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Medical bills are one of my least favorite financial obligations to pay. Don’t get me wrong—I’m very grateful for the doctors, nurses and medical facilities that help take care of me and my family. But there’s something about unexpected medical expenses that stress out the planner in me (not to mention my budget).
On the bright side, I found a way to make medical bills a little more bearable and affordable. I pay them with a credit card and earn rewards that I can use to travel for free. Over the years I’ve also discovered that I can often break down big medical expenses into smaller payments that fit into my budget easier.
Here’s a look at how I manage medical bills, in case you’d like to see if my approach could work for you.
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My family and I use a health care sharing plan to help cover our medical expenses. There are some unique aspects to health care sharing plans that might not apply to you. But it has several features in common with traditional medical insurance, like the type you might purchase through the Marketplace or a private medical insurance provider.
- We pay a monthly premium. A premium is a fixed bill that we pay each month to keep our healthcare coverage in place.
- We’re responsible for an annual medical deductible (called the “annual household portion” under our plan). A deductible is the amount of money we pay for covered health services before our medical plan kicks in to cover expenses.
- We have copays. On top of our annual deductible, we also have to pay copays when we visit our family doctor, specialists, urgent care facilities, or an emergency room.
I use a credit card to pay all three of the expenses I described above.
An Example of How I Handle Large Medical Bills
Under my families’ health care sharing plan, we pay a $3,000 annual deductible. Our deductible resets each November. So, starting November 1, we are responsible for the first $3,000 in medical expenses we incur between then and October 31 of the following year.
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In the spring of 2020, my husband and I got a happy surprise. I was pregnant with our third child. Unfortunately, my doctor deemed my pregnancy to be high-risk. So I was in store for a lot of extra medical appointments (and the bills that came with them) over the next nine months.
Our sweet baby boy was due in November of 2020. The timing meant that our deductible would reset before he was born. We knew in advance that we were going to incur at least $6,000 in medical expenses during the year 2020. (Talk about bad financial timing!)
My husband and I have a general savings account for unexpected expenses—including medical costs. But we didn’t want to wipe out a $6,000 chunk of our savings, especially in the middle of a pandemic and our maternity leave, which were both going to have a big impact on our income. So, I approached each of my medical providers to see what options were available to me.
- I asked each medical provider (primary care physician, specialists, hospital, anesthesiologists, etc.) if they were willing to accept payments toward the balance I owed them.
- Out of the six medical providers I approached, five set up an interest-free payment plan with me.
- I scheduled the monthly payments as recurring drafts using my Citi® Double Cash Card. I chose this card because I earn 2% unlimited cash back—1% on the purchase and 1% when I pay.
- As for the medical provider that wouldn’t let me set up payments, I asked for a discount if I paid in full that day. The office knocked 10% off my bill (saving me around $120). I paid the remaining $1,080 on my Citi Double Cash Card and paid the bill in full from my savings by my next due date.
- Most importantly, I pay my statement balance off in full each month to avoid interest and help maintain my excellent credit rating.
Why I Pay Medical Bills with a Credit Card
The approach above helped me to accomplish several things. I stretched my savings during a global pandemic when it was important to hang onto as much cash as possible (especially with a new baby and reduced income from maternity leave). I avoided interest by paying my credit card statement balance in full every month. And, best of all, I’ll earn either 2% cash back after I complete all of my payments, or I can convert the cash back to Citi ThankYou Points using another Citi credit card—the Citi® Prestige or Citi® Premier Card.
I make a point to pay everything I can with a credit card. (Once, I used my credit card to buy a car.) Paying with my rewards credit card gives me extra points, miles, or cash back that I’d miss out on if I paid with a debit card or check.
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However, I only use a credit card for medical bills and other expenses when I know I have the money in the bank to pay for those purchases when my statement arrives. Otherwise, the rewards I earned would quickly be offset by expensive credit card interest fees.
Maximize Your Rewards
If you plan to pay for a large medical bill all at once, instead of setting up interest-free payments like I did, you can take my strategy one step further to maximize your rewards earning potential. When you know you have a large upcoming expense (medical or otherwise), you might want to consider opening a new credit card with an attractive sign-up bonus offer.
Here are a few of my favorite credit cards with attractive sign-up bonuses:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred®
- The Platinum Card® from American Express
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Most credit card sign-up bonuses require you to spend a minimum amount of money to qualify. So, there’s a chance that a large medical bill you need to pay anyway might help you qualify for much more valuable perks than your existing credit card offers.