You don't have to be an expert negotiator to leverage the power of persuasion — and ultimately save big. Alison Fragale, negotiation expert and professor of organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina, says a little preparation can go a long way.
"Any time you have goals you need to achieve, and you need someone else's cooperation to make those goals happen, that's a negotiation," she said, adding that coming to the conversation prepared is often a game changer.
We caught up with a handful of folks who did just that. From talking down debt, to negotiating salary increases, these everyday people successfully haggled their way to some big financial wins. Here's how they did it.
I shaved $7,400+ off my student loan balance
As of 2014, the average college graduate wrapped up their studies with nearly $29,000 in student loan debt, according to The Institute for College Access & Success. But your balances aren't always set in stone.
Danielle Scott, a 30-year-old public relations professional in New York City, used some persuasive bargaining skills to save thousands on her private loans. The inspiration? After several years of just paying the minimum monthly payment and calling it a day, she was discouraged to see that her principal balance was relatively unchanged, thanks to super high interest rates.
"One was as high as 15 percent, and my total loan balance was about $80,000,” Scott says.
She called her loan provider, Navient, and cut a deal — if they agreed to lower the interest rate on her loans, she'd up her monthly payments from $400 to $1,500. They agreed, lowering her rate to 1% on one of her two loans, and Scott put everything she had into paying down the debt over the next five years. She paid much more in the short term, but she saved big over the long haul since she was shortening the life of the debt and putting way more toward the principal balance.
Earlier this year, when her balance had gone down to $15,000, her loan servicer reached out to her with a deal of their own. They were willing to reduce her balance to $9,000 if she could pay it off in two lump payments. Scott countered.
"I asked them how low they could go if I agreed to pay it all off in one payment," she recalls. "At first, they said no, but after pushing back a little, and being put on hold for 20 minutes, they came back with $7,600 as their final offer, but I had to make the payment that day."
Scott dipped into her savings to pay it and, just like that, was debt-free.
While you might have some wiggle room negotiating private student loan debt, federal student loans are a different story. If you've defaulted on federal loans and they've been sent to collections, you can use one of the following standard settlements to make good with the U.S. Department of Education, according to student loan expert Mark Kantrowitz:
- Pay off the current principal balance plus any unpaid interest; collection fees are waived.
- Pay off the current principal balance plus 50 percent of any unpaid interest.
- Pay off a minimum of 90 percent of the current principal balance and interest.
Just keep in mind that settlements are generally due in full within 90 days. (FYI: There's also a chance you'll have to pay taxes on whatever is forgiven.)
I talked my way out of $20,000 of medical debt
In 2010, Robin, a Tampa, Fla., lawyer, was involved in a major car accident that almost cost her her life. The road to recovery was a long one and included multiple surgeries and hospital stays. Despite having health insurance, her bills eventually reached a whopping $197,000. But it wasn't until she really pored over the statements that she noticed some major errors.
"A mix of in-network and out-of-network medical providers were billing me for whatever my insurance company wasn't paying, even after I'd met my deductible," Robin, 57, says. She requested that we not use her full name because she's still negotiating down her debts.
In many cases, she was getting treated by in-network hospitals, but by medical providers who, she later learned, were out of network. This led to tons of surprise bills; a phenomenon known as balance billing, which isn't always legal in her home state.
"I called each and every medical provider, in some cases threatening to report them to the attorney general," she recalled. "Some bills were forgiven more easily than others; some took years to resolve, but nothing was ever sent to collections."
All in all, Robin has wiped out about $20,000 of her medical debt by directly challenging providers — a wise move considering that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported that medical bills make up over half of all debt on credit reports.
I negotiated a $15,000 raise and promotion
When it comes to nailing down a raise, getting a pay bump of 2 percent per year is the average, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But you might be able to get more if you're willing to negotiate.
Ariel Gonzalez, a 33-year-old front end development engineer in Orlando, Fla., has successfully negotiated multiple pay raises over the years. The latest got him a $15,000 pay bump and promotion after a year of working in a junior position.
"My demeanor is typically calm and confident, but firm," he says. "I hate talking about money, but I know what I bring to the table as an employee."
Gonzalez is a big believer in coming to salary negotiations as prepared as possible, researching comparable salaries on sites like Salary.com and Glassdoor. Referencing positive client testimonials in past negotiations has also proved fruitful. He landed his last raise in 2016 by showing up to the meeting with an air of respect and transparency.
"I came to my boss with my number, hat in hand, and said that it was what I needed to be comfortable and that I didn't want to do the whole back-and-forth thing," Gonzalez said, adding that the promotion and raise he was asking for were in line with his performance and proven results as an employee.
The preparation and confidence paid off; his boss had no problem granting his request. The takeaway? Do your homework ahead of time and ask for what you deserve.
Some expert negotiation tips
Whether you're looking to score a raise or buy a new car, Fragale suggests pinpointing the following three terms before beginning any negotiation:
1) What are you trying to achieve? This should be a clear aspiration that's grounded in reality, given your circumstances.
2) What's your walk-away point? Before going in, clarify the point at which you'll abandon the deal. Fragale said knowing this beforehand is empowering because it discourages an "I'll take what I can get" mentality.
3) What's the alternative? In other words, if you don't get what you want out of this deal, what's going to happen? If the stakes are high and your alternative is terrible, you'll be more inclined to settle for less than what you want. (Case in point: You're more likely to settle for a low salary if your alternative is unemployment.)
"If you have the luxury, try and make your alternative as good as possible before negotiating," says Fragale. "That tends to lift the whole boat."
MagnifyMoney is a price comparison and financial education website, founded by former bankers who use their knowledge of how the system works to help you save money.