should I take a pay cut to pay for much-needed software for my team?

A reader writes:

I am a member of a two-person team, and we need a new software tool badly. It will save us many hours per release cycle and will improve the quality and usability of our product by a dramatic amount. Another reason my teammate and I are so invested in getting this tool is because it will give us far more opportunity for learning and actual career skill improvement than sticking with our old, antiquated toolset (some of the software is literally a decade old!). The tool was approved at the end of last year, but it has still not been ordered, and I found out today that there might not be room for this tool in our department’s budget after all.

My teammate and I will be making a case for the tool this Friday, with hard information and numbers on how it will save us time and improve our product, but I’ve gotten the impression that it might still not be enough to convince the upper managers.

Would it be out of line to volunteer to take a pay cut for this year to cover the cost of the tool? It would not be an unmanageable or unreasonable amount of money for me (spread out over the rest of the year), and it would be a one-time cost and not a recurring annual cost.

Don’t do this.

First, it’s going to come across as “I know better than you do how the company should be spending its resources and since you won’t make the right call, let me make it easier for you.” It’s also such an unusual thing to offer that it’s going to seem … well, not naive, exactly, but just sort of unaligned with how this stuff generally works.

Second, it might not matter, because salaries and software often come out of completely different budgets.

Third, it could have consequences that you don’t yet realize. You’re thinking of this pay cut as you essentially “paying for” the software yourself, but you’d be setting yourself up for any or all of the following possibilities:
* Your company could agree to the cut for one year and then freeze salaries next year, which could mean your salary wouldn’t be raised back to its current level, despite your agreement.
* If your company provides 401K matching based on your salary, you could receive fewer matching funds this year than you would otherwise earn.
* If you found yourself looking for a job for any reason, and the company insisted on knowing your current salary (a ridiculous but not uncommon practice), you could end up with a lower offer than you would otherwise have received.

Fourth, in addition to all this, they’re simply unlikely to take you up on your offer. When they choose not to order this software, what they’re saying is that they’ve judged other expenses to be higher priorities. Those decisions about priorities won’t change just because you make this offer.

Fifth, if they did take you up on your offer, they’d be revealing that they’re a pretty messed up company, because they should not allow you to personally shoulder an expense like this. Not unless you’re an owner or partner, and possibly not even then.

Ultimately you’ve got to accept that this one just isn’t your call, as much as you’d like to be able to make it happen.

{ 71 comments… read them below }

  1. The IT Manager

    Don’t so this. So many potential negative ramifications for you.

    It would make more sense for you to purchase the software yourself rather than take a pay cut and have the company make the purchase, but DON’T DO THIS EITHER.

    Just make the case to the best of your ability how much time and money the software can save the company.

  2. Runon

    Another vote for DON’T DO IT!!!

    Make a good case for it. Create a solid business case. The amount of time it would save over the course of a year. Tell them how much of your and your coworkers time will be spent, give a dollar value for that. Tell them what the cost for the software would be. Tell them the other things you could do with that time. Tell them the problems and errors that would be eliminated.

    Do NOT pay for it.

  3. COT

    This would set such a dangerous precedent. What about the next time you want to go to an expensive training, or need a hardware upgrade, or have another request? Will they make you personally fund those, too? If you make it easy for your company to not pay for the tools and skill-building you need, they may not pay for them in the future, either.

    Expect your company to meet your basic needs and enable you to do your job well. Make a great case for them to do so. And if they consistently refuse to invest in your department, maybe it’s time to look elsewhere.

    1. PJ

      “maybe it’s time to look elsewhere.”

      This. If you are not being provided with the growth and training you want in your current job, find another one. Do not EVER volunteer to work for a company for less money than they are willing to pay you.

      I’m going to guess that you are very early in your career, based on this letter. Let me just tell you that in addition to everything AAM has said, your company does not owe you a growth or training experience. But YOU owe yourself that. If they can’t provide it, move on. The truth is, if your company has to choose between its own needs and yours, it will always (and should) choose itself over you. This is not a bad thing, it’s just business, but it does mean you have to look out for yourself.

      Make no mistake — no matter how much you love your work, you are doing it in exchange for a paycheck. You owe them hard work and dedication in exchange for that paycheck, but don’t give it away if you don’t have to.

