Negotiating your salary may be awkward, but it’s also incredibly important. Your starting salary sets the bar for your future earnings, from overtime to raises and promotions. So, when the topic inevitably comes up during your job interview, you want to be prepared. Here’s how to approach the subject.

ARM YOURSELF WITH RESEARCH.

It should go without saying, but research is key to nailing your job interview, and that includes the salary question. You can get an idea of what the market rate for your position is using sites that crowdsource salary information, like Glassdoor and PayScale.

“If you review this data prior to an interview you will at least have an idea of what the range is for the type of position you are applying for,” says David Carlson, author of Hustle Away Debt. “If you’re interviewing at a smaller firm that doesn’t have salary data available, consider looking at the average pay at large firms. It’s better to go into the interview with this information than nothing at all.”

Also, the nonprofit Educate to Career has a free salary calculator to help you determine your salary benchmark, based on your occupation and location.

WAIT UNTIL YOU HAVE AN OFFER.

What’s your current salary? What’s your salary range? When your potential employer finally asks the million dollar question, keep in mind: It’s a loaded one. By tossing out a number, you automatically anchor a value to your work.

“Discussing your salary during a job interview almost always favors the employer,” Carlson says. “Keep this in mind if the interviewer asks you what salary you are looking for.”

The company should offer you a salary based on your skills and experience, and tossing out a number too early can diminish that. In other words, you don’t want to put a price tag on your work before the employer even has a chance to value it themselves.

“Politely tell the interviewer you would be open to discussing your desired salary but would prefer to wait until you have an official job offer,” says Carlson. “This may not be what the interviewer wants to hear, but it can help shut down the salary discussion.”

TRY THE “BRIEFCASE TECHNIQUE.”

Author and entrepreneur Ramit Sethi recommends a specific technique for answering the salary question. He’s dubbed it the “Briefcase Technique.” You can see how it’s done in this video, but here’s how Sethi breaks it down:

“So the client says, 'You know, I'm really just curious. What's your price here?' And what you say at that point is, 'Oh, actually, before we get to that, let me just show you something I put together.' And you literally pull out, from your briefcase, a [one- to five-page] proposal document. And this proposal ... is actually about things you found in their business that you could improve, and exactly how you would go through it.”

With the Briefcase Technique, you’re already offering something to work with. This encourages the employer to determine your value based on your skills, work ethic, and drive—not just a number. It’s not something every job candidate will do, and that’s part of the reason it works so well.

AIM HIGH.

But what do you do if the employer pushes the issue? "If you keep getting pushed to name a salary you could mention the higher end of the range,” Carlson says. “Think of the number you mention as the ‘ceiling’ of what your offer would be—it’s unlikely they are going to offer you more than you ask for.”

According to Clarke University, most employers can budget 15 to 20 percent more than they initially offer. This is important to keep in mind if the employer listed a salary range in the job posting or makes you an offer below market rate. Don't assume there's no wiggle room and walk away too soon.

Once you have an offer in hand (no sooner, if you can avoid it), Carlson recommends, it's time to begin your negotiating in earnest.