How To Save A Ton Of Money On Pet Care

Money & Your Pet

The following is an excerpt from “Your Playbook For Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs And Wants Edition,” which offers actionable, sustainable advice for those living in tight circumstances and also those who want to live lean to realize a dream.

Donna Freedman has been writing about personal finance for more than 10 years, and believes that everyone’s pet is the best. one. ever. To get the e-version of her new book for just $4, visit http://bit.ly/2d12Q5t, select “Your Playbook For Tough Times, Vol. 2,” and and use the discount code DEBTFREEGUYS. For the same deal on the original “Your Playbook For Tough Times,” use the code DEBTFREEGUYS1. You can also get the books on Amazon or Kindle.

How To Save A Ton Of Money On Pet Care

Got a pet whose needs are scratching and biting the budget? Two things:

First off, good on you for wanting the best for your buddy. Pets make our lives better with their love and enthusiasm – or, in the case of exotics like iguanas or tarantulas, with their sheer badassed-ness. And in the case of some older LGBT folks, pets may quite literally be life-savers.

In a paper presented at the Gerontological Society of America’s annual conference, researchers noted that caring for a companion animal improves an owner’s physical and mental health and often provides a bridge to connecting with other people. (Ever stopped to exclaim over a puppy in the park or a kitten on her owner’s lap in the vet waiting room? I thought so.)

Pets can be shockingly pricey. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the annual cost of a cat or dog can run anywhere from $1,035 to $1,843 just for the basics. The ASPCA also suggests factoring in “capital costs” like purchase price/adoption fees, spaying or neutering, microchip implantation, collar, leash, crate and training.

Going broke supporting a pet is no one’s idea of a good time. However, you can get quality animal care, food and accessories for a lot less than you might think if you adopt this frugal mantra: Only amateurs pay retail. Use the following frugal hacks to get the most bang for the buck.

Ordinary shopping hacks

To be clear: You won’t be skimping on food, supplies or vet care. You’re just refusing to overspend to achieve it, using tactics like:

Watching for coupons. Pet product manufacturers offer discounts (some of them good for free products) in Sunday ads and online. Websites such as CouponMom.com and Favado.com have links to downloadable coupons and will also match those Qs to the best deals in your region.

Buying used. The litter box or dog dish you need might be waiting at a yard sale or thrift store. Wash the item well and maybe give it a squirt of Lysol spray and it should be fine. (A veterinarian told me so.)

Using discounted gift cards. Buy these on the secondary market for a built-in discount – sometimes as much as 25 percent – every time you pay at places like PETCO and Petsmart. The aggregator website GiftCardGranny.com will clue you in as to the best deals on discounted scrip.

Paying with free gift cards. Cash in points from your rewards credit card for scrip to stores like Amazon, Target, Home Depot, Lowes or Walmart. Or sign up with sites like Swagbucks and MyPoints to earn points, then exchange them for real or virtual gift cards.

Buying in bulk. This works for people-products, so why not for pet stuff? For example, PETCO sells cat litter by the sack and box but also has a giant bin to let you scoop (ahem) the amount you need into a bag. Pet food and treats can be found at warehouse clubs.

Note: Bulk buys don’t always work. For example, crickets and pinkies tend to get cheaper the more of them you buy, yet there’s only so many your gecko or snake can eat. But you might be able to make this work, too: A woman I once knew would buy lots of crickets (500 or more at a clip) and pinkies and share the order with other exotic reptile fanciers. Everyone got a better price and her pets’ food was effectively free.

Think outside the store

My daughter, who has a cat and a dog, is fond of PETCO but usually goes there only if she needs something right away. Her best deals generally come from the virtual store.

Maybe yours will, too. Retailers like Amazon, Wag.com, PETCO and Petsmart offer free shipping, have their own coupons and regularly stage sales (including clearance discounts of 50 percent or more).

You can build in a discount by accessing those retailers through a cash-back shopping site like Ebates, DollarDig or Mr. Rebates. Doing so will earn you cash rebates as high as 15 percent.

Or automate your purchases: Some online vendors let you arrange for recurring deliveries on food or litter. Periodic shipments are convenient – no more hauling those 40-pound boxes of clumping litter home on the bus! – and never again will you find yourself at the convenience store at 11 p.m., cursing the price tag on that can of Fancy Feast.

Some other frugal pet hacks:

Sign up for Freecycle. If your area has a chapter of The Freecycle Network, check it every day. I’ve seen litter, crates, food and other useful stuff offered. Worried about the previous pet’s cooties? Don’t be. As noted, a veterinarian told me that secondhand gear works just fine after a scrubdown with an antibacterial product.

Watch Craigslist, too. There’s a “free” section, and patience may pay off. Or stick an ad up under “wanted,” and make it clear you’d be delighted to come pick up that doghouse or kitty condo.

Go online. Do a daily Internet search for “free pet food.” Manufacturers frequently offer gratis grub, both as free samples and full-sized products, through deal bloggers and on their own Facebook pages. (Note to relatives and friends: Doing this for your pet-owning loved ones makes you awesome.)

Find it for free

An easy way to get what you need is to ask for it. Post a Facebook photo of the beautiful tortoiseshell cat you rescued or the pound puppy you just adopted. Mention that you’re still getting outfitted. With luck you’ll be offered leashes, cat dishes and other items from people who no longer have pets. Or maybe your besties will throw a new-pet shower for you!