      1. Karla Marx

        “It’s just business” is the classic excuse for way too many types of employers bad behaviour. It’s shortsighted and in the end, usually backfires; when it comes right down to it, the employees *are* the business. Try serving customers without them.

          1. Karla Marx

            Oh, no doubt about that at all! It happens all the time. I just recognize it for what it is when it happens.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          “It’s just business” is an important concept for employees to understand when it comes to managing their own careers. For instance, too many people don’t quit for a better job when they should, because they feel disloyal or worried about what will happen at their employer if they leave. That’s the point here, I think.

          (I’m also going to disagree with the “employees ARE the business.” No one is irreplaceable. I might not be able to run a business without someone in Role X, but I can find quite a few people to do that role well.)

          1. Karla Marx

            I know this is true; I stayed in a couple of jobs long past the point where I should have left, for just those reasons.

            And, no, no one individual is irreplaceable. I was speaking in the general, rather than the specific.

          2. saf

            And employers and co-workers encourage this misplaced loyalty.

            I have just given notice, without anything new lined up. I didn’t want to do it. but this job is wrecking my health, and I am so overloaded and ill that I cannot look for a new job. My boss, who I think is great, tried to convince me to stay because he needs me. Same for the owners. Same for my peers.

            I’m glad they think highly of me. But I know I can be replaced, and they will eventually be fine. And if I stay, I will not be fine.

            And yet, knowing all this, it took me far too long to make this decision.

          3. Lindsay J

            Yes, but if you treat your employees badly enough that you can’t keep anyone in the role (or that you can’t keep high performers in the role because they exercise their option to go elsewhere) then you have a problem.

        2. Lindsay J

          One thing I really like about my new job is that they realize this. A couple of the managers bring home more money than the owners do at the end of the year, they offer a lot of spiffs to reward high performers, and they invest in training and employee development and offer room for advancement.

  4. ThatGirl

    I’m also in the DO.NOT.DO.IT camp.

    One thing that I did not see AaM address is, who has ownership of the software?

    You or the company?

    Will you get to do whatever you want with the software because you ‘paid’ for it? What if the company decides that other teams need to use the same software, do you get a voice in the use of the software?

    What if you leave the company/get laid-off or fired? Can you take the software or does the company own it and then have to reimburse you? Do they reimburse you the original cost or an appreciated cost?

    So many questions that could lead to litigation.

    If you really want to use the software for your professional development, please buy it for home and mess around with it on your time.

    1. PJ

      Yeah, they could buy the software, and then give it to another department where you never get to use it. Crappy, but legal.

      Crap happens. Don’t pay for it out of your own pocket.

  5. BKW

    Another vote for don’t do it.

    If the new tool is something that you feel you need to learn to be marketable to get another job, buy it for yourself, but don’t use it for work. Find another project to learn it on. There are so many ways this could come back to bite you if you buy it for the company or take a pay cut to let the company buy it – the risks and costs just aren’t worth it.

    1. Denise

      I agree with this. Since it’s partly about skill development, then you can pay for training on your own time–especially since you’re willing to take a pay cut. If this company wants to be inefficient, there’s only so much you can do. Kudos for being a great employee, but at a certain point, you might end up better off by taking your determination, skills and insight elsewhere.

  6. Steve

    To translate into developerese: OMG EPIC IDEA FAIL

    Another issue is you are essentially saying “Hello, I am more than willing to work for less money than you are currently paying me. In fact, I am so willing to work for less than you are paying me I am VOLUNTEERING to be paid less.” That is a very dangerous thing to tell your boss.

  7. heyMe

    Cost-Benefit Analysis – Show them how much it will cost going forward with your current software and then show them how much they will save. Do not mention how you would like to update your skills. Just show them that how much they will spend during the next five years for your team’s time with the old system and how much it would cost with the new system. Plus, is there more you can do with the new software, other cost savings, or even better, revenue generating.

    1. KS

      Ask the vendor if they have any case studies or an ROI evaluation tool that can help you build your case. I work for an ISV asn we do this all the time

      1. Jamie

        This and ITA about doing a CBA on the software. If you feel it will add value the vendor should be more than happy to provide ou with information to make a case, although that information should be independently vetted.

