When I moved into a studio apartment last year, the only piece of furniture I brought with me was a bed. I would love to say it was my hardheaded anti-materialism, but it was just easier to move with less stuff. Horoscopes and pithy self-help Instagram accounts always say you should let go of what no longer serves you, but when you’re packing up your entire existence and laying in the dark the night before the movers arrive, it is easy to overestimate what “no longer serves you,” so you can feel justified in putting it on the curb or leaving it behind for the next subletter to deal with.
Which is not a snub of hand-me-downs: Almost every piece of furniture I had in that old apartment had belonged to the previous tenant, one of my best friends who encouraged me to take over her room when she moved out. When I decided to live alone, though, I thought it was time to step up my furniture game. I knew that this would be potentially very expensive, but I would be patient, I told myself. I would wait for deals. I would invest, strategically, in pieces I loved, the kind of furniture people my age talk about acquiring when they are finally ready to “settle down.”
I did end up buying some pieces I really love, but I was wrong about almost everything else. I learned, over the many months I spent furnishing my new place, that I didn’t have to be patient. I did not have to be at the mercy of retailers, whether big-box or boutique, because there was another marketplace where I had leverage, I had power, and I got hooked on the feeling of wielding it. I’m talking about Craigslist. I’m talking about haggling.
I love Craigslist. I love shopping secondhand and getting a glimpse into the lives of other New Yorkers’ homes. But it didn’t occur to me to haggle, until I was shopping for a couch, the last thing on my list. Every Craigslist couch that looked vaguely comfortable was listed for hundreds more dollars than I wanted to spend, and I had gotten used to the thrill of finding a good deal. Haggling should have been an obvious next step, but first I had to get over various mental hurdles, which were all really the same thing: fear of a life-crushing no.
Before I tried haggling, I ran through the ways I could fail—coming off as unhinged, incurring the wrath of hateful strangers online, or worse, never getting a couch. But the nice thing about haggling is there’s almost no learning curve. By asking, you are doing it. There is not much room to fail, which is comforting, because that’s not usually the case when learning a new skill as an adult.
Haggling, in a way, reminds me of organizing my last workplace; it makes you aware of your leverage and emboldens you to use it strategically. But I wasn’t strategic—I just emailed everyone with a nice couch and asked if they would knock the price down several hundred dollars. Most of these missives went unanswered—and while that was frustrating because I really wanted to a couch (so I could stop lying on the floor to watch TV), I felt a rush every time I tried again. The point wasn’t getting a yes. The point was pulling up a chair and getting comfortable in the space between making an ask and waiting for an answer. We all exist in that space at some point, and in haggling, I stopped panicking about the answer.
My first “yes” when couch-shopping was originally a no, which of course made it sweeter. I had struck out so many times, and then I saw an ad for a beautiful, extra-long, West Elm couch that was “barely used”—perfect for my extra long and narrow apartment. The seller said he’d bought it the year before for $1300 and was asking for $1100.
Right off the bat, spending over $1000 on a couch was a non-starter for me. I emailed him without thinking and asked if he could go to down to $750. When he wrote back later that day and said that wouldn’t work for him, I wasn’t surprised and returned to browsing Craigslist and vision-boarding and scheming. Then he emailed me a few days later: He couldn’t go down to $750, but what about $850? Instinctively, I thought he could go lower—I knew that, on Craigslist, no one cares what you originally spent and suspected people were balking at his starting price. I wagered he’d take $800, and asked him. “Hi Frida,” he wrote back the next day. “No problem. I guess that works.”
Rereading his response, I feel a sense of second-hand embarrassment at my younger, overeager self. This threatens my happy, me-first narrative of haggling: Should I have taken so much joy in getting this guy to go down another $50? Herein, I think, lies the real virtue of haggling: both parties are practicing taking a stand and (hopefully) arriving at the thing they both want. This is the best-case scenario. But even when the negotiation is over, it’s still imperfect; I still wish I’d gone lower, given the cost of later moving the couch myself, and I’m sure the seller wishes the opposite. We each started with an idea of what we wanted, but in all likelihood, both ended up compromising.
Here’s another way haggling is like organizing—it isn’t about getting exactly what you want. What draws me to both is that there is something liberating about expressing your deepest-held desire to another person. I find that the more I practice articulating what I want, the less I care about getting rejected. That is its own reward: believing something better is possible. Couch included, or not.
Frida Garza is a freelance writer and organizer living in Brooklyn.