How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love to Bargain

“My family's coming over for Thanksgiving,” I told Kim last week. “Really?” she said. “Where are they going to sit?” Good point.

When I moved in, my condo was sparsely furnished. In the divorce, I took a handful of items that were clearly mine — a couch, a chair, a liquor cabinet — and let Kris keep the rest. During the year I lived alone in an apartment, I filled the gaps with inexpensive stuff. Now, in a larger home, there was lots of empty space. The dining room, for instance, was a sea of of emptiness because my IKEA table was acting as a desk in the spare bedroom. Part of this was by design. I hoped that Kim would agree to merge households, so I intentionally left parts of the canvas blank.

Sure enough: In July, she moved in, bringing her own hodgepodge collection of furniture. This meant we could use the IKEA table for its intended purpose…but we never did. After being moved to the dining room, it sat there alone and unloved. It was too small to meet our needs. We both wanted to replace it with something that allowed us to host friends for dinner parties, but it hadn't been a priority — until I volunteered to host Thanksgiving.

How we shop for furniture

Kim and I are both frugal folks. We don't like to spend a lot of money, especially on furniture, which always seems overpriced anyhow. One way we save money on furniture is by buying used. Since I've known her, Kim has used Craigslist to purchase an office desk, an easy chair, and a couch. I always check there first when I need something, but haven't had much luck recently. (But Kris and I purchased all sorts of home furnishings off Craigslist over the years.)

Kim and I also like a certain local consignment store. We discovered the place while shopping for her desk and have been back several times since. After I settled in my condo, I wanted a few small things to make the place more homey. At the consignment store, I found some great bar stools for cheap, as well as a bench and table for the entryway, a mirror, and a couple of other odds and ends. The store is also a great place to sell furniture. When Kim moved in with me, her couch became redundant.

After it didn't sell on Craigslist, we took it to the consignment store. “You'll get 60 percent of whatever it sells for,” they told her. She set a price and signed the papers. Another way we keep costs down on furniture is by bargaining. In fact, Kim negotiates all the time. During our 18 months together, I've watched her haggle on all sorts of stuff, from clothes to food (at the farmers market, not at the grocery store) to furniture. She's good at it. “I believe in negotiating on almost everything,” Kim told me recently. She sees no downside and lots of upside.

Note: When my dishwasher died recently, I didn't bargain like this when shopping for the replacement. I should have. It might not have worked (since the store already made some price concessions), but it wouldn't have hurt to try.

Eagle Bargain Outlet

Last Friday, Kim and I spent a fun evening both bar hopping and table shopping. We'd stop for a beer and then move on to the next pocket of furniture stores. Most of what we saw was too expensive or wasn't our style. We wanted a table to seat eight or 10, and we preferred something round or square in order to foster conversation. Dining tables tend to be long and narrow, so we didn't find much that met our needs. When we did find something, it usually cost about $2,000, which was far outside our budget.

Eventually we found a likely candidate at Eagle Bargain Outlet, a store that sells overstocks from Costco. The table was “pub style,” meaning it was tall and square, with six chairs and a bench. Had it been in good shape, it would have been almost perfect. But it wasn't in good shape. Both the table and chairs were beat up. There were small gouges here and there, and one of the corners on the table had been bashed, revealing the MDF beneath the polished surface.

“I kind of like it,” Kim said as we examined the dings and dents. “I do too,” I said. “But not at $700.” “Let's offer $500,” she said.

We found the store owner and started bargaining. We worked as a team.

“I notice you still have that table,” I said. (We'd seen it the last time we visited the store in July.) “It's been here for a couple of months. I can see why.” I pointed to the damaged corner.

“Yeah, it's nice,” Kim said. “But I'm not sure I'd like to have it in our home when it's that beat up.”

The owner nodded. “It's not in the best shape,” he said. “Things get damaged around here. Sometimes customers are careless. I'll tell you what. I'll let you have it for $600.”

“That's still too expensive,” Kim said. “I think we can find something better for less. Will you take $500?”

The owner shook his head. He pulled out a calculator and punched in some numbers. “I can't take $500. Brand new, it's a thousand-dollar table. But if you give me $550, you can have it.”

