Want to hear something seriously sad? It's this: Animal shelters are full to bursting right now, and not because of irresponsible pet owners who won't spay and neuter or return animals like they are a sweater that's the wrong size. No, it's because the economy is making it difficult for people to keep their pets.

Sometimes they can't afford to feed them and provide vet care, or they have to move in with relatives or into a place that doesn't allow pets because of a foreclosure.

But it doesn't have to be that way: there are ways to trim pet expenses that can make the difference between giving up your furry friend or keeping him with the family if hard times strike.

First, the big duh! tip: Skip all the dumb, expensive extras. Your pet does not need Halloween costumes or Christmas presents. They don't even need treats; many dogs will respond to a bit of their regular food as a reward. Dogs love peanut butter, that vile spray cheese stuff, or even Spam. And toys can be as simple as the ring from a jug of milk (cats love these ... mine come running now when I open a new milk jug) or an old sock or stuffed animal.

Here's a tip: Always look in other areas of the store before you hit the pet aisle to meet a pet's needs; much like with babies, tacking the word "pet" onto something makes people open their wallets indiscriminately. Of course this won't work for food or litter, but you can find shampoo, toys, and even brushes must less expensively elsewhere. Also, comparison shop when you're looking for gear; we made the mistake of going to a big chain for much of our dog's gear and ended up returning all of it when we saw it was about a third cheaper at a less fancy store.

Of course, vet bills take the biggest bite out of the budget for most pet owners. You can find low-cost vaccination clinics ... many local pet supply stores sponsor these once or twice a year, and many humane societies have low-cost vet clinics for routine care that operate on a sliding fee scale.

Pet insurance can provide protection against huge vet bills, but many financial experts say you'd be better off putting that monthly premium into your savings account: then it's there if you need it and you keep the money if you don't.

As far as food, make sure you're not overfeeding your pet (no matter how much they sit in front of their dish and stare pathetically at you) and that what you give them is high quality. Good-for-them food will support their health and probably save you money on vet bills.

Pets can cost money, but what they give us back in unconditional love is priceless ... and you can keep your furry pal happy without breaking the bank!