A friend of mine recently offered me some money-saving advice. It had nothing to do with complicated schemes involving budgeting or investing, or the finer points of credit-card management. Instead, it boiled down to three little words: "Always pay cash," she told me.
"You can almost always get a better deal if you provide a different payment option," she said. "It probably works about 90 per cent of the time."
However much we may all rely on our debit cards, and regardless of how many credit-card points programs we might benefit from, when it comes to wheeling and dealing for discounts, cash is still king.
My friend, who's a pretty savvy shopper, typically eases into bargaining for cash transactions.
"I usually say, 'What's your best offer?' " she says. Often, the sales person will reply that he's not sure if there's anything he can do. When that happens, it's time to play the paper money trump card. "I'll say: 'If I pay cash, does that make a difference?' "
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Oh boy, does it ever. My friend has used this cash strategy to save hundreds of dollars on furniture, electronics, art and many other big-ticket items.
Since I'm always looking to save a few bucks, I decided to put this strategy to work. At first it felt a bit awkward. When an exterminator came to my house, the two of us found ourselves sitting in my backyard settling up the bill.
"So," I said hesitantly. My eyes rolled up to the sky, somewhat cartoonishly. I may have coughed nervously. But then I just came out with it: "Is there anything you could do for me if I paid cash?"
The guy was totally unfazed by it. In fact, he seemed to welcome the idea. He offered to knock the tax off the bill. I started counting out bills with the heady rush of discovery. For his part, he might have been feeling the heady rush of pocketing the cash.
But even with that first success under my belt, I still felt weird asking about the possibility of a deal with other people.
"You have to be confident about it," my friend said. You just need to be polite when you float the question, she advised. If they say no, then so be it.
Still, I was glad there was no one else around when I tried it for the second time, at a framing store. I asked the guy behind the counter how much the frame I wanted cost. He told me, and I asked if he could do anything if I paid cash. "Sure," he said. "I'm always happy to negotiate." Me too, I thought. He cut $10 off the price.
Of course, there are some places where cash is most definitely not king. At chain stores, for instance, cash is just a lowly serf, no better and no worse than other payment options. I know this because of an embarrassing trip to Canadian Tire.
I was there looking for patio furniture, and a salesperson who looked to be barely out of high school was patiently dealing with my questions. When I asked if there were any possible deals if I paid cash, he gave me a blank look for a second and told me no.
As my friend had suggested, it's better to reserve this strategy when shopping at smaller, independent businesses. More often than not, the person you're talking to at these places actually owns the business, so they have a keen interest in selling goods or services and winning customer loyalty. The kid working at Canadian Tire is only going to stare at you like you're a complete weirdo.
But don't just assume cash will rule at a store because it's run independently. When I was at an extreme-sports store in Toronto looking for a skateboard - yes, I might be having an early-onset midlife crisis - the guy behind the counter told me I could put together a board for $169.99. I asked if that was the best deal he could give me. He said yes. I asked if he could do anything if I paid cash. He said no.
It was clear and final. But it wasn't harsh. It was just a fact. He might as well have been telling me the store's address. So I moved on to a question about wheels.
Walking out of the store, I was disappointed to discover that cash doesn't always equal deals. But I had saved enough money over the week to keep trying. Besides, I'm starting to like the feeling of wheeling and dealing that comes with cash. Some people say no, sure. But when people say yes, it's like being ushered behind a curtain into a private members' club.
You don't get that with plastic.