Your Kids Want A Pet, But Do They Understand What It Means To Own One?

Prepare kids for the responsibilities (and costs) of having a pet through simulations and money games.

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September 23, 2019

Puppies. Kittens. Cute little hamsters! Getting a pet is every kid’s dream. What’s better than a furry best friend? But while they spend hours daydreaming about getting one, are they really prepared for the real-life responsibilities of taking care of one? And do they really have a sense of how this will affect the family’s budget? 

The answer to both questions, if this is a first-time pet, is probably “no.” And it’s difficult for a kid to really grasp this kind of big picture impact of having a pet, without any real-life experience to learn from. A simulation can go a long way to helping kids better understand, and so the responsibility doesn’t fall on you fully! And by giving them some skin in the game—actually giving them real money to experiment with—they’ll be even more invested in the experience. Here is how:

Start the conversation with the bigger picture in mind: the pet’s wellbeing.

While the financial impact of a pet on the family is significant, there are additional stakes involved in taking in a pet you can’t actually afford. Many pets are adopted, and if you choose to go that route—it’s cheaper, after all—your pet will likely have a history of abandonment and possibly trauma. You certainly don’t want to add to that! It’s another reason you should work with your kids to make a careful choice before getting a pet. Take your kids to visit an animal shelter (find your nearest rescue here) and talk about the impact of abandoning a pet and how animals benefit from a stable, happy home. They won’t want to hurt any of those cute kitties and puppies they’re fawning after! 

Then, brainstorm all the potential costs together, from the big, obvious ones to those that add up to just a few dollars. 

Break it down by up-front costs, regularly scheduled expenses, and occasional purchases. Don’t forget the need for an emergency fund, too! Consider the following costs:

  • Up-front costs might include: adoption fees, microchip fee, registration fee, dog bed, cat litter box, carrier/crate, spaying/neutering, other medical costs and vaccinations, a dog leash, and toys. 
  • Consider regular or monthly costs, like pet food and treats, dog walker, puppy school, daycare, grooming, potential medications, and pet insurance. 
  • Occasional costs might be a pet sitter, vet check ups, new pet toys when they wear through the old ones, and fees to bring a pet on the plane. 
  • Plus you’ll need a pet-specific emergency fund (if Buddy gets sick and needs a medical procedure). 

For an estimate of these and related prices, here’s a good list—but be sure to do your own research, too (or have your kids look up prices online!) For more help on ways to plan for a goal (like saving money for a pet), check out our “Setting and Achieving Goals” box.

After having the conversations about costs, try a simulation for a week.

Try this money game for kids through a pet simulation:

Give them a stuffed animal dog (or cat—or whichever animal they’re hoping to get). Make sure they know that in order to get an actual pet, they have to successfully complete the experiment, and pay all the expenses that come up. 

Make a list of tasks and responsibilities they’ll need to cover: walking it if it’s a  dog, remembering to “feed” the pet, spending time playing with them, picking up after them, and grooming them.

Give them a set amount of money to spend on their “pet” throughout the week. Help them come up with a budget to pay for the expenses you talked through, and be sure to remind them to leave room for unexpected costs.

As the week goes by, charge them for the expected expenses, so they have to pay the money back to you. Maybe they have to take their dog to the vet/need to buy food/have to hire a dog walker while they’re in school. Throw in some unplanned, surprise expenses, too, to show how necessary the emergency fund/extra savings is. If your kid earns money on the side or gets an allowance, consider charging a little extra than the budget you initially gave them so they have to spend some of the money they feel attached to outside the experiment. A pet is a big responsibility! 

Have conversations throughout the week about how the simulation is going, if the responsibilities and financial burden—not having spent money for treats at the end of the week—are worth it. (Their experiment money should run out by the end of the week.)

Explain that there are other alternatives that are cheap, free, or can even earn them money.

If your kid seems on the fence about going through with getting a real pet, have a conversation about ways to achieve their goal when it comes to getting a pet without as many financial and time-consuming obligations. For example:

  • Some pets, like a fish, come with fewer responsibilities and costs. Would a cheaper, easier animal do the trick?
  • Volunteering at an animal shelter is a great way to spend time with animals and doesn’t cost anything. Check if your local animal shelter needs volunteers.
  • Pet-sitting a kitty or walking a neighbor’s dog is a great way to spend time with animals, and may even earn you money!

At the end of the week, you may decide as a family that getting a pet is a great idea, and everybody’s on board. Having open discussions and engaging your kid in a simulation money game is a great way to tell how serious they are about the endeavor. They may even turn around and change their mind—saving everybody a potential big headache and an even bigger responsibility. No matter what, this way you won’t be the “bad guy” and the family can make the decision together. And if you do get a pet, your kids will be better prepared for the decision.

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