It's no secret that Americans seem to have somewhat of a credit card abuse problem. Not only did consumer debt recently reach an all-time high, but the average indebted household is currently carrying a balance somewhere in the ballpark of $15,000 to $16,000.

When we think about why so many Americans have wound up in this predicament, it's easy to point one finger at overspending, and another at inadequate savings levels. And to an extent, both would be correct. But new data from NerdWallet reveals that there may be a lesser-known culprit to blame for our collective debt problem: medical expenses.

Male patient in hospital bed talking to doctor

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Medical expenses are costing us big time

We all know that medical care is expensive, even with decent insurance. But the price of treatment keeps going nowhere but up. Over the past 10 years, medical costs have increased 34%, which is more than any other spending category the typical American is subject to, such as food, housing, and the like. Furthermore, this rise in medical expenses has far outpaced income growth over the past decade, leaving countless Americans struggling to keep up.

The problem has gotten so bad, in fact, that these days, up to 27 million consumers are putting their medical bills on their credit cards. But as we all know, credit cards don't differentiate between traditional debt and medical debt, which means that if you can't pay off your bills by the time they come due, you're going to rack up interest, regardless of why you got there. In fact, the average American pays $471 per year in interest resulting from medical charges, which amounts to more than $12 billion across the general U.S. population.

The struggle is real

Though many households have a hard time keeping up with their expenses in general, medical care is the one expense we largely can't control. In other words, someone having trouble affording a mortgage payment can downsize, while someone struggling to keep up with a car payment can sell that vehicle and start taking the bus. But when it comes to medical care, we typically don't get to pick and choose. If we're told we need a certain procedure, we put our health at risk by declining. But when we follow our doctors' advice, it's on us to absorb the cost. And for many of us, that's a cost we can't afford.

A good 29% of Americans have problems keeping up with their medical bills, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, and 37% have taken on additional credit card debt to pay for those costs. The problem, of course, is that charging medical expenses on a credit card often means adding to those costs in the form of accrued interest.

Not only that, but carrying high levels of credit card debt resulting from medical care can put your credit score at risk -- and, in some cases, bring about even more significant consequences. Medical debt is currently the No. 1 source of personal bankruptcy filings in the country, and if you think that's not a big deal, try overcoming one when you need to apply for a mortgage, apartment, or even a job.

A better way to handle medical costs

The takeaway here? Charging medical expenses on a credit card is a bad idea, so it pays to seek out alternate solutions. For one thing, if you can't afford a particular bill, try asking your provider to get on a payment plan. Many of these come with no or low interest, as opposed to credit cards, whose interest rates are notoriously astronomical.

Another option? Sign up for a flexible spending account or health savings account, if you're eligible. Contributing to either type of account will help cut your tax bill, thus putting more money in your pocket to cover the medical costs you encounter.

Finally, be proactive in building emergency savings. At a minimum, you should strive to have three months' worth of living expenses in the bank at all times. That level of savings is likely to help you avoid credit card debt the next time a whopper of a medical bill lands in your lap.

It's an unfortunate fact that so many Americans wind up deep in credit card debt not as the result of reckless spending, but due to unavoidable health-related circumstances. But if you don't take steps to avoid that trap, you could end up suffering a host of financial consequences that are far more painful than the medical events that led you there in the first place.

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