Kim and I exchanged a glance, which was all we needed. “That's tempting,” I said. “How's this? We're about to leave for the weekend, but when we get back on Sunday, we'll come by if we're still interested.” We jotted down the owner's name and the deal he'd promised.

“That table's OK at $550,” Kim said as we drove home. “But I'd rather pay $500. I think we should keep looking.”

Let's make a deal Bargaining on the table at the consignment store

On our way out of town the next morning, we stopped at the consignment store to check on Kim's couch. It had sold, and there was a check waiting for her. While she did business, I checked the floor for dining tables. In a back corner, I found one I liked. It wasn't round or square, but it still looked warm and inviting. It had a rustic finish and was very solid. Plus, the price was reasonable: only $650.

When Kim finished her paperwork, she came to see what I'd found. “Not bad,” she said. She looked at each of the two chairs and two benches. “Are these wobbly?” she asked, but the saleswoman showed us that the floor was just uneven. Kim found other flaws, which wasn't hard. The table was well-used, so there were plenty of scars and scratches. (Because it was naturally rustic, these didn't bother me, but I wasn't going to say that aloud.)

Kim played the gender card. “I'm a typical gal,” she said, rubbing her hand over the most noticeable blemish. “This sort of thing bugs me. Appearances are important. When we have people over for dinner, I want things to look nice. I don't want my guests sitting at a scuffed-up table.”

“We have a little room in that price,” the saleswoman said, “but not a lot. That table came in on Tuesday, so the owner won't move much. But I'm certain I could sell it to you for $600.”

Kim and I conferred in whispers. “It would be great to be done with this process,” I said. “Plus, I really like that table.” “I like it too,” she said, “but $600 is too much. Let's see if we can get it for less.”

She took the lead. “We can't pay $600,” she said, “but we'd buy it today for $500. What's the lowest price you can give us?”

The saleswoman frowned. She asked to be excused so she could call the seller. After a few minutes, she returned. “I'm authorized to sell it to you for $550,” she said. “But you have to buy it today, and you have to pay cash.”

“Done,” Kim said. We went to the bank to get the money, and then drove on to Hood River for a weekend of picking fruit and tasting wine.

Bargaining for beginners

Over the past eight years (!!!), I've shared several articles at Get Rich Slowly about how to haggle and negotiate, including:

I know that haggling is a valuable skill. All the same, it's taken me a long time for negotiating to feel natural to me. I think part of the problem used to be low self-esteem. Seriously! I didn't want others to think poorly of me, and I was afraid that bargaining would make them cranky. Things have changed. For one, I've learned that it doesn't matter what other people think (especially strangers!). For another, I've done a lot of travel.

You see, in other countries, bargaining is common. If you don't bargain, you can get ripped off. (Heck, even when you do bargain you can get ripped off.) During my first few trips abroad, I didn't enjoy the bargaining process. When Kris and I went to southern Africa in 2011, the markets frustrated me. I wanted to buy stuff, but it seemed silly to haggle with folks who needed the money more than I did. My efforts were half-hearted.

In Peru, however, it became clear my hesitancy was only costing me money. When my friends and I would return to the hotel after a day of shopping, we'd compare our catches. We'd often purchased the same things, but some of us — including me — had paid two (or three or four) times what the best bargainers had paid. Toward the end of that trip, I stepped up my game. By the time I left, I'd even become bold enough to haggle on the price of soda pop!

Last month in Ecuador, it was fun to see how far I'd come. As always, my friends and I would compare what we'd paid for similar items. This time, I paid much less than everyone else.

Like anything, bargaining takes practice. You have to get comfortable with the give and take. Just remember that if you take a friendly, casual approach, you won't upset the other person — not even in the U.S. Frequently, your courage will reward you with lower prices. And the worst the person will do is simply tell you no.

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Beth
Beth
8 years ago

Great story. I think it’s important to have an idea in mind of what you’d like to spend — but don’t assume things are out of your price range. Sellers can always say no and you can always walk away.

But I think you meant bargaining or haggling in the title rather than bartering?

