My parents raised a good businesswoman. We lived frugally, shopping sales and buying off-brands when the quality was the same. We made things we could and bought things we couldn’t, going without if we couldn’t justify spending the money. I didn’t eat a box cake until I was in my teens and many of my clothes in grade school were handmade. We slept in an ornate wrought-iron bunkbed, custom-designed and built by my father. We played on my dad’s heavy equipment outside and climbed trees when we were tired of that, playing catch with my dad’s old first-baseman’s mitt other times. Buying something was never the first impulse when a need presented itself, and when it was, it was done carefully.
When I bought my first car (after college – I could see the street through the floorboards of the car I drove through high school and off to my freshman year), I went alone. I walked around the car, just as I’d seen my father do so many times, and noted its defects. I didn’t smile or let my face flush with the excitement I could barely stifle inside. I loved that car with its shiny silver paint, sparkling wire wheel covers, perfect plush interior, and quiet ride. I was willing to pay a lot for it. But I knew the rule – never let them see you drool.
The dealer shrugged off my gentle criticisms as we danced, walking around the car, taking turns bantering about it’s features. “Lightweight fiberglass body – the line looks like it might have been hit at one time” (after crouching to eye the length of one side and crawling under it), I said with quiet concern. “Might have. Don’t know. But run your hands across that paint – if it was, the repair is seamless,” he countered. “Little pricey,” I said with my mouth drawn in a disciplined frown. “Ah, look at those wire wheels – nothing smarter on a silver paintjob.” I frowned reprovingly at him as I leaned around the hood and told him that I was more interested in its mechanics than the paintjob. He smiled under his gray eyebrows and leaned back against the passenger door, silent, his arms folded across his chest, noting that I couldn’t take my eyes off the car and waiting.
“It’s a decent car,” I said finally, taking a deep breath. “I’ll give you $3500.” He let his head recoil backward as if I’d struck his face. “Sticker price is $5200; I can’t even entertain that. I could maybe come down a couple hundred.” I argued about how he needed to move this off his lot, how isolated he was and how unlikely it would be to sell soon. “$3900,” I said with finality. He gave me the same look I gave him when he tried to sell me on the paintjob. “Honey, I have to make something on it or I don’t finance one like you in college. $4600.” I walked around the car, shaking my head, looked toward the door of his shop, back at the floor, shook my head some more. Muttering under my breath, loud enough for him to barely hear, I rattled off all the defects I could think of as if deep in thought. I pursed my lips, took a thoughtful breath, and released it. After a moment I looked up at him and said, “I’ll give you $4200, but that’s as high as I’ll go.”
“You got yourself a car,” he said pleasantly. I was completely deflated, and immediately fell back into my characteristic face, the one that every thought and emotion dances obviously across. He looked at me surprised and laughing, said, “what’s the matter?” I responded that I hadn’t done a good job, that he accepted too quickly and I’d agreed to pay too much. “I wish my dad were here,” I said dejectedly. He looked at me for a moment with a fatherly smile and said, “You did just fine. I wouldn’t have accepted a penny less from your dad.” With all the credulity I’ve ever had, and I’ve always had that in spades, I said, “really? cool,” and held the keys with real, grownup confidence.
I’ve negotiated a lot of contracts in the more than 20 years since, dancing around a deal, strategizing, sizing up my opponent, walking away with bargains that I gloated about as soon as I was out of earshot. “Score!” I’d fist-pump. I was smooth and I could talk my way into anything.
I haven’t negotiated that way in a long time. I don’t remember when it changed. Perhaps in parenting; you get to live with the people you negotiate with. They better feel like they got a good deal too. You don’t walk around your children and note their defects; you don’t think of them as your opponent. Deals are more productive when everyone feels like they got a good one. Perhaps I began thinking of everyone as someone I’d want to live with later.
A couple of years ago I answered an ad placed by a couple offering a table and two chairs. I thought it might fit nicely in my breakfast nook and didn’t want to buy new. They ushered me into their tiny apartment, strewn with packing boxes and pointed to the table. “I refinished it myself,” the young girl boasted uncertainly. I nodded and complimented the paint, carefully ignoring the drips beaded along the underside of the top. “We keep it in the corner, because it’s just the two of us,” he said matter-of-factly, as I started to pull it out and it wobbled precariously. I turned over one of the chairs and saw the staples on the bottom of the seat, quickly catching the cushion before it detached. “Did you recover these yourself, too?” I asked her. She nodded, pleased that I’d noticed.
I looked around the room and asked them if they’d just graduated, killing time because there was no way I’d put it in my breakfast nook, wanting a way to extricate myself now that I saw this wouldn’t meet my needs. “Yes,” she said with a nervous sigh. “He got a job in Berlin. We have to move overseas.” She was twisting her shirt front, but quickly let it go and pulled her lower lip between her teeth instead. I looked at them for a moment and then commented that it must be intimidating to move across the ocean to begin life after the comforting regularity of school. “Oh, no, we think it’s a great opportunity,” he said expansively. She stood still for a second, just looking at him, then looked down and nodded, still chewing her lip.
“It’s $40,” he said confidently, shifting the talk to more comfortable subjects. “Shall I help you out to your car with it?” I looked at it for a moment, then decided that it would work for a little table in the garage, where it could lean against my workbench and I could always use extra chairs on the patio. “I’d be happy to take it off your hands,” I said soundly. She slumped in relief. “We are so glad,” she chattered brightly. “You’re just going to love it.” She then launched into a long, cheery discussion of how she’d reworked the table from something someone left out for the trash collector, painting it “right out here” on the concrete in front of their apartment as we each carried a chair to my SUV. She told me how difficult it was to move away from her family and how they didn’t know how they were going to get all the money together for the trip in a few days. She chatted about how some of the things they listed just weren’t selling and they needed to get it all sold, but how pleased she was that this was going to work so well for me. “Oh, this will be just perfect,” I said reassuringly. I could almost see a pair of fatherly eyes smiling at me as I looked at a ring of keys in my hand so long ago, rightly won because he let me play the game.
I can’t remember much about the good deals I made over the years, the bargains I walked away with, rubbing my hands together in delight. I can remember a few good deals, where I looked into someone’s eyes and knew that what had just happened was good. I’m a good businesswoman. A good deal is seldom about money.