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60% of Medicare Enrollees Worry About Healthcare Costs. Here's the Best Way to Pay For Them in Retirement

By Maurie Backman – Oct 15, 2020 at 7:36AM

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Don't let late-in-life medical expenses drive you into debt or bankruptcy.

Healthcare is a major burden for Americans of all ages. For seniors, it's a giant concern. Many seniors live on a fixed income and tight budget, relying heavily on their Social Security benefits to make ends meet. It's not surprising to learn that 60% of seniors 65 and older who are enrolled in Medicare worry about their ability to afford healthcare, according to a MedicareGuide.com survey. In fact, 50% of people in that age group fear that a major personal health crisis could lead to serious debt or even bankruptcy.

What's equally concerning is that 24% of older Americans say they'd need to use a credit card to pay for a severe illness. Meanwhile, 32% say they'd tap their retirement savings to cover that cost. The latter isn't terrible per se -- the whole point of having money in an IRA or 401(k) is to be able to spend it on any retirement expense that arises, healthcare included. But there's actually a better way for seniors to pay for healthcare and avoid debt at a time in their lives when they really can't afford it.

Closeup of an older person with a serious expression.

Image source: Getty Images.

The best way to cover future healthcare costs

While padding an IRA or 401(k) during your working years could help ensure that you have enough money to pay for your future health-related needs, there's an even better account for that purpose: the health savings account.

An HSA actually offers more tax benefits than an IRA or a 401(k). Your contributions go in tax-free, the growth is tax-free, and the withdrawals are tax-free (provided they're used to cover qualified medical expenses).

The beauty of HSAs is that their funds don't expire. You can contribute to an HSA at age 30 and withdraw money year by year as needed to pay for your near-term medical expenses. Any money you don't use can be invested and withdrawn later on. In fact, it pays to overfund your HSA year after year, putting in more money than you expect to use immediately so you have the option of carrying funds all the way into retirement. Having an HSA at that stage of life could spare you from debt or bankruptcy in the event of a serious illness or expensive hospital stay.

Shockingly, in the aforementioned survey, only 2% of respondents said they'd pay for a severe illness with HSA funds, suggesting many retirees today don't have one of these accounts at their disposal. If you have the option to participate in an HSA, it pays to not only take advantage, but to also contribute the maximum amount allowed.

For the current year, you can contribute up to $3,550 to an HSA for individual coverage and up to $7,100 for family coverage. Next year, these limits will increase to $3,600 and $7,200, respectively. If you're 55 or over, you can contribute an extra $1,000 on top of whichever limit applies to you.

Don't get caught off guard in retirement

Serious illnesses or injuries can strike at any time. In fact, 32% of seniors say they've had to grapple with a surprise medical bill over the past two years. The best way to tackle all your healthcare expenses in retirement is to have a dedicated source of funds at the ready to pay for them. If you play your cards right, an HSA could be your ticket to financial security even as your peers risk severe debt or bankruptcy.

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