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
8 years ago
Reply to  Beth

Yes, yes. My bad. Not sure how I even allowed the word “barter” into the title. Can I play the age card? I’m old! 🙂

I no longer have access to the GRS backend, so can’t fix this myself. I’ve emailed Ellen to correct the title, and to fix the formatting (not supposed to be one big blocky paragraph).

Beth
Beth
8 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

I have days where words switch themselves in my writing too and I’m at least a few years younger 😉

In this case, it worked out well — I was curious to hear what you said about bartering, but this was even better!

Matt at Your Living Body
Matt at Your Living Body
8 years ago

Overstock is another place to find decent furniture deals.

FI Pilgrim
FI Pilgrim
8 years ago

I love to haggle when I’m shopping for things (especially on Craigslist) but I hate dealing with hagglers when I’m selling things. Is there something wrong with that?

Glad to see that you got such a good deal, the dining room is the place to be during the holidays!

Anne
Anne
8 years ago
Reply to  FI Pilgrim

Yes, this is my problem also. People talk about how wonderful, and profitable, it is to bargain but most of us hate it when the tables are turned on us.

Marsha
Marsha
8 years ago
Reply to  Anne

Just build some haggling room into your asking price, or state that you’re firm on the asking price and won’t take less. Yes, some people will nag you repeatedly, but just keep smiling and saying no.

Haggling is fun whether you’re the haggler or seller, as long as you maintain a cheerful attitude.

lostAnnfound
lostAnnfound
8 years ago

We’ve started learning that bargaining is good; at least it never hurts to ask. Last week the dryer died. We went to a local used appliance store to replace it (since it will be located in the basement I’m not too concerned about how it looks on the outside, as long as it functions well). We found a nice clean electric dryer for $180.00! Great price! But I asked anyway if they gave a discount for cash sales and the owner took an additional $10.00 off. So we got a really nice used dryer (works great!) for a very good… Read more »

Brian @ Debt Discipline
Brian @ Debt Discipline
8 years ago

Definitely a good technique to have in your tool belt. I wonder other then 2nd hand stores are there and big boxes stores where this would work?

Naomi
Naomi
8 years ago

I have a friend who haggles at Nordstrom. When he’s buying shoes, he gets them to throw in free socks. When he’s buying a suit, he gets a free tie. Nordstrom! Who knew?

Miss Growing Green
Miss Growing Green
8 years ago

Great post!
How am I only now finding your blog?!
I think haggling is something that people choose not to do because of “social awkwardness”, or they think it takes too much time to shop around and negotiate. There is definitely a balance to be kept there, but many people automatically dismiss the idea of bargaining because they *think* it will take too much time, without actually assessing how much time it will really take. In my experience, it’s usually worth the time to haggle / shop around for big name items like you mentioned.

Jean
Jean
8 years ago

J.D., I totally get where you’re coming from about not being comfortable with bargaining/haggling. Still a work in progress for me.

Would you haggle/bargain with friends? I don’t remember that being addressed anywhere.

One place I would never bargain is with the farmers at the farmers market. Those people work HARD for what they get. And seeing them every week for years, I consider them friends.

mary w
mary w
8 years ago
Reply to  Jean

Like you, I don’t bargain usually at Farmers’ Markets. My area has large immigrant populations from areas where bargaining is common and I’ve often seen offended farmers turn them down flat.

Where I do softly bargain with farmers is either ahead of time (e.g., I need 50 lbs. of apples next week. What kind of deal can you make me) or at the end of a market day (e.g., Do you have any deals on tomatoes that won’t make it another day for my canning project?)
This frequently works and no one has ever been offended.

