What’s It Worth to You?

Around the world, buying and selling involves negotiation. This article asks, “Why?” then looks at deal-making from a uniquely un-American perspective.

For years, I was a superb negotiator and even taught negotiating in corporate America and in higher education. I enjoyed the challenge of paying as little as I could for something or selling it for as much as I could.

Then something happened. I stopped negotiating. The idea of haggling about the price of something lost its luster and soon, I became a rusty negotiator.

The turning point came after I moved to California and had my first “interview” with a member of the Highway Patrol. I was speeding and following too closely. Somehow, that ticket was the first of many I had to pay. I think the funds were used to finance a rideshare lane. In any case, I stopped trying to get out of them.

A decade later, after caring for my father who had Alzheimer’s then reflecting on my late parents’ habit of saving money, I asked, “Why?” Although, their nest egg would support my father until his passing at age 90, they lived a frugal life with less than a handful of vacations amidst hard work and sacrifice.

During those years, I remember my mother’s continual encouragement to make sure I negotiated a good deal.

When a black-market street vendor in Taipei tried to sell me a Patek Philippe watch for $125 in the 1980s, I negotiated even though I knew the authentic handcrafted Swiss watch would cost far more.

Today, I view it differently. I ask, “What’s it worth to me?”

When an Armenian artist was selling a painting of Khor Virap at the Vernisage in Armenia, I couldn’t negotiate despite my host’s encouragement to do so. The country of my forebears is still growing stronger as an independent republic and I wanted to support its citizens. I paid full price. It felt strange and yet liberating. Although, I rarely want to own art, bringing home that artist’s rendering of the monastery in the Ararat plain was worth it to me.

On the other hand, when a reputable tree removal service quoted $2,000 to cut a tree next to my house, I realized that price was not worth it to me. Instead, I told the contractor that the challenge of climbing the tree branches and cutting them myself was now more inviting and reminded me of my youth. The contractor warned me that remembering my youth from nearly four decades ago might cost me far more if I fell out of the tree. I laughed in wholehearted agreement. But the pull of my youth was greater than the $1,250 difference from what I was willing to pay. Despite the poor economy, it wasn’t worth it to him to have a 3-man crew drive 35 miles to our home to cut it for less. He departed on good terms. My husband and I have since safely cut the problem branches from the tree.

Why don’t more of us buy and sell based on what it’s worth to us? Determining what something is worth to us is a way to deal with integrity. Additionally, we don’t run the risk of offending each other because the value is what we are willing to pay for the item. If there’s no common ground, there’s no deal.

I would never pay the five-figure price of a Patek Philippe handmade watch. It may be worth it for the hundreds of hours that go into making one, but that level of craftsmanship is just not worth it to me. I’d feel much better about using that money to gift a caregiver.

What’s it worth to you? Start asking this and you’ll be surprised by how much more comfortable you’ll feel and confident when you try to buy or sell something.

Indulge me in this final example of a billionaire who desperately needs water.

Quality drinking water is getting increasingly scarce in many parts of the world. Conversely, tap water flows freely at pennies per gallon in most cities.

Over the years, we’ve grown accustomed to paying for bottles of water. At an outdoor event, to quench our thirst, we may pay $2 for the same bottle of water we’d buy for 20 cents in a case.

Would we be willing to pay more?

Again, it depends.

Far away from civilization, a billionaire’s chartered plane runs out of fuel. The pilot makes an emergency landing in the desert between two warring nations. Days go by and search parties cannot get to the plane given the conflict. With dwindling supplies and a crew who refuses to leave the plane, the billionaire heads into the desert in search of water. Three days pass and he is very weak and bleary-eyed. He tries to focus when in the distance he spots a figure. Soon, an old man with dark leathery skin stands above him. His clothes are torn and he looks worn but strapped across his chest is a bulging leather bota bag filled with water.

What’s it worth for the billionaire to have a drink of that old man’s water?

Would he negotiate? I doubt it.

How much would he be willing to pay that old man for a cup of life-saving water? $1,000? $10,000? $100,000?

This is why negotiating doesn’t make sense. Negotiations do not reflect the real value or worth of something between two parties who come from different places and points of view.

We need to take responsibility and decide what value we place on the things we buy and sell. If we practice this, we’ll end up with more of the things we need instead of things we don’t really want.

“Un-American,” you say. Maybe not. Besides, the deal is a lot less stressful and more satisfying when we ask, “What’s it worth to me?”

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