Episode 737: 17 Deals In 17 Minutes : Planet Money We go on a madcap dash through discounts, bargains and tough tradeoffs. Like the headline says: We bring you stories of 17 deals in just 17 minutes (not counting the intro, the ad, or the credits).
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Episode 737: 17 Deals In 17 Minutes

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Episode 737: 17 Deals In 17 Minutes

Episode 737: 17 Deals In 17 Minutes

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What're you here for?

SHERRY AUTH: Gosh, that's a really good question. I'm asking myself the same question. Do I really need another blouse?

GOLDSTEIN: Sherry Auth (ph) is lined up here on the sidewalk in Midtown Manhattan with about 20 other people. And everybody is waiting for the Diane von Furstenberg sample sale to start. Sample sales are like this fashion world ritual where fancy designers sell stuff at deep discounts in these, like, law-of-the-jungle-type settings. A few minutes later, the doors open, and Sherry and everybody else rushes inside.

Wait, wait, let me catch up to you. Let me catch up to you.


GOLDSTEIN: What's the first thing you grabbed?

AUTH: A dress. Didn't I say I wasn't going to get a dress? I was going to get a blouse. But the dresses are $70. That's ridiculous. This is an incredible price.

GOLDSTEIN: Sherry's here because she loves a deal. And, frankly, so do I. I love deals in every sense of the word. You know, I definitely love a bargain. I hate to pay retail. But also, I love agreements. I love transactions. I love deals as a sport. I love deals as the atomic unit of economics - you know, this mutually agreed upon exchange that - where I think I'm getting something good, and you think you're getting something good. Deals are like a way of looking at the world. And, you know, they're not just about math and numbers. Deals are about relationships. They're about emotions. Deals are so serious that Sherry Auth cannot simultaneously shop at the sample sale and describe the experience to me.

AUTH: I'm going sign off. I want to shop.


AUTH: I'm having trouble doing both. I'm just going to be honest.

GOLDSTEIN: Fair enough. Can I ask you - can I ask you one thing?

AUTH: But I had a great time.

GOLDSTEIN: OK, good luck.


GOLDSTEIN: Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Jacob Goldstein. Today on the show, we are bringing you 17 deals in 17 minutes - stories about all kinds of deals from all over the world, all in 17 minutes. Will some of the stories be really short? Yes. Will there be cheesy sound effects?


GOLDSTEIN: Is this the most stories we have ever squeezed into a single episode? I think so. In any case, it is an incredible podcast value. You will not get more stories per minute anywhere else.


GOLDSTEIN: OK, we're doing 17 deals in 17 minutes. Start the clock now - three, two, one, go.

Our first deal comes from Marianne McCune. She's a fantastic radio reporter. And back when she was in her early 20s, she went two years without paying her federal income taxes. Then she got the letter from the IRS saying she owed back taxes and penalties and interest. So she called up the IRS.

MARIANNE MCCUNE, BYLINE: I don't think I knew what deal you could ask for. But it was just like, is there any way that I cannot pay this?

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

MCCUNE: So we've just gotten on the phone. And she's like, you live on 247 Elizabeth Street? I used to live in that building. And we had a long conversation about the Italian family across the street...


MCCUNE: ...How the neighborhood has changed. You know, we became friends.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) So you guys are b.s.-ing about the old neighborhood on the phone - you and the IRS lady - and what happens?

MCCUNE: She said all the money I owed for forgetting to file - the penalties and the interest on that - I didn't have to pay it. It was a huge relief.

GOLDSTEIN: That's amazing. It just seems like so much blind luck, right? The same building - like, I feel like you just got so lucky.

MCCUNE: I think I did get really lucky. I think it made it easy. But I also think you can make a human connection with somebody and ask for something. And you may get what you asked for.


NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: Hey, it's Nick Fountain, PLANET MONEY producer. And I'm in a little alleyway, sitting on a tiny stool in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I'm eating a delicious soup that'll probably cost about a $1.50. And the reason I'm here is because I'm on my honeymoon with my beautiful wife. And one of the reasons we chose Vietnam for our honeymoon is because we got an amazing deal on the flights.

