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I’m Teaching My Kid to Haggle Like a Pro

Financial negotiation is a life-literacy skill — but many parents still aren't comfortable teaching children about money

No one ever taught me how to haggle growing up. Mostly it was because we were way too poor to buy anything in the first place. When you’re poor, you generally don’t go to places where they sell things you can’t afford, because it’s not just embarrassing, it’s depressing. As a result, it took me a long time to understand why anyone would enjoy window-shopping for luxury goods so far out of reach. Why waste time pining for things you can’t have? What are you, some kind of masochist? Better to spend your energy learning how to not need things you can’t have anyway.

But as I got older and spent more time around people of means, I noticed that they often negotiated the price of everything. Not just cars or homes, but even the goods or services I assumed were all but set in stone. That includes the price of rent (if you can pay more in advance, for instance), groceries in the meat or bakery section, or even plenty of retail goods like furniture or electronics where damage or a competitor’s offer is an entry point into knocking down the price.

This was revelatory to me, and now that I have an 8-year-old, I’ve made it a priority to teach her that much of life can be negotiated. I think of it as a “life literacy” skill. While most people tend to agree that being able to negotiate is an important aspect of being a functional adult, I don’t find a lot of parents doing it with their kids.

In part, it’s because we aren’t super-comfortable teaching children about money (lots of people don’t talk to their kids about it at all). We might give them an allowance or do everything to make sure they aren’t spoiled, materialistic little brats, but if we don’t explain what things are worth, that effort might not do the legwork we think it will.

In another part, many adults have a correctly healthy fear of teaching their kid how to negotiate because no one wants to hand the enemy your war text book and find yourself living with a “little lawyer” who haggles every single chore or consequence like a pro.

But haggling out in the world is the perfect opportunity to quash that: Explain that some things can be negotiated and some can’t, and while that’s never whether or not they will eat the bok choy on their plate, when it comes to the cost of that dusty used action figure, the sky is the limit on tactical maneuvers. Plus, you’re teaching what things cost versus how they’re valued. You’re teaching how they’ll handle all future negotiations, too, whether it’s cars, homes, relationships or salaries.

Recently, I tried this with my daughter at a swap meet in rural California, where she had $20 to spend at her discretion. Everyone knows that a child would hand over $20 for a single piece of candy if it had a picture of a Shopkin on it, so this is a heavily hands-on lesson that requires a lot of oversight.

Still, I came away with a few tips that might help anyone else taking a gambit on child haggling lessons.

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Discuss What You Won’t Buy Beforehand

My kid doesn’t need anything else, so you have to weigh the benefit of the skill of haggling against the fact that you’re still Buying More Stuff. I don’t think of my kid as spoiled (what parent does?!), but she has easily double the stuffed animals I’m comfortable with. We recently thinned the stuffed animal herd for donations. One way she kept more than I wanted her to was by asking with big, blinky eyes brimming with tears, if she really had to part with any that were “meaningful” gifts from her parents or family? Having let her win that one, I stood my ground that we’d leave this flea market with zero stuffed animals and she didn’t even try to score any.

Adults Are Suckers for a Haggling Child 

I’m not sure why I never thought to hustle my child out front at a flea market to get everything at half cost, but now I know. Most of the adults selling their wares at swap meets are seasoned hagglers, but shove even a reasonably cute kid in their face asking for a discount on bag of old doll heads, and their resolve starts to weaken. Only a certain breed of jagoff can be rude to a kid, and you wouldn’t give your money to that person anyway. In other words, most of them will go a little easy on a child, which is how they will score that plastic hair barrette they don’t need for half price.

Demand Politeness

At one point, she spotted some random sink parts and remarked out loud (way too loud) about why anyone would sell them, and I wanted to die. I had to pull her aside and let her know that while some of the goods might seem better suited for a dumpster in our view, we have no idea what someone else might want a part for, and it’s rude to imply that any of it is not up to par just because it’s not to our liking. What’s more, some people buy everything secondhand because they have to, some because they want to, and also this is how some people earn extra money or make a living, and it’s extremely disrespectful to point out or comment on the quality of what anyone sells. Didn’t happen again.

It was also a good opportunity to have her ask politely what the price was, to discuss whether it was reasonable, and to make an offer that felt reasonable too, and to thank everyone for the exchange.

They’re Watching When, and How, You’re Firm

That said, no one wants to raise a sucker.

I didn’t expect her to go hard on her first time, so I did take the opportunity to spend some time convincing one dude to sell us a first-pressing 1968 vinyl copy of Steppenwolf’s self-titled record, which would go for anywhere from $20 to $40 in mint condition. Only, this one’s sleeve was waterlogged, ripped and covered in mold. Your kid is watching everything about how you treat people, so being polite and friendly but firm even as you stand up for whatever matters to you is a lesson in itself, like a guy pretending a moldy record would still be super desirable.

Teach Kids to Keep Their Money in Their Pocket

If you don’t tell them, they will wave a big $20 bill around like a big ol’ sucker.

Teach Price Fairness

Price is admittedly subjective, and I felt it was important to not undercut the price down too low out of basic respect, and because of the fact that we could afford it. We paid asking price for things that were good quality, and negotiated for less when things were clearly damaged, or if we were buying in bulk.

I tried to explain that having disposable income is a luxury in and of itself, and that being able to negotiate price is a luxury, too. It’s important to not insult the seller by offering a price well below what’s reasonable. This is really only a lesson you teach through showing, not telling, and it takes work to understand the value of certain goods, so I can’t say this was effective, but making effort that you may never see the pay off for until years later, if at all, is basically all of parenting.

 Check In About Each Purchase

At each stop, we talked about what she wanted, why she was wanted it, whether the price was reasonable. In the end, this had zero impact on the things she wanted, which by adult standards were all ridiculous. But it did have impact on the amount she spent.

She only spent $6 to buy the aforementioned plastic barrette, some random bracelet, a giant plastic ball and some vintage Velcro hair rollers from the 80s.

Throw Them a Bone

Finally, you want to make the experience fun by letting them buy the dumb stuff they want, and then  maybe even one really dumb thing. The second we got there, she made a beeline for a table full of candy, which I at least made her wait to think about while we browsed the rest of the market, and told her we could go back after she’d seen what else she wanted to buy if it was still on her mind. I figured she’d forget.

But no matter how long we took perusing the labyrinth of dusty wares, she still had that candy table at the top of mind. It was hot, and we were tired, so we headed back that way. And before I could even really muster the energy to negotiate any further, she’d plopped down a full dollar for some lollipop you stick in a vat of sour powder. It was probably full price. So while some clear lessons were imparted, it’s entirely possible the sucker is me.