12 Low-Cost Strategies for Saving on Medical Costs and Improving Your Family’s Health

The average American incurs $10,345 in medical expenses each year, according to government estimates.

No matter how wealthy you are, this is an extremely heavy financial burden for anyone. While it’s obviously not evenly distributed – some people will have tremendous health care costs in a given year, while others will have only minimal costs – the financial burden of health care can strike anyone without warning, and it can bring financial ruin.

Yet, you have tremendous control over this equation. While you can’t eliminate every bill associated with health care, there are a ton of different steps any family can take to reduce those costs in almost every dimension of your life. Not only that, but most of these options will also improve your quality of life, too.

12 Ways to Save on Medical Bills and Improve Your Health

If you’re interested in reducing your health care costs without spending money on fancy equipment or avoiding the doctor, you’re in luck. Here are 12 tactics I use in my own life to save on medical costs and improve my own family’s health:

#1: Walk every day.

Every single day, go on a walk. The distance is unimportant – it might be a mile-long walk or it might be a five-mile stroll around your entire neighborhood. What truly matters is that you adopt a consistent routine of spending a notable portion of your day moving around.

The Mayo Clinic argues that a healthy walking routine can reduce medical ailments, extend one’s life, and improve one’s quality of life. They offer some solid advice on healthy walking, including using good posture and maintaining a solid pace.

For my daily walk, I usually listen to an audiobook or a podcast on my headphones. I have several routes around my neighborhood, ranging from a quarter mile to a mile to five miles, and I choose a route based upon my time constraints for that day. Often, if I take a short walk early in the day, I’ll take another one later on.

This is particularly important for people like me who have sedentary jobs where we spend quite a bit of time at a desk. One option that I’m considering – though it’s not a cheap one – is to get a “walking” desk which is attached to a treadmill and set it to move at a pace roughly equivalent to one mile per hour. At that slow pace, it’s not disruptive to my work. Another option is to use a standing desk – or to simply raise your desk to a level where you have to stand in order to get tasks done. This encourages a lot of moving around and lots of steps during the day.

One good way to measure this is to use a pedometer and use the benchmarks from this research paper to push yourself to a higher level of daily activity. One great target is 10,000 steps per day – it’s the target I use myself.

#2: Take advantage of free or cheap exercise options.

It never hurts to add variety to your daily activities, either. An exercise routine – even a low-intensity one – has many of the same benefits as a daily walk, and you can certainly add both to your life. Harvard has a great summary of the health and lifestyle benefits of regular moderate exercise.

In the past few months, I’ve reviewed five inexpensive gym alternatives for exercise as well as nine free resources for home exercise. All of these vary from low-impact to high-impact and exercise the body in vastly different ways, but all can help with your personal health.

I’ve long been a fan of the Lifetime Fitness Ladder as a way to continually and easily motivate myself to get a bit of daily exercise.

For me, I’ve found success in “interval training.” What that means is that I’ll alternate one minute of doing something with high intensity with a minute of very low intensity workout (or even rest). This gets my heart rate up without leaving me feeling like I’m dying.

#3: Eat healthy, and load up on vegetables.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

This is the take-home message of Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, and it’s a pretty solid trio of rules to follow when you’re eating. Almost every sensible eating practice out there comes from these three rules.

First of all, you should strive to eat real food. By that, I mean cut down on processed pre-made food and eat as much basic food as you can. Eat fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy products that are as close to their original form as can be. This way, there are fewer opportunities to have unhealthy additives to the food (salts, trans fats, preservatives, etc.).

Second, control your portion sizes. This doesn’t mean that you should diet and stop eating. It means that you should just try to eat less. Try to leave enough on your plate at restaurants so that you can eat lunch tomorrow with the leftovers. Use a smaller plate at dinner. Don’t automatically fill up your plate. You can go back for more if you’re still hungry.

Finally, eat mostly plants. At a given meal, try to have the majority of your plate consist of vegetables and fruits. If you eat a meat-heavy meal, try to counterbalance it with a very plant-heavy meal. Historically, our diets have always consisted of mostly plants – it’s what our ancestors have done since the dawn of history. The health benefits of a plant-based diet are clear.

Dieting isn’t fun. Making good choices on a routine basis? That can be fun and healthy.

#4: Learn basic first aid.

