Three responses to a perilous question: What’s your bottom line?

The world is full of people who want to know your “bottom line.” Real estate agents are immensely curious about “your budget.” Car salesmen are sure to ask how much you can afford, in total or each month. That company you hope to work for? They’d love to know your minimum salary requirements.

These are all attempts to ascertain your bottom line, i.e., your reservation price (RP). Though not necessarily malevolent, these are questions that you probably shouldn’t answer, at least not directly. If you do, you’re likely to get an outcome that’s just barely better. So if you admit your minimum salary requirements are $30,000, what’s your probable salary? Somewhere around $30,001.

But suggesting you shouldn’t reveal your RP, as I did in the linked article above, is not the same as saying what you should do. Indeed, I’ve found that having some readymade responses to this omnipresent question can make life substantially more negotiable. So here are three strategies for responding to RP questions, along with some advantages and drawbacks.

  1. Don’t answer: Perhaps the most straightforward way of answering the question is not answering it. Everyone gets a little distracted now and then, and the moments after the RP question might be a great time for you to take an immense interest in the sunroof on this car or the tinted windows on that one. If the questioner takes the bait, this strategy can effectively avoid the issue. And it’s a good “strategy” if no other strategy comes to mind. The downside, of course, is that they’ll likely ask again. And this strategy is unlikely to work twice.
  2. Respond with your target: My favorite strategy is to answer a different question. They asked about your RP, but there’s no law saying you can’t answer about your goal, i.e., your target. So when the real estate agent asks your budget, you can certainly tell them what you’re hoping to achieve. And when they scoff and grumble about how hard that will be, well, that’s great…it means you’ve motivated them. So the upside of this strategy is that it motivates the other side and actually provides them with useful information. But the downside is that the agent may then avoid showing you a few houses that you would actually consider. So if you use this strategy with a real estate agent, combine it with some judicious Trulia searches on your own.
  3. Ask theirs: Experienced negotiators know that it can be morally “squishy” to ask about a counterpart’s RP. But they often ask anyway since so many people answer. So it’s worth considering the most aggressive response to the RP question, which is to ask about theirs. When the car dealer asks what kind of a monthly payment you can afford, for example, you might ask the minimum price for which they’d sell you the car. They probably won’t answer, but they probably will start respecting you and stop asking RP questions. That’s the upside, but the downside is that this strategy can create some momentary hostility that you’ll have to overcome.

There are certainly other approaches, and the right one certainly depends on the context. So you wouldn’t want to aggressively ask a future employer about their own RP, for example. Combined with your own good judgment, though, these strategies can be immensely useful for responding to other people’s immense interest in your RP.

Have you used any of these strategies—or others—to deal with the RP question?


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