Sunday, April 26, 2009

Negotiating A Better Price Or The Art of Haggling to Make Ends Meet

In these tough financial times, it is helpful to remember that prices are not necessarily fixed. You can often bargain a better price if you have the nerve to try. I’ve been doing it for years. In fact, it’s one of the ways that I managed to provide for my family over the course of many years of low-income living. For instance? Back in 1993 or thereabouts there was a metal watering can at the grocery store that I coveted. It cost $25 and I couldn’t justify buying it at that price when I was trying to keep my grocery bill to $100 a week. I looked every week and waited until there was only one left on the shelf. Then I took it to the cashier and told her it was the last one and asked if I could have it at half price. “Look,” I pointed out, “it’s a little dented.” She called the manager for permission. I wound up buying it for $10. As the bagger helped me out to the car with my cart, he exclaimed, “I’ve never seen anyone bargain for something in the grocery store. I didn’t know you could do that.” I still have that watering can.

Recently, I called our natural gas provider and said, “We are paying too much for our propane. I called other propane providers to ask their price per gallon and it’s much lower than yours. We have been your customer for 17 years. What price can you offer me to keep me as a customer?” The manager looked at our account and explained that gas providers offer a low rate to hook customers. After the first fill, they jack up the rate. “That’s not fair. I’ve been a loyal customer for 17 years and you’re charging me more than you do a new customer.” He agreed. He knocked our rate down, and did it retroactively. Saved us over $300 on our last fill and will save us more in the future.

A few years ago I called all our credit card companies and pointed out that we have an excellent credit rating score. Then I asked them to lower our percentage rates. Almost all of them did. I cancelled the one that wouldn’t. One of them lowered our rate from 24% to 11%. Another from 19% to 8%. I keep a sharp eye on the rates on the statements and if they ever try to raise them, I call and complain. They usually put them back down.

A couple of years ago Ron went to the Sleep Center to be assessed for sleep apnea, which he has. When we got the bill for the assessment I nearly had a heart attack. It was $1,300 and the insurance wouldn’t pay any of it. I called the Sleep Center accounting department and said we couldn’t pay this bill. I asked if we could set up payments for the next two years. (By-the-way, I will not go to a doctor that refuses to allow us to make monthly payments to pay off our bills.) The lady in accounting asked incredulously, “Your insurance won’t cover this?” I answered, “No, go figure. What could be better preventative medicine than addressing sleep apnea.” She then informed me that if we were “private pay” (out of our own pockets) then she could lower our bill to $280!!! Since Ron had already paid $200 up front when he went to the clinic, we only owed another $80. What if I hadn’t called and asked? We would have coughed up over $1,000. I’ve bargained medical bills down at the hospital, the surgery center, doctor’s offices, radiology, etc., for years. Sometimes I have to write a formal letter or statement, but that’s fine with me if it will save me money. If I can’t bargain them down low enough, I set up payments over time (they are almost always interest-free).

Most recently, Sudi was offered a substantial tuition scholarship to California College of the Arts, a private college. The scholarship was not a full tuition scholarship and the cost is going to be a stretch for us. I called the financial aid department and asked if we could request more aid. She said we could petition for more assistance if we sent a copy of our taxes for 2008. Not a problem. I sent the taxes and petitioned. They gave us more money. (Still not a full scholarship, but every little bit helps, right?) How many families with children attending private schools realize that they can ask for more aid after they receive their award? Pass the word.

I’m not too proud to beg. I’m not too meek to bargain. One of my best buys was my wooden kitchen chairs, which I’ve had for 20 years. I bought them for a quarter each in a yard sale and Ron refinished them for me. The point of this discussion is to remind you that you might be able to save yourself some money if you ask. Don’t accept costs, prices, and bills at face value. Ask, ask, ask! The dollar you save may be your own.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Jewels Among Us—Susan Boyle Sings

If you have not yet heard Susan Boyle sing “I Dreamed a Dream” (from “Les Miserables”) for the show “Britain’s Got Talent” then you must go have a listen. Right now. Run don’t walk. Here is the link. This unemployed 47-year-old volunteer church-worker from Scotland captivated the world instantly with her extraordinary singing voice. A regular plain Jane, who perhaps was not even wearing make-up as she appeared on TV in front of millions, Ms. Boyle did not look glamorous or even gifted. The judges were just shy of making fun of her before she sang. A frumpy lady with a dream of singing on the big stage. But she was not fazed by any of it. She had a presence. She knew in her heart that she had a gift. She was simply there to share it with whomever cared to listen. And share it she did. Even more moving than her singing were the expressions on the faces of the judges and those in the audience as it dawned on them that they were being given a supreme gift from this unassuming woman.

Why does her triumph move us so? Because she is everyone. We are all gifted. Most of us do not get a chance to stand up on a stage in front of the world and receive recognition for our special talents, but we continue to use these talents every day. Cooking, fixing cars, providing child care for children, dancing, writing, drumming, making people laugh, healing, repairing, building, caring for others, teaching, whatever it is we do. Unnoticed. Unglamorous. I sometimes think about my friend Glenn Star, who had lupus and died at 40. He should have won an academy award for teaching special education, which he did with stunning grace, humor, and, yes, beauty, just as he did everything in his short life. Susan Boyle was just a person, doing what she does, using her talent. And for once, just once, the world stood up and noticed a little person’s dazzling spirit and appreciated. Those witnessing this event (live and vicariously on YouTube) cheer because it touches us to see this ordinary woman with an extraordinary voice as she humbly reminds us that we must never judge a person’s capacity for brilliance by their appearance. There are countless jewels among us like this woman. Now, really, go have a listen. Thank you Susan Boyle for singing for us.