So I'm always checking these flight-deal websites. One of them is called airfarewatchdog. They send out email alerts. And another one is on Twitter. It's called The Flight Deal. And what they do is they scour airline's websites for the best deals. My wife and I got from New York to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and back for $400.26 per person. There may have been one too many layovers. But it was well worth the trip. And I'm going to eat this soup.

GOLDSTEIN: Just to be clear, by one too many layovers, Fountain means it took him and his wife 30 hours to get to Vietnam. Still, I'm going to call this one two deals in one - airfare for $400.26, also, delicious bowl of noodles for a buck-fifty.


GOLDSTEIN: This brings us to deal number four.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Jacob Goldstein, how are you?

GOLDSTEIN: Stacey Vanek Smith, no time for banter. We got 17 deals in 17 minutes. I understand yours is kind of a bad deal.

VANEK SMITH: It is. This happened in India a couple of weeks ago. On the night of November 8, the prime minister got on TV and said starting at midnight, you cannot use 500

VANEK SMITH: ...and 1,000-rupee notes to buy stuff anymore. You have to go trade them in at the bank. This was a really big deal because a 1,000-rupee note is only worth about $15. So we're talking about most of the cash in the country.

And he did this as part of a crime-fighting measure because criminals operate in cash and these are some of the larger bills. So people had to take their old rupees to the bank with ID, fill out a form and change their money. And there was a limit. You could only trade in 4,000 rupees per day. That's about 60 bucks. And that's a low amount.

And the idea is that criminals would be stuck with these duffel bags full of cash. And everybody else would experience kind of a minor inconvenience. When this announcement happened, Mohit Dobhal was walking home from work. He teaches music in New Delhi.

And when we got to his house, his whole family was in this deep discussion about this. Mohit's cousin is getting married next month. It is wedding season in India. And his family had spent months and months amassing all of this cash to pay caterers and florists.

MOHIT DOBHAL: You can't pay everyone by check here. You can't rely on cards. So you have to have the cash.

VANEK SMITH: Five hundred people are coming to this wedding in December. And the family, for this event, has saved up 350,000 rupees in cash, none of which they can use now.

So you had 350,000 rupees assembled for the wedding.


VANEK SMITH: That's, like, 87 trips to the bank.


VANEK SMITH: You got to start somewhere, right? So the next morning Mohit goes to the bank to change all of the cash he can for that day, 4,000 rupees.

DOBHAL: As soon as I got to the bank, the very first thing I was watching was the huge queue, the longest queue I could ever imagine.

VANEK SMITH: How long?

DOBHAL: (Laughter). Let's say 300 people in a queue.

VANEK SMITH: Mohit was in line for three hours. And after this, he and his family realized that they needed a plan, or they were not going to get all of their cash changed out in time for the wedding. So what they decided to do was distribute this cash across a whole bunch of relatives and have each relative convert the maximum amount of cash they could each day.

DOBHAL: So we have around 8 to 9 cousins.

VANEK SMITH: So you had, like, 10 people...


VANEK SMITH: ...Working together to get this cash back.

DOBHAL: Yeah, yeah. Yes.

VANEK SMITH: So far, Mohit's family has changed out about half of the cash. And they do think that they will be ready for the wedding in December.


SALLY HELM, BYLINE: (Voicemail Recording) Hi. This is Sally Helm, PLANET MONEY producer. Please leave a message. Thanks.

PATRICIO: Hello. This is a message for Richard. I'm calling about the silver Eagle bus that is listed in Craigslist. So if you can call me back, my name is Patricio. Thank you.

AUTOMATED VOICE: End of message.

HELM: A couple months back, I was getting a bunch of messages like this about this bus that I was allegedly selling. And, for the record, I am not selling a silver Eagle bus, which is like a giant tour bus.

Like, if I passed one on the highway, I would assume it was carrying, like, a rock band from the 1970s or something like that. So I called this guy, Patricio, back. And I was like, why do you want to buy this bus? And he said that he is a professional tango dancer.

PATRICIO: It would be the tango bus.

HELM: The tango bus.

PATRICIO: The dream would be to hold portable stage. I ride with the bus and have a tango festival somewhere, wherever we go.

HELM: He said that he already travels a lot for work. Actually, he was about to go to the Mojave Desert.

