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Pay Less for Anything

Fork over full price? Never.

When Glyndalyn Willard's beloved and much-used sewing machine stitched its last seam, she started calling around to find out what a replacement would cost. The Nashville-area resident went to a store and made a cash offer $200 less than the listed price. "They agreed so quickly," she says. "I wish I'd offered less."

Willard did something most of us wouldn't even think of doing—she negotiated a discount. Most Americans don't bargain when they buy, and that's too bad. It can be fun and a real money saver.

If you've never asked for a lower price, now is a good time to start, because in the current economic climate retailers and service firms are willing to shave a little off their profit to make a sale. I know: I was dubbed the Ultimate Cheapskate by Matt Lauer of the Today show, a program where I often report on ways to live the good life on a limited budget. My full-time job is exploring, writing, and speaking about ways to save money. Bargaining is one of them, and it isn't hard; it just takes persistence and know-how.

The first thing I do when I'm negotiating for a discount is speak with someone who has the authority to make a deal. I come in knowing the range of pricing on the item I'm bargaining for. And, very important, I'm always friendly.

With these basic negotiating techniques in mind, I asked my Miser Advisers—a nationwide network of 300-plus bargain hunters and negotiators with whom I regularly consult—to contribute to the following list of unlikely expenses for which negotiating is almost guaranteed to pay off. You've got nothing to lose, and much to gain, by giving it a shot.

1. MEDICAL COSTS

Most doctors don't make house calls, but they may make a deal—if you ask. Talk to your physician as well as your dentist, chiropractor, acupuncturist, or other medical professional about fee reductions. Roger Sayre of Jersey City did just that, and his doc agreed to cut 30 percent off the cost of Sayre's office visits, which weren't covered by his insurance. Also, always ask for prescription samples. And while we're on the subject of doctors, don't forget veterinarians. When there's a genuine financial hardship, many vets are willing to reduce or waive some of their fees.

2. BANK FEES

Banking is a highly competitive service industry, and most banks recognize the need to keep their customers happy. Miser Advisers note that they routinely get check-printing charges, late fees, and other costs waived just by asking. For instance, after Barbie King of Dunedin, Florida, questioned a hefty $39 fee, a friendly bank clerk made it disappear. Customer-service reps, both in the branch and over the phone, typically have the authority to make these decisions. If they say no, ask to speak to a manager.

3. ELECTRONICS

Repeat after me: Never, ever pay the advertised price for consumer electronics. This market is so fluid and competitive that even novice negotiators should be able to walk away with at least a 10 percent discount off listed prices. All Natalie Cunha of Springfield, Oregon, had to do to get 10 percent off of a new digital camera at one major electronics store was to mention she was going to check the same item at a competitor's outlet. Then she negotiated a free service plan in exchange for paying cash. Offering to pay cash is a great negotiating tactic, since credit card companies typically charge merchants processing fees.

4. GROCERIES

The supermarket is probably the last place you'd think you could negotiate for lower prices, right? But go ahead. Ask the manager for a markdown on meat, dairy items, baked goods, or other products that are near their expiration dates. Just make sure to check whether it says "Sell by" or "Use by." It makes a difference. And if you just missed last week's big rump-roast sale, do as Ralph Huber of Washington, D.C., does and ask the store manager to grandfather your rump (I couldn't resist) and give you the sale price. Farmers' markets are also fertile ground for haggling, particularly for larger quantities and late in the day.

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