It's the question we all dread.

Sometimes it comes up in the first interview, and sometimes hiring managers hold it until the very end. But it always comes. "What were you earning at your last job?"

For job seekers, this question should keep you up at night, since it has the potential to negatively affect your income for your entire career.

That means if you accepted too little or didn't negotiate early on, one bad salary move follows you to each next job.

"How are you ever going to increase your earnings if every time you change jobs, you get a tiny raise over what they paid you at the last place?" writes Liz Ryan, founder of one consulting firm.

“We’ve gotten used to the idea that the question ‘What were you earning before?’ from a prospective employer is perfectly reasonable. It's not, of course. Your personal finances are your business.”

So how do you avoid the fateful question without hurting your chances of landing the job?

Ryan advises answering it indirectly by giving your target salary range instead.

If the interviewer asks for your previous salary a second time, Ryan says you can simply respond that you'd prefer not to give it.

It will likely be uncomfortable the first few times you do it, but remember that most services are not valued by what another customer previously paid for them.

As Ryan writes, "When we call the plumber because our tub drain is clogged, we don't ask, ‘What did you charge the guy down the block to unclog his drain last week?' If we do, the plumber is going to say, ‘My rate is $95 an hour. Do you want me to come over or not?'"

Setting and sticking to a reasonable rate for your services will actually make you a more appealing job candidate, and in the long run, you'll make more money.