Paycheck to Paycheck

This 26-year-old doubled his income by switching to computer science—and using a key negotiating trick

Martin Yanev works as a software engineer in Louisville, Kentucky.
Courtesy of subject

Welcome to Paycheck to Paycheck, where workers with the same job across the U.S. share how much they earn, how they got to their salary and their best negotiating tips. Ready to join the salary transparency conversation? Apply to be a part of the series here.

In this installment, a 26-year-old shares how he makes $70,000 working as a software engineer in Louisville, Kentucky. Read how his salary stacks up to other software engineers around the U.S.

Martin Yanev always had his eye on space. He earned a bachelor's and master's degree in aerospace engineering and started his career as an aerospace systems engineer.

But he quickly realized he was spending a lot of time writing software on the job and even took coding courses after work to get better. Eventually, he decided he enjoyed the computer science aspect of his work so much that he went back to school for a second master's degree in it.

He sees this shift as an investment in his future career: "There are many engineers from other specialties who find they need to have software engineering skills in order to do their jobs better," Yanev tells CNBC Make It. A second master's in computer science "will help me with any type of engineering I want to be doing in the future."

After shifting specialties, going back to school and moving to a new country, Yanev nearly doubled his income and now earns $70,000 working as a software engineer in Louisville, Kentucky.

How he doubled his earnings

After Yanev graduated with his bachelor's degree, he moved from his home country of Bulgaria and worked as an aerospace systems engineer in Southampton, United Kingdom, for nearly three years, where earned $40,000 a year.

In early 2021, Yanev moved from the U.K. to Massachusetts for grad school. When he decided to apply for software engineering jobs a few months later, he cast a wide net online and found an Indeed post for his current job, which listed the salary range for the position.

Yanev says his usual salary negotiation strategy is to take the maximum pay being advertised and add a little on top. "Usually, if a job posting doesn't include salary ranges, I'll look up average pay for that job in the state and negotiate for the maximum," he says.

In this case, when Yanev landed the offer and it came time to name his salary requirements, he stated the top of the range, $70,000, and added another $5,000 to see how high they could go. After some back and forth, the HR professional said the max salary of $70,000 was their absolute cap, so Yanev accepted it. He moved to Louisville and started his new job in the spring of 2021.

Yanev also earns about $10,000 a year teaching programming courses online, bringing his annual take-home pay to around $80,000 a year.

Going from $40,000 a year in Southampton to $80,000 in Louisville "is a huge jump," Yanev says. "I'm happy about it."

Living in a lower cost-of-living area like Louisville makes a huge difference in his quality of life and what he's able to afford. While he could earn more in a competitive market like San Francisco or New York, for example, he would have to shell out nearly $3,000 for a one-bedroom apartment. In Louisville, he says he can find two-bedroom apartments starting around $800.

Salary discussions are like 'talking about the weather'

Yanev and his team are open when it comes to discussing their salaries. "We all know more or less what everybody makes, and how it compares to the average for our city," he says. "It's like talking about the weather. It's not a big deal."

While he believes in the value of being transparent about pay, his openness comes down to how his company and his peers treat the subject.

"If a company has a structure of, this is how much we pay this role for this many years of experience, I don't see any problem with them wanting to share that information," Yanev says. "But if a company is paying people in the same position differently, then it comes down to how they expect people to negotiate; in those cases, it's not beneficial for the company if people talk about their pay with coworkers."

Overall, Yanev says it's good for people to talk about how much they make and how they negotiated for their pay: "The way I see it, everyone should share this information because it's helpful for employees. Pay information can also be found on a lot of websites, but it's not always correct or up to date or localized. I think a lot of people just want to hear from somebody in a similar situation, like the same years of experience or going into a similar workplace."

Yanev's best negotiation tip for young professionals, especially international students like himself, is to take advantage of their university's career center to do practice interviews and learn how to navigate the job offer and negotiation process.

His salary goals

Yanev says his salary isn't necessarily high, but it's not low, either: "It's fair. It's exactly what I should get based on my experience in this area."

He's learned how to adjust his expectations depending on where he lives and works: "The difference from being in Bulgaria to the U.K. to the U.S. in terms of salary and standard of living is huge."

Ultimately, he feels "comfortable" living on $80,000 in Kentucky.

"I can save enough money to achieve my goals and do everything I want to do in the next five years," he says. In the next few years, "my goal is to some point make more than $100,000 a year. I'd feel successful if I managed to do that."

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