PATRICIO: Doing a photo shoot - we're going to do some nude photos. And others are going to be in very traditional tango clothing.

HELM: He has to get plane tickets, rental car, hotel. And he said he thinks it would be a better deal overall to just spend $40,000 or $50,000 and buy a bus. And I wish I could sell him one.

GOLDSTEIN: Genius - that was deal number five.


GOLDSTEIN: When we were working on this show, we asked PLANET MONEY listeners to call in with deals. Here's one of those. It's deal number six.

STEVEN: Hi. This is Steven (ph) from Farmville, Va. I got a rare $400 snare drum at a yard sale for $8. And now I am an eBay addict.


GOLDSTEIN: Deal number seven is a Vegas deal. It comes from PLANET MONEY's chief gambling correspondent, Keith Romer.

KEITH ROMER, BYLINE: So I'm out in Vegas with a couple buddies. And we come back one night to our terrible hotel room from a night of gambling and drinking and whatever. And my buddy Jeff goes and takes a shower, comes out of the shower completely naked.

And I say to Jeff, Jeff, if you go down just the way you are to the casino floor and get a $1 chip, I will give you a hundred dollars. Instantly, he's gone. Door closes behind him. We go out in the hallway. We look for him. He's gone.

Five minutes pass. Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. It's Jeff, completely out of breath, completely naked - no $1 chip. So I didn't give him a hundred dollars.


GOLDSTEIN: OK. How are we doing? We're eight minutes in. We've done seven deals - little bit behind - going to try and pick it up here. Deal number eight - we've got Jess Jiang. She's a PLANET MONEY producer. She called her cable company earlier this year to ask for a deal.

JESS JIANG, BYLINE: The woman that I talked to said, we can't offer you anything over the phone. But, she said, between you and me, what you should do is go into the store. Because if you go into the Time Warner Cable store, they'll see that there's a chance you might quit Time Warner Cable and maybe they'll offer you something better there.

So a few days later, I went into the store. And I said, I'm considering leaving Time Warner Cable. Can you give me a better deal to keep me to stay? And they said, yes, we'll give you a free Roku. We'll give you faster internet and we'll drop your bill from $60 to $45. And that's what I'm still paying today, almost a year later.


ROMER: I love a good bet. And, yeah, I was naked. So I was like sure. I don't think. I just go right out the front door. I'm in the hall. I'm, like, don't take the elevator 'cause there's cameras. Go to the emergency exit. Do like they do in the movies. I think we're on like the eighth floor. And I'm just flying down the emergency exit stairs. You know, I'm not even on the stairs, just jumping from, like, floor-to-floor. And as soon as I get down to the bottom, I take a breath. I open the door and I'm ready to do this. And (laughter) the alarm goes off and it's just (imitating alarm). The strobe also kicks in too and my heart is just racing. So boom, back up the stairs fast as I can. (Imitating knocking) out on the door. You guys, let me in. And that was it - man with no chip.

GOLDSTEIN: Let's keep the bro theme going, from naked Vegas to the 87-year-old man who gets free beer for life. PLANET MONEY producer Elizabeth Kulas brought us deal number nine.

ELIZABETH KULAS, BYLINE: Milton Glaser is this famous graphic designer. Among other things, he made the I-heart-New-York logo. About 30 years ago, this guy who was starting a little beer company called Brooklyn Brewery, he comes to Glaser and he says, make me the perfect logo.

MILTON GLASER: He asked if I would do the job. And he said, I don't know how much you charge. I said, probably too much but I will make you a deal. I'll do your identity and your logo and you give me beer for life and some equity in the company. And he thought about it and said, OK.

KULAS: How valuable has it been? Like, have you ever sat down and done the math?

GLASER: No, but it's probably eight or 900 times what I would have charged him.

KULAS: In beer alone?

GLASER: No, in equity. Well, the beer didn't even happen 'cause I don't drink enough beer. I drink about two beers a year.

KULAS: That's crazy. You weren't handing out beers? You weren't popular at every party you went to because you were...

GLASER: We were, but at a certain point it became too much of a burden. And I don't want to spend my life distributing beer (laughter).

KULAS: Glaser says he doesn't know exactly what his stake in Brooklyn Brewery is worth. But the company's founder recently said it's in the millions.

