Surprise! It’s a Boy! Can You Afford Him?

The nuts and bolts of budgeting for a pet.
By Kristen Sullivan, September 2009, Updated February 2015

Sometimes these things just happen.

In my case, I was leaving the park on a Saturday evening in August. The clouds stretched flat in the warm turning light. I felt relaxed, healthy, happy. A man approached. His smile was friendly and he was sipping a cocktail. A black puppy hopped behind him.

I was done for.

I held the park gate open for the man and the little lab. Then, I found myself waving goodbye as the man walked away. “I found him around the corner,” he said. “I’ve done my part.” His smile turned sheepish.

I didn’t want to leave the little guy to fend for himself. So I brought him home, gave him a flea bath, and posted a message on Craigslist. No one responded. A few days later we went to the vet. “I don’t think you’re going to find his owner,” she said. “It looks like he was dumped.” He had worms, a skin condition, and an eye infection.  

A few weeks later, the pup is still here. My two year old dog, Charlie, seems to like him. My landlord said he could stay if we put down an additional security deposit. Labs puppies "are rough on the wood floors and on the gallery deck,” he said. Lab puppies are also pretty good cuddlers. I’m sending the check this week.

It will be one of a number of hefty checks I’ve written for the little guy. Puppies are costly surprises. But like I said, sometimes these things happen. In an effort to help anyone else considering a new pet, I’ve put together a few steps to help you figure out how a pet will fit into your budget.

While many of us don’t wholly base our decisions to expand our families (or not) on finances, it’s important to understand how a pet will impact your budget. By doing so, you can make sure you’re prepared for the unexpected – say your dog swallows his plastic toys or you lose your job. Your relationship will be healthier for it.

  1. Estimate the one-time “start-up” costs and the ongoing “maintenance” costs of the pet. These costs vary depending on the type of pet, the size, and its health. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals published an easy to read chart that estimates the costs of adopting pets. They estimate that a medium sized dog will incur $565 in capital costs such as neutering, training, collars and leashes. But the figure will be much higher if your dog has any health issues. The ASPCA estimates the same dog will also cost about $695 a year in annual upkeep. (All said, that’s $1,580 in the first year as long as there aren't any major health issues.)
  2. Slot those annual numbers into your budget. Sit down with your budget and create a line item for your first year pet costs and ongoing costs. See if you can trim other areas of spending so that your savings line isn’t affected. Maybe you don’t need that gym membership if you’re going to start running with your dog? Be realistic. If a pet is going to stress your budget to a point of major discomfort, you’re probably not the best match. (I know, it’s hard to hear.) Don’t have a budget? Quicken provides a free budgeting tool here. Or check out this cash flow worksheet that Martin Hopkins put together. Plug in your numbers, add a line for your pet-to-be, and see how your future cash flow is affected.
  3. Prepare for unexpected surprises. Consider pet insurance or an emergency fund. Remember that puppies chew, cats claw, and fleas descend. Make sure you’re prepared for the unexpected by signing up for pet insurance or by building up an emergency fund. You don’t want to get stuck charging a four-figure vet bill to your credit card.
  4. If the numbers aren’t adding up, make reasonable decisions. Often times, our hearts are bigger than our wallets. You could do an animal more harm by bringing him into an ill-fitted environment. Think carefully about whether the decision to adopt is best for both of you. The ASPCA recommends asking yourself these 10 questions. And if you ever find yourself in a financial bind, The Humane Society of the United States provides a list of resources for people who need financial help with a pet here.

Kristen Sullivan is a contributing editor at FiLife, where this column originally appeared. She runs the FiLife Love and Loot blog and works with small businesses and local entrepreneurs in New Orleans.