Graduating from college and getting my first “real” job was a huge adjustment. I was living on my own, in a town of 30,000 people and far away from my family and closest friends.
That wasn’t all. I was suddenly responsible for paying off my student loans (on a $28,000 salary). And I had to pay for my own healthcare.
I wasn’t totally screwed. I was still under my parent’s insurance (thanks Obama!), but I did want to be responsible for my own co-pays and out-of-pocket expenses. If I wanted to be an adult, I had to pay my own way.
But as someone who had never so much bought a bottle of Tylenol without charging it to her parent’s credit card, I was shocked to find out what it costs to go to the doctor. I’m the type of person who makes an appointment when I feel a cold coming on, and I was surprised how expensive it could be to visit a physician.
Did I mention I was trying to pay off my student loans at the same time? I had little savings and no concept on how to deal with healthcare expenses. Here’s how I learned how to save on medical bills.
Always Try to Negotiate
Almost every doctor is willing to negotiate if you can’t afford your bill, but you have to ask. My old medical network gave 10% off if you paid in full, but they didn’t advertise this discount. I found out one day when I called to ask about my bill and asked if they had any special discounts or coupons. That’s when the woman told me. The kicker? I couldn’t get this discount if I paid my bill online or through the mail. If I wanted the discount, I had to call and pay my bill over the phone. Weird, right? But it worked.
Healthcare billing doesn’t always make sense, and it’s up to patients to be their own advocates. Always ask about any ways you can save before you pay the bill. Sometimes, you can even schedule a payment plan instead of paying all at once. That might be easier on your budget, especially if it’s a hefty balance.
Start an HSA
The HSA or Health Savings Account is one of my favorite ways to save on healthcare costs. A Health Savings Account is a special savings account that you can only use for healthcare expenses. You can contribute up to $3,400 a year as an individual or $6,750 for families. I typically transfer between $100 and $200 a month, which covers most of my out-of-pocket expenses.
The best part of HSAs is that contributions roll over from year to year. If you put $2,000 in an HSA and only use $1,500, you can use it next year.
HSAs save you money because contributions are tax deductible and decrease your taxable income. When your taxable income is smaller, you pay fewer taxes. I’ve used my HSA for medical bills, prescriptions and more. You can’t use them on premiums or over-the-counter drugs, but I still recommend opening an HSA if you’re eligible and often pay for medical expenses yourself.
You can only get an HSA if you have a high-deductible plan, which has to have a deductible of at least $1,300 for an individual or $2,600 for families.
Avoid Urgent Care and Retail Clinics
Like most people, I hate finding a new doctor. Every time I’ve moved, one of my least favorite things is finding a new doctor in a city I’m unfamiliar with. I try to ask people I know, but then I have to verify that the doctor takes my insurance or is accepting new patients.
So I started going to places like CVS’s Minute Clinic every time I needed to see a doctor. It was easy and convenient. But I didn’t realize that I was paying more by going to a Minute Clinic than if I found a regular doctor. Urgent care and retail doctors are convenient, but they aren’t always the cheapest option.
Again, if you’re truly sick on a Saturday and don’t need to go to the ER, then an urgent care is fine, but don’t go if you’re just avoiding calling a few doctors to see if they can see you in a couple days.
Read Bills Carefully
How many of you actually read your medical bill when you get it? I know, I used to briefly glance at mine before seeing what the total was. Now, I scan it carefully because I know how common billing errors are. Anytime I get a bill and don’t recognize something, I call the billing department and have them explain it to me. It only takes a few minutes, but it could save you a lot of money.
If you get a bill that’s correct, but still seems too high, call the doctor anyway. You might have been billed for something that you thought your insurance covered, and sometimes the doctor will waive the fee as a one-time courtesy. Again, you have to call and ask – they won’t do this on their own.
Find Discount Prescriptions
A few years ago, I started taking anxiety medication for the first time. Not surprisingly, my insurance only covered a small portion of the drug. Then I learned something really scary: each pharmacy charges their own prices for prescription drugs, just like they do for Tylenol or beer or greeting cards.
I was floored. I’d always gone to the closest pharmacy near me, not knowing I might be paying more than necessary. So I called my mom, the original frugal queen, and she said to go to Costco. They have the best prices around, and it’s where I still go to get my prescriptions and even the heartworm medication I buy my dogs.
I also really like the site GoodRx for coupons on medications. You can use it at any pharmacy, and it could save you 50% off the total cost of your prescription. Seriously, check it out. There’s no sense in paying more when you don’t have to.
I’ll never forget the first pair of glasses I really loved. They were designer Ted Baker Tina Fey-type glasses, and they made me feel super smart when I put them on. Eventually, I decided I wanted a new pair.
When I got my Ted Baker glasses, I still had vision insurance through my parents so my glasses were cheap. Now, I was on my own and had to pay for them by myself. Do you know how much eyeglasses cost without insurance? At least $100.
Now when I need eyeglasses, I go to Lookmatic and Warby Parker, both of which cost $95-$99 and have great quality. Plus, you can try on different frames before you buy so you know which ones you’ll like the most. These aren’t the cheapest glasses I could find, but they’re as stylish as my old designer frames. Plus, when you buy from Warby Parker, they donate a pair of glasses to someone in need. Win-win!
For really cheap glasses, my friends recommend Zenni Optical, which has glasses as low as $6.95. That’s insane. I know some people who buy multiple ones so they can have a variety of styles on hand.
I usually got my contacts through 1-800-Contacts.com, but my last eye doctor also recommended Lens.com which is a little cheaper. I also use my contacts as long as possible, probably a few weeks beyond the one-month rule. I also splurge on Clear Care hydrogen peroxide contact solution to prevent infections. This solution is pretty pricey, but I like it. I get mine at Costco where it’s $16 for two bottles.
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