        I’m nosy so I’m curious as to the software, but typically software so expensive that this is an issue usually comes with yearly fees for upgrades and tech support. A certain engineering software with which I have a love/hate relationship is several thousand for the seat and another 1k + in yearly fees. I understand hiding details, but I’m just wondering what this is where it’s a one time payment.

  8. Sarah

    While I agree with AAM, the OP has a good heart. Often software is an expensive one time cost that organizations will put off buying, even though it’s needed and could improve productivity.

    1. College Career Counselor

      While you clearly care about your work, don’t do so to the detriment of your own status/compensation, etc. You’ll wind up resenting the company that “forced” you to take a paycut and might not ever use the software to its full capability (or at all).

  9. Rob (Bacon) Bird

    Pick your battles. If your employer isn’t willing to pick up the expense for this software (disclaimer-I hate software and am a firm believer and user of Salesforce) then make do with what you havem and pitch it to them again the next budget year.

    However, there are some things you can do in the mean time:
    1) Talk to the software vendor about other companies that have used this and the savings they have seen
    2) Use hard numbers: If you know how much the company spends in staff time/down time/etc. that they could save by using this software, get those figures!
    3) Make sure it is all about the company: List the reasons why the company needs to buy this, not why you want it. Leave out the part about providing you with an opportunity to learn and career skill imporvement.

  10. Just a Reader

    Lord no, don’t do this, for all the reasons posted.

    Besides making a solid business case for the software, can you do a productivity analysis with your current setup? What would you save with the new software? What additional projects could you support? Can you translate this into a profit or efficiency center for the company instead of a cost center?

    Show both sides of the coin–benefit with the new software, cost to the company without it whether it’s a cost of efficiency, productivity, innovation/go-to-market cycles, etc.

  11. Elizabeth

    Sadly, this situation is very similar to what many teachers face in the US. Many spend a significant amount of their own money (one of the studies I found said almost $1000/year on average!) for supplies and instructional materials for their classrooms.

    I’m fortunate to be working in a school where my budget covers most of my classroom costs, but I’m very much not the norm.

    1. fposte

      And while it sucks to spend out of your own pocket, I’d say if you have to, that’s the way to do it–take your money and buy what you think your workplace should have, and then it’s outright your stuff that you’re letting the workplace use (won’t work with software, obviously, but it’s a general principle). Never forego parts of your salary in the fond hope that work will buy what you want with it.

    2. Kim

      Word. I easily spent well over $1000/year of my own salary when I taught elementary school. Thankfully I was also able to utilize other funding sources for additional resources to fill my classroom. Nothing was reimbursed or provided, not even necessities like paper, copies, dry erase markers, pens, staples, etc.

      When I finally left teaching I took most of my things with me, and the classroom was completely sparse. Kind of sad to see how much of it was my own property.

      1. A Teacher

        We get $100 a year to spend on what we want. I spent that on beginning of the school year supplies. Last year I claimed $859 dollars spent on my classroom from reciepts saved and then itemized a personal laptop because we are expected to ‘use technology’ but for most of us a computer to do so isn’t provided.

    3. Denise

      The difference between this situation and that of teachers is that the teachers’ financial sacrifices are toward an altruistic end–the education of young people who will presumably be better off because of it. Also, given the way teachers are evaluated on their classroom outcomes, it makes sense for a teacher to do what is necessary to make sure they have the necessary tools to produce those outcomes. They’ll be judged by it. Teachers who go above and beyond are doing a great thing and deserve more support and resources

      But at a (presumably) for-profit company? Nuh-uh. This employee is commendable, but at the end of the day, this company is determining what is in its own best interest regarding profit and sustainability, and the owners/shareholders will be the ones to reap the benefits of any increase in productivity or cost savings. It’s possible that this employee’s initiative could be rewarded, but it doesn’t seem like the higher ups are that interested.

      1. Cat

        Teachers buy stuff for their classrooms because it’s towards altruistic ends, yes, but that doesn’t actually make it the right way to structure a society’s educational system any more than it’s the right way to structure a business.

        And workers in the private sector are also judged on their output, so I’m not sure that is a difference.

        1. Denise

          In this case, the higher ups don’t seem to be concerned with getting higher production numbers. Their expectations are being met, so there’s little reason for an employee to make a financial sacrifice to deliver results that the employer is not concerned about.