Chuckie G.
Chuckie G.
8 years ago

Want a table? Why not build your own? Furniture is too expensive. My wife and I also recently went down the path of looking at dining room tables and found that anything we even remotely liked was hilariously expensive, even when used. I have also found the terms “arts and crafts,” “mission,” and “farmhouse” are Craigslist speak for ridiculously priced. I consider myself mildly handy so I have taken an interest in building furniture. I have found http://www.tommyandellie.com to be a very inspiring DIY home furnishing blog. While my primary motivation was financial, I have found a lot of self-satisfaction… Read more »

Deborah
Deborah
8 years ago

I’ve lived in parts of the world where haggling is expected. Neither seller nor buyer starts out at the price they expect to get. Culture aside, I think it’s something that appeals to competitive people. Me? I detest it. Part of my dislike stems from a dislike of shopping in general. Spending extra time in price negotiation to save a few bucks holds no appeal.(Explains why I keep cars for 12-15 years.)

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago

While I love the idea of haggling and am quite good at it myself, I would NEVER, repeat NEVER, haggle with any vendor selling food at the farmer’s market nor anyone who worked in independent retail (non-chain). Reason for #1 is that farming is a dying art and those who are farmers are hard workers (as Jean points out above) who deserve to be paid in full for their work. Their is no middle man or wiggle room in their pricing for the most part. It’s an insult frankly to offer less than what they are asking. It shows a… Read more »

Marsha
Marsha
8 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

I don’t understand the sacredness you ascribe to the farmers at the market. I work hard for my money, too. They’re always free to say “no, the posted price is firm.” What’s the problem with that? And how do you know they don’t want to bargain? Some of the farmers may be happy to sell at a lower price, sell more, and go home earlier. And why is it embarrassing when someone asks for a discount at a retail store? Just smile and say no! You don’t have to justify your prices with statements about thin margins etc., because frankly,… Read more »

M
M
8 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

I don’t think that Elizabeth sees farmer’s markets as sacred. Yes, everyone works hard but folks at farmer’s market at trying to make a living against a monumental tide of price subsidies in industrial agriculture. To step out of this is to assume tremendous economic risk. This risk is hidden from the public mostly.
Of course I’m biased because I have a hobby farm. But it’s not my source of income and I set my prices too low. However, that’s my choice.

shirley pie
shirley pie
8 years ago
Reply to  M

setting your prices too low is doing a disservice to the other farmers and market prices- by creating an artificial low price you are causing them to cut their prices in order to compete.

superbien
superbien
8 years ago

JD, glad to hear that you’ve had some good things happening in your life, best to you. I like your point on haggling in a pleasant way, it can certainly work and end up with both parties being satisfied. I had a potential roommate pleasantly state that her budget was X (30% lower than what I was listing), and since I have not had a lot of potential roommate applicants, I was willing to consider her at that rate. It never hurts to ask, especially when you have any kind of edge (in this case, I need a roommate at… Read more »

betsy22
betsy22
8 years ago
Reply to  superbien

I’d buy (and have bought) used wooden furniture, but like you, I’m now very leery of anything upholstered. I’ve happily acquired used couches from friends’ houses, but I’m just too scared of bedbugs to buy a used bed or couch off of Craigslist. Oh well – thankfully, I don’t actually need another couch right now!

Kristia
Kristia
8 years ago
Reply to  betsy22

Bedbugs are the reason why I won’t buy upholstered furniture from someone I don’t know. On a local yard sale Facebook page that I belong to, someone bought a sofa and unknowingly brought bedbugs into her home. It was horrible for her. yuck!

PawPrint
PawPrint
8 years ago

I tried to negotiate the rent on our apartment when we moved in, but I was too naive about rents, etc. Now that we’ve lived here six months and watched the unit next to us advertised for less than ours after two months vacant, I’m going to negotiate a lower rent when the lease is up. According to the Seattle paper, there’s an apartment building boom so more competition next spring. Once the 50 lb. puppy upstairs starts running, barking and dropping stuff on the hardwood and tile floor in the apartment upstairs, nobody is going to look twice at… Read more »

Edward
Edward
8 years ago

I suck at haggling! Wish I was better at it. My brother travels to the Middle East a lot (he’s an archeologist) and he says if you don’t haggle the price down in some places it can be a real slap in the face to the seller. …Almost the same as saying, “Money is of no object to me and talking to you isn’t even worth my time.” Haggling is expected in some of those places and not doing so is extremely rude. Obviously, my brother is now ace at it.

partgypsy
partgypsy
8 years ago

It’s funny, my Mom is from Chicago, and naturally haggles over everything. This means being with her pointing out flaws in clothing she wants to buy to see if she can get a discount, finding expired coupons for bowling and seeing if they will honor them, or if not, throw in an extra game for free, etc. I remember feeling mortified by this when young, but to her it was just part of the way of doing business. She would also do it, not just to get something cheaper, but if she didn’t like the hotel room offered ask if… Read more »

Tie the Money Knot
Tie the Money Knot
8 years ago

This is an area where I’d like to improve, and I think I have to some degree. But there are people better.

