Sunday, August 24, 2008

Never Take the First Offer

Last week, amid lower oil prices, and a rising stock market, I got a boomerang slap from the rebounds of the shaky economy.  I came into work on Thursday morning to be informed that my consulting firm had been forced to take a 10% rate reduction from my client, and that was being passed to me in the form of a 10% pay cut.  As of this coming Monday.  

I informed my consulting firm that I wasn't going to take it, and since I knew they had previously offered my client a rate reduction without impact to their consultants, I informed them I needed to hear offers - that I would be flexible, but not 10% flexible.

So they countered me a 6% reduction, with a rate increase at the end of January that would make up some more of what I had lost.  I might not be back to my current rate at the end of January, but close.

My consulting firm has been reasonably straight shooters with me for the year I've been with them, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt and accepted that, with the caveat that this would not be permanent - that when things ease, they go back to the table with both the client and me.

But I wasn't willing to take the 10% without some negotiation, and it worked to my benefit.  I'm still not very happy, but a bit of a rate cut is better than a layoff.  

Why was I so willing to push back?  Because I believe the first offer on the table is never the one to take.  That there is always negotiating room in financial dealings.  Always.  It's why, before the bottom dropped out of the market we got the previous owner to come down over 7% of her asking price - things were slowing, but she could have bet on a spring uptick in the housing market in 2007.  Good that she didn't -  both for us and for her.

It's why I made the dealership where we bought my husband's car come back 5 - yes 5 - times before I agreed to a price (I am the haggler in our house).  

It's also why I managed to double my salary in under 3 years.  

I never take the first offer made.  I might take the second, or maybe the fifth,  but unless I feel that I'm getting a good deal, I walk away.

Negotiating is a skill that I think needs to be used more in our marketplace.  Americans are conditioned to view the sticker price as the price.  But negotiating has a place in the American economy, especially around big-ticket items, such as a salary, a home, or a car.

Smaller things can be negotiated too.  My husband and I have the best luck with small, local businesses - the folks who did our yard cleanup in the spring, the company that replaced our oil tanks.  I am having our heating oil tanks filled next week, and I fully plan to see if our current company will match the deals from other local businesses I've found.  See, I want to give our current company my business.  I like them.  But I am a price conscious consumer, and proud of it.

I don't negotiate on everything.  Food quality, local farmers....I don't go there.  If something is too costly, I don't buy it, but I certainly am not going to push someone with a tiny profit margin for 50 cents.  But when it comes to hundreds or thousands, I'm willing to negotiate a bit.  Even if it's just smiling and saying 'Is that the best offer you can make me?'.  Sometimes those 9 words save me significantly.  

I think more people don't negotiate because they believe it hurts someone.  It doesn't.  I can assure you companies want your business as much as you want their services.  Especially in this economy.  Having a long-term customer is more valuable, in many cases, than the cost of taking a few bucks off here and there.  And remember, the business can always say no.  I respect that. I might go elsewhere, but I still respect it.

So how can you negotiate?  Here's a few simple things that really work.

1. Ask: Is that the best you can do?
Those simple words open the negotiations, and put the next move in the other person's lap, without you having to ask for a specific  percent, or dollar amount.  In other words, you've clearly stated "I want a better deal" but without having to put your cards on the table.

2. When they come back to you: That's a little higher than I was thinking
Now you still haven't put a dollar amount on the table, but they know you want a better deal. This gives your negotiatee two options - to ask you what you want, or to make a second offer.  

3. $X is being offered.....
This is a great way to open a negotiation.  I know for a fact that three other local firms are offering heating oil at $3.50 a gallon near me as of this writing.  Our current oil company wants $3.67 a gallon.  If they are willing to meet, beat, or make me a counter, I'll work with them.  

4. I'm sorry, that's just too high
For this one, you have to be willing to walk.  I always, always, have a walking away amount in mind for large purchases.  With our home, the seller came in just $500.00 below our walking away price.  I'm glad she did, but we would have walked if she had not.  So don't toss this one out unless you know your bottom line.

5. Don't be afraid to walk away and come back
My in-laws did this with their home.  The price was too high, so they walked.  A month or two later, they came back.  The house was still sitting with no bites.  And they got their price.  You must know your market to do this, but it often pays off.  And if it doesn't, at least you didn't overpay.

Do I win every negotiation?  No.  Sometimes it takes 3 or more phone calls to different businesses, or rounds of negotiation to get to a place that everyone can live with.  Sometimes I give more than I would like to.  But never do I give more than I'm willing to.