If you already know how to treat most common ailments – and you have the supplies on hand to do so – you can eliminate quite a few doctor and hospital visits.

The Red Cross offers a number of classes and self-education guides on basic first aid, ranging from how to deal with minor cuts and blisters to how to respond to emergency situations.

You don’t need to become certified, of course, but studying up on basic first aid can be incredibly helpful for handling minor family medical problems with ease and without having to rely on the hospital or the doctor (and the resultant medical bills).

If you’d like a single book to reference for first aid questions, I suggest the American Red Cross First Aid and Safety Handbook. It has information and basic procedures that almost anyone can follow for a variety of situations. It’s useful to go through the book outside of emergency situations so that you’re familiar with what to do.

The most important lesson of all? Knowing when it does make sense to call a doctor because the issue is beyond your care.

#5: Check out low-cost or free health clinics.

Many areas offer free health clinics where doctors and registered nurses can provide diagnoses and assistance with ailments of all kinds. In the past, I’ve used them to diagnose and treat cases of pink eye and strep throat, with the end result being nothing more than the cost of a prescription. No hospital visit, no doctor visit, no bills.

The quality of free clinics varies greatly from area to area, so don’t let preconceptions sway you away from trying out a free medical clinic. Many free clinics – such as the ones I’ve visited – are clean, well-maintained, and well-staffed with people who genuinely want to help.

A free clinic is a perfect place to have a relatively minor issue examined without cost so that you can either receive a simple treatment or be aided in making the decision to receive specialized care for your problem.

Want to find one in your area? The National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics offers a great tool for finding free clinics in your area. They provide a great place to start if you’ve got expensive medical coverage.

#6: Take advantage of wellness clinics and free check-ups.

If your medical insurance offers free wellness visits or annual checkups, take advantage of them! Wellness visits and annual checkups are the easiest way to get an early diagnosis of a serious ailment, usually at the stage where it’s easily treatable rather than a medical crisis.

Medicare covers these annual visits for free. Most health insurance providers do as well. Why? They know that people who take advantage of them are going to have lower total health care costs, as their major medical problems will be discovered at an earlier stage.

This saves the insurance company money, but it also saves you money. It means fewer prescriptions that you’ll have to pay for. It means fewer out-of-pocket medical visits over the long run and less sick time away from work. It means a higher quality of life, too.

I have an annual visit around July 15 of each year, which means I just had my last one. My doctor checks me over and checks my thyroid levels (I was born with a severely underactive thyroid and have taken Synthroid since I was three days old). While he’s never come across any major medical issues, I feel relief knowing that my blood levels have been checked and a doctor has seen me.

#7: Stop taking so many supplements and over-the-counter medicines.

The only reason to take a dietary supplement is to make up for an unhealthy diet. I’ll repeat that – the only reason to take a dietary supplement is to make up for an unhealthy diet.

If you take the suggestions above for a healthy diet to heart, there’s no need for multivitamins or additional supplements for the vast majority of people. In fact, if anything, they’ll end up putting too much of some vitamins and minerals into your system.

Unless your doctor has specifically prescribed a medication for you, trim it out of your routine. If you feel uncomfortable doing so, talk it over with your doctor and see if they feel it’s necessary.

Remember, money not spent on an unnecessary supplement or vitamin is money that can be used for other things in life.

  • Related:How Vitamin Supplements and ‘Superfoods’ Can Devour Your Savings

#8: Try home remedies first.

If you’re dealing with a minor condition, don’t be afraid to try non-medical treatment first. Are there steps you can take on your own to deal with this condition, either by minimizing the symptoms or eliminating the root cause?

Don’t be afraid to discuss this route with your doctor before he or she pulls out the prescription pad. While a prescription might be one solution to the problem (and perhaps the easiest, in the short term), it’s often not the only solution and often not the best solution.

What can you do to solve the problem without that prescription? Can you eat better? Can you get more exercise? Can you alter your diet? Can you change your work environment? Can you change something at home?

Different ailments can be handled with different solutions. Don’t rely on a pharmaceutical solution first – try other methods and see what you can achieve.

#9: Ask your doctor to wean you off prescription medication.

Similarly, if you’re on any long-term prescription medications, you should discuss the necessity of these medications with your doctor.

Often, medications are prescribed to be a short-term fix for an ailment, like a pain medication that’s used until an injury heals or a blood pressure medication that’s used until you achieve a better body weight and trim salts from your diet.

