In the landmark book Women Don’t Ask, Linda Babcock, an economics professor and head of the social and decision sciences department at Carnegie Mellon University, provided startling evidence that women don’t negotiate for things nearly as much as men do—to their economic detriment. In one study she cites, women compared negotiating to “going to the dentist,” while men compared it to “winning a ball game.” Even though the book came out more than 15 years ago, little has changed.
“I’ve come across many women who would just as soon not negotiate,” says Suzanne de Janasz, a professor of management and conflict resolution at George Mason University who has been researching negotiation for more than two decades. Why? Whether they want a higher salary, superior position, help at home or just a better deal in general, women find it harder to ask than men because they think they don’t deserve it, can’t possibly get it or will experience backlash by a still very gendered society for trying to get it.
Not asking, however, could have a huge impact on women’s bank accounts. If a job seeker, for example, accepts a starting salary that could have been $7,000 higher—had she negotiated—that difference compounds over time, de Janasz explains. The woman could end up earning $650,000 to $1 million less over the course of her career than a fellow candidate who did negotiate. According to a 2020 survey by staffing firm Robert Half, only 46% of professional women tried to negotiate higher salaries in their last job offer, compared with 66% of men. “If you don’t believe you’re going to be successful in negotiating, you likely won’t be,” de Janasz says.
And no one can afford to throw away money like that. Here are some suggestions for how to build (and flex) your negotiation muscles.
1. Negotiating College Financial Aid
When: After your child has been admitted.
Tips: The average cost of a four-year degree at a public college is $87,800 for in-state students, according to the College Board. At a private university, it’s $199,480. Yikes. Students applying for financial aid for the 2021-2022 school year will receive a letter from their schools letting them know how much aid they’re getting (including grants, awards and loans). If it’s not enough, have your student write back and let them know—especially if your financial situation has changed since COVID-19, says Reyna Gobel of CollegeFinance.com. But think in terms of hundreds or a few thousand dollars, not tens of thousands.
If your child has better offers from other schools, have them reach out to their preferred college and let them know—but also have them explain why that school is their first choice and what they expect to bring to the school. “It’s about giving the school a chance to win you,” Gobel says. Important: Get cracking as soon as your child receives their admission letter. You will need to get any extra financial commitments from the school—in writing—before deposits are due, traditionally around May 1. (Once you’ve written a check, you’re in a weaker negotiating position.) Consider using a free service like CompareCollegeOffers.com to guide you through the process.
2. Negotiating Your Rent
When: Especially in today’s down market, you can negotiate either when you’re looking for a new place or after you’ve already been in your home for a while.
Tips for New Renters: By now, any rate reductions caused by the pandemic have already been priced into rental homes and apartments, but you can still see if a landlord is willing to play ball. Try asking for the first month free (that’s equal to an 8.3% reduction in the overall year’s rent). If they won’t go for that, see if they’ll knock off 5% if you’re willing to pay a big chunk up front—say three or six months’ rent. The better your credit score—and your references—the more likely the landlord is to say “yes.” Good tenants, after all, are worth their weight in gold.
Tips for Current Renters: If you signed your lease before the pandemic, research how much a comparable rental costs today. Your landlord is more likely to reduce the rent if you can prove you could get another place for significantly less. Turning a rental over costs them time and money, so they’d rather keep you there than look for someone new.
3. Negotiating Medical Bills
When: After you’ve been told you need a procedure.
Tips: If your doctor says you need a specific procedure, probe that assessment, says Davis Liu, a family physician and author of The Thrifty Patient: Vital Insider Tips for Saving Money and Staying Healthy. Ask if it’s really necessary, or if it can be postponed. And consider getting a second opinion. Finding out that you don’t need a procedure is the best way to save money. “A lot of times we feel so disempowered by white coats, that we don’t ask questions, like, ‘What if I don’t get this procedure? Is there something else I can do?’” Liu says.
If you need surgery, Liu recommends contacting the hospital’s billing office to make sure that everyone doing the procedure is in your health plan. Sometimes, the hospital and surgeon may be in your plan, but the anesthesiologist isn’t—and that could stick you with a big bill. “Write down everyone’s name,” Liu says, including the dates and times you talked to them. A paper trail will help resolve any issues that may come up later with the insurance company.
If you don’t have health insurance, speak to your doctor or a back-office business manager about getting a discount on services. Insurance companies often negotiate lower rates, while self-pay patients are stuck paying full freight. If money is tight, explain your situation and see if
they can lower the rate. “If you told us, we’d most likely help you figure it out,” Liu says.
4. Negotiating Your Salary
When: For job seekers, negotiate after you receive an offer. For current employees, start negotiating up to six months before your next review.
