Anyone with pets knows just how emotional the pet-owner relationship can be. Our pets and their personalities become intertwined with our families and our day-to-day lives. We care for them as much as children, or sometimes instead of children. And for most of us, we commit to meeting their daily needs and loving them unconditionally. This is all very warm and fuzzy, but what happens when expensive veterinary costs are thrown into the mix? As part of “unconditional love,” are we willing to take on big bills for our furry friends? Are we willing to go into debt and sacrifice our own savings and financial goals? And, most importantly, are we educated enough so that we know where to turn for help when our animal is sick or injured, so that we don’t have to put our own financial lives in jeopardy?
We are going to help make sense of it all and arm you with the tools you will need to make wise decisions if you find yourself in this sort of situation. You may have noticed that we have been writing quite a bit about medical debt lately, and believe it or not, many of those tips are applicable to veterinary expenses, too.
Preparing in Advance
Like with most expensive purchases, the sooner you can prepare, the better. Here are our tips on doing just that.
Deciding where to adopt your pet
Believe it or not, where you adopt your pet can have a significant impact on how much it costs to care for the animal. In Richmond, Virginia, for example, the local SPCA offers a discount pet clinic to any animals adopted from their facility and any of their siblings who are already at home. This is a great deal for many consumers. But on top of this, the care clinic is also open to any household whose annual income is less $55,000 for one person or $74,000 for two people. These opportunities are great ways to save!
Adopting at a shelter or clinic like this can help with upfront costs, too. You may not have to pay for some of the early routine procedures, as those might be covered in a low adoption fee. And when the cost of pet ownership in year one is so expensive, these savings make a difference. For instance, check out how much year one of cat ownership can cost:
We mentioned this tip in our guide to cheaper dental care, but it’s great for vets too. If there is a veterinary school in your area, contact them to see which procedures their students perform. If they offer what your pet needs, you might be able to get some serious discounts on the total price.
Is pet insurance a good idea?
One popular way to combat the costs of pet care is to get insurance for the pet. These policies became quite popular several years ago. While it sounds like a great way to plan ahead for expenses, it’s not as promising as you might think.
You could expect to spend anywhere between $10 and $90 dollars on monthly premiums. If we use $50 as an average, that comes out to $600 per year, or $6,000 after 10 years. On top of this, the insurance doesn’t cover everything. This article from Herb Weisbaum and NBC News covered a pet owner from Washington who had a zero deductible plan. When her dog had emergency surgery, she was still responsible for $1,050 out of a total of almost $7,000.
Because of this, Consumer Reports concludes that “Overall, we found that the pet policies we analyzed were not worth the cost for a generally healthy animal.” Your best bet to get a return on pet insurance is to insure an older pet who is more likely to fall ill or become feeble, or to insure a pet you know has a chronic illness.
Aside from these situations, the best way to provide care for your pet is likely to incorporate their estimated costs into your monthly budget and build out an emergency savings for them each year.
We have talked extensively about how to negotiate medical bills. And every piece of advice we have given on the topic holds true for veterinary care. We won’t go into as much detail here, but let’s break down the main considerations to keep in mind:
Shop around for prices
If the care is not an emergency, call around to various providers to ask the cost of the service. You will likely find a wide range of prices. And sure, there is something to be said of quality and “you get what you pay for,” but some of these services are so routine, that you should feel confident with opting for a lower cost.
For instance, studies have compared the cost of spaying and neutering pets, a fairly basic yet essential operation, and found prices from under $100 to over $300. That’s a big difference! And remember, you should be doing this will all your pet expenses, not just the medical costs. Even just feeding a dog adds up over a year, so you will need to save anywhere you can:
Discuss payment in advance
If you shop around, you will know the cost of the service in advance. But on top of this, you can talk about the details of the payment before you ever receive the service. Make sure the price is clear and that you understand your options for payment arrangements. If one vet offers an 18-month payment plan, but the other just offers a 12-month plan, you might consider taking the 18-month plan if money is tight. Be sure to also ask about interest rates and what happens if you submit a late payment.
Ask for hardship programs or other low interest arrangements
Hopefully you can do this before the service (see point above) but it’s okay to ask about hardship programs afterward too. These types of programs are designed for people who might not be able to make a full payment. While this is less common in the veterinary world than in the medical industry with big hospitals, it can’t hurt to try. Your best bet, though, will be to research thoroughly about where to take the animal (keep reading for more points on this).
Review itemized bills
After your pet has received care, make sure to get an itemized copy of the bill. This way, you might be able to find some areas where costs can be cut. The provider might not be willing to discount some of the bigger items, but if you are charged for medicines, equipment, and other accessories, those costs might be more adjustable and negotiable.
Should I finance?
If arrangements with your vet still won’t cover the cost adequately, you may need to consider financing the expense. Don’t take this decision lightly. You need to remember that interest will make this purchase even more expensive over time. And, you also need to keep in mind that there might be complications with the procedure, or that your animal might fall sick again very soon and require even more expense. If you do end up financing the care, one popular option is Care Credit, which allows financing for medical and veterinary costs and does so at relatively reasonable terms. It’s up to you to understand the terms and conditions and to make your payments in a timely manner.
We see clients on our Debt Management Program all the time who have struggled to meet their obligations with creditors like Care Credit, so you’ll want to be sure that you can manage the costs.
There are many resources out there to help you find affordable ways to care for your pets. The Humane Society has put together a great list to get you started. As they mention, be sure to look into breed-specific programs and groups, particularly if you are a dog owner.
One thing they don’t cover in great detail is how to research low-cost emergency services in your area. We’ve already discussed how easy it can be to save on routine procedures, but what about when there is a life or death issue, and you only have a few hours to make a decision?
That’s a situation we all hope to avoid, but your best bet to be prepared is to do as much upfront research as possible. If you already have a go-to clinic for routine care, ask them if they know of any resources for when emergencies pop up. They might have a network of doctors who offer low-cost or pro bono care.
And if you’re struggling to find any clinics at all, don’t hesitate to consult the Internet. Perhaps one of the best ways is using a search engine to look for “low cost veterinarian in CITYNAME” where you fill in CITYNAME with your area or another city within driving distance. Then, call that location and get all the information you need, such as hours, prices and services they offer.
Want More Help?
We don’t want you to sacrifice your pet’s health and comfort or your own financial well-being. Hopefully you can use these tips to make the costs of pet ownership more affordable and easier to bear. If you need more budget help and want to create a game plan for your pet care and other financial obligations, we are here to help. One of our nonprofit credit counselors would be happy to work with you in a free session and review your budget thoroughly.