one you have and then explaining to the boss that, though you enjoy working there, you were recently offered an opportunity you couldn't pass up. Professionally speaking they should understand even if they are slightly raw about it at first.
    – zfrisch
    May 16, 2015 at 5:52
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    Missed the point re only a week. In that case drop the last phrase. Seriously, the only alternative is to lie and claim the irresistible opportunity or that some sort of family emergency is pulling you elsewhere... and I prefer to stick with honesty when possible, even when the truth is embarrassing. There is no non -abrupt way to say "oops, I quit" after only one week. Advice given to student pilots: "When lost, climb and confess."
    – keshlam
    May 16, 2015 at 15:58
  • Your comment about stretching savings by being employed, even under-employed, is spot-on. As for telling them I'm looking, that isn't a good idea.
    – BryanH
    Sep 22, 2015 at 20:59

A software developer in Houston, TX? Sounds like you should quit and work somewhere you can make ends meet. I'm not an expert on that job market but I believe they have a tech sector...

Other ideas:

  • Sublease part of your apartment? Get a roommate?
  • Negotiate or beg to work from home a day a week? (Gas money.) Or just... do it anyway and see if your boss would rather let you get away with it than lay the hammer down.
  • Relocate? Going back to that part about you being a software developer. Austin's not far.
  • Work remotely? StackOverflow's careers site is fanatic about remote work. Take something on the weekend? Work on it on your WFH day, you know before 9 am or after 5 pm with that commute time you're saving?

My first week on the job, they literally said I was the best person they've ever had in this position and I did more my first week than the previous crew (of 4) did in a year.

If they literally told you that you were more productive than 4 employees put together, then negotiate for a (hefty) raise.

Now, they were probably exaggerating to some extent, and 1 week is not much time to establish a track record, but perhaps you should go to your boss and have a conversation along the lines of:

"As you yourself said, my output is worth (X times) what your previous employees did. In light of the extra value that I am generating for the department, I would like to discuss adjusting my salary to account for this."

If you are, actually, worth 3 employees put together (and you should do as much work as possible to provide hard, fact-based evidence of your value/relative outperformance) and you go to your boss with an offer of:

"my work demonstrably [adds value/reduces costs/etc.] equivalent to 3 employees put together, can we negotiate an agreement whereby I consistently deliver [stellar results/cost reductions/productivity increases] over the next year, and you incrementally increase my salary to double its current level".

Then any sane boss (with the authority to do so) would probably agree to it. And any sane boss without the authority to do it would try damned hard to get it.

And if adding value is not something your boss/department/organisation values, then should you really care about leaving?

  • 5
    The real curve-ball here is that it is a government job. Due to all the regulations to keep things "fair", there is often very little a manager can do.
    – mikeazo
    Feb 10, 2016 at 15:09
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    This advice is ludicrous for a government employee. There is no negotiation of government salaries. They are set by law. This advice is fine in the private sector but totally wrong for the government.
    – HLGEM
    Feb 10, 2016 at 15:09
  • Ah, I *completely* missed that it was a government job. Yeah, that makes the odds of salary changes go *way* down (though not impossible).
    – Kaz
    Feb 10, 2016 at 16:50

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