First Person: Can Pet-Sitting Make Up for Lost Income?

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First Person: Can Pet-Sitting Make Up for Lost Income?

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Jane Anders

FIRST PERSON | I worked for a large auto insurer for many years, taking home upward of $75,000 annually. The pay was great, but the work was miserable. I mean the guilt-inducing, sleeping-pill-needing kind of miserable. I was let go in early 2009.

My first reaction was self-righteous: "How dare they?" Soon enough, however, fear set in and I was terrified of being yet another American who was in foreclosure. Keep in mind that my home was purchased with the aforementioned salary, which unemployment alone could not match.

In New Jersey, one can have a part-time job while collecting unemployment, within certain wage and hour limitations. I supplemented unemployment with a part-time job in retail, and immediately started running lists of possible career routes in my head 24/7. While working my retail job and collecting unemployment -- $550 gross per week, stretched out for three years -- I conducted a job hunt for several hours each day. My middle name became "budget." I looked at my utility bills. I changed my phone plan. I canceled my cable and land line. I lowered the limits and increased deductibles on my car insurance. I bought a lot of rice, tuna, and boxed mac 'n cheese. I applied for food stamps but was rejected.

After six months of no leads, and heading into my first unemployment extension, I became certified as a personal trainer and a group fitness instructor. The former was lucrative when clients could be secured. The latter doesn't pay as well, but it has a good level of job security as long as my middle-aged body can do the work. I was told that I was very good at my work, and I developed what I can only call a "fan base" at my gym. Personal training, however, just wasn't pulling in the clients.

So the question became: What other goods or services can I sell? What am I really good at? After a year of no calls and no interviews, the dark side of me replied, "Nothing."

Then, somehow, by sheer stroke of luck, a friend of a friend needed someone to care for her cats while she was away. I had a fire lit under my rear end by the prospect of making a living doing what I enjoy most. Could I/would I/should I take care of animals and be paid for it?

The sheer joy of this new prospect gave me the momentum to push on, to get it off the ground, no matter how tired and discouraged I'd been. I dove into territory about which I knew nothing. I had to find insurance, had to come up with a firm name, had to investigate licensing and registration with the state, had to get up the sheer chutzpah it takes to say, "I am the person you want for this, and you will never find anyone better." After two years, I have built up a respectable clientele, though it is not enough to carry me as a full-time gig. ( I charge $16 to walk and play with up to two dogs and/or cats for half an hour. I charge $50 to sleep over a client's house with up to two dogs and/or cats for eight hours. I also care for birds, rodents and reptiles, but the prices vary depending on how many and what is involved.)

My unemployment finally was exhausted for good in early 2011; I have also been assisted by family when necessary. Pet-sitting has been a much faster-growing business than personal training, and I enjoy the work much more. It is still not enough income to equal the standard of living to which I was accustomed, but I hope and believe -- while knocking wood -- that I am on the right path and it is just a matter of time before I'm not feeling panicky every time my mortgage statement comes in the mail.

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