(To read more about Ms. Boyle’s rise and who she is go to this article in the NY Times.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

When Did He Outgrow Easter Eggs?

During the meal at this year’s Passover Seder, I turned to Sudi (17 years old) and asked, “Do you want to dye Easter eggs this year?” He rolled his eyes. “Mom. You ask me that every year. No. I’m not a little kid anymore.”

Which year was it, last year, the year before, that he stopped dyeing and hiding Easter eggs? He makes it sound like we haven’t done eggs for centuries. But one year, in recent memory, we dyed dozens and I hid them for him and he looked and then he hid them for me and I looked and then Ron hid them for both of us and we looked and then I hid them for him again and he looked and then his friends Michael and Freddy came over and they hid them for each other, several times, and all looked, and somehow one of the eggs was misplaced and turned up months later in Ron’s CD rack. (I’m surprised it didn’t start to smell bad, but actually it didn’t—we threw it out without cracking the skin open.)

One year Sudi quivered and shivered with excitement, bounding through the house like a Labrador retriever puppy, tongue hanging out, eyes sparkling in anticipation, hunting eggs. Demanding “Again, hide them again.” And the next year: “Mom. No. I don’t want to do Easter eggs.” Shaking his head in disbelief that I would even bother to ask. Especially when I knew full well that he had refused to carve pumpkins the previous fall.

When does the magic go? Carving Jack-o’-lanterns. Putting cookies and milk out for Santa (and a little lettuce for the reindeer). Peering into Elijah’s cup to see if he drank any of the wine. Playing dreydel for walnuts and pennies. Ah well, the magic is not gone for long. It will be back soon, not just with grandchildren one day, but when my adult children get nostalgic. “Remember when we….? Could we put paper turkeys up for Thanksgiving again? Make Hannukah cookies? Watch Groundhog’s Day – it’s February 2?” The silly little customs, the details of celebrations, holidays, events. The family stuff. It comes back. And our multicultural family sure has twice the fun, with more celebrations than most. Good Passover and Happy Easter to you and your family, and to all a good night.

I can’t resist sharing with you this Zits cartoon that appeared today. As the mother of an avid skateboarding teen, I laughed all the way through breakfast with this one. Enjoy.

[Please note that I will be returning from Dad’s 80th birthday party in NJ next Sunday, which may delay my blog column a day. If no column posts on Sunday, then stop by on Monday to read my latest.]

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Why I Hate My Lawn

I have recently come to the liberating realization that I don’t care if my lawn lives or dies. I admit I was nervous about having a lawn when we moved to the suburbs. We have two sections of lawn in the front of the house, on either side of the front walk. We have a larger lawn in the back. Way too much lawn for me. After the move, I bought a spreader to fertilize the lawn and fertilizer to go in the spreader. At first I fertilized, mowed, watered, and weeded. That lasted about three months. Before long, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to weed out and what I wanted to let be. Like clover. I kind of like clover. Then I started to kill off parts of the lawn by spreading wood chip and oak leaves here and there. I planted trees and flowers in those places. Pretty soon, I stopped raking the oak leaves that fell from the trees. I just let them eliminate the lawn where they came down. Then I stopped watering the front lawns altogether. We are entering the third year of drought here in Cali and I can’t justify keeping that lawn watered. I am cultivating a wilder look for my yard. The manicured look annoys me. Am I ruined after spending 17 years at the wild untamed ranch?

I recently saw a picture of Michele Obama digging up the South Lawn of the White House to make a veggie garden and I suddenly realized why I hate my lawn. A lawn is decadent. What purpose is there for a lawn? To play croquet? Have a tea party? Gaze at? Lawn belongs at Versailles. Lawn smacks of yearning for the aristocratic. A lawn requires gardeners. I’m with Michele (and Eleanor, who was the last First Lady to plant a veggie garden at the White House), let’s plant food. Fruit trees. Berries. Vegetables.

I don’t have the income to support a lawn. My money needs to go to my children’s college education. I can’t afford to pay for the water for this lawn in the summer. And even if I could afford to water it, I live in a drought zone where every drop of water is needed to quench the thirst of humans and animals and to water the things we can eat. We can’t eat the lawn. So I’m plotting to murder my lawn. Slowly but surely, most of it will be going back to the wild. Does anyone need a bag of lawn fertilizer?

I want to share the fun news that I took second place in the Abbey Hill Literary Challenge for the first quarter of 2009. Click here to check out Abbey Hill and click here to read my silly little story that won $200. Each quarter the folks at Abbey Hill post a writing “challenge.” The first quarter challenge provided the first sentence of a story and a theme for the story. Take a peek at the second quarter challenge and see if you have any ideas about a story – maybe you will win the next challenge.