You too, can negotiate.  It's easier than you think.  So the next time you are making a purchase, just ask "Is that the best you can do?"

See what happens.  You just might like the results. 

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Local Food Update

This spring, I catalogued our desire to eat locally.  In order to do so, we planted several beds of a vegetable garden.  As of this writing, 3 of our desired 8 beds got dug and planted.  We'll have those to plant in spring while we dig more.

In addition, we joined a CSA, to get a farm share.  Every Sunday from early June on, we've gone to our local farm to bring home a bounty of vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruit.  

But things didn't quite work out as we planned, and much of the food was given away, or composted.  This wasn't exactly what we were going for, but just as summer's bounty was coming into full flower (so to speak), so did I.  I got pregnant.  And started having some serious food aversions.  Specifically to vegetables.  

The mere smell of grilling squash curdled my stomach.  Greens?  Ugh.  I was lucky to make it through the first trimester with barely a touch of nausea, but vegetables became an anathema.  

For a while, all of them, with the exception of potatoes.  Recently I've been managing salad greens (just as lettuce went pretty much out of season, but I've got some more planted for fall), tomatoes, cucumbers, and broccoli.  Corn too.  The list broadens each week, thankfully.  

Seeing as it had taken us 22 months to get to this point, the fact that some veggies didn't get eaten probably seems a small price to pay, but it was hard to swallow the idea that I wasn't eating the way I like to eat.  Our typical stir fries and grilled veggies went out the window in favor of comfort food - pastas and other carb-heavy foods.  If it hadn't been for my fruit cravings, I might have been completely nutritionally deprived. 

Yeah, comfort food.  In summer. I know.  

Add to that my all-too-common first trimester exhaustion, and more than one store-bought chicken pot pie got eaten instead of all the amazing foodstuffs coming out of the ground from the local farmers.  BJs over farmers markets.  Stuff from boxes.  Cans.  The freezer section.

Sigh.  Add to that me being a too tired to write my blog most days - not to mention tiredness making me unable to process any complex thinking, and it's been an interesting summer.  

I have managed to bake bread most weeks, and that has been rewarding indeed.  Between a recipe for no-knead bread, and sourdough starter passed on from a friend, it's been a good bread season.  

As I pass into my second trimester, things are getting better.  Yesterday I dug up our first batch of homegrown fingerling potatoes, and have visions of herb roasting them with the local chicken from our CSA are running through my head.  I'm again daydreaming about uses the fresh pesto we've started to make.  I've managed to blanch and freeze some beans, and will be making a large batch of fresh salsa to can and serve at our annual cookout.  

Our sole pumpkin is ripening on the vine, ready to be turned into pie for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  The sweet potatoes are looking great, and mashing and baking them will be a joy when the weather turns colder.  

The peppers in the garden are starting to redden, and the tomatoes, while still mostly green, are coming along.  A combination of near-daily rain and lack of tying up have stunted their development, but there are gobs of them on the vines, if the frosts will hold off until at least late September. 

It hasn't been the best local food season we could have had, certainly not the one I daydreamed about while I started my seedlings in March.  But it could have been worse.  Good things happened, just not the ones I expected. 

The nice thing about gardening is that there is always next year.  Will we do the CSA again?  I don't know.  Parts of it I have loved, parts not so much.  Next year, with a hopefully larger garden (and a small-ish child) we'll grow enough that supplementing from a farmers market and various farm stands may be a better option, so we'll be mulling that over for a bit.  We've got until January to decide.

Despite our less-than-stellar attempt at local food this year, impending parenthood has confirmed my desire to eat responsibly.  And that means locally.  The pride I felt in bringing a salad to a family cookout that was almost entirely locally or self-grown confirmed that.  And I know the food coming out of the ground in our yard isn't subjected to contaminants or being trucked from thousands of miles away.  The world is running low on oil, and running far to high in toxins, so whatever I, and my family can do to lessen that impact is a good thing.  As Mother Theresa said, we can only do small things with great love.    And what is more loving than feeding one's family and friends great food that's good for them and Mother Earth?

Things didn't turn out quite the way I planned this year.  Not by a long shot.  But it's been a good summer nonetheless.   And local food matters more to me than ever.  

Because it's not just about me anymore.  I'm going to be someone's mother.  

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Mixed Money Messages

A recent comment on my blog got me thinking about the mixed messages we get about money, and how they impact people's viewpoints.

