Twelve years ago, I realized I was a wimp. I had always been frugal, refusing to buy what I didn’t really need. But when I bought something, I nearly always paid full price. That all changed, after I took a trip to Morocco.
My education began when I lined up for a bus in Casablanca. “Sixty five dirham,” the man behind the ticket counter said. I fished out my wallet and paid him the equivalent of $10 for the three-hour ride to Marrakesh. Another man told me I owed more money. My backpack would cost another 20 dirhams. So I handed over the cash.
I carried my backpack to the luggage area and another man snatched it. He didn’t work for the bus company. But he tossed my pack onto the bus. Then he demanded 20 dirhams. “Sorry,” I said. I had already paid for my ticket, paid for the baggage. This guy was trying to con me.
He followed me onto the bus, spewing spit and insults. Opening my wallet, I handed him five times what he probably would have accepted. Then I sat there shaking.
According to the Lonely Planet Guide to Morocco, Moroccans say the Japanese are the world’s most gullible people. Americans and Canadians rank second and third.
In Marrakesh, hard-bartering merchants try to find out where people are from, then price their goods accordingly. Over a cup of mint tea with a merchant called Muhammad Ali, I learned first-hand what Moroccans think. According to Ali, we’re financially naive, easily intimidated and lousy at bartering.
It was time to toughen up. I practiced haggling at Moroccan markets. When someone tried to intimidate me (like that guy on the bus) I remained polite. But I didn’t back down. I soon learned that it was all a big game.
By the time I got back home, I was ready to play. I don’t barter back and forth. But I pay less than most people for many of the same products. What’s my secret? I ask one question. “Can you offer me a discount?” Some people ask for deals on just about everything. I don’t. I prefer to ask when the price exceeds $100.
I’ve earned discounts on rent, car sterios, car rentals, running shoes, hotel prices, even real estate commissions. As the Morrocan merchant knew, asking for a deal isn’t part of our culture. But you can save thousands, if you’re willing to try.
Last year, NPR’s This American Life broadcast an episode called Good Guys. They convinced a reluctant NPR reporter to wander into stores and ask for discounts on small ticket items. The strategy was cheesy. “Hey, you’re a good guy, I’m a good guy. Can you give me a good guy discount?” Apparently, it works… sometimes. But writer Kerry K. Taylor makes the effort real.
“I just chat with sales associates and I get discounts.” Sometimes she gets deals without even asking. On one occasion, she arrived at an airport’s car rental agency. She asked the attendant how her day had been. The woman had been treated badly by a customer who was upset at the company’s shortage of SUVs. “So I gave her a hug,” says Kerry, “and I told her the shortage of SUV’s was not her fault. What was she supposed to do, build one?” Kerry didn’t even ask for a discount. But she got one, and an upgrade.
One little-known way to save thousands is to ask for discounts on real estate commissions. I tried it in 2007. I told the agent, “I would like to use your services to sell my land, but could you knock one percent off the commission rate?” The agent agreed. Asking a single question saved me $4,800.
June Fletcher wrote Negotiating Real Estate Commissions for The Wall Street Journal. If asking for a discount doesn’t work, she suggests a new approach. “Offer to do things that would defray marketing expenses. For example, you could provide food for open houses for brokers and buyers or, if you're an excellent photographer, make a digital album of your home taken during various seasons of the year.”
AssetBuilder writer, Amy Rogers, says you can get discounts on medical expenses, often just by asking. “When my third child was born I talked the hospital down from the original bill of $11,000 to the final bill of under $3,000.”
I posted the question with my facebook friends, “Who gets discounts just by asking?” Windie Wells got a deal on her family’s dental costs. Jessica Paxton got a bargain on lab work, when she was pregnant with her son. Debbie Woodfield said her husband (much to her chagrin) dickered when he bought her engagement ring. He says dangling cash instead of a credit card can grease the bargaining wheel.
Bartering might not be part of our culture. But more of us are realizing that by asking one question, we can save thousands. That Morrocan merchant, Muhammad Ali, might be surprised at some changes afoot.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller, Millionaire Teacher and The Global Expatriate's Guide to Investing: From Millionaire Teacher to Millionaire Expat.