GOLDSTEIN: Beer is wetter but equity's better.


GOLDSTEIN: NPR correspondent Quil Lawrence, you got 20 seconds to give me your pickle deal. I'm timing it. Go.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: I was living in Jerusalem as a correspondent and I was living right in the marketplace. And once as I was leaving for work in the morning, I found out something very disturbing about those pickles and those delicious olives that they have on baskets in display there. They're all out of cans. But then I found out something really wonderful, which is that I can buy those cans off the internet for $2 a can and the pickles are delicious.

GOLDSTEIN: Woo. (Imitating air horn).


GOLDSTEIN: Deal number 11. Back to the PLANET MONEY listener deals line.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We received a coupon in the mail from AT&T U-Verse for a free movie rental. So we punched in the code. In the next month, our bill was $28 more for taxes and fees.


GOLDSTEIN: Meanwhile, back at the Diane von Furstenberg sample sale.

I thought you gave me the slip.

AUTH: Thanks for finding me.

GOLDSTEIN: What's the grand total?

AUTH: Oh, my gosh, 188. So the sweater dress was 40. The top - the blouse was 40 and the purse was a hundred. I mean, that is screaming - that is a screaming good deal. And I might even try to come back tomorrow (laughter).

GOLDSTEIN: Forty bucks for a fancy sweater dress. Forty bucks for a fancy blouse. Those seem like good deals. But the purse, I mean, I got to say I don't care how much it retails for. A hundred dollars for a bag just doesn't seem like that good of a deal. So I'm going to count this one as two - deals 12 and 13.


GOLDSTEIN: Robert Smith, give us deal number 14.


When Chelsea Arnold (ph) was first diagnosed with diabetes, she was told she had to test her blood sugar 10 times a day. So she goes to Wal-Mart and the diabetic test strips she needs are $80 a box.

CHELSEA ARNOLD: And that's a five-day supply. So I would have to come up with this kind of money every five days. And, I mean, I was a poor student and, like, I don't know what to do 'cause I don't have that kind of money.

SMITH: And if you don't test, you can die. So she Googles the words...

KULAS: Cheap test strips (laughter).

SMITH: And what comes up is this underground marketplace of inexpensive diabetic test strips. Now, they could have been fake or perhaps stolen. But Chelsea discovers that this whole deal is because of the way health insurance works. If you have coverage for diabetes, you can get boxes of test strips for cheap. We talked to a guy named Trey (ph) who, you know, saved a few up.

TREY: I had about 20 extra boxes.

SMITH: When he was put on a different kind of testing regimen, he decided to sell his strips to someone online.

TREY: We met in a McDonald's parking lot. And I pulled up and his car was there. And I came out with the bag full of test strips and he had his wallet full of money. And it was like we were doing a geriatric drug deal.

SMITH: Geriatric drug deal?

TREY: Made me feel old (laughter).

SMITH: It is legal to sell your diabetic test strips as long as they don't come from Medicare or Medicaid. Trey made about 300 bucks. And the test strips eventually made their way into that underground world that Chelsea found. Middlemen, internet ads, bargain deals - Chelsea bought eight boxes for under a hundred bucks.

ARNOLD: It was like, you know, having a life sentence and then realizing that there's a cure.

SMITH: And Chelsea thinks, you know, there are other diabetics out there as desperate as I am, so she buys a few extra.

ARNOLD: I actually started with $200 - six boxes of test strips.

SMITH: Sells them, buys some more. And pretty soon, Chelsea has a garage full of test strips.

ARNOLD: And that's when I decided to create Glucomart.

SMITH: Glucomart. Chelsea now sells between 10 and $20,000 worth of diabetic test strips a month to people who can't afford the retail price.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, I'm looking at this tour bus you guys have online. The Silver Eagle, a '72. And I'd like to know a little bit more about it. Thank you.

GOLDSTEIN: PLANET MONEY's going on tour in a Silver Eagle bus in 2017. Mark my words. All right, we got two minutes left and three deals to go. Deal number 15 - the PLANET MONEY T-shirt. There are still a few left. They are on sale at the NPR shop, price - $12.11. Fun fact, retailers use weird price endings like 11 cents to send signals. In this case, it means it's on clearance. No special discount for employees, quantities limited.


