Ethical Frugality Week: Haggling

Over the upcoming week, I’ll be posting a series of articles on the ethics of frugality. How far can you take things without crossing an ethical line or diving into seriously socially unacceptable waters? I’ll be recounting some of my own stories – and some stories from readers – along the way.

A little over a year ago, I witnessed something that bothered me quite a bit. I tried several times to write an article about it, but I could never figure out exactly how to address it.

I was at a community festival with a flea market attached. One family had rented a slot and was selling homemade candles and soaps. At one side of that family’s slot, however, was a boy, aged ten or so – presumably, their son. He was selling comic books. He had several issues laid out in front of him and a bunch more in a pair of boxes nearby.

As I watched, he was negotiating with a gentleman that I would guess was about thirty five years old. The gentleman took out a ten dollar bill, threw it on the table in front of the boy, and said (quite loudly), “Take it or leave it.” The boy shook his head. The man picked up the bill, said, “It’s your loss,” and turned heel to walk away. Under his breath, the man muttered, “Stupid kid.”

I looked back at the booth and the ten year old boy was obviously kind of upset at the interaction. I walked over and looked at his comics, talking to him about them, mostly to cheer him up. After about five minutes, the guy came back, threw fifteen dollars on the table, and picked up two books with a price totaling $30 as though it were his birth right.

The boy looked at the cash, then picked it up and handed it to his father. The boy looked at me and said, “We need the money.”

Usually, I have no problem with haggling. However, it was fairly obvious that the gentleman was trying to take advantage of the kid using several psychological techniques – showing the money, acting angry and aggressive, and using other tactics to get what he wanted – and it simply left a really bad taste in my mouth.

How far is too far when it comes to haggling? I don’t mind doing it on occasion, but there are a lot of times when I find it in extremely poor taste.

Is it appropriate to haggle with children? Some of you might have been fine with the gentleman’s behavior above (I wasn’t), but what about a six year old selling lemonade? Are you going to argue that you should get a cup for a quarter instead of fifty cents? Where’s the line between bargain hunting and cheapness?

Is it appropriate to haggle with the obviously disadvantaged? If I see a family selling homemade throw rugs and they’re obviously destitute, should I haggle with them? Again, I tend not to do this, but I’ve heard many arguments against this – appearances can be deceiving, if people can’t afford to haggle then they can’t afford to sell, etc.

Where do you draw the line with haggling?