I really think that having the confidence to do so, and not feel guilty about it, can be a huge help in learning to bargain. It’s not natural in our society here in the US to bargain, but we can learn a lot from how others do it in other cultures. Quite often, there is very little at risk to try it.

Done by Forty
Done by Forty
8 years ago

JD, great post on one of my favorite subjects. I negotiate as part of my job as a procurement professional, and I too have learned to love the process. Like anything else, success comes with practice and from learning new skills over time. After the first day of one of my negotiating classes, the instructor gave us homework: negotiate something that is priced UNDER $5. It was nerve wracking. But I went to a bar and negotiated a discount on a pint of beer, that was already on happy hour. It was a great feeling. Like you said, everything is… Read more »

SK
SK
8 years ago

I don’t enjoy bargaining but it’s for a reason I haven’t seen yet: because I’m Jewish, and I don’t want to reinforce a stereotype. (Which I’ve found is undeserved. If anything, we’re usually a generous people.) I also identify with the poster who said she doesn’t like to bargain because sometime’s the shoe’s on the other foot, ie, when we’re selling. One last thought: Never, ever buy furniture that’s not 100% wood. That compressed sawdust is dreadful. Real wood can be sanded down and refinished, and it will last another thousand years. Real wood furniture is a bargain at any… Read more »

Student Loans Worked Out
Student Loans Worked Out
8 years ago

Love the post! Although I always try to haggle, I am not yet as good at it as I should be. Thanks for useful pointers!

Debra
Debra
8 years ago

Great post. I have to add that I stumbled on a local weekly auction and frankly furniture sells so poorly the auctioneer always says he’s going to give up selling the stuff. I got a beautiful antique desk for $200, a sofa for $25, chairs for $2. I urge frugal shoppers to check out auctions for great furniture bargains.

Timo
Timo
8 years ago

I’m wondering if the need to haggle on everything is a sign of an efficient market or the complete opposite. I guess the latter, but I might be biased, because I live in a country where haggling is uncommon (except perhaps the most expensive and hard to price items – real estate etc.) and I absolutely hate bargaining. On the one hand, price negotiations on a wider scale (think stock market) quickly lead to the “optimal” value of goods offered. On the other hand, the possibility to haggle means the price is not fair from the beginning and that there’s… Read more »

Someguy
Someguy
8 years ago

Used leather/cloth/etc furniture–two words: bed bugs.

Adam
Adam
8 years ago

Would like to make some points. “Kim and I are both frugal folks. We don’t like to spend a lot of money, especially on furniture, which always seems overpriced anyhow.” Yep you are a salesperson’s dream customer. You call it haggling, i call it being a cheapskate. Saying to the furniture guy, $600 is too expensive is actually insulting. He said it was a $1000 piece of furniture, to sell it a $500.00, be making a really small profit if any. Then to say we can find something better for less, well then stop wasting the guys time and do… Read more »

Anon
Anon
8 years ago
Reply to  Adam

I think as long as you are polite to the seller, there is nothing insulting about making a lower offer then the seller might like. You see, markets change. The worth of an item is not based on what it originally sold for. And the worth is not based on what a seller prices it for. It’s worth is based on what a buyer is willing to pay for it today. Ultimately, the seller gets to decide if he or she wants the item to move or not. It’s not a loss to the seller to sell the item for… Read more »

Marie
Marie
8 years ago

When we first got married and bought furniture, I had no idea you could bargain the price. We didn’t even ask, and I’m sure they laughed behind our backs at how much we paid. Thinking of it still makes me want to scream.