Frugal living is all about living well with less, needing less stuff and using less resources, and being mindful of your waste. Many personal finance blogs – my own included – pride themselves on the clever ways they’ve found to slash their expenses through cutting out unnecessary costs.
But through past posts, I’ve also established that living frugally doesn’t mean depriving yourself or doing without to the point that you make yourself unhappy. I believe you should look to relationships and experiences to find joy and fulfillment instead of relying on material goods for happiness.
So far, the line between what’s acceptable in a frugal lifestyle (engaging in thoughtful spending while reducing unnecessary costs) and what should be eliminated (mindless spending, an excess of stuff you don’t need) has been pretty clearly defined and it’s easy to see where something might fall onto the spectrum that runs from frugality on one end to mass consumerism on the other.
But what about pets?
Full disclosure: this post is completely based on my personal experience. My household includes the three kitties above. I know that many people would put pet ownership firmly into the “want” category. It’s not necessary, and between vet bills and regular care, food, toys, and other expenses, owning an animal can quickly turn into a major expense. But I would argue that for other people, like myself, having pets and taking care of animals is just as much a part of life as having and caring for children. I have been surrounded by cats, dogs, and horses (and there was a period where I had fish and another time when I had rats) since I was born. I readily admit I prefer the company of animals to that of people – and I like most animals better than most people, too. For me, pets fall under the “experiences and relationships” category much more than the “material, unnecessary things” category. So if you’re an animal lover like me, how do you incorporate the expense of pet ownership into a frugal lifestyle and on a shoestring budget?
If you’re an animal person and pet ownership falls into the same necessary expense category as food and fuel, look to animal shelters first. There number of cats and dogs looking for a good forever home is tragically high, and those that find themselves in county-run shelters are the worst off. Counties have limited budgets and limited space, and not all of them try to find foster families for the animals that are dropped at their doorsteps. This means, at best, animals who find themselves in these shelters have about two weeks to live in a tiny cage surrounded by other abandoned or surrendered animals. What is more likely, however, is that they will be put down because they shelter does not have the room nor resources to care for every animal. There is absolutely no reason to ever pay a breeder or pet store for a dog or a cat, when so many loving animals in need of a good home are euthanized every day at shelters around the country. By adopting a pet, you are saving anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars that purebred animals from breeders or shops would cost, and more importantly, you are rescuing an animal that would have otherwise lived a few weeks in a cage until it was euthanized.
If you’re interesting in keeping an animal as a pet that is not a dog or cat, always adopt still applies to you, too. There are nonprofit rescue organizations for just about every animal that people maintain, including bunnies, rodents, reptiles, and horses. Do a Google search to find an animal rescue in your area and ask them about their adoptions before even considering buying an animal.
Make the Most of Coupons and Loyalty Programs
The easiest way you can save on pet expenses is to look for sales and use coupons. Most stores, like Petco and Petsmart, have circulars that they distribute, and Petsmart will occasionally email customers 15% off any item coupons (Petco may do the same, but I usually shop at Petsmart as that’s what we have in our area). Target often has pet-related coupons to print off at its website, and newspapers and online coupon sources will also have manufacturer’s coupons for brand name dog and cat foods and other supplies, like cat litter. To make the most of your savings, pair a manufacturer’s coupon with a store coupon when you purchase the item; to save even more, see if you can match up these coupons with an item that the store already has on sale.
You can also take advantage of loyalty programs, like Petsmart’s Pet Perks program. It’s free to sign up for and you receive a card that you can scan at the register every time you shop to get discounts on all kinds of items throughout the store. Sometimes the discounts are really significant, like $5 off a bag of food (that, plus a coupon, means a really great price). Other times they range from 40 to 99 cents. We almost always get some amount off our total because we try to find things that are currently on sale for Pet Perks members.
Another way we make the absolute most of coupons and Pet Perks deals is to cycle our cats through different foods. We always stick with the high-end products, but we rotate through about three different brands (always being careful to slowly transition from one type of food to another to avoid making our kitties sick – the process of changing an animal over to a different food should take about 5 days). This has helped our cats from becoming picky or finicky eaters, and it’s helped my budget because I can follow the sales cycles and buy the foods that are on sale every time I need to restock.
Shop Around for Supplies
In addition to using coupons, make the effort to check out alternative retailers for pet supplies. Our local Petsmart is a great store – they always have what we need and their employees are always cheerful, friendly, and willing to help. Of course, the Pet Perks program encourages me to check the store for sales on toys, food, and litter. But the reality is that even with coupons and Pet Perks, some of their products are really pricey. Even places like Target and Walmart can be beaten in the price game by sources like Amazon.
