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Relatively sized
24 January 2012

A funny person once proclaimed that I seem to have the fewest financial worries of anyone he knows, which is highly ironic considering that I’m currently a graduate student in the humanities at a public university, and I’ve been living off fellowships, stipends, GSI wages, and occasional guinea pigging gigs for over five years now. I certainly don’t give the impression of being rich based on my wardrobe, car, home, or other daily extravagances. But I do take pride in the condition of my dogs, and feel secure in the knowledge that I’ve got the necessary savings and/or line of credit that I can throw down if we are ever confronted with an emergency (knock on wood!!).

While budgeting alone is not a sufficient prophylactic against traumatic expenses, it is a surprisingly useful skill that really polarizes my peers; those in my age range either know how to do it conspicuously well, or they’re quietly struggling. In the absence of children, a full-time job, or a “real” house of my own, I fall somewhere inbetween. But I think we at the House of Two Bows are doing all right on behalf of our dogs, in part because there are two of us (with our own bank accounts) to cover all the pet expenses, and also because I do all the pet budgeting. Heh, heh, heh.

I had basically one financial strategy last year — to keep track of what I spent on the pets. Step one is to know what I spend and face the concrete reality of what is necessary, versus what is frivolous. After that, I can prioritize and make adjustments as necessary, or establish a benchmark for how much I should be able to stash away every month.

My primary tool was a pocket planner dedicated to this purpose, as I found it easiest and most accessible to jot things down in pen and ink whenever I made a pet-related purchase. Everything from the $2.49 tub of yogurt to the $200+ vet bill was written down within the day, lest I forget. Then at the end of the month, I sorted items into categories, and wrote those totals on sticky notes which I kept in the book. At minimum, I needed a four-month cycle to get a realistic sense of my average expenses, given the seasonality of vet visits and short-notice blowout sales.

I had established my expense categories beforehand, but I didn’t bother to file everything into appropriate categories until I did my end-of-the-month tally. During the month I would itemize my purchases in some detail (noting, for example, the price per pound of meat). In the end, I could group all of my purchases into the following categories:

  • Food
  • Treats
  • Vet & meds
  • Accessories & miscellaneous

Other categories that weren’t incorporated, but might be applicable:

  • Training and behavioral consultation
  • Pet insurance
  • Licensing and memberships (if your local dog park requires an annual fee, for example)
  • Grooming
  • Dog walking, boarding, and travel
  • Unreimbursed rescue and fostering expenses (which is now tax deductible with proper documentation!)
  • Puppyhood (for various reasons, first-year puppy expenses deserve a category of their own)

The categories you establish should be big yet clearly demarcated to help you recognize patterns in your spending habits. At the end of the year, this is what mine look like.

Monthly Averages of Pet Things for 2011:
Food costs: $84
Treats: $26
Accessories & miscellany: $15
Veterinary and medical: $122
Total monthly expenses: $247 / month

And broken down by percentage of overall budget:

Food included all essential edibles, from raw meat to kibble, including any dietary supplements that are taken on a daily or seasonal basis.

You know, this figure really isn’t bad for two 20 ~ 30 pound dogs. However, I can see the costs increasing exponentially relative to the size of the dogs! Considering that we used to pay approximately $25 ~ $30 a month for 17.5 pounds of Hill’s Science Diet for just Bowdu (it’s been years since we’ve purchased this brand, so this is just a guess), I feel quite justified in spending a few dollars more per month, per dog. Higher quality food is affordable, relatively speaking — though I understand that time can impose more severe limits on one’s options.

Treats included non-essential edibles. The types of treats here include training treats, edible dental chews, and raw recreational bones.

I don’t think we should be spending this much per month on store-bought treats when we are spending so much on food already. Again, I wonder if making our own snacks would be more economical… However, edible dental chews, which are usually our most expensive treats, seem difficult to replace. I don’t know of homemade recipes that last as long, they don’t seem as satisfying to the pups, or they can be quite messy (like raw bones, for example).

Treats don’t occupy very much of the overall budget, but it can still be a target category for 2012. I’ll have to devise a strategy for cutting back.

Accessories and miscellaneous included non-edible items used directly by the Bows, such as leashes, collars, tags, and clothing.

I don’t expect this category to change very much either, because at this age, the Bows already have most of the everyday items that they need. Occasionally, something will come up requiring a purchase in this category, but for the most part, these are not critical items. Due to Bowdu’s destructive and possessive tendencies, I don’t buy dog toys anymore, though they make welcome gifts. As adult dogs, they have plenty of options to keep them mentally stimulated — tug games with household towels, social visits, hiking and outdoors exploration, etc.

Speaking of exploration, I only counted $10 in gas consumed for the dogs this year, which is no doubt a major underestimation. We also paid a lot of tolls while exploring a wide swath of Bay Area terrain this year. I would not have been compelled to go to many of these places if it was not for the Bows. RJ doesn’t drive, so all gas and tolls were on me and not really part of our shared budget.

Veterinary and medical expenses are exactly as described, including over-the-counter medications.

Yup, I was painfully aware of every sharp, jagged spike. I’m at a loss for how I can bring these figures down just a little lower, what with local costs of living. Granted, Bowpi had a full dental workup, which should not be an annual occurrence. We also had one unexpected trip to the vet (our regular vet was able to fit us in and we didn’t have to go to the ER, thankfully). Since the probability of “unexpected” visits seems to increase when you don’t expect them, I’m going to count that as a routine occurrence and necessary part of the budget.

At this rate, pet insurance might not be such a bad idea after all… I think we get a couple more years to consider our options before “senior pet” restrictions apply and our Bows are cut off. Anyway, I’ve had plenty of gripes about expensive veterinary care in the past and probably will have plenty more to gripe about in the future. However, this is one category where it does not pay to slack, so I’ll just have to continue monitoring expenses and setting money aside.

… That’s it! This is what I’ve learned about our budget at the House of Two Bows after tracking expenses for a full year. And now that I’m addicted to the process, I’m continuing into 2012. My purpose was to make pet finances just a little more transparent, even if only through anecdotal experience. Though I’ve posted at various times about the figures that other organizations have reported, national or regional averages really don’t map so well onto individual finances. In the end, only you have an idea of what works in your household, in the context of your own income and all your other personal finances.

And hopefully, this demonstration shows that there’s a lot of information to be gleaned from just tracking daily expenses. I don’t expect my charts to be generalizable for every dog or every household. That’s why you have to start recording your own expenses to figure out what applies to your own circumstances.

* This post was submitted for a Blog Carnival on the subject of pet finances, hosted by Life By Pets. It happened January the 28th, so I encourage you to wander over to her blog for a collection of other interesting links.