The Winning Hand

To save a bundle on bills, sometimes all you have to do is ask!
Feb 06, 2013

In troubled times like these, the cost of raising a family can feel like a 10-ton weight on your shoulders. Gas, clothing, groceries — they all add up. But if there is an upside to this down economy, it’s that more deals are out there for the asking, even for seemingly set-in-stone prices.

“In our society, people tend to just take an offer as is,” says Eric Bourassa, consumer advocate with Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group. “But it’s fine to say, ‘This is expensive for me.’ Consumers should have the courage in this economy to negotiate.”

Those who do summon the courage are often rewarded. More than 90 percent of consumers who negotiated for electronics, furniture, and medical bills got a lower price on at least one purchase over a three-year period, a 2007 survey of 2,167 U.S. households by Consumer Reports National Research Center found.  

We looked at three common family expenses — cable and phone costs, credit cards, and medical bills — and talked with parents who have bargained for better deals to help you become a more savvy negotiator.

Phone and Cable Costs
When Terry Wolfisch Cole, a mother of two in Hartford, CT, told her phone and Internet provider she might cancel her service if she couldn’t get a better deal, she was put through to the “customer retention” department and got a $5 credit on her monthly bill. When she saw the company advertising a lower rate for the same service, she called again and asked for that. Two calls netted a $35-per-month savings.

Cole then called the “customer retention” department at her cable company and told them she was thinking of pulling the plug on her $130-a-month service. Presto, her monthly charge was dropped to $95. Plus, she got an additional premium channel free for six months.

  • Odds of winning: “If a customer calls to disconnect, we’re not going to just let them go,” William Kula, a Verizon spokesman, told The Wall Street Journal. “Our representatives try very hard in these times to keep customers rather than have them peel away to rival companies.”
  • Before you bargain: Find out the current promotional rates.
  • Who to ask for: If you’re an existing customer, talk to the department in charge of keeping you as a customer.
  • Your opening line: Cole pointed out that if she left, the company would likely offer her a special rate to return. “Instead of going through all that,” she told them, “can you offer me a price break now?”
  • If they said no: Try for a free add-on, like more channels.

Medical Bills
John M. McKee, CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, had a client who was losing sleep over hefty doctor bills. After the client talked honestly with her providers about her payment difficulties, her doctor reduced her bill and let her schedule payments over a period of time.

  • Odds of winning: The 2007 Consumer Reports survey found that 31 percent of those polled had bargained for a better deal on their medical bills, and 93 percent got a better price. Just over a third of those who negotiated on medical expenses saved $100 or more.
  • Before you bargain: If possible, negotiate before you receive the care — and the bills. Offering to pay cash upfront (if you can afford it) and/or volunteering to come for care during off-peak times can open doors to a discount.
  • Who to ask for: You may need to speak directly with the provider, but oftentimes you negotiate with the billing staff.
  • Your opening line: Be honest about how much you can afford to pay and in what time frame.
  • If they said no: Try for an extended payment plan.

Credit Card Interest
John and Holland Korhumel, the parents of two in Seattle, WA, and the owners of a construction business, were dismayed to see the interest rate on their business credit card more than triple, even though they’d never been late with payments. They were told the hike would be applied to all construction-related businesses, regardless of credit history, because it is an industry weakened by the economy. But, after Holland threatened to roll over the balance to another credit card issuer, a supervisor slashed the new rate by nearly 50 percent with an option to renegotiate terms in two months.

  • Odds of winning: The U.S. Public Interest Research Group studied 50 consumers who asked card issuers to lower their rates and found that 56 percent received better deals, with an average reduction going from 16 percent to 10.47 percent.
  • Before you bargain: Compare credit card rates online (try bankrate.com).
  • Who to ask for: A supervisor may be the only one who can cut your rate.
  • Your opening line: Emphasize how long you’ve used the card, if you have a low unpaid balance compared to your credit limit, and a history of no late payments, says Scott Crawford, CEO of DebtGoal.com.
  • If they said no: Look to competing card companies. 
Raising Kids