Today's tip is part of our Fiscal Fitness '09 series. Every weekday this month, you'll get help getting fiscally fit as we work toward our goal of saving $2,000 to invest in 3 stocks!

A serious customer with cash to spend can really call the shots these days on everything from electronics to housing to a root canal. Really.

In fact, 90% of customers who negotiated with a salesperson on everything from the price of furniture to medical care got a price break on at least one purchase over a three-year period, according to a 2007 Consumer Reports survey. The best of the lot reported saving $50 or more.

Another recent study conducted by the magazine found that more than 70% of people selling their home who negotiated the standard 6% seller's fee got their real estate agent to accept between 3% and 4%.

In other words, it really does pay to ask.

Prepare to make your case
Unless it comes naturally to you, haggling is a strategy best saved for big-ticket purchases. That way you have time to do your research (a must) and will see some serious coin for your efforts. Here are a few rules of thumb for negotiating a better price on just about anything.

Shop before you shop: You won't know if you're getting a real bargain or a dud deal unless you have some pricing history for comparison. Go online and find out what the going rate is for the item you want. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) offers a Product Search (under the Shopping tab), which allows you to easily window-shop from your seat. Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN), through its expansive Merchants and Marketplace program, will also provide product prices from various retailers, as well as new recommendations and ratings from the community. Then you can use your retail recon to make merchants play good cop/bad cop. Flash your cash and a competitor's lower advertised price (you'll need physical proof) and many stores will match the price. Don't get too cocky, though. Most will only honor coupons or sale prices if they have the exact item in stock.

When to ask: Take your cue from the automobile industry, where wheeling and dealing is most prevalent right before sales milestones, such as the end of the quarter, end of the season (particularly for seasonal items like patio furniture and Christmas ornaments), and end of the fiscal year. Getting more granular, you'll get better results by visiting the store when foot traffic is at its lowest -- during the middle of a weekday, for example.

Whom to speak to: Some stores have price-match policies (which is why you want to come armed with a competitors' deals if possible). Best Buy (NYSE:BBY), for example, will match a local competitor's price on the spot if the item is the same make and model. Same with Staples (NASDAQ:SPLS). Sears (NASDAQ:SHLD) will match the price on some items and give you an additional 10% discount. The catch with most is that the "competitor" must be local -- many retailers will not match the price of an item found on the Internet.

Move up the chain of command: Some retailers leave discounting up to the employees' discretion, typically in stores where employees earn a commission. If the first person you talk to won't budge, ask (politely!) if there is someone else, perhaps a department or store manager, who may be able to make the call. Don't limit your line of questioning to big multi-location retail chains. Mom-and-pop stores are often willing to meet or beat a big-box retailer's advertised price or provide free add-ons when presented with firm evidence and a ready purchaser.

Show that you mean business, but always be nice: A polite way to ask for a discount is to say, for example, "Is this the best price available?" If, after all else, the answer is "yes," you must be willing to walk away (or at least act like it). But don't storm away in a huff or start your negotiation from an adversarial position. For example, instead of saying "This is way overpriced!" say "I really like this item, but this is more than I was planning to spend." Remember, you and the retailer have something to gain in this transaction.

Phone a friend: If you need time to waffle (and stall the sale in the hopes of getting the best price possible), tell the salesperson that you want to get a second opinion from your spouse/partner/buddy/mother-in-law. The idea of a near-sale walking out the door may inspire them to trot out their absolute best price possible.

Save $252.80 just by asking the right way
Let's say you're shopping for a Maytag Jetclean II dishwasher. Best Buy has it on the floor for $799.99, but Home Depot (NYSE:HD) has it on sale for $719.10. If you can get Best Buy to price match and sell you the floor model for an additional 10% discount, you've saved $152.80.

Actual dollars off the purchase price aren't your only bargaining chip. Sometimes you can get a store to throw in free delivery on a large item (easily worth $60 in an urban area), gratis accessories on an electronics purchase (such as a free DVD player), or even a break on the cost of installation.

Even medical costs are fair game, according to SmartMoney magazine. It reports that many doctors are willing to lower fees 20% to 50% for patients whose insurance only offers partial coverage, as well as for those with no insurance at all. Paying cash up front is one way to cut your costs. SmartMoney's example: "Say your insurer covers 80% of a $650 root canal (or $520). Negotiate a $450 cash fee before filing the claim, and you've cut your out-of-pocket costs by $40. An uninsured consumer could save $200."

Just recently, I pointed out that an item I was buying at Ross Stores (NASDAQ:ROST) was damaged, and the cashier took 10% off the price without even blinking. (Remember to ask if the discount subjects the item to the store's "final sale" restrictions.)

Once you start looking, you'll be surprised how often you're in a position to negotiate. Remember, it never hurts to ask (politely!), or more accurately, it often pays off to inquire.

More ways to save ...

  • Get out of (or into) a car lease for cheap: Were you talked into a car lease that no longer makes sense to you? Or are you looking for a short-term lease for cheap? LeaseTrader.com and SwapaLease.com will facilitate the transactions -- finding someone to take over your lease, or vice-versa -- for a fraction of what you'd pay at the dealer.
  • Pay in-network prices for out-of-network health care: You can do this one of two ways: Convince your insurance company's pre-certification unit that your doctor of choice is more experienced or a better bet for your long-term health. If that doesn't work, negotiate the price with your doctor-of-choice's office. According to a Harris Interactive poll, haggling directly with the provider for a discount on a high-cost dental procedure or hospital stay worked for two out of three patients; asking the doc for a better deal worked for three out of five.
  • Follow the one guaranteed way to save tons of money: Buy less stuff. It's a simple lesson that's not always that easy to put into practice. Here are seven ways to curb the urge to splurge and five ways to stop buying stupid stuff.

Read the latest from Fiscal Fitness '09: 1 Month, 2 Grand, 3 Stocks to get our other money-saving tips. You can also keep up with our tips through our daily Foolwatch email. Share your frugal insights and experiences through our Fiscal Fitness '09 discussion board, or leave a comment below.

Fiscal Fitness boot camp instructor Dayana Yochim owns none of the companies mentioned in this article. Sears Holdings, Home Depot, and Best Buy are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Staples, Best Buy, and Amazon.com are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. The Fool owns shares of Best Buy. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool has a disclosure policy.