Facing High Medical Debt? Here’s What You Should Do

The following is a post by MPFJ staff writer, Toi Williams, who is a professional finance blogger for MarketBeat. She has backgrounds in personal finance, sales, and real estate.

Medical debt is becoming a big problem for many in the United States. According to data from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, medical debt collections currently make up about 52 percent of collection accounts on credit reports, a much higher rate than other types of debt. About a quarter of adults ages 18 to 64 reported having past-due medical debt in 2015, compared with 10 percent of people over 65. An estimated 43 million consumers with a credit report at a nationwide consumer reporting agency have one or more medical accounts in collection.

Of the consumers with only medical collections accounts, 50 percent have otherwise “clean” credit reports. However, having a single collections item on a credit report can hurt a credit score severely. A person with a FICO score of 680 could see their credit score drop 45-65 points once a collections account has been added to the information. Someone with a score of 780 could see a decline of 105-125 points.

This makes it very important to act on the medical debt quickly before it is sent to collections. There is currently no set standard for when a medical debt will be sent to collections, so it could happen anywhere between 30 – 180 days past the billing date. Here are some steps to take that will make handling high medical debt a little easier.

 

Examine Medical Bills Carefully For Errors

Medical bills are complicated and are often full of codes and terms that you may not understand. Those with chronic conditions, medical emergencies, or lengthy hospital stays face even more challenges because their care often results in multiple bills from multiple providers. Requesting itemized bill from each provider will allow you to check how much you were charged for each service.

When reviewing your medical bills, make sure that you were not mistakenly charged for services you didn’t receive. If a provider listed is unfamiliar, check the date of service to see if you had a medical treatment that day. Some providers may be associated with a hospital where you were treated but chose to bill you directly for the services.

 

Review Circumstances Of Denied Coverage

Many cases of high medical debt are due to the patient’s insurer denying coverage for certain procedures. Unless it is a medical emergency, in most cases you will know what your insurance will cover before receiving treatment. If coverage is denied for something that you believe should have been covered, there are several things that you can do.

First, review your health insurance policy to see exactly what providers and procedures are covered under your plan. If the questionable items should be covered, make sure your provider has your correct insurance info and that they used the correct billing codes when submitting the claim to your insurance company. A small mistake can lead to expensive bills for procedures that your insurance should have covered.

 

Dispute Inaccurate Charges

If you have reviewed your medical bills and find that you have been charged incorrectly, it is important to dispute the bill as quickly as you can. The first step is to send a written notice to the provider detailing which portions of the bill you are disputing. Be sure to send copies of all relevant documents along with the written notice, including copies of the bills with the errors clearly indicated and copies of medical records related to your claim.

In many cases, the provider will revise the bill to correct the errors once this notification has been received. It is important to stay on top of the matter until you can confirm that the necessary changes have been made. Keep a record of contacts made with the provider in your efforts to correct the bill. This information can be valuable if the medical bill is sent to collections still containing errors.

 

Ask If Discounts, Payment Plans, Or Financial Assistance Is Available

Medical care providers know that many people have trouble paying high medical debt and many offer ways to make paying the debt easier. For example, some medical providers will offer a discount to those that can pay the discounted amount right away. Others will accept the Medicare rate for their services, which is typically lower than the rate charged by private insurers. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

Some hospitals and clinics have a financial-assistance program to help people that are unable to pay their bills, but there are typically income limitations on who can apply for these programs. The provider might also offer a monthly payment plan that enables you to pay off the debt in installments at little or no interest. You may also be able to negotiate the amount due directly with your health care provider. In many cases, they will be willing to work with you to come up with a plan that you can afford.

One of the worst things you can do is put large amounts of medical debt on your credit card. If you cannot pay off the balance right away, you will be subject to a much higher interest rate on the debt than the provider would have charged you. If the debt is sent to collections, it will look like any other credit card debt to creditors, severely harming your ability to obtain credit in the future. Explore other options for repayment first and only use your credit card if you can pay off the entire amount before the next billing cycle.

How about you all? Have you been struggling with high medical debt? How have you been coping? Tell us in the comments.

***Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/usarmyafrica/4567202913/sizes/l

Cost of Education

The following is a guest post. Enjoy!

In Bob Dylan’s memorable song Mr. Tambourine Man there are some interesting verses such as, ‘How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man…’. The path to growth and enlightenment, and certainly to financial independence is education. Wisdom is the sum total of our life experiences – both theoretical and practical, while success comes from a clearly formulated plan. Very little comes from haphazard behavior, unless of course it’s a windfall payday off a lucky lottery ticket.

