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Haggling and Shame: Why you shouldn’t be afraid to start with low offers

Remember my article on basic haggling theory? In it, I explained that a seller has a minimum price in mind below which they will not sell an item. The idea is to get an offer on the table that does not overshoot that minimum by too much. Since you don’t really have any idea what a seller’s minimum price is, if the seller asks you to make an offer and you make an offer that they like, they will accept it on the spot and that’s the end of the transaction… and you missed out on some extra cash you could have kept in your pocket.

But why isn’t making low offers just as easy as understanding the above logic? The constraint is social – e.g., the risk of insulting someone, of looking like a sleazebag, and more importantly jeopardizing your ability to make a purchase at a price you would have otherwise achieved had you not looked like a sleazebag. While you should obviously modify your offers to fit these social considerations, I believe that people vastly overvalue shame, especially in financial issues. If there were one point I wanted to communicate in this article, it would be something simple: start making low offers and to hell with the shame.

I have an easy answer to feeling ashamed at making a lowball: it really doesn’t matter that much. You probably learned the old-fashioned behavior of fearing the disapproval of strangers from all those times at the supermarket when your mom told you not to touch something because the clerk was watching and she was worried what they might think of her as a parent. Surely there are moral norms that should always be respected among strangers, but fear of personal judgment – that is, of your nonviolent decisions in the domain of your property and person – is a relic of past times where society was believed to be morally justified in interfering with personal lives. Don’t let others’ arbitrary values interfere with your ability to pursue your own happiness. Just like mom prioritized the clerk’s judgments over your childlike innocence, it’s all too easy to prioritize someone’s judgment of your behavior over the accomplishment of your financial objectives.

Your price offer is an expression of your willingness to pay for something in a mutually consensual setting – you are never forcing someone to take a price at gunpoint. Whatever someone thinks of your offer (and what it says about you) is an opinion to which they are entitled, and an opinion about which you shouldn’t give a damn. It’s hard enough to make a case for managing other peoples’ expectations for people you see all the time. For people you see at garage sales, whom you will generally never see again, you certainly don’t have to worry about managing their expectations at all (unless such a route is financially beneficial to you for some reason).

If someone has a sticker price of $20 on an item and you offer them $5, what could possibly happen? Best case scenario, their expectations have changed since they first put the sticker on and they say “OK” right there, and you’ve just bagged an amazing deal. Or perhaps they might offer the item to you for $10. Worst case scenario, they’re a bitter price Nazi and they say no, look insulted, and call you a cheapskate. And then you drive away in your car to greener pastures and never see that person again in your life.

So when you’re out haggling at garage sales, make sure to put things in perspective. Every buck you save on what you buy is one more buck you make. In the moment, the $5 you might save with a low offer seems small compared to the disaster scenarios you’ve concocted… but once you leave the situation, you will often find yourself saying “wow, I could have probably paid $5 less!” Most of the time, making a low offer doesn’t paint you as a cheapskate. In fact, a lot of the time, I find that I’m the first person to show interest in an item altogether. That’s buyer power for you. Use it.

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