Pets are People Too – The “Humanization” of Fido & Fluffy in Retirement

Investing
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By  Richard M. Rosso

Learn more about Richard on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor

“Cat (Mona) goes to vet for teeth cleaning – $350 – smiles now like a feline movie star.”

With the kids grown and out of the house (hopefully), pets have become an important family addition for baby boomers in retirement.

When it comes to retirement planning, the topic of pet expense planning is rarely discussed. It shouldn’t be ignored.

Pets are big business.  According to www.americanpetproducts.org, it’s estimated that pet owners in the U.S. spent $55.53 billion on their beloved cats, dogs and other animals in 2013, an annual increase of 4.1% since 2003.

I’ve been helping retirees and pre-retirees prepare and maintain budgets for over 20 years. According to my own estimates, pet “parenting” now consumes a greater bite (no pun intended) of the overall budget in retirement.

Expenses have increased for my pet-passionate client families by 7% per year, not including the occasional catastrophic pet bills (which I define as a minimum of $1,000 per occurrence). For the small slice of the population I serve, pet care costs have trumped published estimates.

Keep in mind, healthcare costs have increased 3.5% a year over the same period.

Take cat (Hershey) to emergency room on a Friday night. Cat returns home – $1,775.”

For some, especially during the financial crisis, pets became an unaffordable luxury – challenging decisions were required.  Parties involved (including me) were sick over the conclusions. However, new, loving homes were often found. In a few cases, gut-wrenching decisions were ostensibly forced upon families that didn’t possess the resources to handle life-threatening illnesses.

“We didn’t have the $4,200 for cancer treatment. We made her as comfortable as we could for as long as possible.”

“We needed to find a new home for Daisy. I cried for days.”

Several of the retirees I serve who are fortunate or deep in the “green zone” of retirement withdrawals where income and liquid assets handily exceed expenses, traveled hundreds of miles to find the “right” pet babies. Missouri for two Bassett Hounds from the same litter; Colorado for the perfect Labrador Retriever.

“We turned the trip into a vacation, an adventure.”

Increasing pet care expenses can no longer be ignored although they’re rarely brought to the forefront of retirement planning discussions.

Here are five points to consider.

1). Bring pet expenses to the surface: Create separate line items for each pet product or service category and track monthly – food, toys, nutritional supplements, treats (you get the picture). I found the exercise helpful especially if there’s more than one pet baby in the household.

With the assistance of a family, I discovered granddaughter’s pet guinea pig was more expensive to maintain than the cat. What a surprise. From there, we found ways to cut costs on maintenance items.

2). Do your homework. It’s a good idea to get your head straight first. A pet is an investment, a commitment.  It’s not a hobby to start then stop. As a long-term expense, it’s best to run numbers before you consider adding a pet to the household. You can obtain a break down for estimated first-year and annual pet costs depending on whether you prefer a small dog vs. large dog, or a cat at www.petfinder.com.

3). Watch the weight. I’m guilty of feeding my Princess (a Chihuahua mix) bread sticks from a local pizza delivery place – she recently gained three pounds between six-month vet visits. Hey, I’m not the only one. I observe how many baby boomers especially retirees “over nurture” their pets with food and treats.  Maintaining your pet within the ideal body weight can prevent costly bills later for health issues related to heart disease, diabetes and joint problems.

4). Consider pet insurance. The question of insurance depends on your ability and willingness to pay out of pocket for pet care in case of a major sickness or accident. It’s just like anything else when it comes to insurance – Are you able to spend $3,000-$5,000 for a major pet illness and willing to do so? Then insurance isn’t for you.

If you are willing to pay but can’t afford the financial hit, then insurance is for you. Premiums can range from $10-$40 a month depending on the coverage you require and the size/breed and age of your pet. Check out NerdWallet’s Pet Insurance roundup.  You will also pay what’s called a “deductible” before insurance coverage kicks in. A deductible is an out-of-pocket cost or as I call it, a “money hurdle” that needs to be jumped before the insurance company pays benefits.

For wellness or regular care like dental, spay/neuter and vaccinations, coverage is also available, however for these services it may be best to boost savings by $20-$40 a month in your emergency cash reserve to cover the expenditures.

5). Think animal shelter. Obviously, it’s humane and cost effective to adopt.  You’ll save money on microchip, spay and vaccination services through a shelter. Many local veterinarians will provide an initial vet exam free if you adopt.

Americans no doubt love with their pets.

I work with retired baby boomers happy to have the footsteps of children replaced with the paw patter of animals.

Pets have become pseudo-kids, furry confidantes and retirement travel companions.

Many studies exist that validate the health effects of pet ownership – lower blood pressure, greater self-contentment, anxiety reduction.

Overall, pets are love, but they’re also money.

“My dogs keep me sane and grounded. They are a lot of work. They cost money. I worry about them. My house will never be spotless but I can’t imagine a life without my best friends.”