Everything in life is negotiable. Negotiations can be extremely difficult, but in my career as a negotiator, I’ve come to realize that there’s only 1 rule that really matters. It’s simple and every one should start using it right now to get what they deserve.

Apart from the IRS…

In my previous position at a Fortune 500 Oil & Gas company, as a supply chain professional, negotiation was my job. In a few years, I have negotiated over 150M$ worth of deals and I can say that I’ve learned a few things on the topic.

Several months ago, when my friend Fervent Finance wrote an article on how Anything is Negotiable and there has been some great feedback in the comments. Indeed, apart from what you owe to the IRS, everything else from your internet access to your next car can be negotiated.

So I knew I had to get a negotiation going and document it for you readers!

But most importantly, I wanted to share the #1 reason why negotiations work. There are thousands of techniques you can use, but they aren’t worth anything unless this 1 condition is met.

Why you can negotiate anything

When 2 parties negotiate, the basic principle is that they agree to make a compromise in order to reach an agreement. Put another way, the cost of making compromises is less than the cost of not doing the deal.

(maybe that’s worth reading a second time because this is very important)

Put this way, most things can actually be negotiated because NOT making a deal is always somewhat painful, if only because not reaching agreement would be a waste of time for both parties.

As a result, the easiest way to start a negotiation is to say “No”.

A simple disagreement. You do not agree with the price, you do not agree with the service, you do not agree with how long it takes to get it done. Whatever the reason, unless the person in front of you rejects you straight away with “I’m sorry, that’s just how it is”, you know you have an agreement to negotiate.

The easiest way to start a negotiation is to say “No”.

I could have documented how to negotiate a cable bill, but EvenStevenMoney already wrote a great article about it. Instead I decided to negotiate something I had no experience with : medical bills.

In particular dentist bills, which are good candidates for negotiation because:

  1. It’s generally known by the public to be expensive,
  2. Prices are difficult to compare,
  3. The industry tells you that you shouldn’t compromise on the cost of healthcare if you want the best,
  4. Your dentist knows you get FREE money from your employer in your HSA in addition to some pre-tax contributions, which makes it ‘cheaper’ money.

In short, your dentist is in a position of power to charge a premium.

So let’s see how it went and how much discount they eventually agreed on 🙂

There’s nothing like a free lunch

In August 2014, I went to see my dentist to get a free clean-up. The cleaning was free and in return they would make a diagnostic and recommendation if they would find anything. Of course, they did find a few things and offered a treatment that was fully covered by the insurance. Awesome. Everything was great until February this year.

A few months into the treatment, my dentist tells me I should now consider doing something about some cavities she had found earlier. For whatever reason, she found 8.

I could buy a plane ticket to Paris for that price

I start thinking that it’s been a while and maybe I need to listen to what they have to say.

First things first, I ask her how much she thinks it would cost. She checks with the insurance and tells me, as if it was no big deal, that it would probably be around 1300$ and hands me a pen to sign the treatment plan to ‘get this scheduled as soon as possible’.

Wow, wow, wow! Wait a minute!

What just happened? 1300$ for 8 fillings? I could buy a plane ticket to Paris for that price! And she’s expecting me to agree right away? Haha, let’s see how things went down.

Let the negotiation begin

First thing I said, of course, is that I can’t accept their proposal at that price (the “No”).

So I nicely explain that for such an amount, I will need time to think because really, I don’t have that kind of money. And I’ll also need a quote.

Because she did agree to generate a quote for me, at that point we have implicitly agreed that:

  1. I might go and do some research on how competitive this price is,
  2. There is a chance that I will not accept her proposal at that price.

Do your homework

Back to the office that afternoon, first thing I do is ask an older colleague for the price of fillings based on experience. She tells me that “yeah it’s expensive but it’s sounds reasonable”.

Crap. That’s not what I expected.

So I found 2 great resources online that actually give some indication of healthcare costs by ZIP code. There’s Fair Health Consumer and Health Care Blue Book. This is where the quote is so important because you can compare apples to apples with the normalized coding.

For example, the “Resin composite-2s, Posterior” is coded D2392 and was quoted at 254$, of which 88$ would be covered by the insurance and I’d pay the remaining 166$.

Fair Health Consumer

According to those 2 sites, the prices vary between 140$ and 255$. Good, I have some margin for negotiation.

1st Negotiation round – Next day – Over the phone

That is however, the price for 1 filling not for 8. Shouldn’t I get a discount for doing all of them? Doing 8 can’t be 8 times the cost of 1.

I call them up, explain that I’m still thinking about their quote and I’d like to see if they could extend a discount for doing them all together? Like a group discount? That’s a 2min conversation.

Two days later I receive an email where they extend to me a 300$ discount, which now brings my cost down to 1000$. A 25% discount for a 2min phone call. That’s better than Geico!

Of course, 1000$ is still a lot of money, so “I need to think about this a little longer”.

