Pay is a sensitive subject for employers and employees alike. But finding a happy medium between what job seekers want and what employers want to pay is vital to both talent attraction and retention.

In spite of the current low unemployment rate, overall wage growth is expected to be slow in 2019. Salary budgets are projected to grow by just 3.2%, a slight uptick over 2018’s 3.1% increase. With the current inflation rate estimated at 1.6%, that means a wage increase barely proportionate to the rising cost of living.

To learn more about how workers feel about their salaries — and whether they plan to ask for a raise this year — Indeed surveyed 1,000 U.S. employees. What did we find? Workers want more, but it doesn't necessarily have to be all about dollars and cents.

Most workers need more money to be comfortable

18% of workers say their life is comfortable at their current salary level.

Most of our respondents would certainly like to have more money — only 18% say their lives are “comfortable” with their current salaries. A majority (61%) say they would need at least $6,000 more to be truly “comfortable.” These numbers are virtually identical to last year, when 19% of respondents reported being “comfortable” and 60% said they needed a $6,000 boost.

$6,000 is the amount of money workers say they would need to feel truly comfortable.

Despite feeling they need to earn more, most respondents (75%) say they received a “change in pay” within the last two years, with 40% of respondents receiving one in the past year.

The discomfort with current salary levels may come from the fact that raises are on the low end: of respondents who got them, most (85%) report a raise of 6% or less, with 44% receiving 3% or less. And men are getting higher raises than women: the largest proportion of men (45%) report a 4% to 6% increase, whereas most women report a raise of 3% or less (48%).

However, most respondents aren’t surprised by these moderate raises: 53% say their raise was exactly what they expected. One-quarter of respondents say they received less than expected, and 15% say their raise was higher than their projection. Another 8% say they hadn’t expected a raise at all.

Half of workers will ask for a raise in 2019

Respondents are split when it comes to asking for a raise in 2019. One-quarter say they will “definitely” ask for a raise, and 26% say asking for a raise is a possibility. Almost half (48%) say they do not plan on asking for a raise this year, but more than one-quarter (27%) of these respondents say it’s because they already received a pay raise.

Half of the women (50%) we surveyed say they plan to ask for more money, compared to 56% of men — contradicting a recent survey of Australian workers that finds women ask for raises as often as men. Interestingly, the gender disparity in asking for raises is a new finding — last year, equal percentages of women and men (53%) reported asking for more.

Older employees are less likely to ask for a raise than younger ones, with only 17% of workers age 55 and over saying they “definitely” plan on asking, versus 36% of workers age 25 to 34.

Of those looking to up their salary, a majority (52%) plan on asking for a 5% increase or less. Another 41% plan to ask for a 6% to 10% raise. And 7% of respondents are aiming high, asking for more than a 10% boost.

Not only are more men asking for raises, they’re also aiming for higher amounts: The majority of women plan to ask for a raise of 5% or less (57% will ask for this amount, up from 52% last year), while the most common request among men is for a 6% to 10% raise (49%; down from 54% last year).

Salary is important to workers, and most we surveyed would consider leaving their current jobs for a pay increase: 20% say they would “definitely” consider this, and 39% would “possibly” make a move. Twenty-nine percent say they would not leave for more money, and 13% are unsure.

Flexible work hours and more vacation time can substitute for a raise

However, money is not the only thing that matters to employees, and there are other means by which employers can support their staff. When asked what benefits workers would take in place of a pay increase, the most common response for women is flexible work hours (42%); for men, it’s more annual holiday leave (37%).  Following these responses are health care benefits, chosen by 34% of respondents overall (and which are slightly more popular among women).

This is a reversal of last year’s top three substitutes, which were health care benefits (chosen by 36% of respondents last year), followed by flexible work hours (previously chosen by 35%) and more holiday leave (34% said this last year).

Paid parental leave is the least popular substitute for a pay raise, chosen by 13% of respondents, with almost no difference between men and women. And nearly one-third (30%) of respondents say there is simply no substitute for higher salary.

A bar graph showing the benefits workers would take instead of a raise.
This graph looks at the benefits workers would take instead of a raise, breaking down worker preference by gender. According to the data, 42% of women and 34% of men would take flexible work hours, and 41% of women and 37% of men would take more annual holiday leave. When it comes to health care, 36% of women and 31% of men would take this benefit instead of a raise, but only 13% of women and 12% of men would take paid parental leave instead. Only 28% of women wouldn't be willing to have any benefits instead of a pay raise, compared to 33% of men.

When it comes to pay transparency, there are arguments for it — such as the ability to reduce pay gaps — and against it, such as workers’ inflated senses of high performance. According to our survey, most employees (62%) don’t know what their colleagues make.

How employers can prepare for salary talks

Even though the year is young, knowing that many of your employees are planning to ask for a raise means it’s best to be prepared. Taking stock of current salaries, pay ranges for different positions and how different people within the company are being compensated for the same role is a great place to start; this can reveal any potential biases in compensation.

Comparing your salaries to those of your competitors is also a good idea; after all, if workers leave your company, that’s probably where they’ll go. If budgets are tight, consider opportunities to offer benefits that appeal to your staff.

However, don’t forget that employees are willing to consider benefits in lieu of wage increases. Be sure to explain to them the real value of these non-monetary benefits.

Employees asking for a raise should also come prepared. Indeed’s salary tool will show you typical salary ranges for your role, and our career guide is full of additional resources, including scripts on how to ask for a raise.

Happy employees are good for morale and are more likely to stay. Working to meet in the middle will help everyone leave salary talks feeling satisfied.