Another way to ask: When relatives and friends want suggestions on birthday or holiday gifts, request pet-store gift cards or specific items. Hey, who doesn’t love gift-wrapping a bully stick?

Or try a trade. Ask friends and co-workers if they’d like to have a gear swap some Saturday afternoon. It’s amazing what can accumulate in garages and basements. For example, it’s been years since my partner had animals but he’s still got a doghouse and some skijoring equipment.

Before you buy, see if you’ve got something that will work just as well. Why can’t you use a cereal bowl for your cat’s food? Or borrow a baby gate from a friend with kids, to keep the puppy in the kitchen until it’s housebroken?

Build a dog bed out of scrap lumber and line it with a folded blanket. Wrap a piece 4-by-4 post with rough rope to create a scratching post. All sorts of options are out there; just ask Pinterest.

Do it yourself

Depending upon your strength and your pet’s size, you might be able to take care of grooming at home. Get a bottle of dog shampoo and scrub Fido down in the bathtub. Ask the vet to show you how to clean the dog or cat’s ears, especially if the animal is prone to mites. That nail-clipping device will pay for itself the second time you don’t have to pay the vet to pedicure the Pekingese.

It’s fairly easy to make pet treats; look online for simple recipes. Oh, and talk to the veterinarian about how often your buddy should actually get treats. My sister was told to give carrot sticks rather than Beggin’ Strips to her dog – and believe it or not, the pooch gobbled them down.

Cat owners who aren’t crafts-averse can even try DIY kitty litter. This isn’t for everyone, but if you’ve got the time it’s certainly cheaper than buying the stuff. Do an online search for “make your own cat litter.”

You can probably quit buying toys, too. Ask for “dead” tennis balls from racquet clubs; toss them when they start shredding, though, and never leave them where your pup can get at them during non-play times. I once interviewed an animal trainer who likes to bury a tennis ball in a box full of toilet-paper rolls and crumpled-up cardboard and paper and let the dog go prospecting. She also suggested putting a ball in the end of one of those long tube socks, because trying to get it out – or whipping the sock around – provides dogs with endless fun.

Or search online for “homemade pet toys” – plenty of creative ideas out there.

Other ways to meet your pet’s needs

If you’re experiencing an economic downturn, dial 211. This “essential community services” number is a good place to start for just about any family issue. In this case, ask for info on local programs that help low-income pet owners. (You can also visit 211.org.)

The Humane Society of the United States website aggregates info from regional and national groups offering free food, vet care and supplies in a section called “Having trouble affording your pet?” An organization called Best Friends Animal Society lists ways to get help with veterinary care.

Some food banks set up for humans also provide pet food and litter. Search for them in your region at FeedingAmerica.org – and ask every week, because supplies vary.

Between apartments at the moment, or know someone who is? A group called Pets of the Homeless can help you find places in your area (food pantries, soup kitchens, humane societies and other organizations) that offer pet supplies.

Ask your vet for tips, too. Maybe he or she knows about local groups that donate supplies. Be frank about your money situation, and ask if installment plans are available should emergency care be required in the future.

It’s pretty much impossible to create a single comprehensive list of all agencies that help low-income pet owners. Do an online search for “[your city] help for low-income pet owners.”

More money-saving tactics

Go to (vet) school. Many colleges of veterinary medicine operate low-cost clinics. See if there’s one near you by visiting VeterinarySchools.com.

Watch portion size. The recommended serving size on the pet-food bag may be too large, especially if your companion animal doesn’t get much exercise. Ask your veterinarian about how many calories are needed and use a measuring cup to give precisely that amount. The kibble will go a lot further and your pet will be healthier.

If you can’t afford annual vet visits, at least keep up with the shot schedule. Prevention is always cheaper than treatment, and there’s no need for your pet to suffer needlessly since government agencies and animal charities often stage clinics. To find them in your area, check the Humane Society website or search for “[your city] low-cost pet vaccination.”

When it comes to pet medication, embrace the generic. Consumer advocate Kendal Perez, who blogs at Hassle-Free Savings, swears by generic vs. brand-name heartworm meds she buys online. Some retailers, such as PetCareRX and 1800PetMeds.com, can be accessed through one of those cash-back shopping sites.

This one’s a bit of a long shot, but: See if your veterinarian would offer a discount in exchange for chores – cleaning the office, mowing the front lawn, scooping the exercise area if dogs are boarded there. Or maybe you have other talents – website management, landscaping, carpentry, babysitting – that the vet can use.

(Just FYI, though: The Internal Revenue Service does have rules about bartering.)

The money you don’t spend on expensive treats and adorable-but-unnecessary toys can go into a “pet emergency fund,” i.e., a savings account for future care. It’s painful to consider, but the fact is we never know when illness might suddenly strike your furry (or finny, or scaly) friends. Their health, like our own, might be super-fantastic – until it isn’t. So stash those savings and be ready for any unexpected vet visits.

Our pets depend on us completely for food, shelter and loving care. They deserve the best that you can afford while still keeping your own books balanced. Be a savvy consumer when it comes to meeting your pet’s needs – and go ahead and throw the ball one more time.

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