How Not To Buy A Car: What I Learned From My Failed Negotiation

When was the last time you negotiated?

According to researchers Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, most women say it’s been months. Some women I’ve worked with say they’ve never negotiated. One grad student told me the last time she negotiated was with her parents – to increase her allowance over a decade ago.

For the most part, these women are considering a structured negotiation such as buying a car or negotiating compensation. The only exception was women with little kids who told the researchers that they negotiate all the time. “Do you want to take a bath now, or do you want to take a bath in 15 minutes? Either way is fine, but you’re taking a bath.”

The majority of men said they’d negotiated within the last week. They were considering more informal transactions and ambiguous situations. According to Babcock and Laschever, “the men we talked to saw negotiation as a bigger part of their lives and a more common event.”

Let’s pretend for a moment that instead of being an entrepreneur who regularly negotiates contracts, I’m in a traditional 9 to 5. In that case, one of my last major negotiations was when I bought my car.

I’d spent months looking for a used sedan that:

  • Hadn’t been a rental
  • Had under 50,000 miles
  • Was made within the last 5 years
  • Was within my budget
  • Wasn’t some weird shade of orange

Having only bought cars from people within my extended family prior to this, I didn’t think it was too tall an order. Turns out, it was like the Princess and the Pea trying to find a damn vehicle. So when I finally found Mazzie, a ‘dolphin gray’ Mazda-3, I was thrilled.

Having done my research, I knew the car was priced near market value. I negotiated a few hundred dollars off the price and felt great.

But, when my sales rep told me the final price, my Spidey Sense told me something was up. Only after I asked that he break down the fees, did I learn that I wasn’t getting the price we’d settled on “because the manager didn’t approve it.” After a few minutes of frustrating back and forth, it was clear he wouldn’t budge.

I had a choice to make: continue the car search saga or eat a couple hundred dollars along with my pride – and consider reporting them to Better Business Bureau for misrepresenting the final price.

It was a completely wrenching, frustrating process that involved more than a few tears in the Chase Bank parking lot, but I ultimately decided my priority was to finish the grueling car search and to take this vehicle home.

Lesson Learned

First, if I only remembered my horrific experience at the Mazda dealership as my most recent negotiation, when I negotiated next time I would be SUPER stressed. I’d see the experience as evidence that I’m a terrible negotiator.

But, by paying attention to the other times I’ve negotiated and enjoyed the process, each new negotiation becomes less scary. When I think about dividing up projects with my team, challenging conversations with clients, and all the other daily negotiations I’ve navigated successfully since then, it helps me see a more accurate and positive view of negotiations in my life.

Second, instead of thinking of this negotiation as a failure, I tell myself, “I got the car I wanted! Did I like how it went, no. But I had the option to walk away, and I made the decision that was right for me.” This negotiation wasn’t a failure. In the end, I got what I wanted – my adorable little sedan – because I knew my priorities.

Getting to a place where I could stop second guessing myself about the car negotiation also meant that I could fall further in love with Mazzie and fully enjoy rocking out to the latest bullshit pop music on what seemed like the fanciest sound system ever. (Turns out, when you’ve been riding around in a car that was made nearly two decades ago, driving any sort of modern vehicle feels like operating a spaceship.)

If you’ve been traumatized by a terrible negotiation in the past, consider whether there were advantages to how it went. In her book Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert writes that “you don’t need to conduct autopsies on your disasters.” Instead of beating yourself up for how the experience unfolded and holding onto that fear, shame, and self-doubt regarding negotiations, consider finding the successes within that “failure” and seeing the experience in a larger context of successful negotiations.

A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.