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Financial Animals: 8 Pets Who Can Teach Us Money Lessons

03/04/2014 02:42 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2014
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Our pets have lives we can only envy. They've got daily meal service and a personal cleanup crew. And when we leave for work, they can go back to sleep ... for the entire day.

And they never, ever have to worry about money.

But despite their freedom from financial concerns, they can actually teach us some useful lessons about what to do--and what not to do--with money. So in homage to Love Your Pet Day, we've rounded up eight critters who have some truly sage advice to impart on us mere mortals.

What Dogs Can Teach Us: Look Out for Number One
Dogs may show unconditional love for people, but when it comes to other canines, they've got quite a different attitude. Whether it's a nice chew bone or the best bed in the house, the concept of "share" just isn't in their vocabulary. Bottom line: Dogs are always looking out for number one.

Sure, as a human, you don't want to take this trait too far. So when there's a surplus, go ahead and be generous. But remember that, in some cases, you do need to put yourself first--like in the case of retirement.

Making retirement a priority when you have college-bound kids can be hard because they depend on you, but money should go into your retirement fund before their college savings. Why, you ask? Because no one will give you a loan or scholarship for retirement--and you don't want to be a burden on your children when you run out of funds in your eighties.

It's better to do both if you can, of course, but when there isn't enough to go around, take a lesson from your canine and think of yourself first.

What Rabbits Can Teach Us: Multiplication Is Magic
There's a reason why we say that things "multiply like rabbits." One bunny can have up to 14 babies per litter, the pregnancy only lasts a month--and they can get pregnant immediately after giving birth. (Gulp.) So if an average litter of six rabbits has three females, by the end of just one mama's seven-year lifespan, she could be responsible for nearly 95 billion rabbits.

Of course, in the wild, not all of those offspring will survive and breed. But there's similar magic at play when it comes to compound interest--except that no one is going to eat your cash. If you deposit money into the bank and leave it alone, you'll earn interest on the interest in much the same way that rabbits multiply. The same goes for retirement accounts: So if you have $2,000 in a retirement fund that earns 7% interest annually, your money will double in about 10 years--and you don't even have to do a thing once you've made the deposit.

Of course, multiplication can be black magic too. Compound interest can also be your enemy if you carry a high credit card balance because you'll be charged interest next month on the interest you were charged this month ... ad infinitum.

What Hamsters Can Teach Us: Stop Running on That Wheel to Nowhere
Don't throw good money after bad. Cut your losses. We've got all of the aphorisms we need to tell us that sometimes we should stop following that same old path. But even if, like the proverbial hamster on the wheel, we're clearly getting nowhere, it can be tough to quit. We've run so far already, so surely we're about to get somewhere. And if we give up now, doesn't all that time/money/effort go to waste?

Experts say that you need to learn how to recognize what they call a "sunk cost," which is the economic principle that what you have spent is already gone. To identify a sunk cost, you need to ask yourself two key questions: Are you sticking with the program simply because you've been doing it for so long? Would you still make the same commitment if you weren't in this deep? If you answered "no," it may be time to finally make the break.

And remember that when you persist with something that's not working out--be it a job, a relationship or an expensive purchase, like that gym membership you never use--you may be missing out on other opportunities. So sticking with the plan doesn't come for free either.

What Goldfish Can Teach Us: Don't Overindulge Your Kids
That terrible thing people say about goldfish? Well, it's a myth. "A fish will stop eating before it gets sick or explodes," explains Jon Sander, operations manager at the Lilypons Water Gardens.

That said, being overgenerous with food is still a big problem with pet fish--but it's for a different reason. The leftovers left floating around in the tank can create a toxic environment, which has nothing to do with goldfish gluttony. It's the owner's fault for providing more than the fish need.

The lesson here? Beware of the dangers of showering your kids with everything they want--and then some. Even giving them an allowance can be a mistake if you don't do it right. Children need to learn how to make hard choices about actual needs versus wants, as well as understand the importance of delayed gratification.

It may be hard to hold back, but it can be for the best. Case in point: One study found that kids who have to pay part of their way through college take their education more seriously--and tend to have higher GPAs--because they understand the value of what they're getting.

What Gerbils Can Teach Us: Diversify!
Gerbils hail from the desert, where food can be hard to come by. So you really can't blame them for being hoarders--even when you're there to feed them every day, they can't let go of that instinct to save for hard times. They also know that it's risky to put all of your eggs in one basket--or, rather, all of your seeds in one burrow. So it's not uncommon to find little food stashes in every nook of their cages, a behavior that they exhibit in the wild. This way, if another critter stumbles across one of their stashes and has a feast, the family won't go hungry.

The same principle is at play when you diversify your investments: If one stock tanks, you're not completely wiped out because you haven't put all of your money in one place. This lesson can also be applied to banking: It's generally a good idea to keep your checking and savings accounts at different banks. You want different benefits for each account--for checking, it's low fees and lots of ATMs; for savings, it's the best interest rates--but those perks aren't always offered at the same bank.

And if you're lucky enough to have more than $250,000 saved up, remember that the FDIC only insures bank deposits up to that amount per person, so it's wise to diversify and have more than one account.

RELATED: Investing 101

What Frogs Can Teach Us: Know When to Jump
There's a right time and a wrong time for almost everything. Jump too soon or jump too late and you might miss the opportunity or pay a higher price.

With stocks, everyone knows that you're supposed to buy low and sell high, and if you've ever bought or sold a home, you also know how important timing can be. But you can also save on more everyday purchases by buying at just the right time.

You probably know that clothes go on sale at the end of each season, but did you know that appliances and home furnishings and floors are heavily discounted in January? It's also a good time to buy a camera, around the time new models come out. But with vacuum cleaners, new models come out in June, so look for deals in the spring. April is also a good time to look for Japanese-made electronics, which go on sale at the end of the Japanese fiscal year in March. Who knew?

What Snakes Can Teach Us: Sometimes You Have to Shed Your Old Skin
Snakes know how to start over: On a regular basis, they shed their entire skin. They also know that the process isn't easy--it's itchy and uncomfortable, and they're at more risk from predators. But it's worth it to emerge sleek and ready to move on.

You can start over, too, even when it may seem like it's too late or you're in too deep. If you're in debt, you can make a plan to get out of it. If your job is dragging you down, you can change careers at any age--people do it successfully in their forties and beyond. And if you really need a clean slate, sometimes declaring bankruptcy is the right thing to do. None of it's easy, but it's worth it to get a fresh start.

And, finally, one critter with the most welcome advice of all ...

What Cats Can Teach Us: Go Ahead--Do Nothing
Cats sleep an average of 12 to 16 hours a day. It's a predator thing. They don't need to graze all day. Plus, it's a lot of work to chase down prey, so when they're not looking for something to eat, they're saving energy for the hunt ... even if their next meal is coming out of a can.

No, we're not suggesting that you sleep away the day--but there are financial situations when doing nothing is best. For example, you should take the long view when investing most of the time, and ride out the ups and downs of the market by doing nothing with your stocks.

And here's something else felines know: You don't need to spend a lot of money to have fun. If you've ever bought your cat a toy, only to watch her ignore it and play with an empty bag, that's an important lesson too.

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