          Also, I said that teachers needed more support. I did not say that it was okay that they paid out of pocket. The point in writing that they were serving altruistic ends is that teachers choosing to pay for supplies if they deem it necessary actually makes sense in light of their vocational mission and professional evaluation, whereas what the writer is contemplating here does not.

          1. Cat

            I”m not disagreeing that this person shouldn’t spend their own money on it; but I also think people shouldn’t be spending their own money on company software even if the higher ups do seem to value better performance.

        2. Heather

          Hell yeah – just as software is a cost of doing business, teaching supplies are a cost of education and should be included in the school’s budget.

  12. Just a Reader

    Also, a lot of technology companies will give you a break if you agree to be a public reference–so you may be able to trade a press release announcing that you bought the software for a decent discount.

  13. plain jane

    Agree, don’t volunteer this.

    Also, don’t use this as a part of your argument “Another reason my teammate and I are so invested in getting this tool is because it will give us far more opportunity for learning and actual career skill improvement than sticking with our old, antiquated toolset (some of the software is literally a decade old!). ”

    That is an HR goal, not the goal of people who are deciding whether or not to buy software.

    Focus on
    – saving time
    – reducing errors
    – improving quality (are you losing customers due to quality problems? would you get more customers if this was better?)

    If you have a story about a previous cycle that had issues which would have been solved by this tool, telling that story (and the ramifications of those problems) might be relevant.

    The PTB might not see the problems with your current software because it’s been running “without trouble” for a decade.

    1. Yup

      Agreed. Talk about reduced cycle times, improved quality and customer satisfaction, decreased throughput costs, and increased productivity with existing headcount.

      One thing you could do is show the productivity per person as a time series chart: 2 people achieving X in 2013 could achieve X*3 in 2014 and X*5 in 2015, demonstrating that the company will recoup the software cost quickly while increased productivity simultaneously creates room for new work without adding more people.

      Also, highlight any known risks of the current software. Is there any risk it could become obsolete or unsupported, or become prohibitively expensive in the future due to changes in the license structure, etc etc?

  14. EM

    I kinda wonder if the OP is from a family that had regular “family meetings” to decide things like where to go on vacation. I’ve seen this advice in parenting books, and it’s always struck me as wrong-headed. Not everything is a democracy.

    1. TL

      I had (still have) a large amount of input in my family’s vacation plans, ect… My parents actively asked for input from the kids and included us in the decision making process. It actually worked out pretty well for me because I learned how to make decisions involving things like money, traveling, and people (and that even if I put in a lot of work and really wanted something, the powers that be could always say no.)

      Which is exactly what the OP needs to be doing here.

  15. Serena Joy

    I see the OP’s point. Working with such antiquated software is very likely to disqualify her for other, better jobs. No one employer wants anyone less than desk-ready these days, so I see why she’s eager to get experience with it on her record. All the reasons for not doing it stated above are good and valid, but it kinda leaves the OP in a bad place. “Look elsewhere” is easy to say, but hard to do when you’re lacking an important skill.

  16. Vicki

    Many years ago, my team needed a particular piece of hardware to do our jobs more effectively. It was, at the time, a $25,000 piece of hardware. We hesitated to ask our manager about getting one of these for our group because it was “so expensive”. We were currently “borrowing time” on the hardware owned by another group, after hours.

    Finally, we summoned the courage to ask. Our manager said, “You need this? You’ve been borrowing time? No problem. We have a $1 million budget. That’s not a big ticket item.”

    Moral: What we (employees and ordinary people) think is Very Expensive may not be considered that way by your manager or your company. Make a business case. And do not volunteer to “pay for it” out of your own salary.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Dear god, yes! I can think of so many times that I found out someone was hesitating to ask for approval to buy something because they thought it was too pricey, when it fact the amount barely registered in our budget.

    2. Elizabeth

      I got my first lesson in this in high school, when I did an internship at a laser laboratory. My mentor suggested that I might want a different kind of lens for a project I was doing (a side experiment) and handed me a catalog. Later, he asked me if I’d found anything. “Yeah…” I said, “…but it’s $80, so I’ll use the lens we have.” He looked at me like I had three heads. Apparently when you are doing Laser Science, $80 is nothing. To me, though, that was more than a day’s earnings!

