Life has a way of throwing unpleasant surprises at us when we least expect them, and sometimes, those surprises are medical in nature. That's why we all need to save money for unplanned healthcare expenses.

Most U.S. adults, however, aren't saving adequately for emergencies, health-related ones included. In fact, 58% of Americans have less than $1,000 in the bank, according to a 2018 GOBankingRates survey. It's no wonder, then, that so many people find themselves unable to pay their medical bills, and wind up carrying health-related debt to the point where it damages their finances irreparably. In fact, medical debt is the No. 1 source of personal bankruptcy filings in the country.

Woman lying down in an ambulance, being tended to by men wearing white shirts and blue gloves


How much savings do you need, in theory, to protect yourself in the event of a medical emergency? Unfortunately, there's no single number that guarantees you'll be able to cover a hospital bill once you end up there, as your costs will depend on factors such as the emergency at hand and the extent to which your insurance company pays for it. But as of 2016, the average out-of-pocket cost for emergency care was $1,322, according to the Health Care Cost Institute, so if you're looking to set a savings target, that's the minimum one you should aim for. And the sooner you sock away those funds, the more peace of mind you'll buy yourself.

The crippling expense of medical emergencies

When you're dealing with a non-urgent medical issue, you have time to research your treatment options and find the most cost-effective solution to the problem at hand. But when you're faced with a true medical emergency, you'll often have no choice but to rush over to the nearest hospital, whether it's in-network or not.

The way you're transported to that hospital could impact your total bill, too. If there's a medical need for an ambulance, your insurance company might pick up the tab, leaving you on the hook for just a modest copay. In other cases, you could be out several hundred dollars for that siren-filled ride.

Another thing to keep in mind is that even if you're taken to an in-network hospital, the doctors working there when you arrive might be out-of-network. As such, you might be liable for extra charges on top of your ER copay.

That's why it's so important to have savings on hand in the event you land in the hospital and get a string of bills to follow. Of course, your best bet is to have a true emergency fund with enough money to cover at least three months' worth of living expenses. This will buy you some protection in the face of not just medical emergencies, but unexpected home repairs, automobile problems, or even the loss of your job. At a minimum, however, you should set aside the $1,322 the average hospital patient pays for that service.

Where will that money come from? You can start by cutting expenses in your budget, whether it's dining at home instead of eating out, canceling cable, or giving up your gym membership. You can also look at getting a side hustle and banking its proceeds. And if you get your hands on any extra money during the year -- say, a generous cash birthday gift or a tax refund -- you can send it directly into your savings account.

No matter what steps you take to build savings, don't assume that you're immune to emergencies, medical or otherwise. All it takes is a single unplanned expense to harm your finances for the long haul, but if you amass some modest cash reserves, you might manage to prevent that from happening.