By Shira Boss
Zero Cost Kids
Most of what I know about raising kids – including financially – I learned from having 3 dogs first.
In case you don’t have a dog before having a baby, here are some money-saving tips from mistakes I made as a dog-owner before becoming a parent:
Property Damage: Expect to lose big
Puppies are destructive. So are children. We lost thousands of dollars of stuff turning our backs on the puppies: cell phones, chargers, pedometers (notice all of these plurals), wooden spoons and knives (stolen from the open dishwasher – they chewed the plastic handles on the knives), books, lingerie, furniture, my library card (“My dog ate it…” the librarian loved that one!)… you own it, they’ll chew it. They even shredded a wool carpet the very night it was installed.
Lesson learned: Baby-proof, lock up, put high, and most of all: Stop investing in nice things! No more nice underwear; for now I only buy granny panties. New furniture? Forget it.
How quickly did I learn this lesson? Not very. After losing two cell phones to the dogs, I lost a third when our 2 year old put it down the toaster. The children haven’t chewed up pedometers as much as “mailed” them somewhere, never to be found again.
We also got a new couch and rug right after having our first baby. Big mistake.
Rushing to get a renovation or redecorating done before baby arrives? Go cheap. Expect destruction. (Your stories welcome in the comments below!)
Stay out of the specialty shops!
Dog owners and new parents are very soft targets. Nothing opens your wallet like a new addition to the family!
I got to know every dog boutique in town – every leash company; every coat; every brain-building, treat-dispensing toy. Biski’s first leash – purchased before we picked her up – was a beautiful, baby blue leather with brass clip. That might have been okay if it had been her only leash.
Wow did I overspend. I can’t even admit all the accoutrement we bought for her. Sure, we still use and love her yellow “Chilly dogs” raincoat…and mid-weight fleece, and puffy winter coast. But… custom, hand-knit sweaters from England? Life vest? Hiking boots? They make it, I had to have it.
Almost worth it
The overspending was almost worth it for this one scene: On a snowy weekend, we visited Bob’s friend at his woodsy cabin. As the friend – a weathered Irishman who owned a “real dog,” with fur – drove into the driveway, Bob was scouring the snow: “Biski lost a boot…and a sock!”
The only saving grace is that finally I learned my lesson – the puppy novelty wore off and we had trouble even donating a lot of this stuff. (You can imagine the market for dog socks and life vests at the local thrift shop.)
We spent way more on our first dog in the first year than we have on two children in almost 4 years.
Lesson learned: They don’t need stuff! Just say no. Don’t even look. If you’re enamored with some item you think you have to have, get it from a friend who is a couple steps ahead of you. Trust me, they’ll be looking to get rid of stuff.
Training! Enrichment! Sign up now!
The offerings are endless, for dogs or for children. Training, lessons, activities, expert counseling…temptation is everywhere, and it can get expensive quickly.
When we got Biski, we were advised to take a training class. We signed up! Of course! It was the responsible thing to do!
All the other puppies learned to sit – Biski wouldn’t sit. Whippets are bony and the floor was hard. She looked at the treat, she looked at us, we pointed to the hard floor. She didn’t understand why we were trying to torture her. It didn’t teach good manners and build bonds – it was just confusing. It also cost $375.
Then – whippets need to run, right? We packed up our car-sick puppy and drove her two hours to a lure course in New Jersey so she could run off-leash for 2 minutes. Then we packed her back up and drove two hours back home. We did this more than once.
Where was our common sense? (In our defense, we did not take her to dog camp in Vermont…although we wanted to.)
Agility, tumbling class, sleep consultants – it’s the same stuff, puppy or baby. You can spend a fortune if you want to…but if you’re reading Zero Cost Kids you probably don’t want to. So don’t.
Lesson learned: Just say no to training and activities. Figure it out yourself, engage your common sense, give them what they need without paying a specialist to dole it out to you. Then get out in nature and enjoy the best stuff for free.
Secret stash? Forget it.
Certain foods can be toxic to dogs. But that’s okay, you’re the parent, you’ll just keep it away from them, right? That’s what I thought when I ordered two boxes of chocolate for a special occasion. The boxes were shrink-wrapped, then bubble wrapped, and all that was sealed in an unopened Fed-ex box. Then we “hid” the bounty up high – high on a bookshelf.
Then we left our dog pack home alone.
When we got back, the entire apartment was littered with ripped up packaging and empty chocolate wrappers. There was even – in the dog bed, in our bed, and strewn on the floor – uneaten chocolate. They had gorged on so much gourmet chocolate, they didn’t even want any more. (A line I have personally never crossed.)
Lesson learned: They – dogs and children – can get into anything. Our friend’s 3 year old climbed from a chair to the kitchen counter to the top of the refrigerator and drank a bottle of air freshener. Rid your house of as many hazards as possible – and don’t plan on keeping a secret stash of anything.
Don’t say yes to everything the doctor recommends
We took our job as new pet parents seriously: If the vet recommended we do something, we did it! No matter the cost. New motto? No, it’s not “just say no,” but definitely do your own research.
We said “Yes!” to prescription flea and tick collars – even though whippets don’t usually get fleas (and ours never have), and New York City has very few ticks. When I got home with our $30 flea collars and read the warning labels – potential for neurological damage to humans – they went in the trash unopened.
Later we said “Yes!” to a Lyme vaccine. Hundreds of dollars for 3 dogs. Then I looked it up online and found that no major vet school in the country recommends the vaccine, which can cause the same kind of symptoms and damage that Lyme disease does.
I won’t get into the vaccine debate for children, but there are certainly some shots and procedures that are routine and recommended from a public health perspective that might not necessary for your individual child (or yourself, starting in pregnancy).
(Disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional, for dogs or children, so can’t give medical advice for either. I’m simply recommending doing your own research and making informed decisions.)
One of the big mistakes I made as a new parent (slow learner, see?) was believing the pediatrician when she said that the blood test for lead is mandatory and that the state will “track us down” if we didn’t agree to have our 1 year old tested.
Instead of doing my own research, we agreed to the test – literally a bloody, screaming mess. There was no lead problem – which I would have known if I’d only learned the risk factors for lead exposure – and both the baby and myself were traumatized, unnecessarily.
(Again, I’m not saying don’t get vaccines or the lead test or anything else – I’m saying do your research beforehand.)
Lesson learned: Read up before visiting the doctor. For children, we trust Dr. Sears and his books.
Save your money for what matters
Pets and children are a financial responsibility, no doubt. The necessary expenses – like good food – will add up on their own. Learn from our mistakes, and don’t spend money you don’t have to.
Looking forward to reading your experiences and any tips you have to add in the comments below!
You can do this!