If you believe the research, you might start thinking our pets make better parents than we do. There’s evidence that children with furry companions are more empathetic and less anxious, and they get more exercise. Dogs in classrooms have been shown to minimize conflict, and they’re patient listeners for struggling readers. They might even practice mind control (and let’s face it, that’s a superpower all parents could use).
But could your pet teach your kids good money skills, too?
Why not? Research (and any elementary school teachers’ experience) shows that the most effective way to teach children is by using concrete examples and involving them in the process of learning. And it turns out pet ownership is one of the most tangible—you might even say “pet-able”—ways for kids to absorb some key financial skills that will serve them well in life. Whether your pooch has been part of the family for years, or your little ones are begging you for a kitty (or three!), try the following exercises to turn your dog or cat into a four-legged finance guru.
And don’t worry, birds, hamsters, turtles, goldfish, and goats work just as well.
1) NEEDS v. WANTS
Money MATTER: Many adults overspend because they can’t (or won’t) distinguish between necessities and luxuries. And children have even more trouble making that distinction, especially when they really, really want that Paw Patrol backpack or pack of Skittles.
PET PROJECT: Fortunately, pets can help kids draw the line between Wants and Needs. To do this, sit down with your little one (meaning your kid) and come up with a list of all the ways you spend money on your cat or dog. I’m talking food, veterinary care, professional dog walkers, leashes, catnip, pet sweaters, a three-story shag-carpeted scratching post pavilion—the works.
Next, have your kid divide the list into Needs and Wants. Food and vet care are Needs. That rubber walrus toy—as irresistibly squeaky as it might be—is a Want. Sometimes the distinction isn’t quite so cut and dried, even for parents. Is it really necessary to pay $11.99 for that cat claw trimmer? Maybe not, but if you let those upholstery-shredding talons grow, you might be paying for a new sofa—which’ll cost you 100 times as much. And, in theory, you don’t need to buy your dog chew toys, but if you don’t, say goodbye to your favorite Docksiders. On the other hand, those chew toys don’t have to be organically raised rawhide, do they? Life is full of financial trade-offs like these—here’s your chance to teach that lesson to your kid.
Money MATTER: Learning to create a simple budget is a critical life skill. According to the American Pet Products Association (No, I didn’t make that up), average spending on some of the most common cat expenses runs about $102 per month—or more than $1,200 a year. Dogs cost a bit more, around $136 a month or more than $1,600 annually. No matter the size of your personal pet budget, know what it is and stick to it.
PET PROJECT: To tackle this budget question with your child, tally up the costs of the items on your Wants and Needs list in two separate columns. (You don’t need exact numbers. The point is to get a sense of what you’re spending.) Start with food. Is your dog eating like a pig? Or like a bird? How much food does Cleo-cat-ra power through each day, each week, and each month? These are the questions you need to ask. Multiply the amount of kibble consumed by the price to come up with a monthly food expenditure.
Of course, some expenses are harder to quantify. The APPA says routine vet care costs around $235 per year for dogs, $196 for cats. If you insist on a professional groomer, the average annual expense runs $83 for a dog and $43 for a cat. (If your live in a city like L.A., New York City, or Miami, that could easily be your monthly tab.)
Once you know the cost of your pet’s monthly needs, compare it to the national average. If your expenses are way above average, don’t sweat it. This is the perfect opportunity to teach your kid about economizing. Although you can always comparison shop online, at your local pet store you and your kid can spend time talking to the salesperson and reading the labels to find out if that biodynamic kibble brand is really that much better than generic. Do the happy-looking dogs on the bag mean it’s actually better for your puppy, or is that just the type of animal-lover advertising that tugs heart (and purse) strings? Can you find a cheaper litter? And how about grooming? Can you make do with a nail clipper and brush? Unless you’re primping for the Westminster Dog Show, probably yes.
And there’s nothing more motivating than having some skin in the game. Along with the usual promises to walk and feed, you might want to ask your kid to contribute a little cash too. This need not be a fortune. Having them kick in just a fraction of their allowance to the kitty will help her understand the pleasures and pain of budgeting.
3) THE ALL-IMPORTANT EMERGENCY FUND
Money MATTER: We humans are told to set aside enough money to cover six months of expenses, in the event that we lose a job or fall seriously ill. And though your first-grader doesn’t need a rainy-day fund, pets do.
PET PROJECT: The average expense for surgical vet visits runs around $550 for dogs and $400 for cats. You’ll need to put aside at least that much. Here’s a perfect opportunity to explain to your kid the importance of saving for a setback.
While you’re at it, talk about what happens if your family needs to leave town. Lady Droolsworthy can’t stay home all by her lonesome. Boarding your dog at a kennel can run $35 a day (about half that for felines). If you pay someone to feed and walk your pet, it could easily set you back $25 a day. Make sure your kid knows that it’s smart to stash away enough for at least a week away.
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4) CHARITABLE GIVING
Money MATTER: Studies have shown that pet ownership can make kids more empathetic toward others. Cultivate that compassion to teach your kid the ultimate money skill: giving back.
PET PROJECT: Anyone with a pet knows that their unconditional love can’t be measured in dollars. Call it a cliché, but it’s true. But not all pets receive enough love in return. Each year 7.6 million animals are abandoned and wind up in shelters, mostly because people can’t care for them. Explain this sad fact to your kid, and then give them the good news: they can help.
For every dollar the family spends on your pet, decide to set aside a quarter for a local animal shelter. Then, when you’ve amassed a decent amount, take your kid to the shelter so he can make the contribution in person. You won’t believe what a big impact it’ll make just seeing the smiles on the shelter volunteers’ faces. And you can be happy knowing you’ve taught your child one of the best doggone financial lessons of all.
Beth Kobliner is a personal finance commentator, journalist, and author of the New York Times best seller Get a Financial Life. Her new book for parents, Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You’re Not), will be out in early 2017. She also served on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans, dedicated to increasing the financial know-how of kids of all ages and economic backgrounds.