2nd Negotiation round – 2 months later – In person

Since I’m actually interested in doing this treatment, I go see them in person this time to explain how I need another discount. It goes like this:

“I would really like to do this treatment, but as you know I’m getting married this year and I don’t really have that kind of money right now. Could we do maybe the top 3 most important ones and do the rest for next year?”

Of course this isn’t their preferred solution so it’s now their turn to “think about it”.

No additional discount at this point.

3rd Negotiation round – 3 months later – In person

I go check in again to get an update on this quote. They do ask me again when I’ll do that and I explain again that I just don’t have the money. If they can give me the top3, I’ll check again. Otherwise, it will definitely have to be next year.

I guess they give up at that point. They’d much rather have some business than no business and they give me this crazy 75% discount, which brings the cost down to 250$!

Wow, wow, wow! Wait a minute!

What just happened? 250$ for 8 fillings? That’s 80% off the original quote. I can definitely agree to that 🙂

You get what you negotiate

You might have noticed that all those steps have one thing in common. A very simple common characteristics that helped drive the price down. It’s like poker: the stakes increase after each round.

First, the discount over the phone was due to a simple disagreement. Most people don’t feel comfortable in confrontational situations and the easiest way to defuse it is to give in. “You aren’t happy because you don’t like the color of the car?”, “No problem, let me see what I can do”.

It’s like poker: the stakes increase after each round

Second, the in-person visit adds stakes to the discussion. It is much more difficult to say “no” to someone you have standing in front of you than over email/phone. At the very least, they would have to agree to at least to think about the extra discount.

Third, the delayed response. In negotiations, time can be your best friend or your worse enemy. You need something urgent? You’re going to pay. But if you have time, you put the pressure on the other party to make a decision. At that stage, my dentist probably concluded that providing a heavily discounted service was less expensive than not having an agreement at all. At least they kept a happy customer.

The only rule that really matters in a negotiation is that there needs to be tension between the parties, there needs to be something at stake!

There is no negotiation without tension.

You aren’t seriously considering not buying that new couch? There is no tension for a potential lost sale. You wish to reduce the cost of your cable bill? You call the cancellation department, not the sales department.

I’m not telling you this story to brag about how successful this negotiation turned out to be. Honestly, I’ve been quite lucky with this one. No, I’m telling you this story because to manage your finances, you need to negotiate what you are paying for. It could be a car, a mortgage, a cable bill or all sorts of insurances. Investments returns compound over time but costs do as well. The first negotiation can be tough, but it is easier with time and you’ll eventually become good at it.

If you do not negotiate, you get what other people think you deserve. When you negotiate, you get a chance to tell them what you deserve.

Start with a “no”. It can go a long way.

-Nick

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27 COMMENTS

  1. I love negotiating or “haggling” as I like to call it. reminds me of the Monty Python “beard” scene in Life of Brian, “No, no, You have to haggle!”

    I talked Mrs. SSC into haggling for her wedding ring and she got $250 knocked off just by asking. I find most bills can be negotiated down. I got our ADT bill cut in half just by asking, and the same with our ATT bill before I switched. They lowered it %25 just because I called and said I thought it was too much and could they do anything. I found Sirius/XM is like the old AOL internet – you can get your bill cut in half every year just by saying you’re not going to pay their price, and then they offer a 50% off sort of price, and you say – ok, I’ll pay that. When we got our landscaping done last year, the first quote was around $5500 and we were like, hahaha, nnnooo…. Then we got 3 more quotes that were closer to $9k and we laughed even harder and tried to figure out how to do it ourselves. About 6 months later we get a call from the original landscaper that was inquiring about the job again, and we said it was just a bit high, so we had decided not to do it. Since it was a slow period she said they could get it scheduled and done for $4k if we did it that week. Sold! The biggest take away is do landscaping in the winter when those guys are begging for work. 🙂

    Sorry for the long comment… Great post!

    • I love long and insightful comments! Those are all great examples Mr SSC, congrats on negotiating all these different bills!
      Thanks for the tip on doing landscaping in the winter, you managed this one like a pro.
      It sometimes amazes me to see what the discounted price is, like in your example 1500$ less, because you realize they were really going to charge you that much more!

    • You’re right Steve, I think I did! And to save 1000$+, that was totally worth it.
      I never tried cash discounts, I’ll add this as another option next time I need to negotiate a medical bill, thanks!

  2. Great job Nick and thanks for the shout out. Speaking of the IRS, my first year out of college the IRS mailed me a letter saying I owed them $2,500. I guess I didn’t negotiate but I convinced them this amount should be zero. I’ll write a post about it!

    Lately I haven’t negotiated anything. I’m currently getting the bug 🙂

    • Hi FF – if you’ve convinced the IRS you can say that you won a negotiation with them and that’s pretty impressive.
      So anything can be negotiated, including taxes due to the IRS. Good to know haha.

  3. Anytime you’re talking to the business owner, you really should be haggling. People in the US are too used to malls where they’re talking to employees and there’s zero haggling because the cashier doesn’t have the power to lower a price. Go somewhere internationally and chances are you’re not talking to just a cashier, it’s the owner. They have the power, much like your dentist, to move on the price.