For most of us, achievement is the result of working intelligently towards an objective. With this in mind, it’s important to formulate a blueprint for academic excellence. In the United States, tertiary education is a major expense item. By the time a young adult enters high school it is important to start planning for college. Unbeknownst to many students, the federal government offers many programs to assist students in paying for their schooling. These include grants, work-study initiatives, and loans. This federal aid is often what makes the difference between being able to pay for college education or not.

Understanding What Options Are Available for FAFSA

Depending on what type of education a student is looking for, costs can vary from a couple of thousand dollars a year to tens of thousands of dollars per year. Community colleges offer an alternative path to regular college, after completing 2 years before credits can be transferred over. This is an affordable option for many folks, and a workaround to the high costs associated with traditional colleges. There are several ways that students can enjoy federal aid, including the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Otherwise known as FAFSA, this determines your personal eligibility for different types of student aid. The form can easily be completed online and can translate into free money for a college education. Students who apply for these forms of government aid may be enrolled in work/study programs or approved for different types of loans.

The bureaucratic red tape surrounding many federal aid programs is a disincentive to many folks. Fortunately, there are services out there that make it relatively easy to determine qualification for student aid, given specific criteria. The application process is 100% free, since there is an official federal government site available. Even universities and colleges across the United States use FAFSA applications to determine a student’s eligibility for non-federal student aid. Once the low-interest loans have been approved, students can use that as a tool to build their credit scores. The competition to enter US colleges is fierce. Students who show initiative by actively applying for student aid often fare better in admissions than others. Since the application process can typically be completed in under 30 minutes, it is an easy way to begin taking meaningful steps towards a college education.

Facts and figures:

  • Students can apply early for FAFSA loans – as early as 1 October
  • The deadline for students is 30 June
  • Corrections must be made by 15 September
  • Early applications do not guarantee early loans
  • Tax forms from the previous 2 years must be presented
  • Every year $150 billion is dispersed in federal student aid
  • You don’t need to apply to a college before you apply for Federal student aid loans

There are many benefits to receiving one of these loans, including no payment until graduation. It is also possible to temporarily postpone payments, or even lower payments accordingly. If a graduate works in public service, a significant chunk of the loan may be foregone. In an era of rising interest rates, such as the present, FAFSA loans are offered at a much lower rate than credit cards and personal loans.

Personal Finance To-Do’s in a Good Economy

The following post is by MPFJ staff writer, Laurie Blank.  Laurie is a wife, mother to 4 and homesteader who blogs about personal finance, self-sufficiency and life in general over at The Frugal Farmer. Part witty, part introspective and part silly, her goal in blogging is to help others find their way to financial freedom and to a simpler, more peaceful life.

According to recent reports, the economy is in a state of thriving optimism. Check out this recent news article snippet:

“Upbeat economic data continue to emerge from the U.S. economy despite the turbulent political atmosphere. Leading indicators suggest that activity is firming in the first quarter of 2017 after GDP growth slipped in the final quarter of last year. The ISM manufacturing index rose to an over-two-year high in January, retail sales grew healthy and employers added jobs at the quickest pace in four months.”  (Source: http://www.focus-economics.com/countries/united-states)

After many years of digging out of trouble since the 2007-2008 housing bust, things might actually be starting to seriously improve for America’s citizens, at least from a financial standpoint. So what can you do to take advantage of a good economy and use the opportunity to improve your personal financial situation? Consider these options.

 

Assess Your Financial Situation

How have the last nine or ten years affected your finances? Have you gotten into debt? Depleted your savings? Ignored your retirement accounts as you work to be able to pay the bills? Make an assessment of your current financial situation and set some goals for where you want to be financially. Then make a plan for how you’ll get there and start moving forward with your plan today.

 

Make More Money

Jobs are being added at a quick pace, which means you have more opportunities to increase your income. Consider taking on a second job if necessary or getting overtime hours at work if they are available in order to help you reach your financial goals. Take advantage of the chance to increase your income while things are good and business owners and consumers are in a spending mood.

 

Don’t Get Too Comfortable With the Boom

In the years prior to the Great Depression, Americans had a “What could possibly go wrong?” attitude about their money. The stock market was thriving and the Roaring Twenties had people buying houses on credit, cars on credit and living a life of financial reckless abandon.

When the crash hit, many people lost everything and the foreclosure rate skyrocketed to over twenty-five percent.