Tips for New Jobs: Most employers—about 84% according to a Salary.com survey—expect candidates to negotiate their salaries (and 87% say they’ve never rescinded an offer after an applicant asked for more). But given the unusual times we’re living in, job site Indeed recommends researching how the pandemic has affected the company you’re interviewing with. Use that information to contextualize your request for increased compensation. You should also research how much people doing similar jobs make to get an idea of the salary range you should be offered. If a company won’t budge on salary, negotiate for other forms of compensation, like a higher bonus or more stock options (if your company offers them). And don’t forget about perks. Try asking for more vacation time or more flexible work arrangements. For example, if the job involves a lot of travel and in-person client meetings (yes, even now), ensure that use of your personal car and other travel expenses will be covered.
Tips for Raises: Start early, says Erin Lowry, a personal finance expert and author of Broke Millennial Talks Money. About six months before your review, let your manager know you’re hoping for a raise and a promotion, and ask them what it will take to get there. “Waiting until a performance review may be too late because budgets might already be set,” Lowry says. Next, start tracking your progress. Keep a “success” folder with your victories, metrics of improvement and praise from co-workers, clients and managers. Try to ask at least three men and three women who do similar jobs what they earn—if you don’t feel comfortable asking for a specific
number, Lowry suggests framing the question as, “Can I ask if you make over or under $X?” It sounds scary, but the worst they can say is “no.”
5. Negotiating A Car Purchase
When: Before you step on the lot.
Tips: First, identify your preferred car and the features you want it to have (prices will vary depending on whether you get extras like a moon roof or heated seats). Then, call three dealerships, ask to speak to their Internet Department and have them send you a written quote, recommends Oren Weintraub, a former dealership manager who founded Authority Auto, consumer advocates that negotiate car prices on behalf of buyers. Those in the Internet Department, which typically handles customers who buy their cars online, are “less car salesman-like,” Weintraub says, and are more likely to give you a quote closer to the lowest possible out there because they’re incentivized to maximize the number of cars they sell, rather than focusing on profit.
Once you’ve test-driven the car, find the dealership with the best overall deal (using the quotes you got to counter higher prices). Keep in mind, though, that the deal you find could vary from one month to the next, Weintraub says. A dealership with excess inventory could offer attractive terms today but raise prices next month when they are running low on cars.
Note that the moment you close on a price and sit down to sign a contract, the dealership is going to try to upsell you on other products like wheel and tire warranties and insurance products. If you want any of these, Weintraub recommends researching their prices beforehand, so you don’t get pressured into overpaying.
6. Negotiating Financial Advisor Fees
When: Before you hire an advisor. If you already have one, you can try negotiating after you’ve been with them for at least a year.
Tips: If you’re shopping for a financial advisor, check their “Form ADV” on the Securities and Exchange Commission Public Disclosure website to see if their fees are negotiable. Advisors who have a full roster of clients may not budge on pricing, while those who are still building their practice might be more flexible.
Find two or three advisors you’d feel comfortable working with and find out what they each charge, recommends Derek Tharp, a professor of finance at the University of Southern Maine. Fees are usually around 1% for up to $1 million assets under management, with gradually smaller percentages for larger portfolios. If your favorite candidate is the most expensive, mention that fact to them and see if they’ll bring their rate down. A client who needs fewer services than the advisor usually provides—only a single, annual review, rather than four quarterly ones, for example—might also nab a lower fee. Intangibles also play a role, Tharp says, like how organized you are or how pleasant you are to work with.
“Don’t be afraid to ask,” Tharp says. “At the end of the day, they’re still going to want your business.”
Learn to Love Negotiating
Practice. Personal finance expert Erin Lowry suggests going into a coffee shop just before closing, buying a cup of coffee and asking if you can get a pastry for half off. The key? Make the ask and then be quiet. Don’t start countering yourself if you get an awkward
look from the barista. Other places to practice: the cable company, the gym and even your car insurance provider.
Reframe. Tell yourself that women have what it takes to succeed in negotiations, and you’ll actually be better. In a series of experiments, Laura Kray, professor and director for the Center of Equity, Gender, and Leadership at the University of California Haas School of Business, found that when business school students were told that listening and verbal skills—stereotypically female traits—made people better at negotiation, the women outperformed the men. Before a negotiation, Kray recommends “choosing the framing that puts you at ease and that enables you to say, ‘I’ve got this.’”
Role Play. Ahead of a negotiation, get a friend or family member to act as your counterparty. If possible, record yourself so you can study your body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. Kray regularly does these kinds of simulations with her students: “This type of practice increases their confidence in their ability to negotiate.”
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E.B. Boyd is a freelance writer and a former Silicon Valley reporter for Fast Company. She is currently working on a book about female entrepreneurs.