    (also, sometimes you can still get a discount with a cashier just by asking nicely– something my wife does all the time)

    • You’re absolutely right Jim, I would even extend that to most western countries.
      But in some places, it’s part of doing business!
      When I was in Turkey, the cashier of one shop refused to sell me anything until we had a few back and forth on the price. That was a memorable experience!

  4. I really like how you went through the negotiation process step-by-step. I haven’t had much luck with dentists although I know others who have negotiated down. I’ve had more like with hospitals and specialists. Like you said, it’s always important to ask!

    • I think in most medical related pricing, there is a huge room for negotiation. I never negotiated with a hospital, but I’m sure it’s totally worth it as well with big $$ savings.
      100% of the people who got discounts asked for them 🙂

  5. Awesome story! This past year I was in two different conversations with salesmen where I actually didn’t want what they were offering. It took these experiences to realize that by the end of saying “no” that many times, it is clear what they’re lowest offer is when they present it, and it is usually much lower than you anticipate it being! Well done on the dental discount!

    • Hi Maggie, your experience not only shows you how much room for negotiation there can be in a deal, but it also shows that a negotiation can last a long time, until one of the parties decide to walk away.
      Knowing the “walk-away” point of the other party is the most powerful piece of knowledge for a negotiation. Sometimes you know it before it starts (the best), most times you discover it during the negotiation, as the discussion becomes tense.
      Keep practicing this, the day you will actually want to buy from them, you’ll manage the deal like a pro!

    • Hi ONL – I’ve been there before, it’s not always easy or possible to negotiate everything. If it’s a dentist you will go to again, you know that you can get a break on some future treatment and it would be difficult for him/her to say no 🙂

  6. I’m a little confused. You got the price down to $1000. You asked to do three fillings for $375 (($1000/8) * 3), but they counter-offered to do ALL of the fillings for $250? $125 less than the cost of the three you were prepared to pay for? This story does not hold water.

    • Hello Ryan – thanks for commenting, I realize that I didn’t mention the split between what I ended up paying and what the insurance paid, which could indeed be confusing.
      This should clarify it:
      With the initial cost of 1300$ to me, the insurance was paying 500$, for a total revenue to the dentist of 1800$. When they dropped the cost to me to 1000$, the insurance was still paying 500$, so the dentist revenue was now 1500$. They did not agree to do only 3 filings because it would have basically cut their revenue to somewhere around 550$. Instead, they offered to do all 8 for a fee of 750$, of which the insurance would pay 500$ and I would pay 250$.
      So the dentist cut their fee by 60%, which translates into an 80% reduction for me, because the insurance was paying for part of it.

    • Hi Ms. MyCountdown – negotiations aren’t always easy but it’s important to try. As with everything, with time and practice, we can become better at almost anything. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  7. Nick, fascinating story. Reminds of the 20% discount experiment that Noah Kagan often preaches when purchasing coffee. The only thing that makes me slightly cringe when reading this story is the fact it deals with your health. It might be a little tougher delaying an angiogram for 5 months because it doesn’t fit the budget.That is probably a different conversation regarding the health industry though. I’d definitely say the 80% discount was well worth the wait!

    • Hi Sorro – I completely agree with you on the healthcare front and this is probably why they can charge a premium in the first place.
      Which makes any kind of discount feel so much more exciting to me.
      So I’d say take what you can while you can, that will pay for the cases you can’t get a discount on!

  8. Great negotiating! It’s definitely worth it to always ask if you can get a better price on something. Most businesses will lock in a customer by dropping a few % on their margins for a sure thing.

  9. Hi Nick, interesting post. Sounds like you’ve managed to save some money on you dental care, but I believe there’s another side to this story that should be addressed.
    First, let me see if I correctly understand what transpired. It sounds as though the dentist treatment planned eight restorations at a total fee of $1800. Your dental insurance agreed to pay $500, and you were to be responsible for the remaining $1300. Ultimately, however, your dentist offered to do the eight fillings for a total fee of $750, of which your insurance paid $500 and you paid the remaining $250. The dentist discounted or waived $1050 of your copayment.
    If this is what occurred, your dentist engaged in a practice known as overbilling, which is unethical, and, depending on the laws of your state and the contract between the dentist and the insurance company, possibly fraud. I’ve included a link below which explains overbilling.
    https://www.deltadentalins.com/dentists/guidance/copayment-waivers.html

    • Hello MH – thanks for the information, this is a good point.
      In this particular case, I remember checking the actual bill from the insurance but I can’t recall that there was a discrepancy.
      However, I have seen in the past how dentists give you a ‘year end discount’ if you come see them in december and eventually overcharge the difference to the insurance, resulting in reduced benefits available for the (short) reminder of the year.
      I agree this doesn’t seem right, but I was also surprised to see that they could check the amount of benefits still available for a given patient, in a given year. Tell them what’s your budget and they’ll know how much they can charge. Seems to me like a potential conflict of interest, as insurance companies would have a vested interest in expensive healthcare to justify higher premiums.

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