If you visit Claire Sweet, 43, a money coach and financial adviser, to discuss your finances you may be greeted by an unlikely colleague: one of her five pet alpacas. Claire first came across the fluffy animals from South America when she hiked the Inca trail in 2009. A few years later, she and her husband, Phil, who’s retired, went on a walking day with them on a Kent farm. After that, they decided to save to buy some of their own.
It took a lot of planning to make their dream a reality, though. The couple had to relocate from Herne Bay to a house in Canterbury, which had enough land. They also saved £10,000 from Claire’s income and Phil’s pension. After that, in the spring of 2019, Claire finally bought her alpacas, which she calls her “boys”.
Now Claire says she’s living her “dream lifestyle”. “Alpacas are mellow and calm,” she says, “and they’ve got their own personalities and names.” There’s Tabasco, who’s boisterous and playful; Santiago, who’s “the most relaxed alpaca in the world”; and Paladin, the leader of the herd who’s a bit aloof. The other two are called Faro and Tequila.
In a short time, Claire has become famous for them. Partly because she doesn’t shy away from putting photos on social media. “I’ll go out and take videos and photos,” she says. “I managed to get Tabasco in a selfie, which is not the easiest thing to do because they go where they want.”
Her new pets have even helped Claire with her business. For example, she has put alpacas on the back of her business cards. “It’s a talking point,” she says. “People take your card at a business function and ask you about them. As far as I know, I’m also the only financial advisor with alpacas, so it gives people something to remember about me,” she says. Plus, clients have started to come to her house for meetings, because they want to see them.
But there’s a flip side to becoming known as “the woman with the alpacas”. “Everyone tags you in anything that’s got an alpaca in it,” Claire says. “If they go out shopping and see cups or toys with alpacas on, people take a photo and send it to me.” Plus, Claire gets given a lot of alpaca-related gifts. Despite this, she says she’s not sick of them. “It’s nice to have something a bit quirky and different,” she says.
About 40% of UK households owned a pet in 2019. Evidence suggests that having a pet improves your general health – stroking an animal can lower your heart rate. Pet owners also make fewer visits to the doctor and sleep more soundly.
As a financial planner, Claire has always been conscious about how she saves and spends her money. The couple saved into a pension throughout their working lives and carefully planned how they would afford the alpacas.
“For me, it’s about putting money away regularly as you get paid,” Claire says. Together with Phil, they saved at least £500 a month.
We had a clear idea of what we were saving for, and that helps give you confidence and spurs you on.
Claire’s main advice is to know what you want and how much you will need to save for it. She enjoyed the saving process, as well as reaching her goals, she says. “It was exciting and we could see we were making progress. You have this big goal and you know you’re making a little step each month to get what you want.”
Jill Waters, retail director at NS&I, says: “Claire and her partner were sensible about saving for their dream of having pet alpacas. By taking their time, they were also able to learn about keeping and looking after their new pets long before they become part of the family unit.”
Claire plans to create a visitor centre so she can share her alpacas with the local community. Animals are therapeutic, she says, and she wants others to be able to experience that too. “We went as far as moving house to build this dream. We’re really enjoying it and it gives us the lifestyle we want,” she says. “We want people to come for the day and interact with them. But we have to let them settle in first.”
*This was originally published in The Guardian.