Nobody likes dealing with expenses, including the unavoidable type. And if there's one expense category that can easily get out of hand, it's medical costs. A good 74% of Americans have seen their healthcare costs rise over the past few years, and that's not necessarily a symptom of them encountering new medical issues.

Not surprisingly, more than 25% of U.S. adults struggle to keep up with their medical bills, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, and that statistic is by no means limited to the uninsured. Rather, countless folks with insurance have trouble paying for healthcare, as well. In fact, medical debt has grown to become the No. 1 reason why Americans are forced into bankruptcy.

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The problem has gotten so bad that 53% of Americans are now convinced that getting a medical bill they can't afford is just as bad as being diagnosed with a serious illness. Even more concerning is the fact that 10% think receiving a medical bill they can't afford is worse than being diagnosed with a grave disease.

But while it's easy to point a finger at rising healthcare costs, the truth of the matter is that most Americans aren't taking steps to be in a position to cover those bills. In a recent study, 37% of adults said they don't have the funds to cover an unexpected medical bill that exceeds $100. And the problem is even more rampant among women, with 44% of females admitting they'd be looking at debt upon receiving a bill in that amount, compared to 27% of men.

All of this boils down to one thing: Americans need to do a better job of setting money aside for medical care. And the sooner they do, the less they'll end up putting their finances -- and their health -- at risk.

Building a financial safety net

We're told to amass enough emergency savings to cover at least three months' worth of living expenses, and there's a reason for that. You never know when you might lose your job or encounter an unplanned bill your typical paychecks can't cover, such as a whopping tab from your local hospital or medical provider. Unfortunately, many folks who have insurance are subject to high deductibles -- deductibles they're forced to meet before their insurance starts paying for key services. If you're one of them, it's imperative that you have at least your deductible's worth in immediate savings, even if you can't accumulate enough cash to meet that three-month target.

But most Americans aren't close in that regard. More than half of adults have less than $1,000 in the bank, while 39% have no savings to show for at all. Therefore, building that safety net is the best thing you can do to protect yourself from rising medical costs.

Keeping your healthcare costs manageable

Savings aside, there are other steps you can take to ease the burden of paying for healthcare. For one thing, shop around if you're covering the cost of your own insurance plan. Sometimes, it's better to pay a higher premium for superior coverage than to pay less each month in premium costs, but more out of pocket. Furthermore, always aim to find the cheapest prescription drugs available. This could mean ordering your medication in 90-day supplies, as opposed to renewing your prescriptions every month. It could also mean asking your doctor to prescribe generics, which can cost a fraction of brand-name drugs.

You can also lower your healthcare costs by contributing to a flexible spending account or health savings account. Both account types are funded with pre-tax dollars, which translates into instant savings on the money you'll be spending on medical care anyway.

Finally, make sure to get ahead of health issues before they escalate and become costlier to treat. A bad cut that doesn't look right might cost you a $25 copay and $10 prescription if you haul yourself over to a doctor right away to get it looked at. But if you let it turn into a major infection, you could end up on the hook for a bill in excess of $1,000, which is what folks with insurance pay, on average, for a hospital stay.

For better or worse, healthcare is a major expense that isn't going away anytime soon. But if you save appropriately and learn how to better manage your medical care, you won't have to fear those impending bills to such an unhealthy extreme.

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