Cyanide and Happiness, a daily webcomic

I was inspired to write about my worst deal ever from NCP’s post about a negotiating class. But whilst rinsing drywall dust from my many crevasses, it occurred to me that I have many, many bad deal tales to tell.

I was raised by a Dutch dad (known for frugality (or cheapness – where do you think the term Dutch Treat comes from?)).He would often buy things that were clearly for him alone, but he was pinched pennies so hard they’d screech when it came to others. Mom didn’t know how to drive a stick shift, so those were the only cars he bought. And he would come home with contraptions such as computer racks the size of refrigerators, and the best tools he could find. Mom, on the other hand, was a free spirit who would regularly deficit spend. She bought 2 (count ’em, TWO) Kirby vacuum cleaners from door-to-door salesmen. They’re fine machines, but damn… $900 is a lot for a staubsauger, especially in the 70’s. This genetic material has somehow conspired to give me not only the inability to say no, but also a predisposition to say yes.

My first bad deal as an ‘adult’ was my first office job. I was hired at an architectural firm as a drafstman, while still in Community College to start my architectural training. I thought it was serendipitous, landing that job. In some ways, it was – but I eagerly yapped ‘YES!’ like a fuzzy puppy when the boss offered me $5.00 per hour. That’s what I was making at the gas station that previously employed me. That prestigious salary allowed me to think I was on the fast track to success, apparently – I got married and bought a house while working there.

I was raised not to talk about salary; it was completely taboo. My school friend, Joel, once bragged that his dad made $50,000 as a detective. I came home to gather ammunition, asking my dad what he earned as a computer operator. He replied curtly, “None of your business.” Later, he explained that it was nobody’s business, not just not mine – and it was his company’s policy to fire anyone who discussed salary. Therefore, I went into the marketplace with no idea what work was worth beyond my experience with gas stations, car washes, paper routes, and pizza delivery.

After the architecture firm went out of business a year later (not my fault, honest), I took another drafting job for about the same money I made at the end of my architecture career. The owner was a good guy to work for overall, but he was very stingy with raises and encouraging words. ‘I can’t afford to pay you any more’ was his standard line. Many years later, a disgruntled coworker walked by the fax machine and saw a document meant for the boss. It was SOP to pick up any new messages and deliver them to the recipient. It wasn’t supposed to be read by the delivery boy, but he couldn’t resist. It listed every employee’s salary and IRA contributions, and he found himself to be at the bottom of the heap – and there were 3 employees making double his money. On top of that, the boss was collecting $475,000 annually just in salary (nevermind the building the company leased from him and company cars). He went to his office, crashed his computer, made 50 copies of the IRA report, faxed it to all of our suppliers and subcontractors, and handed them out to all the employees before storming out the door in a blithering rage.

I inherited his office, and while running new computer cables in the drop ceiling, I found several porno magazines and empty liquor bottles hidden behind the panels. It was no wonder he wasn’t earning more. The boss never used the ‘can’t afford to’ defense after that. The episode sure drove home the wisdom of my dad’s policy, but that was helpful information to have at review time.

Almost every car I’ve purchased (up until about 4 years ago) was a gross error in judgment of value. There was a ’79 Dodge van (with carpet and a fold-out bed in the back) for which I overpaid by at least $1000. The Cavalier hatchback was a fine car, but with a 5-speed manual transmission, it was horrible for a city pizza delivery boy. The worst was the ’93 Aerostar. The car payments for 5 years were double my house payment at the time, plus it was a maintenance nightmare. I was very happy to see that van gone (it died completely about a month after it was paid off).

The deal that inspired this story comes from the other side of the world. 12 time zones away, where the people are tiny and brown and smile a lot. Bali, Indonesia, to be precise. I was with a group of people doing a series of concerts for local churches for a week. We were thoroughly briefed by our leader on how they do business there, and the exchange rate is baffling without some education. We were taught to laugh at vendors when they announced the price of an item, and haggle back and forth until we agreed on something, usually about half the beginning number. I got several shirts for 15,000 rupia each (about $2.50), and some other odds and ends pretty cheap – and thought I was doing pretty well. On a beach, a guy came up to me and offered this wooden chess set, all hand carved and very ornate. The board doubled as a carrying case for the intricately detailed pieces, and this was something I really wanted to bring home.

He said it was $150 for me. I did the laugh thing, and turned back to talking with my friends. He could tell I obviously wanted it (‘cuz I said I did), so he persisted, offering it for $100. I told him it was too much, and eventually we settled on $70. He smiled the biggest smile I’d seen and proceeded to offer me blow guns and temporary tattoos and silver jewelry, but I told him I was done and eventually he sauntered on to his next mark.

The next day, I was sitting on a bus with another guy from our group. He saw a peddler on a bike (heh) selling the same chess sets. While we were waiting for the bus to finish loading, he negotiated through the window. Money and merchandise exchanged hands, they waved, and we were off.

His cost $10.

I have tons more stories like this, but it’s getting embarrassing. I’m off to enjoy the beautiful weather and count my friggin’ blessings. Got any bad deal stories?