GOLDSTEIN: Deal number 16, PLANET MONEY listener, go

CHARLES: Hello, I'm Charles (ph) from Chicago. And the most interesting deal I had was when I was driving an ice cream truck last summer. Some kid came up to me and traded me a hotdog for an ice cream. And I gladly accepted because I forgot my lunch that day. Thank you.


GOLDSTEIN: Can I just get you to say your name and what your, you know, I'm a retired whatever-you-used-to-be?

HAVILAND SMITH: (Laughter) You're going to pin it on me, eh?

GOLDSTEIN: I do. I want it in your own words on tape.

SMITH: (Laughter) OK. OK. My name is Haviland Smith. And I'm a retired CIA officer.

GOLDSTEIN: A retired CIA officer is bringing us the final deal of the show. Haviland Smith worked during the Cold War and his job was to recruit Soviets to spy for the U.S. It was a tough job.

SMITH: They were hostile. They were paranoid. They were very suspicious of all Americans. It was a problem establishing relationships with them.

GOLDSTEIN: Early in his career, Haviland learned a trick, a kind of emotional deal people would make with each other.

SMITH: The Soviets were the ones who named it. They had a term called bone throwing - brosat kosti (ph). And bone throwing consisted of when you're trying to establish a relationship with someone hostle, you tell them something revealing about yourself, something personal.

GOLDSTEIN: During the Vietnam War, Haviland might tell a Soviet connection about his own doubts about the U.S. involvement in the war, how he was struggling with that. A lot of the time, he says, that could really change the dynamic.

SMITH: The guy looks at you and he says, Jesus, here's another human being. He's got problems just the way I do and he's dealing with them. And maybe I could talk to him about some of my problems.

GOLDSTEIN: He says sometimes his Soviet acquaintances would respond by, say, complaining about their bosses in Moscow. The kind of thing they'd get in trouble for if they talked about it with other people.

So you're both vulnerable to each other?

SMITH: We are, yes, but he's vulnerable in a much more objective sense.

GOLDSTEIN: You're emotionally vulnerable, he's vulnerable to, like, getting sent to the Gulag?

SMITH: Yeah, precisely.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) Yeah, that's a good asymmetry for you.

SMITH: Sure, yeah, works to my advantage (laughter).

GOLDSTEIN: And just to (laughter) - and have you used that in your personal life for a non-spying settings?

SMITH: Oh, I think I always have - oh, sure. I - the more closed you are with other people, the more self-protective you are, the less you're going to get out of a relationship. And I've always found that the more I could admit about myself and my foibles and my shortcomings, the more I became a real person to other people. So, yes, I still use it. It's who I am.

GOLDSTEIN: OK. Stop the clock. From the time we started the clock after the intro and the ad, until now it has been 17 minutes, 50-some seconds. Let's round down, call it 17 minutes.


GOLDSTEIN: Send us the best, worst, most interesting deal you ever got - planetmoney@npr.org or Twitter or Facebook. Our show today was produced by Nick Fountain. Special thanks to Tiffany Yannetta (ph), Elna Baker, Mark Schiffman (ph) and Yaniv Gellman (ph). If you're looking for something else to listen to and you speak or want to learn Spanish, check out Radio Ambulante. Or if you prefer, Radio Ambulante. It is in Spanish. It's hosted by this genius polymath Daniel Alarcon. They've done tons of interesting stories. You can find it on the NPR One app and at npr.org/podcasts. I'm Jacob Goldstein. Thanks for listening.

AUTOMATED VOICE: First unread message. Sent yesterday at 8:02 p.m.

LISA: Hi, I'm Lisa (ph) calling from Garden City, Kan. The most interesting deal I ever got was my husband bought my wedding ring at a Arby's in Conroe, Texas. Thanks, bye.

AUTOMATED VOICE: End of message. To delete this message...


AUTOMATED VOICE: Message saved. Next unread message. Sent yesterday at 8:17 am.

MIKE: This is Mike (ph) from Chicago, Ill. One time I bought five pounds of chicken nuggets just to get a free bottle of ketchup. I don't even like chicken nuggets.

AUTOMATED VOICE: End of message.

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