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4 Smart Ways to Prepare for Unplanned Medical Expenses


Image source: Getty Images.

Life would be so much easier if everything stayed within the narrow path we've laid out, but rarely do things work out that way.

One of the biggest concerns that Americans regularly face is what to do if they're hit with an unexpected illness that winds up costing them a lot of money. In a recently released study from Northwestern Mutual, 34% of respondents said that the prospect of expenses tied to an unexpected illness causes them financial anxiety.

Furthermore, findings from NerdWallet Health in 2013 showed that unpaid medical bills were the leading cause of personal bankruptcy filings in the United States, ahead of both mortgage-related bankruptcy and bankruptcy induced by overwhelming credit card debt. NerdWallet's report also points out that more than 1 in 5 households struggled with healthcare-related bills as of 2013.

Purchasing health insurance and examining your plan options on an annual basis is a good start to ensuring that you have as many of your bases covered as possible should an unexpected illness arise. But health insurance alone can't protect some people from what can be very large deductibles. Additionally, Medicare has no annual out-of-pocket limits on expenses, so seniors could be on the hook for about 20% of their eligible medical expenses.

In short, consumers need to have financial alternatives at the ready to cover themselves should a large medical expense pop up. Here are four such ways you can wisely help cover those pesky unplanned medical expenses.


Image source: Getty Images.

1. Build an emergency fund

It's no secret whatsoever that Americans are pretty poor savers. According to the May data on personal savings rates from the St. Louis Federal Reserve, Americans are only putting away 5.3% of their income, which is well below the average for most developed countries. It's unfortunate, but the only time personal savings rates seem to climb with any consistency in the U.S. is when there's a recession.

Nonetheless, everyone should be building up an emergency fund that's designed to cover a minimum of six months of expenses. An emergency fund can come in handy if your car breaks down, if you're laid off from your job, or if you have a large medical bill.

The best way to save this kind of money is to formulate a working budget for your household. In doing so, you should include everyone under your roof because the more committed and unified the household is to reach its budgeting goal, the more likely you are to remain on track and accountable for your saving and spending habits. It's also a pretty smart idea to have withdrawals taken automatically each week or month from your checking account, as it'll both make this money "out of sight, out of mind" and will require you to stay accountable for your actions.

And here's the best part: Most budgeting tools are now online, which means that with no more than a few clicks, you could be on track to building an emergency fund.


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2. Open a Health Savings Account

Should you qualify, a Health Savings Account, or HSA, could be a genius tool to use to help cover the costs of your eligible medical expenses.

An HSA is a lot like a tax-advantaged retirement account, such as a 401(k), in that you can purchase investments and that it allows your money to grow tax-deferred until you begin making withdrawals after you retire. But here's the catch with an HSA that makes it such a coveted healthcare tool: Accountholders of an HSA can make withdrawals to cover the cost of eligible medical expenses on a tax-free basis. Not only that, but you're free to use an HSA to cover your eligible medical costs on a tax-free basis at any age.

The big thing you'll need to find out is whether or not you qualify for an HSA. In 2016, you'd need to be enrolled in a high-deductible health plan with a maximum out-of-pocket cost of at least $6,550 for individuals and $13,100 for joint-filers. The other exclusions are that you can't be enrolled in Medicare, and you can't be claimed as a dependent on anyone else's tax return. If you meet the criteria, an HSA can be a powerful tool to help you cope with life's medical expense curveballs.


Image source: Getty Images.

3. Turn to a Roth IRA

Another smart idea would be to open and contribute to a Roth IRA, which is not only a great tool for retirement but a potential lifesaver if you have an unplanned medical expense.

For retirees, the allure of the Roth IRA is that your investment gains are completely free from taxation. Not having to pay Uncle Sam a cent in investment gains means allowing your nest egg to stretch further, and it could also mean avoiding having to pay tax on Social Security benefits or paying Medicare premium surcharges, too. If, however, you withdraw your investment gains for an unqualified purpose, or simply too early, you could be required to pay ordinary income tax and a 10% penalty.

However, a Roth IRA allows accountholders two ways to potentially access their money completely penalty- and tax-free if they have a large medical expense. First, contributions to a Roth IRA -- up to $5,500 in 2016 for those aged 49 and under, and $6,500 for persons ages 50 and up -- can always be withdrawn without any penalty. Roth IRA contributions are after-tax dollars, meaning it's yours for the taking at any time should you find yourself in a financial pinch.

Secondly, there are a handful of exceptions to the 10% penalty and ordinary income tax rules associated with a Roth, as noted by the IRS. One of these qualifying exemptions is if you have unreimbursed medical expenses that are more than 10% of your adjusted gross income, or 7.5% of your AGI if you or your spouse was born prior to Jan. 2, 1951. If you meet this criteria, you may be able to make a special withdrawal from your Roth IRA within the same year as your unexpected illness to help cover the costs.


Image source: Getty Images.

4. Buy a supplemental plan, or consider Medicare Advantage

Finally, for seniors enrolled in Medicare who might be reading this and are worried about the uncertainties of the medical expenses that could lie ahead, I'd suggest considering a supplemental insurance plan if you're enrolled in original Medicare, or examining the alternative, a Medicare Advantage plan.

Supplemental insurance plans, oftentimes referred to as a Medigap plan, help seniors cover the aforementioned 20% of costs that they're typically responsible for under Medicare. These are plans that are offered by private insurers who've contracted with Medicare to help consumers add some financial certainty to what their out-of-pocket costs could be. Adding a Medigap plan likely means a higher monthly premium overall, but it would also go a long way to improving your peace of mind.

The other option is a Medicare Advantage plan, which is offered by private insurers and is also referred to as Plan C. A Medicare Advantage plan offers seniors the same type of coverage as original Medicare, but it also allows them to add certain coverages that aren't available under original Medicare, such as vision, hearing, and dental. Most importantly, a Medicare Advantage plan has an annual out-of-pocket limit in 2016 of $6,700, which can add some degree of out-of-pocket certainty for seniors. Please note, though, that prescription drug costs don't count toward this limit.

No one likes getting the wind knocked out of their sails by a large medical bill, but there are clearly numerous ways that Americans can set themselves up for success should one arise.

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Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle 

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