5 ways to save money on pet costs
From shopping online to loyalty programs, savings can add up
You may enjoy treating your pets like part of the family, but if the cost of your companions is draining your wallet, it's time to rethink how you pay for pet care.
Pet-induced financial strain is not unfounded. Approximately 65 percent of Americans have at least one pet and collectively spent a total of $58.04 billion on their critters in 2014, according to the American Pet Products Association.
Pet costs run even higher for new owners. First-year expenses for a large dog can cost owners about $1,843, according to ASPCA. Cats aren't much cheaper, costing an average of $1,035 the first year. That's just covering basic health care and living expenses.
If you're a current or soon-to-be pet parent, here are five ways to save money on animal necessities by utilizing credit card and savings programs already at your disposal while still giving your nonhuman family members the care they deserve:
1. The benefits of using credit over debit, cash
Digging through the Sunday paper to find pet store coupons to take may save you a little money, but if you use a credit card for pet purchases instead of a debit card, you can get paid back for some of what you are spending on your animal companions.
There is just a handful of pet-centric cards on the market, such as the Petland credit card, which gives cardholders a discount on store-brand products and other exclusive deals throughout the year. However, like many retail store credit cards, pet store-specific cards tend to have high APRs (the Petland card's purchase APR is 29.99 percent) and limited usability if they aren't co-branded.
To avoid costly interest fees on a card that only offers occasional rewards, use a general purpose cash-back credit card instead. The rewards might not be as pet-specific, but you can make them fit your shopping needs.
|Pet-centric credit card options|
Petland credit card
"I've never seen a cash-back card with a rotating pet store category, so I would just use a regular cash-back card that awards you a set percentage of your regular spending," said Holly Johnson, a contributor for The Simple Dollar personal finance website. "For example, if you want to stock up on pet food or supplies, use a card that has a grocery store percent back and just buy your food at the grocery store. That's what I do when I buy my dog's food."
If you decide to open a new card in the spirit of pet cost savings, make sure the card you choose actually fits your needs. It'll be easier to save money if you don't have to change your current shopping habits.
"The credit card has to be from a retailer that you would be buying the certain items from anyway, otherwise you'll signing up for discounts but not really use it," Marton said.
If you are already a credit reward cardholder, take your hard-earned points or dollars and put them toward supplies for your four-legged friend.
"Since most reward credit cards give you the option to exchange rewards [points] for gift cards, selecting a PetSmart, Petco, Amazon, Target or Wal-Mart gift card helps you stretch your pet budget," said Kendal Perez, savings expert from CouponSherpa.com and dog mom to two Labrador-Australian Shepherds. "Use those gift cards in conjunction with store coupons for even deeper discounts."
Don't have (or want) a rewards card? Websites such as MyPoints.com and Swagbucks.com let you independently earn points that can be redeemed for plastic or e-gift cards to stores such as Amazon, Target, Wal-Mart and Lowe's that sell pet supplies. Shop your favorite retailers directly through these sites and take customer service surveys to earn points for pet purchases.
2. Shop online
If you shop strategically, many online retailers also offer discounts on your pet-related purchases.
For example, Amazon offers a "Subscribe & Save" service for customers looking to buy pet supplies on a regular basis. Customers select a product they want to subscribe to for routine deliveries -- pet treats, food, that favorite chew toy that always gets destroyed. Subscribers who have five or more products sent monthly save 15 percent with each order, get free shipping and can cancel the service at any time.
Overstock.com, which has an entire section of its website dedicated to goodies for pets of all types, has a loyalty program called "O Rewards." After an initial $19.95 sign-up fee, shoppers can then earn 5 percent back on every order. Plus, select items can earn shoppers up to 40 percent off and all orders ship for free.
Looking to save money on food in particular? Pet Food Direct, a website hawking pet food for all kinds of pets, has a reward program that lets enrolled shoppers earn points for every dollar spent. Points can be redeemed for coupons or food donations to animal shelters. New customers also save 20 percent off a first purchase of $79 or more.
For pets in need of medication, you can save substantially online. Just make sure you are shopping with reputable companies and never pay with your debit card.
"We give our dogs heartworm protection medication, but never buy it from the vet," Perez said. "Instead, we shop online for the generic version and purchase from whichever provider has the best price. We never make online purchases with our debit card since credit cards offer more fraud protection."
