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A dog for Christmas? Consider all the costs

Look at the numbers before you make the emotional attachment

By Gary Foreman

The New Frugal You
New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters. He writes "New Frugal You," a weekly Q&A column about frugal living, for CreditCards.com

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear New Frugal You,
We're thinking of getting a dog for our kids this Christmas. But, I'm concerned about the extra expense. Some months I can barely cover our bills. Is there any way to tell how much we'd need to spend by adding a four-legged member to our family? And are there ways to keep the costs to a minimum? -- MaryLouise

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear MaryLouise,
You're wise to consider costs before you make an emotional commitment to a pet. Too many families do it the other way around and find that they're unable to afford a pet that they've grown to love.

According to the ASPCA figures on pet care costs, besides the cost of acquiring Fido, you can expect to spend $1,580 in the first year and $695 per year after that for a medium-sized dog. 

Your first choice will be whether to go to a breeder or rescue a dog from a family or shelter that's looking to place it. Naturally, the breeder will be more expensive, but will give you more control over the age and breed.

Once you get Fido home, you'll need to arrange for shots. Call around, and not only to vets in your town or city, but to rural vets and pet shelters, too. You'll find a wide variety of prices.

Next, make your home and yard pet safe, just like you would for a child. That could be as simple as  buying and adding cabinet safety latches; it might mean adding a fence to your backyard. Fence costs can vary considerably. You'll need to survey your property and estimate how big a project you're facing.

Dog food can be a major ongoing expense, especially for larger breeds. The temptation will be to buy whatever cheap dog food you can find. But you don't want to cut corners that would put Fido at risk. Not only would that be cruel, but it could be expensive, too. A bad diet can lead to bad health. Trips to the vet or pet ER are expensive.

That doesn't mean that you have to buy expensive brands. Use the same common sense that you employ when buying groceries for your family. You want a balanced diet. By reading labels and consulting with your vet you should be able to strike a reasonable balance.

Treats are another potential drain on your wallet. Part of the joy of bringing Fido into the family is rewarding him with treats. The people who market pet products know this well. Not only that we like to give treats, but because they are treats we expect them to be more expensive than normal pet food. So manufacturers package treats for premium pricing.

Good for us that Fido can't read the packaging. Anything that Fido associates as a treat will work. It could just be a different brand of dog food that's only used as a treat. Or homemade dog biscuits. Or even a little human food that you've verified is safe for your breed.

You'll need a place for Fido to sleep. Pet stores will be happy to sell you expensive doggie beds. Depending on what you pick, you could end up spending $100 or more. But that's not necessary.

If you shop for dog beds you'll notice two types. One consists of a thin soft pad with the edges raised and filled with some type of padding. You can easily duplicate this by taking an old bath towel or blanket and rolling up the edges. Sew the rolled edges so they hold their shape.

The second style imitates a cave. Dogs like enclosed areas. If you'll be buying a travel crate, they can do double duty. But if you're really on a tight budget, something as simple as a sturdy box with a hole cut in one side with an old blanket inside will work fine, too.

Your new family member will want to play. And, like your children, dogs often prefer the simplest toys. You can pretty much make all the toys that he'll ever need or want. Old holey socks, shirts and towels are an excellent starting point. Fido just wants something to chew on. And, if you can have a tug-of-war with him over the toy, he'll be a happy puppy.

Dog grooming can be as expensive as a trip to the beauty parlor. You can do much of it yourself, especially if Fido gets used to it as a puppy. He may fight it for awhile, but your persistence pays off.

Unless Fido is a strictly indoor pet, you'll need to routinely use flea and tick prevention. Don't skimp here. The cost of cleaning an infestation of your home far outstrips the cost of preventing it.

And, finally be prepared for pet 'accidents' in your home. There are many products available, some quite pricey, but there are low-cost tricks to removing pet urine odors, too.

MaryLouise, I hope you'll be able to add the necessary expenses to your existing budget, especially using these New Frugal You tools. But, if not, it's better to know that now before your family grows to love a dog that they'll have to give up.

See related: Saving on the cost of dog care

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Published: October 18, 2012


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