What My Pandemic Pooch Taught Me About Personal Finance

Me and Comet

I love dogs. If you think “love” is a strong word, imagine its strength, and multiply hundredfold. I’ve cried while walking on the street because I see dogs that I think are too cute. I stop random dog walkers who are sometimes uncomfortable by my boldness. Sometimes, I even take photos of dogs across the street because although I’m separated from the dog by a million cars, I want to cherish the memory of a cute dog. Sounds crazy? I accept it.

A part of my obsession with dogs comes from wanting something that I can’t get. I’ve begged and begged my mom (who is deathly afraid of dogs) for years, to no avail. I wanted a dog so badly, that I even had multiple dreams of finding a stray dog and grooming it to be the perfect domesticated companion. After years of rejection, I dropped the subject. Life got in the way — moving across the world for high school, then across the country for college, then flying every week for my job (consulting). I came to realize that my career and ambition needs and wants were not fit for dog ownership.

Cue the 2020 Pandemic. With many of adopting a work from home schedule, animal adoption and foster applications are soaring through the roof. Whether the decision was from an increased desire to hold some sort of responsibility due to the abundance of time, loneliness due to increased social distance measures, or simply a distraction to keep the family entertained, many pandemic pooches have found their forever homes. In fact, their demand will increase into 2021 and beyond, as many breeders, pet shops, and shelters report low inventory and “pre-orders” from litters of puppies yet to be born.

Low inventory and high demand? This was it. As a self-proclaimed economics and investment enthusiast, this economics of dog supply and demand made sense to me. If I’m able to get a dog despite the unfavorable economic situation (external factor), the gained good (the dog), will be “worth” more to me (greater return)— after all, it’s human nature to want something they can’t easily have. Thus, I rode the rising demand curve and applied to 30+ shelters for a foster dog. I like to commend myself that I was financially savvy enough to not jump into an adoption right away, nor did I consider spending upwards of $2000 for a specially bred dog.

It took almost a year of applications and waiting (low inventory), but I finally got my foster dog: a tiny 10-lb bundle of black, white, and brown spotted joy named Comet, from a wonderful organization called Dogs without Borders.

Comet meeting my stuffed animal. They’re the same size!

I was in love. I couldn’t believe that I held responsibility for such a perfect little animal. I wanted to protect him from all harm, give him all the love he could get, and reassure him that he could trust me with his life. Day by day, Comet grew to trust me, and quickly became my omnipresent shadow, joyfully following me everywhere with the sound of his pattering little paws and jingling dog tag. When he was put up for adoption after 3 weeks at my home, I cried for two days straight, not only because I’d miss him but because I came to the realization that dogs can be a setback in achieving financial freedom.

No one wants to look at their dog and be reminded of decreasing assets, but most people fail to take into account how such a responsibility can set them back financially. It sounds cruel and heartless, but I believe finances are best managed when emotions are removed.

Here are a few financial lessons learned as I fostered Comet for the last month:

  1. You will not be able to take emotion out of spending. The result? Impulse buying and the blurred line between “needs” and “wants.”

When I walked to Petco to pick up Comet’s food (a necessity), I was taken aback by all the snack and toy choices. My immediate (and dangerous) thought after scanning the bursting shelves was: did I have enough for Comet? I walked out of the store that day with two new premium snacks and and a stuffed toy that Comet took a particular interest in. As someone who holds back from pampering myself to build as much wealth as possible as quickly as possible, it was a strange feeling to surrender to a small dog’s wants, rather than limiting to its needs.

Despite knowing that being with Comet is temporary, I wanted to give him the best life possible — this meant toying with the idea of exceeding my monthly budget to make him happy. Given this weakness in willpower, I could already foresee that I will forego my budget to make a dog happy. Trust me, it’s much harder to draw a line between “needs” and “wants” when your dog is staring at you with sweet puppy dog eyes. The distinction between a “need” and a “want” is one of the first steps in becoming financially savvy, and based on this quickly blurred line, I knew that owning a dog would set me back many steps in achieving financial freedom.

2. The necessities are a recurring cost that you need to budget into your human budget.

The biggest mistake that I made deciding to foster was not preparing for the potential increase in spending. After three weeks, I had spent upwards of $60 for food, toys, and transportation. In reality, the cost should have been quadruple of what it was, because the foster organization covered Comet’s vet visit (they cover all foster vet needs). Multiply these ongoing expenses by 12, and I was looking at around $1000 of annual recurring costs and even more for extemporaneous visits (vet/grooming) that the foster organization graciously paid for.

Adding a hundred-plus dollars in my monthly budget is not something I can afford now, with my current salary and living environment (Los Angeles is the one of the most expensive, rent-burdened cities in the world).

3. Emergency funds for dogs should exist.

I had to take Comet to get neutered during my second week of fostering. Thankfully, the veterinary costs while fostering are covered, which saved me ~$250 of medical costs. While I was at the vet, I couldn’t help but scan the displayed rows of dog medicine. The cost of each medicine was tagged on the display shelves, and I was shocked to find that none of the medicine packets (each small box containing no more than 20 pills at most) were below $150. Who knew dog medicine would be ten times more expensive than over-the-counter human medicine?

Given my elementary introduction to veterinary costs, I determined that having an emergency fund for a dog is crucial. If a standard procedure like neutering/spaying costs $250, I couldn’t imagine what a true emergency procedure would cost, but knew that I was not in a position to start and fund another emergency fund beyond my own.

4. Opportunity cost = what aspiration will you give up for your dog?

Finally, dogs require time and patience to become domesticated. Even after they are trained to co-exist with their humans, they need to be taken on walks and socialized with other animals (dogs, humans, etc.…), not to mention the fact that they are not self-sufficient, so cannot be left alone for many hours. All in all, there is a significant level of physical effort and sacrifice in time required to raise a dog.

This didn’t fit in with my current career as a consultant and my dream to move across the country to pursue a MBA. I even thought about foregoing my MBA or taking on local projects in the future once travel starts becoming more commonplace, but I quickly chided myself for even thinking of giving up on my longtime goals. Imagine the opportunity cost of not attaining a valuable educational degree, or missing out on potential promotions or raises because I would be a part of projects that would make dog-rearing more comfortable, rather than those that could advance my career. As selfish as it sounds, I don’t want to limit my earning potential or salary increases.

Dogs are living beings, and living costs money. Think of your dog as a mini-you, with similar (but hopefully smaller) financial needs. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t view dogs only as financial black holes. Fostering has reinforced my love for dogs, and it has been the most wonderful and eye-opening experience for me. I’d do it over and over again if I’m able. However, while I agree that the cuddles, kisses, and all the love that a dog can give could outweigh the financial burden, I’m headstrong in my desire to achieve financial freedom as early as possible, and I’m ready to remove as many hurdles as possible to make this happen.

It’s unfortunate that the hurdle at this stage in my life comes in the form of a small and cuddly friend. Of course, people prioritize different things in life, and if having a furry companion is a priority, I completely understand why. My priorities will change in the future, and I can’t wait for the day that I’ll have a permanent dog of my own. For those who are financially able and willing to support a dog, I would encourage to foster and adopt.

Sleepy Comet says: “goodbye, and thank you for reading!”

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