      1. Jamie

        I’m pretty careful with money so I treat the companies money like it was my own. When I was first working my boss at the time had a talk with me about loosening the purse strings but that’s common.

        I still treat company money like it was mine in that I weigh each expenditure based on if it will benefit us as a whole, if so then I shop carefully for the best price. I really abhor the mindset that “company money” is somehow endless and the only reason it’s not free flowing is stinginess.

        So I personally love the attitude that $80 is a lot of money – because that awareness, once coupled with the knowledge that your work wants you to have the proper tools for your job, is what keeps budgets reasonable.

        1. Editor

          Yes, the careful shopping around with company money is important.

          What drove me wild with frustration in my last job was the purchase of new software followed by inadequate training, so users didn’t get the full productivity benefits of the Very Expensive Semi-Custom Product. So various people decided not to use various features designed to expedite work, to their local enterprise’s detriment. Then, company-wide, the company decided not to use one major set of features that had been one of the principle selling points, mainly because it involved some coordination with the (balky) website contractor. So we lost efficiency because no one made sure in advance the third party was onboard with the changes the new software offered. And the website contractor basically won, even though my employer had a substantial but not majority ownership in the website contractor. What a mess.

          1. Jamie

            Yep, this happens a lot. The preparation before implementation on an ERP or similar is so crucial. If its not a good fit and/or there is inadequate communication and training then everything after go live will be a nightmare.

        2. Flynn

          Of course, that can go WAY too far. Where I work now, we’re reduced to running an unofficial petty cash and nicking things from the main office because the person in charge of the budget won’t approve anything if they can possibly avoid it. Right down to stationery.

          Real story: we requested a laminator, it was bought, it was kept at the main office instead. Later we bought our own out of the petty cash, and one day asked for more laminating sheets. Minor expenditure, necessary for signage.
          “I don’t know what those are, you can’t have it”.

          Or the time we ran out of receipt paper, despite having requested more every month for three months previous. Asked for some of the main office’s stock to be sent over, they sent us one. We happened to go over later, tracked down an entire box, one of several, of them, and came back with a dozen rolls.

      2. FreeThinkerTX

        Circa 1998, I was a newly-minted field sales rep and was using my personal “brick” of a flip phone for business. I was missing a lot of calls from customers – and my boss – because my battery was old and wasn’t holding a charge very long. One day in the office my boss chewed me out for taking so long to get back to him, and I explained about the battery. He told me to go buy a new one. I said, “But it costs, like, SEVENTY-FIVE DOLLARS!” He looked at me like I was mad and said, “How much do you think it costs to lose a customer because you aren’t taking their calls in a timely manner?”

        Oh. Duh.

  17. Cube Ninja

    Another extremely relevant reason to add to the litany of DO NOT DO THIS is one that a lot of folks might not consider:

    Companies that sell various business tools very often have vastly different licensing agreements for personal use than they do for business. Enterprise software regularly has more restrictive agreements than the same piece of software for home use.

  18. perrik

    No, no, no. Absolutely not. This is a business expense, to be handled by the business.

    Present your case for the new software using hard numbers to explain what’s in it for THEM. Do not include anything about what’s in it for you, such as marketable skills. It has to be all about their business needs and how it helps them be more efficient.

    Use data visualization to communicate your numbers clearly. Plain numbers are boring and hard to grasp, but a graphic representation may grab their attention.

    If your own company will not or cannot switch to the more useful software, take that money you seem willing to sacrifice and instead invest it in *yourself* and your skills. Is this software available as a trial version or single-user version? Is there academic pricing? Are there training classes available through the software company? If knowing how to use the software is good for your future career, go learn it.

    Sometimes it’s just a matter of priorities. The company may be more in need of a network infrastructure upgrade, a modernized inventory system, a 100% increase in the number of account reps, etc. Or they may think that what you’re using now is good enough for their purposes.

    When I worked in HR at a university, HR and Finance used an antiquated computer system for things like employee records and payroll. We’re talking command-line interface. When you launched the program, it displayed a splash screen… of ASCII art. This was state-of-the-art in the mid 1980s, but I worked there in the late 2000s. This wasn’t a poor university. They just had other priorities, and the system was “good enough” for the time being.

