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Many of us know to budget for medical expenses -- things like health insurance premiums, prescription copays, and even over-the-counter drugs. But in a new survey by HealthCareInsider, millennials are more likely to get hit with surprise medical bills than their older counterparts. In fact, 35% of younger Americans say they've received a surprise medical bill over the past year, and among them, half have gotten an unplanned bill in excess of $2,000.
Compounding the problem is the fact that 57% of millennials say they have $3,000 or less in a savings account that can be used for medical bills. As such, many are inevitably forced to rack up debt to cover those expenses. But if you'd rather avoid that fate the next time a medical bill you weren't anticipating lands in your lap, here's what to do.
1. Pad your emergency fund
Many people put together an emergency fund to cover themselves in case they lose a job and have no paycheck for a while. But your emergency fund can also be used to pay for unplanned expenses, like a sudden healthcare bill.
Most people are told to save enough in an emergency fund to cover three to six months of living expenses. But on top of that, you may want to put enough extra money into savings to cover your health insurance deductible if it's on the high side. Your deductible is the amount of money you'll need to pay before your insurer starts covering your healthcare services. If your plan has a $2,000 deductible, you should aim to store an extra $2,000 in your savings account, even if you already have enough to cover several months' worth of bills.
2. Contribute to a flexible spending account
Many employers offer workers the option to contribute to a flexible spending account, or FSA. With one of these plans, you get a tax break on the money you put in, and it's a good way to force yourself to set aside funds for medical bills. Generally, you'll need to commit to an FSA contribution for the upcoming year before that year begins. In 2021, FSAs will max out at $2,750 (as they do for 2020), so if you're worried about expensive bills in the coming year, you can sign up to have money deducted automatically from your paychecks that you'll be able to use for healthcare. Just don't overfund your FSA, because if you don't use up your money, you'll risk forfeiting it.
3. Put money into a health savings account
If you're enrolled in a high-deductible health insurance plan, you can put money into a health savings account, or HSA, instead of an FSA. The benefit is that HSA funds never expire, so there's less pressure to accurately estimate your healthcare costs for the year since you can carry that money forward and use it whenever you want.
In 2021, you can put up to $3,600 into an HSA if you're single, or up to $7,200 if you're contributing on behalf of your family. And those who are 55 and over get an extra $1,000 contribution allowance on top of these numbers.
Of course, your health insurance plan will need to meet certain criteria for you to participate in an HSA. It'll need to come with a deductible of $1,400 or more if you're single, and $2,800 or more if you have family coverage. Your plan's annual out-of-pocket maximum -- the maximum amount you'll have to pay for covered health services -- also can't exceed $7,000 if you're single, or $14,000 for family coverage.
Don't get caught off guard by medical bills
Medical debt is a huge source of personal bankruptcy filings in the U.S., and while it's sometimes unavoidable, you can take steps to prevent healthcare bills from wreaking havoc on your finances. Just as importantly, though, be sure to take care of your health by seeing your doctor for well visits and screenings as recommended. Often, the simple act of being vigilant can spare you a host of expensive bills down the line.