It's interesting to me how many different messages there are out there about money. Does staying near a job with stable, healthy income mean you are materialistic? You might think so if you talk to folks who tell you it's happiness, not money that matters, and income isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Well, that's great, unless you can't figure out how to pay the bills.

But then, should you have all those bills anyway? Live on less.

Okay, which less? Phone? Electricity? Heat? Food?
The 'live on less' folks are right to an extent - our modern expectations are incredibly outsized. No one needs an iPod or a flatscreen. But I'm not becoming a breatharian to suit anyone, sorry. There's balance here.

So we shouldn't acquire them?
This is where things get sticky. There's an environmental and financial cost to everything we do. And we have to pick and choose. Should you not redo your kitchen? I don't know. I can't make that decision for you. I know that for me, not liking an appliance isn't sufficient reason to replace it - but it's breaking is. On the other hand, if our much-hated washing machine died tomorrow, I wouldn't be sad at having to replace it, not one bit.

I think the folks that replace their furniture every couple years because they feel like redecorating should consider the impacts to the world around them. Then again, I sort of like getting their fantastic, mildly used stuff at cheap prices. Still, it's clear the world can't support wanton acquisition.

Yeah, Moneypenny, we're renovation & acquisition happy in the US. What ever happened to being happy with what you have?
Good point. But even Pa Ingalls in the Little House on the Prarie books kept adding on to his house. This is not a new phenomena, it's just that access to stuff is unprecedented these days.

Like with all things, I believe in happy mediums.

I don't have a perfect answer. I think all you can do is think about what you really want and need. I can't choose it for you, and I don't have the perfect regulations to throw out there.

I do know that wanting a bathroom that doesn't leak water every time you shower and looks kind of nice too isn't a judgement-worthy item. And if you can afford marble subway tile, who am I to say you shouldn't, even though I think the mountains of Carrara, Italy might have looked nicer if they weren't chipped down so they no longer have true peaks.

And maybe that money would be better spent making sure the elderly widow in your neighborhood has enough heating oil for the winter. Yeah, yeah, I know you work hard for your money. Me too.

These are issues that I struggle with all the time - what's enough? At what point can people be judgy? What should be regulated? What's up to us to choose?

It's clear the market in free for all doesn't make good choices, but also clear that regulating things unilaterally often doesn't take into account that one size doesn't fit all.

I don't have answers, but I do know that assuming the worst about people's financial choices is something that has come out of all the mixed messages we get about money....and I don't think it makes us better people. There has to be a better way - banding together to help each other make good choices, rather than tearing each other down for making different ones.

What do you think?

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Either/Or and the Space In Between

I was involved in an interesting discussion the other day regarding dream jobs.  With a few exceptions, it seems that many folks don't do their dream job because:

1. It doesn't pay enough
2. It doesn't pay at all
3. It's a tough field to get into, and the likelihood of them getting into it is very slim
4. Some combination of the above

I posited the somewhat unpopular idea that sometimes having a job that you like enough not to have to talk yourself out of bed in the morning that pays enough to cover what you need, at least some of what you want, and allows you a good life, was maybe enough.  Going back to Your Money or Your Life - work is for money, it isn't the main event.  

Of course, then came the responses, which varied, but many included 'Life is too short to do something you hate'.

Which got me thinking, both about the career debate and life on a broader scale.  Is it really a simple choice between passionate enjoyment and stark misery?  I don't think so.  

There is a ton of grey area between 'I love this so much I can't see straight' and 'Please will I get hit by a Hoodsie truck so I don't have to do this'.  Not just around career decisions, around most life decisions.  Now some folks are fortunate enough to find their passion, get paid for it, and look forward to doing it every day.  Some are determined that their passion is the only thing worth doing, and they use that passion as a gauge for everything they do.  I admire those people.  But....

Then there's the rest of us.  

The ones that make compromises.  To pay the bills. To move to an area that provides them a liveable commute, rather than live in the perfect spot on a lake.  Maybe they vacation at the lake instead.  That even though they had always dreamed of a hot pink kitchen, they go neutral because their spouse hates hot pink with a passion.  And a happy spouse is a good key to a happy life.

My husband and I dream of moving to Maine.  We almost did, before we bought our home.  And then when we started actually putting numbers on salaries and cost of housing, we bought a home in Massachusetts.  Near our jobs, near career growth options.  Is it our dream spot?  No, but we love our home.  We are happy here.  Someday we'll end up in Maine, we know that, but for right now, we made a compromise we could live with.

And in the end, one that we are both happy with, despite the occasional cracks in that when dealing with Massachusetts traffic.  

