If you're like the typical American, then healthcare is probably a major expense for you. And the more efficient you are at lowering it, the less strain it'll put on your budget. Here are a few steps you can take in the coming year to spend less on healthcare -- and keep more of your money for savings or other bills.

1. Understand your health benefits

Knowing what coverage you're entitled to under your health insurance plan could spell the difference between having your insurer pick up the tab for the services you use or getting stuck paying for them in full yourself. For example, the simple act of obtaining referrals to see specialists could make those appointments far more affordable, because without those referrals, your insurer might refuse to cover those charges.

Man standing in front of medicine cabinet, holding pill bottles.


Similarly, certain diagnostic tests or procedures may require pre-certification, and going through the right channels could help whittle down your out-of-pocket costs to very little. But if you don't follow your insurance plan's rules, you could get stuck footing those bills solo. Therefore, make sure you understand how your health plan works, and call your insurer if you have questions about its scope of coverage.

2. Be smart with prescriptions

If you take the same medications on an ongoing basis, a few changes could substantially lower their cost. For one thing, always ask if a generic version is available when you're prescribed a brand-name drug, as switching could save you a bundle. Furthermore, aim to renew your medications in bulk. In some cases, you might pay less for a 90-day supply than a 30-day supply. Furthermore, don't hesitate to ask your doctor for free samples if the drugs you take are expensive and generic versions don't exist. Medical offices get samples frequently, and if you speak up, your provider is likely to share.

3. Question medical bills that come in higher than expected

Medical bills can be confusing to read, but if you get one that asks for more money than you thought you'd need to pay, don't just whip out your checkbook or credit card and fork over that sum. First, do some digging. Compare that bill to your explanation of benefits from your insurance company -- you should get one with every claim, either by mail or online -- and see if the numbers align. And if it appears that you're being charged more than anticipated because your insurance company didn't cover the service in question, figure out why that is. Maybe your doctor's office used the wrong procedure code. Or maybe the mistake boils down to simple math. Either way, ask questions before resigning yourself to a sum you weren't expecting.

4. Avoid the ER if there's a less costly alternative

If you suffer a serious injury for which treatment can't be delayed, then you'll generally have no choice but to rush to your nearest emergency room and deal with whatever costs ensue. But if you encounter a medical issue that's not life-threatening, see if there's an urgent care clinic you can visit instead. Generally, you'll have a much lower co-pay at one of these facilities than you will in a hospital, and you'll typically get seen much quicker, too.

5. Address minor health problems before they worsen

You never know when a nagging cough might evolve into pneumonia, or when an odd-looking rash could wind up being a major infection requiring extensive treatment. Letting medical issues fester is a good way to not only cost yourself more money, but also put your health at risk, so rather than subject yourself to such a scenario, don't be stubborn about seeing a doctor when something doesn't seem right. In the case of a persistent cough, treatment could amount to a relatively harmless $20 co-pay if your regular doctor can take care of it, whereas chest X-rays and a hospital stay for pneumonia could cost you hundreds, or possibly thousands, depending on the severity of your condition and the insurance coverage you have.

Any money you don't spend on healthcare is money that can go into your emergency savings, retirement savings, or your own pocket to enhance your quality of life. It pays to make an effort to lower your healthcare costs -- not just from a financial perspective, but also for the sake of your physical well-being.