  19. Lynn

    I’m not sure how effective the strategy of “buy it yourself and mess around with it at home” is. IME hiring managers only count experience that you got at work, for money. Open source projects, side projects, certifications, all mean basically nothing.

    1. Jamie

      I don’t think that’s true. Involvement in open source projects is a great way to stay involved between jobs and I don’t know anyone hiring in IT who wouldn’t weigh that on its own merits.

      1. Lora

        Maybe it’s field-dependent? In my field there is a considerable amount of open source software developed and used by academics and hobbyists, and it’s widely considered on a par with the spendy corporate stuff if you’re very good at it. Foldit, Bioperl, Biopython, EMBOSS, GENtle, and the NCBI suites are all considered equivalent to Schroedinger if you demonstrate that you’ve used it effectively.

        Don’t ask me about the hobbyist part, it falls under the heading, “some people juggle geese”.

    2. Elise

      Maybe it depends on how you present it? At the place I am currently interviewing, they really liked that I wanted to know something so I went online and am learning it myself.

    3. Ask a Manager Post author

      That’s not been my experience. Certifications generally don’t mean a lot, but side projects generally count. Smart employers — and even only-sort-of-smart employers — generally look at what you’ve built/created/achieved (in a real sense, not in the “I achieved this certificate” way).

      1. Lynn

        Really? I’ve done some significant side projects, and interviewers just look bored when I try to discuss them.

  20. OP

    Hey all, OP here. Thanks for the strong advice from Alison and all the commenters as well. It was good to see everything explained with such clarity, since the idea popped into my head in a cloud of growing desperation, I suppose. I guess all I can do is prepare for our meeting and hope for the best, and if it still doesn’t work out, then we’ll simply have to continue doing the best with what we have. Thanks again!

  21. French id

    This thread is an example of why I think this site is so valuable. The OP was brave enough to ask for advice for what she perceived might be a good solution to a problem. Others respectfully commented with very specific and helpful advice. I enjoy reading AAM’s writing and advice but what I learn so from are the comments. The variety of perspectives allow me to view solutions that I would never considered.

  22. French

    Forgot to say thanks to the OP for her last comment. Good luck Fri and I hope will provide us up an update.

  23. clobbered

    So, I have done this. Not offer to take a paycut (I agree this will just weird your employer out) but I have both purchased something personally to make my work life easier (a SaaS subscription, etc), and I have also said pro-actively “next time you’re thinking of giving me a raise, bear in mind I’d rather have an intern instead” in a situation where I knew it would be one or the other.

    Now this is not to mean the OP should ignore the advice above, but I do have a lot of sympathy for the frame of mind that is basically “I so much want this fixed that I’ll do whatever it takes”. I think if having a good workday is a major part of your happiness level, and if a tool will allow you to have a better workday, it doesn’t seem so crazy.

    But – it’s one thing to invest into something that will improve your personal productivity (in ways that are invisible to others), and it’s another to unilaterally make a technology choice for the organisation (which since this involves your coworker, I worry that you might be doing). There are all sorts of considerations in adopting a new platform that go beyond “I would much rather use it”.

    So while I am undoubtedly heading for some circle of hell or other for my admission, I agree that the only thing you can do is make a really great case on substantive issues, followed by “I want you to know that coworker and I are very motivated to make this change for the reasons I outlined, and we welcome your input on anything we can do to support such a transition”.

  24. Wilton Businessman

    F NO!

    If they can’t see the benefits of the new software, they deserve to keep paying you for doing it the hard way.

  25. Jessa

    It is also possible that they’ve decided against this software because they’re making changes that will make something else a better fit (legacy programmes, other issues.)

    But count me as number steen million jumping on the “OH NO NO NO do not do this,” wagon

  26. ew0054

    Ask yourself, why should you do this?

    The software is purchased by the company, for use by the company. It does not benefit you.

    It is a necessary tool for you to do your job. It should be provided by the company.

  27. kryzstoff

    My employer once asked me if I would do this, in order that the company afford to upgrade our software, when I was the IT manager. I didn’t of course, there’s nothing to gain and much to loose from taking up such an offer, but later I researched and presented him a case for the company to upgrade, in what ways it would save him money, boost productivity, and enhance his position with clients, (with my help). he quickly changed his tune and upgraded our software. it was a smooth and successful transition and all the staff appreciated the enhancements to their daily workflow.

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