Let’s look at an example. Even though my cats are indoor-only, I still want to protect them against fleas. Not only do I want to avoid a flea infestation in my home, but fleas can cause more than just itchy skin for cats. They can carry tapeworm eggs; when a cat accidentally swallows a flea when grooming or scratching an itch, and that flea carries a tapeworm egg, the egg can hatch inside the animal and just like that, your indoor pet has worms. So, every month I use Bayer Advantage for Cats. Effective flea medications cost a lot at our local stores. At Walmart, I can buy a 6 month supply for 1 cat for about $75. On Amazon, the exact same product is only $55! That’s a $20 difference – and twenty bucks will buy me more than enough cat litter to last a month (and it would almost pay for a month’s worth of cat food – we spend about $30-$35 in food per month).
Another online source for large and small animal pet products: Valley Vet Supply.
Get Creative with Toys and Playtime
In my experience, most animals are like kids – the best toy is the box the thing you bought them came in. In other words, you can get away with creating or recycling free or cheap toys for your pets to play with. I’ve never met a cat that doesn’t love an empty cardboard box to climb into or hide under. Similarly, used paper towel rolls can turn into hours of entertainment. If your cat isn’t crazy about the whole roll, cut it down into inch-wide rings. Our cats go crazy for these rings and chase them all over the place.
We don’t spend money on elaborate toys that are supposed to play with your cat (or other pet) for you. Think anything that’s battery operated. Instead, we engage with out cats ourselves – throwing toys for them to catch or chase, sticking a hand under a thick blanket and moving around to give them something to pounce on – and you can do the same with your pets. Dogs are even easier to interact with on the cheap. Take lots of walks, head to the dog park, or throw old tennis balls for a game of fetch. The point is, you shouldn’t rely on items at the pet store to constantly entertain your animals. You’ll always be spending money on new things to keep your pet interested, and they’ll miss out on critical bonding time that doesn’t cost you a dime.
The one exception to the no-batteries rule might be the Videos for your Cat Youtube channel. Yup, it exists, and it’s obviously free. It seems silly, but it actually seems to be entertaining on occasion for our kitties.
Don’t Let a Vet Guilt Trip You to a Bigger Bill
As much as I love the veterinarian I’ve taken my cats to, I know I am paying for a lot more than an exam fee when I go there. They have an entirely separate building for their cat clinic and the techs and vets specialize in kitties. The waiting room is gorgeous, relaxing, and clean, and their exam rooms are the same way. These kinds of things let me know I’m going to be paying more here for the experience and the service than somewhere else. Additionally, some vets will want to you have procedures or vaccinations added on to a routine checkup that aren’t exactly necessary, but may be preventative measures – and this, of course, costs more. Bottom line, a vet clinic is a business in addition to being a care facility for your animals, and some are more expensive than others.
Do your research when looking for a vet for your animals. It is important that you like and trust your veterinarian, of course, but don’t forget that costs do vary from clinic to clinic. A simple clinic that has a single waiting room and does not employ a specific doctor for specific animals or breeds is probably going to charge you less than a specialty clinic with vets that only handle one type of animal. Large animal vets based in rural areas, with very basic facilities, are often just as competent with small animals (if not more so) than city and suburban practices with fancy setups, and charge far less.
Please note this does not mean our cats are or ever will be deprived of necessary care. Their health is a priority to me, as it should be for any pet owner. Owning animals comes with the responsibility of providing them with medical care, medications, and any treatments they need, no matter what. You would not neglect to take a child to a doctor if he or she was sick – an animal is no different.
My point here is that there’s a lot of variety in the kinds of vets that are out there. Some are straightforward and no-frills, and will only prescribe or treat your animals for the single problem you brought them to a vet for in the first place. Others will also treat your pets but also advise all kinds of additional treatments or medications that are not strictly necessary. I think this is best explained with another personal example: the vet that I take our cats to for minor issues is the one with the cat clinic and plushly appointed premises. I have to pay a variety of fees every time I go there, including an exam fee (per cat!). For small issues, like a single vaccination, the financial inconvenience is outweighed by the fact that the vet is literally 5 minutes up the road and will give me all the time in the world to answer questions or address concerns. On the other hand, when I had to have my cats spayed and neutered, I took them to the large animal vet my parents use (they have horses). This vet is about 45 minutes away, which made for a long car ride with three unhappy kittens, but he did all their surgeries in one day and allowed me to take them home after. I paid no exam fee; my bill included the cost of the surgeries only. Our local vet would have charged twice as much, included exam fees, and required they stayed overnight, meaning I would have also had to pay a boarding fee for each cat.
These are the main ways we balance having the “unnecessary” expense of keeping three indoor housecats as pets with our frugal lifestyle. We’re still cutting expenses where we can – avoiding paying full retail price using loyalty programs and coupons, shopping around for the absolute best deals on necessary supplies, and making the most of free or cheap toys to keep our cats active, engaged, and happy. Do you have additional suggestions for how to keep pet expenses low? Any dog owners – or folks who keep other types of animals – out there who have their own tips to share? Please do so and let me know your thoughts and ideas in the comments!