How to Negotiate for a Lower Price on Anything

A lot of personal finance advice tells you to negotiate for a lower price on everything from cars to rent. But this requires you to do two things that are kind of uncomfortable in American society: talk about money, and try to get someone to do you a favor. Here's how to make the whole thing less painful.

Do your homework.

Ever notice how often this is the first step in a Social Minefield? Well, negotiating is no exception. I spoke with Dr. Deborah Kolb, assistant professor at Mills College and author of Everyday Negotiation, who says "having good information beforehand" is one of the key principles of negotiation. Jessica Miller, co-author of A Woman's Guide to Successful Negotiating: How to Convince, Collaborate, & Create Your Way to Agreement explains, "If you have done your research and understand the reasonable value of the item in the market (hint: the internet is a great place to start) and understand what you are willing to pay, you will be in a much better position to support the reason you are negotiating for a better price."

Doing your homework isn't just about finding out what the typical going rate is for something, although that's part of it. It's also knowing when you'll walk away. Kolb says that before you negotiate on anything, you need to ask yourself how important it is for you to get it, and at what point you'll be willing to walk away. The way you negotiate for something you absolutely need that day will be different than the way you discuss something you could buy at any point in the next six months. And if you know beforehand what constitutes a good deal to you, you won't get bogged down in pointless hair-splitting — or pressured into paying a price that's too high.

Ask the right person.

Another part of doing your homework is knowing who can give you the best deal on what you want. Says Miller,

Remember everything is negotiable if you are negotiating with the right person and ask in the right way. A store salesperson who does not work on commission will probably say no if you ask for a reduced price on an item because, for example, it is dirty or has a small imperfection. A manager or the store owner who has an incentive to sell the merchandise rather than leave it sit on the shelf or throw it out, will be much more likely to give you that discount.

So before you negotiate, do some research into who has the authority to give you the best price. And if someone tells you they don't have the authority to negotiate with you, consider asking to talk to someone who can.

Get out of your own way.

This advice comes courtesy of Kolb, who says people often shortchange themselves by assuming certain items are non-negotiable, or by assuming negotiation is "greedy." Really, she says, many supposedly non-negotiable items (like, say, a sweater in a department store) can be negotiable if you talk to the right person. Selena Rezvani, author of the forthcoming Pushback: How Smart Women Ask — and Stand Up — for What They Want, puts it a different way:

Some of the most fertile negotiation situations are those that people think are unmovable or not negotiable to begin with. This can mean a gift card that's expired, a rental agreement, a chipped mirror from a chain store that you don't feel you should have to pay full price on, or a subpar meal from your favorite restaurant that you consumed completely in hunger. Express your concern respectfully, keep your feedback as objective as possible, and you'll be surprised how often people will capitulate.

Kolb adds that if you're worried about seeming greedy or getting denied, think about what you bring to the table. She explains that while you might think the seller "holds all the cards," that might not be the case — they may need to make their sales numbers for that day, or get rid of inventory to make room for new stuff. Think about why someone might want to say yes to you, not just why they'd want to say no.

Aim high.

Or, in the case of trying to get a lower price, aim low. Says Rezvani,

As a starting place, people should anchor their "ask" as aggressively as they possibly can, while being able to back it up. [...] What you ask for should delight you, not merely satisfy you, if you were to get it.

This doesn't mean you have to offer something insane ("I'll give you $0 for this Ferrari"), but do offer the lowest price supported by your research. After all, nobody's going to go lower than your first offer.

You don't have to take no for an answer.

Kolb says "no may be just the beginning." And Rezvani adds,

One big mistake many people make is to assume that when someone says "no," the matter is closed for discussion. Often the timing just wasn't right the first time so a second ask (timed better or under different circumstances) will do the trick. It's more than okay to be tenacious –- in fact get in the practice of hearing "no" as "not yet."

When it comes to price, you won't always get a chance to ask a second time under different circumstances. But you could ask in a different way. Rezvani recommends,

Get in the habit of asking deepening questions. Doing so buys you time, gives you more intelligence on the other person's constraints and circumstances, and helps you craft a more creative, tailored deal that suits all parties. Some examples include: Can you explain how you arrived at that solution? How could I help you feel more comfortable with this request? What is most important to you? How can we make this work for both of us?

Kolb points out that you can also add issues to the negotiation. For instance, if you're buying a couch, the price might not be the only thing you care about. Maybe you can also get a break on delivery costs, or a matching ottoman thrown in for free. "Once you add issues," says Kolb, "there's more to bargain on than just price."

Anticipate counter-arguments.

One more tip on dealing with "no": plan your comebacks. Kolb advises that you learn to "anticipate the moves that people will use to put you on the defensive." So if someone says "we never negotiate on price," have a followup question ready to go. Or, as Rezvani says,

Pre-empt counterarguments: Once you make an ask and give a rationale, surface the objections you think you'll hear. Beat people to the punch and you'll show that you've considered ripple or domino effects as well as the larger picture.

Be willing to walk away.

Unless you absolutely have to buy the item from that seller that day (in which case, you might have to cave), you need to be willing to walk away if you're not getting what you want. Says Miller, "No deal is better than a bad deal." However, walking away doesn't have to be the absolute end. She explains,

Walking away is not necessarily the end of the negotiation. When you walk away leave the door open for the other side to gracefully change their position without losing face by telling them what it will take to get you to make the deal.

That might mean leaving your information and telling them to call you if and when they can match your price. It might mean, as Rezvani said, trying again another day. Whatever the case, knowing you can walk away if you feel like it can give you the confidence you need to aim high (or rather low) and hold out for the deal you want.

Everyday Negotiation
Pushback: How Smart Women Ask — and Stand Up — for What They Want
A Woman's Guide to Successful Negotiating: How to Convince, Collaborate, & Create Your Way to Agreement