When those medications turn into a long-term fix, not only can they be an ongoing expense, you could also be opening yourself up to undesirable long-term side effects.

Spend some time talking to your doctor about a plan to get yourself off of any prescription medications that you’re on. Figure out if you actually need them or if they’re just covering up for some lifestyle choices you could be making.

It’s far cheaper – and better for your long-term health – to exercise every day and eat a healthier diet than it is to continue to take prescription medications.

#10: Minimize your use of chemicals.

The Breast Cancer Fund offers some great advice for reducing your risk of breast cancer – and of other types of cancer – by simply making some smarter choices about cosmetics and other appearance-enhancing substances.

Their biggest suggestion? Use fewer products with simpler ingredients. Take a close look at that ingredient list on your hair care products, your cosmetics, and even your deodorant. Do you know what all of that stuff is? Do you want to know?

If you’re applying all of this stuff to your body every day, you’re providing unnecessary exposure to chemicals that you don’t really need in your life. Cut them out entirely – or, if you don’t want to do that, cut back on the number that you use and seek out natural versions of those products.

If you can trim back your cosmetic purchases, you’re not only saving money, you’re reducing your body’s repeated contact with an array of chemicals.

#11: Care for elderly family members at home.

In Jonathan Rauch’s recent article for The Atlantic entitled The Hospital Is No Place for the Elderly, he makes the clear case that the most cost-effective and humane solution for treating people with chronic conditions near the end of life is in the home, not in the hospital:

“In a sense, Brad Stuart is one of those changes. He is a leader in a growing movement advocating home-based primary care, which represents a fundamental change in the way we care for people who are chronically very ill. The idea is simple: rather than wait until people get sick and need hospitalization, you build a multidisciplinary team that visits them at home, coordinates health-related services, and tries to nip problems in the bud. For the past 15 years, at Sutter Health, a giant network of hospitals and doctors in Northern California, Stuart has devoted himself to developing home-based care for frail, elderly patients.

“For years, many people in medicine have understood that late-life care for the chronically sick is not only expensive but also, much too often, ineffective and inhumane. For years, the system seemed impervious to change. Recently, however, health-care providers have begun to realize that the status quo is what Stuart calls a “burning platform”: a system that is too expensive and inefficient to hold. As a result, new home-based programs are finally reaching the market, such as one launched about five years ago at Sutter, called Advanced Illness Management. “It’s much more feasible now to make a program like this work than it was a few years ago,” Stuart told me. “There are a lot of new payment schemes in the pipeline that are going to make this kind of program much easier to support.”

Switching to these types of treatments for the elderly is not only more humane, it also can reduce costs for both the patient and the insurer.

If you’re dealing with the care of an elderly person, contact their insurance provider and see if they work with systems like Sutter Health or other home-based health care providers.

#12: Negotiate or seek help with medical bills.

This doesn’t mean you should call up your medical provider or your insurance provider to argue about an ordinary $25 copay. Instead, apply a negotiation strategy for larger bills, like the ones you receive after surgeries or hospital stays.

Often, medical providers and insurance companies engage in a dance of sorts with each other, where they intentionally bounce inflated costs back and forth at each other. The person that’s really hurt in this process is the patient who has to pay some portion – or all of it – out of pocket.

Most medical providers are open to negotiating with patients because a negotiated bill is one that’s less likely to wind up in collections. If you receive a large medical bill, your first step should be to contact your medical provider and attempt negotiation.

Not sure how to do this? Christina LaMontagne over at My Money offers a great set of tactics for negotiating your medical bill. In summary:

  1. Find a less expensive hospital.
  2. Calculate what the government thinks your treatment is worth.
  3. Ask for a lower rate.
  4. Get help from a professional.

I’ve found it particularly valuable to know how Medicare calculates treatment costs. In most cases, you can estimate this by multiplying your medical bill by 27%. So, for example, if you have a $10,000 medical bill, Medicare would pay $2,700 for that service and the hospital or doctor would accept that payment. Start by making an offer on that level.

Final Thoughts

You have a lot of control over your medical costs, both thanks to preventive actions, like getting in better shape and eating a better diet, and proactive choices, like taking advantage of wellness visits.

All of these options allow you to take charge of a significant portion of your present and future medical costs. The next step – taking action on the options that are relevant – is up to you.

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.