Personal Finance

Is Pet Insurance Worth It?

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Monthly payments make up a large chunk of people’s budgets. When things are tight, putting one of those stubborn, fixed expenses on the chopping block is sometimes the best way to give your finances flexibility. Some are non-negotiable — student loans, utilities, rent or mortgage — but others can go. Do you really need cable? Are you going to the gym enough to justify the cost? What about those subscription boxes you get?

Pet insurance is one of those questionable costs. Some see it as an essential, others are unsure of its worth and many don’t even know it exists.

People have enough trouble choosing insurance for themselves, let alone an animal. These decisions rely heavily on a slew of variables, but they often come down to affordability.

Determining Value

Calculating affordability depends on your approach: Are you concerned about short-term or long-term expenses? Do you solve problems as they come up or do you try your best to plan ahead? Because everyone has a different financial strategy, opinions on the value of pet insurance vary among animal owners.

Britta Schell insured her dog, Elsa, now 2 1/2 years old, when Elsa was 3 months old.

“I’m self-employed, and if there’s a way to mitigate risk for myself, I’m always first in line to try it out,” said Schell, who lives in San Francisco. She thought insurance would help her save money on bills from visiting the veterinarian, and the premium was pretty low. “It just seemed like a no-brainer.”

After a year, Schell opted to not renew the policy. Elsa’s vet bills were about $700 that first year, and Schell said she thinks insurance compensated her about $20. The reason why? Insurance policies vary, but they mostly cover illnesses and accidents. Things like regular vaccines and puppy checkups usually aren’t covered. The first year with a puppy can cost about that much.

“I had to keep all this paperwork and fax stuff. It just didn’t feel worth the time,” she said. “I expected it to be more like human insurance.”

Many pet insurance models require the pet owner to pay the costs upfront and send paperwork for reimbursement. Even in an emergency, the insurance process would be a hassle, Schell decided.

Elsa was recently stung by a jellyfish while they were at a dog beach, and the emergency vet visit cost $350.

“It was already scary,” she said. “Adding paperwork and faxing stuff into the mix wasn’t going to be worth it, based on our previous experience.”

Even in San Francisco, where the cost of living (and pet care) is high, Schell’s family makes it work. “We have a huge savings cushion.”

Considering some people don’t want to pay for their own health insurance, it’s unsurprising pet owners don’t see the value in insuring their furry family members. Some people don’t even take their animals to the vet. Then there are people who have extremely limited means, so they’re not going to prioritize their pet’s needs over family essentials.

Planning for the Worst

People love their pets. A quick glance at social media makes this obvious, because anyone with a cat and a smartphone has probably posted a photo tagged #catsofinstagram at some point. If that animal you love gets sick or is in an accident, you’ll probably want to do whatever you can to help it.

Pet owners need to plan for the worst, because the worst is crazy expensive.

“Foreign body removal, which is our most common claim, is $7,000,” said Kerri Marshall, a veterinarian and chief veterinary officer for Trupanion pet insurance.

Budgeting for emergency pet care usually doesn’t cut it, Marshall said. Premiums vary, but say you get a quote for a pet insurance policy at $40 a month. Rather than pay toward insurance, you decide you’d rather set aside $40 each month for emergency pet care. After 10 years, you’d have $4,800, which wouldn’t cover that foreign body removal surgery — and that’s assuming you don’t dip into the savings fund for something else that could have happened during the previous 10 years.

“As a veterinarian, it’s frustrating when you have a family that really wants to help [their pets] and they have to make a tough financial decision,” Marshall said. “They don’t want to put the pet to sleep, but they can’t afford the care you’re providing.” She said that’s the toughest thing veterinarians face: money dictating decisions about a pet’s life.

“What clients have told me is it’s just a peace of mind knowing, ‘I’m ready for anything and I don’t have to stop and think about the financial piece of it when I need to get my pet cared for,'” she said.

That’s exactly what dog owner Erika Searl said. She lives in New York City and has two dogs (Ginger and Cubby), which she has insured for about four years. She realized its value after a friend’s dog was hit by a car and suffered a broken leg. The friend didn’t have insurance and scrambled to pay the vet bill.

“That was really eye-opening for me,” she said. She never wanted to have to make a decision about caring for her dogs based on finances. “What’s $40 or $50 a month to give you peace of mind?”

Avoiding Pet Debt

Budgeting for animal care can be really tricky. Pet insurance can be a money-saver in an emergency, but routine vet visits can be pricey, too. And because a lot (if not all) of that isn’t covered by insurance policies, those regular pet expenses may make the insurance payment less of a priority.

It’s difficult to think about money when mesmerized by the cuteness of puppies and kittens, but you have to have a savings plan in place before taking a pet home. Some animal hospitals and clinics offer health plans that cover the regular visits, so preventative care is also affordable. Just like with people, getting regular checkups makes it less likely an illness or injury will become more serious and more expensive to treat.

There’s also insurance for more than just cats and dogs (though that’s the most common kind).

“It always makes sense to look into it, because it may enable you as a pet owner to do things for your pet you might not otherwise be able to,” said Laurie Hess, a veterinarian and owner of the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics in Bedford Hills, N.Y. Hess said a lot of people buy animals at pet stores without realizing they need veterinary care, so the first time she sees pets like snakes, ferrets, rabbits, sugar gliders — name it, she probably treats it — is when they’re quite ill.

Because there’s no Obamacare for animals, pre-existing conditions may exclude pets from coverage. Hess and Mitchell advised pet owners to insure the animals as soon as possible.

“People don’t even think about medical care, no less insurance,” Hess said. “It’s cheaper for your pocketbook and better for you to prevent the illness from happening.”

The last thing you want is to go into debt caring for a sick pet, but it happens because people care deeply for their animal companions. Expensive veterinary bills may divert funds from your savings, lead you to borrow money or rack up credit card debt. Medical debt is a credit killer, regardless of the patient’s species.

If you’ve run up debt from veterinary bills, you might want to look into a plan to dig out because too much debt can hurt your credit standing. You can see how those debts are affecting your credit by checking your credit scores. Credit.com lets you check two of your credit scores for free every month, see what’s affecting your credit scores and come up with a plan to work your way toward better credit.

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Image: Chris Amaral

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