This post from Cortney Jansen. Cortney is 29, works as an engineer in the Bay Area and has been reading GRS for a couple of years now. She’s in the third stage of personal finance: debt-free and trying to figure out the best balance for multiple savings goals. This post is part of the Reader Stories series. Some reader stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success or failure. These stories feature folks with all levels of financial maturity and income. Want submit your own reader story? Here’s how.

Ever since I discovered Get Rich Slowly, I’ve wanted to submit a Reader’s Story. However, I struggled to find a topic that GRS readers might find relevant. I’m debt-free – and only ever had student loans, which were easily manageable. Both cars are paid off, and there’s a fund in place for the next one. I don’t own a home, but I’m saving for a down payment and in no rush to buy one. As a result, I have no amazing tale about how I racked up all this debt and, through diligence and penny-counting, paid it off. My story – one in which spending less than I earn is easy – is boring and probably even off-putting to some. So instead, I became a passive GRS member, reading articles by other people, occasionally commenting, and always wondering, “Will there ever be anything I can actually contribute?”

The year of the negotiation

Since I knew I’d eventually need a new car and would want a house, I needed to save for those purchases. As I started to evaluate how much to set aside, I realized that these two purchases would be much cheaper if I knew how to negotiate. Although I’ve haggled in the past (mostly for souvenirs in foreign countries), it was nothing compared to the skills I would need to buy a car or a house. Also, I read several articles about how women rarely negotiate salaries. I eventually realized that until I learned to negotiate, I was costing myself money, potentially tens of thousands of dollars over the years. I needed to become a confident negotiator and decided 2012 would be a good time to start. As the months went by, I realized I might actually have a story of interest to GRS readers. And so, I present to you: The negotiations of 2012.

Situation #1

What happened: In an interview for a new job, I was asked about my salary requirements. I said something to the extent of “Oh, I’m not sure. Maybe between [this range].” I may have even given my current salary. In short, I broke every negotiating rule I’ve ever heard (and probably even a few more).

I went home cursing myself and promptly hopped online to learn what I should have said (iwillteachyoutoberich.org was very helpful here), swearing that I would weasel my way out of this if it was the last thing I did. When I got the offer, the salary was unsurprisingly at the bottom of the range I’d mentioned. I thanked them for the offer and said I was excited about the opportunity. Then, I explained that the salary was lower than I had hoped, and even though I had given a range in the interview, I did so without knowledge of the other benefits (vacation, 401k matches, etc). I listed a few specific benefits that were less than my current job and said that I believed these cuts justified a higher salary. We agreed on 10 percent more than the initial offer.

What I learned: If you’re like me and usually give the first number, you must practice beforehand! If necessary, memorize key phrases (e.g. “Well, it depends on a number of things, and at this point I’d rather focus on what I can offer in this position.”) that you can use when asked about your salary requirements. If asked about your current salary, try something like, “My current company policy requires employees to keep our salaries private” (assuming this is true).  If you get an offer that you’d like to negotiate, always start by thanking your potential employer for the offer and emphasizing how excited you are to join the organization. Only then should you talk about what you’d like to change in the offer. Finally, remember that making a major mistake like I did doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve lost all negotiating options.

Situation #2

What happened: I made a reservation at a major hotel chain and ended up canceling the room within the time allowed by the cancellation policy. Even so, the charge still appeared on the credit card bill. After calling and getting them to cancel the charge, I asked if I could get something for my time and effort. The customer service representative asked what I wanted, and I said at least $25. After speaking with her superior, she offered me 5,000 points to redeem online. I countered with 10,000, and we ended up at 7,500.

What I learned: I have got to stop giving the first number! More importantly, if you’re ever offered points or something similar, understand their real value. I later learned that all rewards were a minimum of 6,500 points. Since I never stay with this hotel chain, her initial offer of 5,000 points would have been useless. Finally, it never hurts to ask – I ended up $25 richer after about five minutes on the phone.

Situation #3

What happened: I found a product available online only at Company A and Sky Mall. Although I really want it, it cost $40, and I couldn’t find a coupon online anywhere.  Shipping was outrageous, and Sky Mall actually ended up being $1 cheaper than Company A. I called Company A, explained that I could get it cheaper at Sky Mall and asked what they could do to encourage me to buy it from them. They offered me free shipping, and I ordered it immediately.

What I learned: I wasted more time looking for coupons online than I spent on the phone. If a quick online search turns up nothing, try calling the company. Remember, $8 for you is a lot more than it is for them.

Situation #4

What happened: The center of all negotiating – the flea market! I have four books in my hand, which total $11. I actually didn’t want to negotiate this – less than $3 for a used book seemed like a bargain. But at a flea market, you must bargain, right? I offered $9 and we settled on $10.

What I learned: Even in the perfect environment, negotiating doesn’t always feel right. Sometimes, this is probably a valid emotion (after all, is it really worth negotiating over $2?), but it takes practice to learn when this is true.

Now, of course, none of these stories required hours of arguing, and most of my results came from just asking. Is it truly negotiating? Probably not, but it is the first step in negotiating – learning that it’s okay to ask for a discount. Until you feel confident asking for something, it’s hard to be comfortable negotiating for it. Negotiation also requires loads of practice. Try practicing in front of your spouse, a friend or your mirror. And remember that although it may seem silly to ask for a $2 discount, every time you do so, it’s practice for when you’re ready to buy your next car or other situations where negotiating really matters. Who knows, you may even be shocked to discover that negotiating is fun.