Just because you've lost your job, don't assume you have to settle for less money at your next position.

"People who lost jobs think, I've got to take the first thing that comes along," said Cathleen Faerber, principal of The Wellesley Group, a Lake Zurich, Ill.-based search firm.

According to Kate Wendleton, founder of The Five O'Clock Club, a New York City-based firm that helps executive job hunters, "An estimated 40 percent of all job seekers may start new jobs for less money than they should be getting because they do not know how to handle salary negotiations."

In her book "Interviewing and Salary Negotiation"(Career Press), Wendleton noted that many job hunters think "a willingness to take a pay cut will make them more marketable, but this may not be true." There may be even more job hunters competing in the lower salary range. Also, employers suspect the applicant who will settle for less will quit when the first better offer comes along, she writes.

Some impatient job hunters conclude, "I really want this job," even before they've heard it described to them, Wendleton said. Instead, they should go into the first interview ready to negotiate on job description as well as the salary, and not to expect everything to be settled at the initial meeting.

If the salary offered is "insulting," saud New York-based career expert Tina Santi-Flaherty, the author of "Talk Your Way to the Top"(PenguinPutnam), "don't take it personally. It's just a budget number in their mind."

As interviewers are used to applicants who inflate past earnings, "bring the stub from your paycheck and offer to show it to them," Santi-Flaherty suggested.

Richard Bayer, chief operating officer at Five O'Clock, believes unemployed job hunters may undersell themselves in salary negotiations. "Remember that the person who names a number first loses, (so) postpone that discussion of salary until you actually have an offer," he said.

PAY CUTS A MYTH

Bayer said it is a "myth" that terminated workers must take pay cuts. "That is absolutely untrue," he said, adding that 73 percent of those counseled by Five O'Clock have gotten jobs paying as much or more than their last position.

Be aware, though, that Five O'Clock is a labor advocacy organization that provides career counselors to executive job seekers. Executives benefit from group and individual sessions on a weekly basis until they are actually hired. Few job seekers enjoy this level of professional support.

The Wellesley Group's Faerber advised laid off workers to "look for jobs that are at equal or higher level than what you had, ones involving equal or greater responsibilities than the one you left." Presumably, this will lead to fatter paychecks.

Gerald Parker, professor of management at St. Louis University, in St. Louis, said, "It's important to finish up your last job with a good push. Get all the activities done and get a good recommendation from the boss."

Laid off workers, he added, can find "all sorts of salary surveys on the Internet that will tell them what they're worth."

Career authority Jeffrey Mayer, president of SucceedingInBusiness.com, Chicago, said job seekers' resumes should stress how they "added value" in past jobs. Letters of commendation from former employers are also helpful, he said.

Laura Berman Fortgang, president of InterCoach, Inc., of Montclair, New Jersey, and author of "Living Your Best Life"(Tarcher/Putnam), advises discharged workers "to get their confidence back by getting other areas of their life working."

"When you go into a job interview, desperation is going to come with the state of your whole life, not just your work life. Unemployment is an opportunity to correct a lot of things you might not have liked and correcting them will make you feel stronger going into a job negotiation."

Five O'Clock's Bayer urges job seekers to have "six to 10 job possibilities in the works" and to remember that "Even an unemployed job hunter can be the subject of a bidding war between companies."

And if you accept an offer you still think is low, Robert Gardella, assistant director of Alumni Career Services at Harvard Business School, advises asking for a signing bonus to make up the difference.

In his book, "The Harvard Business School Guide to Finding Your Next Job"(Harvard Business School Press), Gardella also suggested, "Propose to have your first formal performance/salary review at three or six months, versus a year."

Do so only if you think you can prove your worth to the organization quickly and the hiring manager can get approval for an early review and increase, he wrote.

That way, even if you can't get what you want initially, at least once hired you're on a fast track toward your goal.