3. Sign up for
If your pooch eats a specific food from a specific store or your kitty only eats treats from one brand, you may be able to get discounts for being a consistent customer.
"If you shop at the same retailer regularly, find out if they offer a loyalty rewards program," said Maggie Marton, author of the blog "Oh My Dog" and pet mom to three dogs and a cat. "I go to a local pet store where if you buy 10 bags of dog food you get the 11th bag free. That's a great deal if you have multiple dogs or large ones."
Many major pet stores like PetSmart, Petco and Pet Supplies Plus offer customers free loyalty programs that give enrollees access to lower in-store prices, exclusive email coupons and birthday treats for their pets. Some even help users earn dollars off future purchases, like the Petco Pals Rewards program which gives members $5 back for every $100 spent online and in-store.
Additionally, some specific pet product brands, such as Purina, Iams, Fresh Step and Kong, offer shoppers cost-savings opportunities through sale emails, bulk purchases and online coupons. Check with your preferred pet brands to see if you can scoop up extra discounts on what you already buy.
"Everybody has to buy food, medicine and those sorts of things, so pick the brands that work best for your pet and then subscribe to those brands newsletters and Facebook pages," Marton said. "It's a good way to find all sorts of coupons and discount offers and save money on the basics."
4. Create a pet
emergency savings fund
U.S. pet owners spent approximately $28.79 billion on vet care and medical supplies in 2014, according to the American Pet Products Association. Basic annual medical expenses per dog and cat average $786 and $596, respectively.
|Pet store loyalty program options|
PetSmart PetPerks reward program
Petco Pals Rewards
Pet Supplies Plus Preferred Pet Club
Pet owners could find themselves relying on credit cards to float these expenses, especially in emergency situations. To prevent critter credit card debt, save up for unexpected medical bills before they happen, like you would for yourself or your family.
"Try to allocate part of your emergency fund for pet care," Johnson said. "That way if your pet suddenly gets sick, you can take that money saved up and put it toward their care."
Marton's troop of animals taught her that pet expenses, especially medical care as they age, can really add up. As two of her dogs face cancer diagnoses, she decided to make a pet savings plan.
"Our whole goal was to not put these expenses on our credit card," she explained. "We previously had a huge credit card debt that we had worked to pay off and didn't want to go back there. One of our dogs needs a $700 service every quarter, so what we do is we each put $175 away every month so when we get to that appointment we have it all saved up. It doesn't have to come from anywhere else."
Just like you should avoid charging your own health care costs, "You should never use credit to take care of an emergency pet expense," Johnson said. "If you have to do it, do it, but try to avoid it."
CareCredit, a health care credit card that can be applied toward a variety of vet expenses, is one option owners have when facing high-cost emergency medical vet care. New card applicants should charge with caution, though.
"Your vet may offer Care Credit with a promotional rate, but if the balance is not paid in full by the expiration date you will begin paying a very high interest rate," said Thomas Nitzsche, spokesman for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions. The current CareCredit purchase APR is 26.99 percent.
5. Shop shelters before breeders
Pet store puppies and kittens can be tempting, but they'll also cost you much more than the ones you can find at your local animal shelter or rescue organization.
"You can get a really good dog for a bargain, so-to-speak," said Marton.
You'll still have to pay for your new pet, but not nearly as much as the thousands some breeders may ask for. Plus, in most cases adoption fees pay for more than just the animal itself.
"I see a lot of people balk at adoption fees," Marton said. "What they might not know is those fees typically include all first-time vaccinations and spaying/neutering procedures. Those are not cheap services. Many will also microchip your pet."
When scouring shelters and adoption postings for a new pet, be wary of scams. Fraud.org, an organization run by the National Consumers Leagues, has reported an increase in the number of pet adoption scam complaints in 2015 so far.
Fraudsters posing as pet "sellers" on websites such as Craigslist, entice prospective pet owners with pictures of animals they don't really have for sale and when contacted, request money be sent before the critter is handed over. If you encounter a situation where money is requested before you physically have the animal, be wary. Do not share any sensitive payment information, like credit card numbers, prepaid cards or wire transfers.
Don't let your desire for a new pet derail your budget -- or credit -- because a fraudster lured you in with a cute furry face. There are plenty of reputable adoption organizations that can help you find a new animal pal without taking advantage of your wallet.See related: Pet wellness plans touted to spread out vet cost, If you fly with a pet, can it earn frequent flier miles?
Published: July 6, 2015
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