Wealth Club: The Hidden Costs of Pet Ownership
In our financial advice column for the centsless, Michael Fleck fields questions on how to get your money right. Send your pet's financial statements to firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are a million reasons to get a pet. As a child, I grew up in a house that had six cats, four dogs, at least two guinea pigs and who knows how many goldfish—they usually died before I got home from the fair. Because I was comfortable with pets growing up, I always assumed that having them would be a no-brainer as an adult. Why wouldn’t you get an animal? They provide companionship, excitement and benefits to your health.
Well, I’m 27 and have no pets. Aside from working full-time (which is really only an excuse for not getting a dog) and being out-of-town numerous weekends a month, I don’t have a pet because they’re expensive. Like many of you, it’s a constant battle trying to keep the credit card balance down, the discretionary spending limited and the savings growing. Acquiring an animal doesn’t exactly help with any of these goals.
This infographic offers a pretty good snapshot of what different pets will cost you on an annual basis—the average cost to own dogs ranges from $580 to $875 a year, a cat is about $670, and the humble fish weighs in at $35 a year. The data is aggregated from Mint.com, and only captures recurring costs of owning your pet. It doesn’t include one-time costs such as shelter, licenses and vaccinations, nor does it take into account doggie Christmas stockings or those extra expensive mice that your snake loves. I would double these estimates to to play it a little safe and account for these costs. “I recommend to all of my friends getting dogs that they set aside about $1,000 up front for ‘things I didn't even think about,’” my friend Katherine, a dog owner, says.
I’m lucky enough to live vicariously as a pet owner through friends who own a variety of pets, from dogs to rabbits to fish. I surveyed them for a real world assessment of how owning a pet affects their financial bottom lines:
- Time is money. I hesitated to add this, as it’s not directly affecting your wallet, but opportunity cost is real. There is a definite time commitment that comes along with having a pet, whether is dogwalking, water-changing, or cage-cleaning. It’s very possible that you’ll derive pleasure from doing these tasks, but it’s also may hurt your ability to work longer hours, or get a second job.
- Destruction Cost—this category comes from my friend Julie, who owned two different bunnies over a five year period. They would chew like no one’s business: Three chairs, an entire room of floor molding, and a radio that can now only be used decoratively. Another friend told me that her twelve-week-old Boxer puppy just peed on her silk couch—the one that no one ever uses because it’s made out of silk. Animals have no knowledge of such niceties. Nor do they distinguish between your friends’belongings and yours—you may be stuck replacing items you don’t own.
- For those who rent a house or apartment, the decision may be made for you. Some landlords just don’t allow pets. But even if your current landlord is fine with animals, you need to think a bit further into the future—you don’t want to get into a situation where you’re forced to move into a place that’s more expensive and/or crappier because of your pet.
- Travel becomes super tricky. There certainly are some pets you can leave for a day or two, but anything longer than a weekend vacation and you’ll have to find someone to feed your pet, at the very least. And even if you have good friends who say they’ll do it, if you’re a polite human being, you’ll offer them a small token of your appreciation. Doing this two to three times a month could add up. One tip from my parents: Find someone who has a similar pet as you, and arrange a pet sitting exchange.
- For prospective dog owners, adopt rather than buy. You’ll most likely have to make a donation, but that’ll be far less than what you’d have to pay for a purebred. Down the line, purebreds are at a higher risk of having many different types of health problems, and as well as medical bills, down the line.
- Getting a pet increases your risk of getting another pet. We all know people who have gotten another pet because their first one “needed a friend.” I’m totally cool with that. One friend of mine has two fishtanks—one an astounding fifty gallons—and she continually has an eye out for new and exciting additions. The marginal cost of getting another fish is relatively small, as she can use the same fish tank and they all chill in the same water around the same castle, but this isn’t necessarily the case for all pets.
- Only one person I talked to had pet insurance. She acknowledged that it was worth it when her golden retriever had dental problems and then contracted cancer, but for the most part she was ambivalent. Most people I spoke with had done some research didn’t think that it was worth it; although, frankly, most people don’t think insurance is worth it until it’s too late and, in this case, when emotions are involved. I suppose if you have one of those purebreds, it’s worth looking into.
- When it comes to those vet bills, Katherine, the dog owner, emphasizes getting a second opinion: “I was initially sent to a ‘vet referral’ place, which I later found out notoriously overcharges and overtreats—they provide great care, but a lot of people just can't afford what they recommend.” Enough said.
I recognize that all the pragmatic, financially responsible arguments in the world can’t dissuade the most ardent St. Francis from getting a pet, but if you’re one of the many people hoping to adopt a less than human companion, make sure you get the entire story about the true costs of owning an animal. And if you’re just friends with a pet owner, remember: A gift certificate for a friend says “I have no idea what you like, and I don’t really feel like thinking about it,” getting a gift certificate to a pet store for a friend says, “OMG! You know how much I really love Tinkerbell!” You can’t go wrong.
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