For millions of Americans, unexpected bills can be summed up in two words: medical debt.
Surprise health-care costs have affected about 137.1 million adults in the past year, according to recent research.
And many Americans are turning to credit cards to help manage those debt burdens, according to CompareCards.com.
The website found that 33% of cardholders are in debt because of medical bills. And nearly 60% said they used a card because they had no other way to pay.
If you’re saddled with this debt, you need to take action.
Renegotiate your debt
First, start by making sure that you’re getting the best interest rates for your balances.
If you have debt sitting on a high-interest card, consider transferring the balance to a 0% credit card.
You may also use a medical credit card for out-of-pocket expenses not covered by your insurance.
These cards, which are offered by companies like CareCredit, have special financing you may not get on other cards. They’re interest-free for a few months as long as you make your monthly payments on time. After that period, though, be sure to pay the balance off in full to avoid deferred interest that will charged from the original date of purchase.
Those terms are typical with retail cards and medical cards, but not with other general-purpose credit cards, noted Matt Schulz, chief industry analyst at CompareCards.com
“Basically, you’re paying medical expenses the same way you might buy a refrigerator or TV,” Schulz said.
The key thing to remember, even during a medical emergency, is you still want to read the terms and conditions of any loan before you sign.
“The last thing anyone wants to do during times like that is read financial fine print,” Schulz said. “It’s important, though.
“Your rushed decisions can end up costing you in a big way in the future.”
An alternative to racking up any kind of credit card debt is to take out a personal loan. The average rate on a credit card is about 17%, according to Bankrate.com, while personal loan rates are generally closer to 11%.
Turbocharge your savings
The bottom line is you should save more money than you think you’ll need for any unexpected medical expense.
Take advantage of health-care savings opportunities during open enrollment for medical benefits.
For the Affordable Care Act marketplace, open enrollment for 2020 ends this Sunday, Dec. 15.
If you haven’t enrolled yet, consider choosing a high-deductible health plan with an health savings account, or HSA. You can put money into an HSA tax-free and then use those funds to pay for qualified medical expenses.
If you don’t have access to an HSA, consider putting money in a flexible spending account, or FSA, if your company provides it.
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Pre-tax money goes into FSA accounts through payroll deductions. Then, you can use the money for qualified health-care expenses. Generally, you have to use the money by the end of the year or you lose it. But some FSAs have a grace period until March 15 of the following year.
Also turbocharge your emergency savings if you can. Save more money than you think you’ll ever need.
“If you carry credit card debt when economic times are good and you are healthy, then you may not be putting enough away for when you get sick,” Schulz said. “Keep an eye on your future, even though it is a hard thing to do.”