Are the people who choose compromise are miserable in comparison to those that choose passion?
Not the ones I know.   I know some people who are passionate about every aspect of their lives and are happy.  Others found that when it becomes obligation, wasn't as much fun.  I think everyone has to choose their own path.  Nothing is written.  You don't have to live forever with decisions that don't work for you.   And most of the folks I know that have compromised have found happiness in ways they didn't imagine.  

Are you saying I should do something that makes me unhappy?
I've had the sort of job where I could barely talk myself out of the car in the parking lot in the morning, my boss was such a miserable person.  I don't recommend that to anyone.  But if living somewhere, working somewhere or doing something gives you options to choose something that may make your life better, I say consider it.  If living closer to work means a smaller plot of land but the time to tend that garden you've been dreaming of, is that a bad thing?  Probably not.  

Does that mean I shouldn't seek passion?
Oh seek, definitely seek.  But don't let what's possibly around the next bend blind you to what is in front of you.  Maybe you can throw pots for gifts for friends, rather than having to take the risk of opening a business.  But if that risk is all that will do for you, more power to you.

Besides, you can always change your mind if it's not working - relocate, change careers, open that shop after all.  

Isn't life grand?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Tempus Fugit: Time Flies

On July 10th, I signed off to take a long weekend.  I was burned out by the constant bad news on the economy, shaken by some staffing changes at work, and very, very tired.

That long weekend turned into weeks before I again had time and energy to blog.  Much of that stemmed from just being busy - a work trip that took me from Boston to Dublin and NYC in 4.5 days, almost constant commitments on the weekend, and Sundays afternoons tied to the kitchen to process all of our CSA produce.

Even with not blogging, some produce rotted and commitments got pushed off.   It's hard sometimes,  balancing what I want to do with the things I need to do.  And I've realized again, something I seem to learn but never recognize, that I seem to push myself to do more than many people I know.  I have what we call in my family 'the busy gene' - I am much better at moving and accomplishing things than sitting still. 

It's been an interesting summer so far.  The weather has been strange - lots of monsoon-like rains have made us feel more like we live in a temperate rain forest than New England.  It's also put a damper on many of our favorite summer activities, like sailing and gardening, although we fit in what we can when we can.  And it's put the kibosh on some summer projects - the side of the house and the deck never dry sufficiently to sand down and paint, and with near-daily rains some weeks, paint would never dry anyway.  

That hasn't stopped our town from instituting a mandatory watering ban, which is fine because we haven't had to hand-water the garden in weeks.  The river that they use as a gauge is overflowing it's banks, but that's town government for you.  

As for money, July was an expensive month.  Our food budget got blown, as did several other areas of planned spending.  Some of the food costs were due to increased pricing, the rest was due to shopping when I could fit it in, often hungry and without a list, which is always dangerous.  Our local-food diet goals often went out the window, with whatever was good and handy getting eaten instead.  

August has a feel for being more on track.  Stock up shopping and meal planning should help offset some of the food costs, and preservable produce is now showing up weekly at our CSA, which is good - I'm far past sick of kale and chard.  I've blanched and frozen several batches of string beans, and I have 4 lbs of carrots to can or freeze this week.  

Our own garden is growing well, although we lost some squashes to rot because of all the rain.  The tomatoes have been slow to ripen, but are growing like on steroids. Same with the peppers - in a week or so I can start having sauteed cubanelle sandwiches - just saute in a little butter and eat on toast - heaven.

Over the last few weeks, I've managed to lower our dry cleaning bill by doing more ironing.  It's one of my least favorite activities, but we've seen some good results from it, and it's a chore I can fit into 10 and 15 minute segments, which is nice.  My other clothing related goal, hanging more of my laundry, hasn't really worked out - we've had to almost constantly run the dehumidifier downstairs to keep the house minimally dry, so most things end up in the dryer. Hopefully the constant rain isn't a permanent climate change. 

My outlook has also gotten more optimistic.  Both the close coworker-consultants that were laid off nearest to me (of more than 30 in my department) found jobs quickly, or looked forward to the time off, having no worries about the next job.  I guess that's the upside of no one enrolling in the IT programs in colleges - less competition.  

The time off of blogging has done me good.  I've managed to work on some projects, such as redesigning the budget that I've promised updates on, and I look forward to sharing those.

It also made me realize how much I missed blogging, and the conversations that come out of talking with the folks that read my blog.  

So happy August!  I hope everyone's summer is going well.  I'll be talking to all of you very soon.