Your pet hasn't nabbed your credit card and maxed it out or anything, but high pet expenses, especially unexpected medical bills can decrease your score. Here's what you need to know to prevent this from happening and to fix it if it has.
1. Have emergency plans for the unexpected
A small emergency fund can go a long way in preventing small medical expenses from wreaking havoc on your credit scores. Why? If you can save at least a $1000 over the course of a year, you have enough for basic care and minor accidents.
Even people with pet health insurance that pays for the expense may require an immediate payment. If purchasing pet health insurance, do it early in the pet's life since pre-existing conditions are rarely covered. (See also: Here's Why You Really Need an Emergency Fund)
2. Treat medical credit cards the same way you would a traditional credit card
Medical credit cards such as Care Credit exist to charge medical expenses, including veterinary bills. However, they are still reflected on your credit report the same way traditional credit cards are. Thus, being close to the limit can affect your credit scores, and you'd likely be better off using another card if you aren't as close to the limit. You can ask about payment plans from your veterinarian as well or request they wait for payment from your pet insurance company.
Before any charges happen, be aware how close you are to the limit and check the interest rate. If you aren't applying for other credit cards in the near future, then it may be worthwhile to get a card offering 6 or 12-months without interest to pay off the full amount. Medical credit cards often come with those offers.
3. Have a budget for veterinary care, food, and toys
When you see a cute new toy for your pet, it's easy to buy it without thinking. But before you do, keep a tally of what you are spending. Also, be aware of what you're currently spending. For some, subscription services containing treats and toys are helpful for budgeting. For others, it's just good to just think about a number of toys and the average price. Food is easy to track if you largely feed them dry dog or cat food.
To save on food and save yourself from carrying large bags home, consider purchasing pet food online. Often, you'll save over 20% and some online options let you schedule food to come automatically every few weeks. I also have saved a bunch—on everything from dog food to carriers by asking for price matches. Petco stores will match prices on their own website, which is often much cheaper.
If you save on "basic" expenses like food, you can keep your credit card balances much lower.
4. Compare veterinarian charges in advance
When you are in an emergency situation, you are more likely to make emotional decisions on how much you pay for veterinary care. Before a situation happens, talk to your veterinarian about where to go for affordable emergency care and what is handled in their office versus what might have to be done elsewhere. The result may be getting better care for your pet in emergency and feeling more confident about your decisions.
For instance, when my dog Woof Woof cut his paw, I took him directly to his doctor. I didn't know they didn't do stitches nor apply a bandage. I had to go to an emergency room afterward when I could have started there. I also could have found a better vet to use in the future that does do stitches.
When I took him to another veterinarian for a follow-up, she saw a tiny piece of skin hanging and clipped it. If she hadn't, he could have gotten it caught and developed a larger cut. She also would have done stitches and I could have avoided the higher charge of an emergency clinic.
Pet ownership is an act of love, but it can also be supplemented with an act of fine-tuned budgeting on veterinary to toy and treat expenses. The result is healthier budgets (and potentially pets), less debt, and better credit scores.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.