When you think about retirement, you probably like to believe that the moment you leave work for good, everything will be smooth sailing for the rest of your days.
In reality, however, life throws curveballs at us each step of the way -- including during retirement. And one of the biggest hurdles most retirees face at some point is health issues.
Among retirees aged 65 and older, 62% have less in their retirement savings than experts recommend having saved for potential health problems alone. You may think you're not at risk of a serious illness or injury, but over 800,000 people each year are hospitalized because of falls alone, and the average cost to repair a broken hip as a result of a fall is $30,000.
Furthermore, it's not just accidents and serious diagnoses that can take a major bite out of your savings; bad health habits and an unhealthy lifestyle can cost just as much as (if not more than) a trip to the ER or an expensive treatment plan.
The high price of unhealthy habits
We all know that smoking, drinking, and eating junk food aren't healthy for our bodies, but they're also not healthy for our wallets. In fact, living an unhealthy lifestyle can potentially end up costing you thousands of dollars over a lifetime.
For example, unhealthy weight gain can put you at risk for a host of health problems (including heart disease and stroke), and for both men and women struggling with mild to severe obesity, a reduction in weight of just 10% can reduce lifetime medical costs by up to $5,300.
Meanwhile, Americans who smoke spend about $170 billion per year on health expenses alone, and once you factor in the cost of cigarettes and other smoking-related costs over a lifetime, the average smoker spends upwards of $1 million.
In other words, an unhealthy lifestyle can cost you a lot over a lifetime, and it all catches up with you during retirement. Your overall level of health can greatly affect your retirement savings, and according to one study by the The New School for Social Research, poor health can reduce your retirement savings by about $86,300. Even if you're in relatively good (but not great) health, your nest egg may still be slashed by about $34,500.
What about Medicare?
Now, you may be thinking that as long as you're retired, Medicare will cover any health-related expenses, and you won't need to worry about saving for them. However, while Medicare can help, it doesn't cover everything.
You'll still need to pay your deductible, copayments, and coinsurance -- and if you're making more frequent trips to the doctor to care for health issues, those payments add up quickly. In addition, Medicare usually doesn't cover dental procedures, eye exams, hearing aids, or long-term care (such as a stay in a nursing home or assisted-living facility). And those uncovered costs add up quickly. Dental care alone can cost thousands of dollars (a single root canal can cost over $1,100, for instance), and living in a nursing home can cost over $90,000 per year.
So what can you do to prevent health issues from burning a hole in your retirement savings?
Tackling health-related expenses during retirement
While everyone will need to pay for some health-related expenses (at the very least annual checkups), there are ways to minimize your healthcare costs if you're strategic about it.
First, take advantage of a health savings account (HSA). One of the best parts of an HSA is that your contributions are fully deductible, and withdrawals are also tax-free if they're made for qualified medical expenses. ("Qualified medical expenses" can include anything from birth control pills to long-term care to getting a guide dog.)
Also, once you turn 65 years old, you can withdraw money from your HSA for any reason without paying penalties (though you will need to pay taxes if that money's not going toward medical expenses). So not only can an HSA help you save for health-related expenses, but it can also act as an extra retirement fund to help you stash a little more money. Keep in mind, though, that there are limits to how much you can contribute each year ($3,400 per year for individuals in 2017 and $6,750 for families).
Long-term care insurance is also an option, particularly if you still have 10 or 20 years before you retire (since premiums are less expensive for people who buy insurance at a younger age). While it is an extra expense, it can save you thousands of dollars down the road if you do encounter major expenses related to long-term care.
Health issues are an aspect of retirement that nobody wants to think about, but all retirees will face some type of health problem sooner or later. So instead of simply hoping for the best, it's wiser to take a strategic approach and go into retirement with a plan in place.