A friend and I were recently discussing family pets. Their family had recently adopted a dog, and he was pointing out that while his children had fervently promised to take care of the pet with the best of intentions, they didn't necessarily have the greatest track record of following through. After the first few months, he and his wife found themselves handling 90 percent of the responsibilities. While I laughed, I also know that it's likely that our family will wind up having the same experience when we get a pet.
Regardless of who handles the bulk of the responsibility for a pet over the long term, the conversation got me thinking about the many valuable teaching moments that can present themselves when you bring a pet into your family. While parents often use pet ownership as a tool to teach overall responsibility, there are great opportunities to use the experience to impart lessons concerning financial responsibility as well.
Trying before buying and entrepreneurship
Children and teenagers don't always understand the long-term consequences of their decisions. However, if you can get them to take care of neighbors' or friends' pets (with you there to supervise if necessary), they'll be able to experience the balance of work and enjoyment that goes into having a pet before the final decision is made to foster or adopt a pet of their own.
It may even be a good way of creating income and encouraging entrepreneurship. They might offer their friends and neighbors a service – the first few dog walks, check-ins or litter box changes as freebies and then charge a small fee for their services. Even if they charge just a small amount each visit, the experience will help them get a taste of the responsibilities of pet ownership while they practice entrepreneurship and learn about the effort needed to succeed and rewards that can come from starting a business. In addition, if they are able to amass an income of their own from the experience, you may want to consider having them chip in to cover part of the adoption fees.
Even if your children don't exactly tackle these chores with the grit and determination you would have hoped for, you can teach them financial lessons by involving them in all pet-related financial decisions and transactions and by teaching them how to create and follow a budget. Have them start by listing out the necessary expenses, such as food, vet check-ups and toys. Then work together to research the anticipated costs and create a plan. There is a big difference in the budget needed to bring home a small goldfish versus a cat or even a large dog. One friend's child fell in love with horseback riding after participating in the sport at camp. Now, in addition to taking care of the family dog, my friend and the child are exploring the possibility of signing up for horseback riding lessons or even sponsoring a horse.
If you want to teach your children about budgeting in this context, they'll need an income to use to cover their expenses. The money could come from an allowance, continued pet care work or a part-time job if they're old enough. Or you may have to fund a special pet care account that they help manage.
To help teach your children the importance of saving, make sure to teach them to set aside money in the budget for longer-term expenses. Long-term costs could include holiday gifts for the pet, boarding or pet sitting fees for when your family travels or even an emergency medical fund for visits to the vet. Boarding and medical care can be quite expensive. To help set your child's expectations and set savings targets, research your pet or breed of pet and base your savings plans on the information you find.
Tangible savings accounts, such as a jar labeled with the saving goal, could be a good option if only a small amount of funds needs to be saved. As savings needs grow, it could be a good opportunity to open a joint checking or savings account where your child can deposit money and practice using an account.
Bottom line: For children and adults alike, learning about money can be difficult when it's only an abstract concept. By tying the prospect of getting and taking care of a new pet to the importance of earning, budgeting and saving money, you can help teach your children about financial responsibility and instill money habits that could serve them for the rest of their lives.
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered health, legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.