Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for CreditCards.com, and also writes regularly for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs. See her website SallyHerigstad.com for more personal finance tips and free budgeting worksheets. Ask Sally a question, or read her previous answers in the To Her Credit archive
Dear To Her Credit,
I have two horses, two llamas, two large dogs to feed, a mortgage, car payments and $30,000 in credit card debt. I'm getting unemployment benefits, plus I pick up occasional part-time work. What should I do? -- Ann
Any one of these problems -- too many pets, too much debt or too little income -- would make staying afloat financially difficult. All three together will sink your ship if you let them.
The most obvious problem is that you have your very own petting zoo. I can't imagine what it's costing for food, supplies and veterinary bills. And most people with large animals buy vehicles and trailers large enough to transport them and either live someplace with enough room for the animals or pay staggering expenses to board them. Very few people could afford so many animals, even with steady employment.
Before you turn to Craigslist, however, see if your animals can help pay for their own keep, or even help you turn a profit. The first thing I'd think of might be offering riding lessons. Of course, you'd need liability insurance and a business plan, but maybe your horses could get their exercise and some young people could learn horsemanship at the same time.
If you have a barn or large piece of property, have you thought about boarding horses, alpacas or other animals to make extra income? People pay a lot of money to board animals. A couple of boarders could help you keep up with your credit card payments.
If you can't find a way to make money with your horses, they may have to go. It's very sad, but unfortunately, many people have had to let go of their horses during hard financial times.
Unless your llamas have exceptional coats you can shear to sell, they probably can't pay their way. Llamas put out to pasture are relatively inexpensive to maintain, but you need to put the brakes on all unnecessary spending right now. One unexpected vet bill for any one of your animals could be a financial catastrophe.
Depending on how soon your finances start looking up, I'm afraid you may be looking for new homes for your dogs, too. Dogs, especially large ones, are expensive to take care of, and if you can't do it, you have to find someone who can.
I know how tough it is to have animals that cost too much to keep. I had two dogs in the early '80s -- a collie and a red Doberman. My finances hit the skids in that recession, and I was forced to give away my dogs. It's not so bad when you find good homes for them, which I did. In fact, I gave the Doberman back to her original owner.
Even if you found homes for all six animals, however, the problem remains that you have too little income. And unemployment benefits don't last forever. Concentrate all your energies on finding work, whether that means taking classes to update your skills, starting a business or moving someplace with better job prospects.
People often look at their debt as the first problem. But debt is usually the symptom, not the problem. In your case, if you got rid of your debt through bankruptcy, for example, and you continued to try to support yourself and six large animals on an insubstantial income, you still couldn't make it. Focus on lowering your expenses and finding a steady income, and you'll have a chance of dealing with your debt.
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