Dear New Frugal You, 

Our family's income has dropped so we're watching our spending. One area that seems hard to control is what it costs to keep our cat. Sometimes we have to go to the vet for one thing or another. Just as expensive as taking your kid to see the doctor! I'd even be happy if I could just reduce the cost of good cat food and kitty litter. Can you help?

- Aimee

Dear Aimee,

You're not alone. As families cut spending, every family member needs to participate -- including Fido or Fluffy.

Pets can be expensive. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has a table that shows typical costs for various types of pets. The society estimates the average annual cost for a cat to be $670. Some families spend much more, others a lot less. Let's help you fall into the frugal "a lot less" category.

We'll begin with the day-to-day costs of keeping a pet. The ASPCA agrees with you, Aimee. For a cat, the society identifies the two biggest routine costs as food and litter: $115 and $165 a year, respectively.

There are two strategies to reduce the cost of pet food: Watch what you buy, and watch where you buy it. 

The American Pet Products Association says that over $18 billion is spent each year on pet food in the United States alone. That suggests that there's money to be made selling you everything from cheap no-name brands all the way up to premium foods. So expect some hype and a lot of advertising. In other words, buyer beware!

How can you cut through and find out whether it's worthwhile stepping up to premium brands? Learn to read labels. By law, manufacturers must list ingredients by weight, with the highest percentage first.

Just as you'd shop for your own family, look for ingredients that provide sufficient protein and a healthy, balanced diet. If you're unsure what constitutes a good balance, do a little research or ask your vet.

Don't shop for pet food based on price alone. Some foods contain more filler than nourishment. What you save on food now could be spent later in higher medical bills.

Where you shop can make a difference. Often, the most expensive place to buy your pet supplies is the local grocery store. If you're not trapped in a big city, visit a country feed and grain type store. You may have to buy a little larger package size, but the savings make it worthwhile.

While you're at the feed and grain, check out alternatives to expensive cat box filler. Some people have had success with wood-fiber-based horse bedding.

Next, try to control your medical expenses. The ASPCA estimates that a cat will cost an average of $175 for health insurance and another $160 for recurring medical expenses.

Compare the costs of various vets. They should be willing to give you a fee schedule for routine work. Prices can differ significantly. Very few people compare prices or have an idea as to what a given service should cost.

It's OK to tell your vet that your budget is tight and to ask if there's anything that they can suggest to reduce costs. Be honest about your ability to pay. Vets understand a tight family budget and share your desire for a healthy pet. They want to be able to help.

Check with your local Humane Society, too. Some offer low-cost services for vaccinations. You might also want to volunteer some of your time. Occasionally, an overabundance of donations are offered to volunteers for their pets.

If you live near a veterinary teaching school, find out about their pet services. Students need hands-on experience and learn on live animals -- but only under supervision so you don't need to worry about the quality of care for Fluffy. Often the bills are less than half of what you'd pay at a regular veterinary clinic.

Consider using a country vet. Often their expenses are lower than those in the big city. They can pass along those savings to you.

Remember that veterinarians have the same amount of training as your family doctor. You're paying for that training. Plus your vet is probably dealing with a tight budget, too. So treat them with respect.

Finally, don't forget to comparison-shop for prescriptions and pet insurance. On the latter, remember that insurance should be used for expenses that you cannot afford to cover. Routine expenses will be cheaper if you just pay them yourself and avoid the insurance overhead.

Just as Fluffy is part of your family, she's also part of your budget. So applying some frugal living techniques to her expenses is only natural!
 

See related: Steps to reducing veterinarian bills, Don't get vet debt: Low cost pet-care solutions exist