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Thinking About Getting a Dog? Learn a Few Lessons From a Guy Who Just Bought a Car

Dogster's "Watch Dog," John D. Williams, recently had to buy a new car. What he learned could help anyone on the road to dog ownership. Really.

 |  Apr 5th 2012  |   17 Contributions


Life has a funny way of redefining your priorities when you least expect it. One minute you’re blissfully sailing along, safe and secure with your little routines, getting on with life and getting stuff done. Next thing you know, you’re on the sideline trying to figure out what happened and what to do next. We recently had one of those redefining moments involving our car.

Yeah, I know, this is Dogster and I’m supposed to be writing about, you know, dogs and stuff. Don’t give up on me: I promise we’ll be talking about dogs soon enough, but first I need to talk about our car, after which I’ll be able to “drive” home a point related to our canine friends.

I’m not sure what 140,000-plus miles figures out to be in dog years, but let’s just say our nearly-eight-year-old car had been showing its age and then some. Still, it was paid for, and not having a car payment made occasional repairs easy to justify. Of late, however, the repairs were getting more substantial and more frequent. Last year it was the transmission, this year a new water pump and timing belt. Determined to not have a car payment, we soldiered on. Then a couple weeks ago, the car quit on me out in the middle of nowhere. After some adventures in towing (thank you, AAA) we found ourselves facing a nearly $4K repair bill. Clearly, it was time.

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I wish I could chronicle the entire adventure of choosing our eventual purchase, but this isn’t an article for Motor Trend. If I don’t get to the dog stuff pretty soon, my editor will be putting the hounds on me. Suffice it to say, we actually had an enjoyable experience with a good deal of laughter, making what could have been a very stressful shopping experience much more pleasant. Why were we worried it would be stressful? Consider the following: 

1. We had not been planning to buy a car.

2. We did not want to buy a car, new or used.

3. Our budget for monthly payments was limited and not very flexible.

4. We needed to get a car as quickly as possible because of obligations related to work and school.

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This meant we entered the process without the usual amount of advance planning we would normally have done. We were reluctant consumers, and our driving force for the final decision was based on $, not color, options, model, or any of the other “cool” factors you might normally like to pursue. Finally, and not the least of our concerns, time was of the essence. Despite these constraints, at the end of the day we drove home in a vehicle that: 

1. Met our transportation needs in a timely manner.

2. Included a certified pre-owned warranty to cover standard maintenance and unexpected repair bills for several years.

3. Came very close to our monthly budget (we did go over, but not by much). 

How did we achieve this? 

1. By sitting down and assessing our situation (not much planning time, but we did take time to plan).

2. We were honest with regards to acknowledging our budget limitations. Fulfilling our basic need of transportation was the deciding factor, not what we would “liked” to have purchased.

3. Sticking to those assessments throughout. We told our salesman up front what our priorities were so he didn’t waste his time or ours showing us cars we might have liked, but simply were not willing to buy because the vehicle went beyond our predetermined parameters. The result? Acquiring a good car that we could afford and maintain.

So we planned as best we could and then (wait for it) – stuck to the plan.

Here comes the dog stuff.

How many of us “plan” a dog purchase? (Sorry to reduce that precious bundle of fur to a commodity, but a purchase is a purchase. And, yes, I’m also going to talk about adopting, but let’s start with purchasing.) When we buy cars and TVs and refrigerators, we arm ourselves with back issues of Consumer Reports and online testimonials. We talk to the neighbors. We check out what our buddies have to say. During breaks at work, we trade stories about the latest smartphones and data plans. A dog? What’s there to talk about?

Uhhhhh … lots of stuff!

One of our musts for transportation was the estimated MPG rating. Beyond making our monthly payment, we wanted to be sure we could afford to feed our new wheels a steady diet of ridiculously expensive (and getting more so) gasoline. What will it cost to feed your new furbaby, particularly if you’ve chosen one of the larger breeds? Too few new dog owners remember to consider this when deciding to add a dog to their household. Down the road when their cute St. Bernard puppy is the size of a Buick and eating several bags of food a week, it’s too late to plan. All that’s left is reacting and adapting. And let’s not kid ourselves: Even a small dog adds a measurable amount to the monthly food budget.

With our car purchase, we made sure to get a warranty to cover unexpected, unforeseen repairs. And, of course, we have car insurance. While car insurance is mandated by law, warranties are not. We could have passed on the warranties to lower the amount financed and our monthly payment, but we also knew our modest household budget would have trouble covering a major engine repair. After all, wasn’t a major car repair bill the very reason we were getting another car? We opted for the warranty.

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You can't get warranty for a dog, but you can - and should - get pet insurance, columnist John D. Williams realized after going through his recent car-buying experience.

You can’t get a warranty for a dog, but you can get pet insurance to eliminate having one of those awful conversations that begin with “Our dog needed major surgery” and all too often end with an unhappy decision at the expense of the dog. Regular readers know that our resident vet, Dr. Eric Barchas, has a never-ending supply of “unexpected” vet bill stories. If you have the resources to handle a vet bill of hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars, pet insurance is not really an issue, but if you don’t have deep pockets, a modest monthly pet insurance premium is generally a good investment, particularly if your dog will spend a fair amount of time outside.

It comes down to responsibility and what is best for your family and the dog. If you choose to adopt rather than purchase a dog (told you I would get to adoptions), you don’t do the dog or your family any favors if the cost of caring for your precious pooch becomes burdensome.

One last car metaphor. When I was sitting alongside the road in my broken car, out in the middle of nowhere, I was glad to be able to call AAA and get myself back to civilization. Here’s my AAA advice for those considering the purchase or adoption of a dog:

Assess: What can you truly afford to add to your monthly budget? Be sure to include projected costs for both food and veterinary care.

Acknowledge: If you’re having trouble paying the electric bill on time, adding a dog to your expenses just isn’t a good idea.

Acquire: Having thought through the expenses, both the initial cost, as well as future feeding and health care, by all means buy or adopt the furbaby that falls comfortably within your budget.

Do you have some AAA advice to offer those considering adding a dog to their family? Please share. Neither my advice nor yours will fit every circumstance, but knowledge is power and we want to sufficiently empower our readers to make good decisions. Dogs are wonfurrful additions to family life. They are good for the soul. But it isn’t good for the dog or a family if crucial decisions have to be made based solely on financial considerations. No one can plan for every unforeseen circumstance (e.g., loss of a job), but discovering after the fact that you really can’t afford to care for a dog presents all sorts of scenarios vastly more unpleasant than choosing to wait.

Next week, we’ll explore what you can do when your AAA answers indicate adding a dog to your family isn’t advisable and/or affordable. Perhaps you’re like my family, which loves, loves, loves dogs, but isn’t in a situation where having a dog is practical. How can you have a dog in your life if your AAA answers are saying “No, no, no?” Trust me, there is hope. There is a way. It involves a different sort of planning and no small amount of creativity, but most any families can have a dog in their lives, if they really want that experience.

Photos via Shutterstock: Broken-down car, car lot cars, Bull Mastiff pup

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