Free food. Who doesn’t love it? I know very few people who turn it down. I even know some people who ask for it, and often times they’ll get it. The following story might be considered extreme, but it is hilarious and demonstrates a point.
I was sitting in the campus food court with a good friend during my early years of college. We had finished our food and were sitting there talking about who knows what. We noticed a girl studying at a nearby table with an almost untouched hamburger in front of her that she had pushed away. “Is she really not going to eat that?” we asked each other. I just wrote it off as a tragedy, while my friend got up out of his seat, walked over to her, and actually asked the question.
“Hi. Are you going to finish that?”
“Your hamburger. Are you done?”
“Can I have it?”
“Uhhh…sure, I guess so.”
And 10 seconds later he’s back at our table with ¾ of an amazing looking burger. Tacky? Maybe. Did we care? No. We were still teenagers. You might as well exploit the perception of being an immature (yet charming) college boy while it’s still there.
What would have happened had my friend not asked the question? He would have missed out on a perfectly good hamburger. The generous girl would not have had a crazy story to tell her roommates that night. The outcome ended up benefitting everyone involved.
Years later, we are still friends. And not only he but also now his wife are proactive about asking for better deals. In fact, they have a marital agreement that it is totally okay to flirt (within reason people, I’m talking friendly banter here) with a salesperson, cashier, service rep, etc. if it gets them a better deal.
Still got it
Now older, more mature, more confident, and better dressed, my amigo still asks for free food (but not secondhand food anymore). Somehow, we ended up in the same state, and we occasionally go to the movies. He’ll go to the concession stand and say “I’d like some free popcorn please.”
He says it confidently and with a big smile. It usually makes the other person smile, and they might say no initially. But then he’ll say please, and no less than half of the time they at least give him a free kid size. He’s not being manipulative. He doesn’t just “turn it on” to get stuff. He’s a people person and enjoys asking people things that take them a little bit out of their comfort zone…and he also enjoys the free stuff.
Asking creates a win-win for everyone
While this approach may feel too direct for some, I am a firm advocate of asking in general. Do not feel guilty for seeking more for less. The business or giver might make less of a profit margin in the short term if they concede to your assertiveness, but your lifetime value as their customer will likely increase exponentially.
In my mind, there are two main types of asking;
- Asking for compensation of a bad experience or inconvenience
- Asking because you can!
Regarding the first type, you should always ask what they can do to compensate you. I see no excuse for not following up in these situations because recompense is almost guaranteed.
I once stayed in a hotel while traveling for work that had drying paint on the wooden chairs. Of course I sat in them and got brown paint on my white dress shirt. You’re darn right I was compensated.
I had another bad hotel experience just recently due to the all-night party in the adjacent room. I had to put a little more effort into getting compensated for that one, but I emerged victorious with 30,000 extra hotel points worth several hundred dollars.
When you have legitimately bad food or a bad experience at a restaurant, are you honest with the manager when she asks you how everything was? Do you think they are asking you just to make small talk? I’d say most of the time that’s not the case. Just be gracious and honest. They appreciate the feedback and you might even be compensated. Win-win.
The second type is more of a game. You do not have a strong negotiating position, but if you don’t ask, you’ll never know the limits of what you can do. This is where asking for free popcorn at the movies would be categorized.
The $16,000 question
Business school is not cheap. I did not initially receive any scholarships or grants. There were assistantships available which would reduce the tuition by about 15% and pay a monthly stipend. Before committing to my school, I asked if I could have one of these assistanships. But they told me no. I decided to go anyway, and I continued to ask. Finally, during the first week of school, I received an email asking me if I would like an assistantship in the accounting department worth $16,000. The benefit far outweighed the effort of just asking the question a few times.
Free music lessons
We are part of a county home school partnership that pays for community classes, which means we don’t have to pay for our kids’ music lessons. My wife was looking for a cello teacher in the area for our five year old daughter. The closest teachers, however, were about an hour away. She was about ready to give up when she had a crazy idea. She asked the partnership if they would pay for skype cello lessons from her mom who lives in San Diego (a cellist and excellent music teacher). They said yes!
Asking for money after being laid off
Even after graduating with a degree in accounting and passing the CPA exam, I was still a few accounting credits short of being able to become a certified public accountant. I started taking 2 online accounting courses in order to finish my certification. Though I had received reimbursement from the firm for my CPA exam and study program, I had not prearranged to have my 2 accounting classes reimbursed. Just as I was finishing up the courses, I was laid off.
Here I was, 25 and unemployed, with a young wife and little baby at home. We had savings, but the experience was still quite stressful. I had the thought to ask the firm for reimbursement for the 2 courses I had just finished. I had already lost my job, what else did I have to lose? So I made a few calls. The didn’t tell me yes right away, but I got a call a few weeks later and was told that my request was approved. Over $3K just for picking up the phone.
Ask for little things too
I asked my wife if she could think of any other examples. She was like “Seriously? Mark, you do this all the time!” And she began to list all of the (awesome) ways I’ve recovered savings or received compensation.
Don’t limit yourself to the big stuff. There are so many little ways to save by asking.
One small example is asking to have random fees on utility bills removed. When we moved to Michigan, I started wondering why the garbage truck would always skip our trash. I was pretty frustrated by the time I called and learned that you had to sign up with a private trash collection service. Who knew?
Anyway, one month they had some generic one-time $18 fee on the bill. I was paying $14 per month, and they wanted $18 extra bucks – more than 100% of that month’s fee! I don’t think so. I called and (politely) said that I had signed up for a $14 rate. I explained that sneaking in an extra $18 fee was equivalent to charging me $15.50 per month (for a year), in which case I would have signed up with another service. They didn’t even put up a fight, and removed the fee. I have since moved and now benefit from county trash services again, and thank goodness.
Another simple example is credit card fees. Every time I’ve asked to have an annual fee waived, it has been waived. That’s right. Every time.
The list goes on and will continue to grow.
There is usually not much to lose, but much to be gained.
What kind of benefits have you received by simply asking?
What savings opportunities have you missed because you never asked?
[Update] One of my readers turned me on to a book called The Aladdin Factor. It talks about this very thing and teaches everything you’d ever want to know about the right way to ask for something.