It's one of the saddest statistics: Medical debt is the single largest source of personal bankruptcy filings in the U.S. And while countless Americans struggle to keep up with their medical bills, a large number are putting their health at risk by delaying treatment they simply can't pay for.

When savings suffer, your health can suffer

In 2014, NerdWallet estimated that over 35 million U.S. adults would be contacted by collections agencies in pursuit of unpaid medical bills. But while racking up medical debt can destroy your credit, in some ways, it's almost preferable to the alternative: not getting the care you need. In fact, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) reports that 27% of Americans say they've postponed medical treatment because they lacked the money to pay for it. Furthermore, 23% of Americans have neglected to undergo a recommended test or treatment, and 21% have held off on filling a prescription because they didn't have a way to cover the cost.

Man sick in bed

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Of course, we can all argue that nothing is more important than our health, so it pays to get the care we need, no matter the cost. But coming up with the cash to pay for that care is easier said than done. The KFF reports that 29% of Americans struggle to pay their medical bills, and among those, 73% have had no choice but to cut back on food, clothing, or basic household needs to keep up with healthcare expenses.  

Furthermore, this problem is by no means exclusive to the uninsured. Last year, 20% of Americans under 65 with health insurance had difficulty paying their medical bills, and even more struggle to cover their premiums and deductibles.

Given the precarious state of our healthcare system to begin with, it's a problem that's likely to get worse before it gets better -- if it gets better. But while we can't change the system overnight, or protect ourselves from unforeseen medical emergencies, we can work on improving our finances so we're better able to cope.

Most of us need more money in the bank

If a lack of money is the reason so many people deny themselves the care they need, the most obvious solution is to work on saving more. According to GOBankingRates, 69% of Americans have less than $1,000 in the bank, while 34% have no savings at all. But in the face of a medical emergency, even $1,000 may not cover the costs involved. That's why all adults, regardless of income, should aim to have enough savings to pay for at least three to six months' worth of living expenses.

Notice that "at least." If you're the sole breadwinner in a family of five, you should probably aim a bit higher; the more people in your household, the greater the odds you'll incur a costly medical bill.

Now, most of us can't just snap our fingers and beef up our savings overnight, but we can take steps to improve our finances on a whole. If you're behind on savings, you can start by creating a budget and cutting back on expenses that aren't essential. These might include restaurant meals, vacations, or that second automobile. If that doesn't work, then your next step is to look at ways to reduce some of your larger primary expenses, including housing. Will it change your lifestyle? Maybe. But if downsizing your living space or moving to a less popular neighborhood frees up $500 a month for savings, it's a sacrifice well worth making.

Not only can delaying medical care compromise your health, but it can also make your problems costlier to treat in the long run. That's why it's imperative to prioritize your savings, even if it means enjoying fewer luxuries throughout the year. You might miss those weekend getaways or the convenience of having the latest gadgets, but at the end of the day, if you wait too long to address a medical issue because you don't have the money to pay for it, the results can be downright catastrophic. And that's just not a risk worth taking.

 

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