History shows that every boom is followed by a bust – eventually. In a thriving economy that bust may come years down the line, or it may come in an instant due to a terrorist attack or other major widespread issue like a major drought that causes an increase in food prices.

In order to protect yourself and your finances, stay reserved about the immediate economic success and continue to plan for future economies as opposed to simply taking comfort in the current good one.

 

Beware of Potentially Rising Interest Rates

We’ve lived with super low interest rates for the last several years as the government worked to make it possible for people to keep spending in spite of the housing bust and its after effects. Now that things are looking up we can expect rising interest rates which will affect mortgage loan rates and credit card rates as well, so borrow carefully.

A good economy is a great thing, but it’s also a great time to keep in mind that economic booms don’t last forever and to prepare to be financially stable no matter what the economy may be doing. Ditch your debt, increase your savings and work your way to a healthier financial situation while the getting is good.

How about you all? What steps are you taking to improve your current financial situation?

Share your experiences by commenting below! 

***Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/koalazymonkey/3596829214/in/

How Our Spending Patterns Have Changed Over the Last 100 Years

The following post is by MPFJ staff writer, Melissa Batai.  Melissa is a freelance writer who covers topics ranging from personal finance to business to organics to food.  She blogs at Mom’s Plans where she shares her family’s journey to healthier living and paying down debt.

Do you go out to eat several nights a week?  Do you feel like you’re just getting by financially even though you have a decent income?  Do your kids have so many clothes that they can’t close their closet doors?  Do you have three cars in your driveway?

Think back in time 100 years ago to 1917.  Our finances and conveniences have changed drastically since then, yet many of us still feel dissatisfied and that we don’t have “enough.”  Why is this?  Why are we unfulfilled when we have so much more than our ancestors who lived 100 years ago?

Our spending habits have changed dramatically since then, but we’re still not satisfied.

 

Spending Habits in the Year 1900

The Atlantic put together an eye opening article about how drastically our lives have changed since the year 1900.  Back in 1900, “A quarter of households have running water.  Even fewer own the home they lived in.  Fewer still have flush toilets.  One-twelfth of households have gas or electric lights, one-twentieth have telephones, one-in-ninety own a car, and nobody owns a television.”

Just stop for a minute and imagine being without these things.  If a 1900 household didn’t have to pay utilities, make care payments, or purchase a television, cable, Netflix, etc., how did they spend their money?

According to The Atlantic, “Families [in 1900] spend a whopping 80% of [their money] on food, clothes, and homes.”  Eighty percent!   More precisely, this breaks down to approximately 43% for food, 14% for clothing, and 23% for housing.

Undoubtedly, life in 1900 was simpler in some ways, but a family needed to be diligent with their money just to take care of the necessities of life.  There was very little leftover for extras and “fun money.”

 

Spending Habits Now

Thanks to outsourcing our textile industries to foreign countries, our annual apparel cost is only 4% per year, and yes, that includes those big spenders who have many, many more clothes in their closet than they will ever be able to wear.  Thanks to big company farms, our food costs are now only 13% of our annual income (The Atlantic).

While it cost 57% of an annual income to pay for food and clothing in 1900, now those same categories only require 17% of our annual income.  That’s a lot of extra money left over.

In 1900, housing costs were 23% annually, while they are now 33%.  That accounts for some of the difference.  Health care is now 6% of our annual spending; it was 5% in 1900.  Another category that is now costing us more is transportation.

However, there can be no denying that our interpretation of “necessities” has changed.  We now consider many luxuries necessities, and that mindset is squeezing our budgets.

 

How Americans’ Attitudes Toward Spending Have Changed

My husband and I like nice stuff as much as the next person, but for the 16 years of our marriage, money has always been tight.  We’ve always been a one-income family.  First, I worked full-time while my husband attended graduate school full-time.  Then, when he graduated, I stayed home with the kids while he worked full-time.

Thanks to student loan payments and a fairly average income while living in a high cost of living area (Chicago), we’ve always had to live on a fairly tight budget.  That means we were a one car family until this last fall.  For 15 years of marriage, we made do with one car.  That car is now 12 years old and has nearly 180,000 miles on it.

We rented until we finally bought our first house 2.5 years ago.  In many ways we were more like a 1950s family than a family living in the 21st century.

In the book, The Overspent American, Jennifer Lawson, who participated in a focus group on spending said:

“In the fifties, growing up in upstate New York, my parents were considered middle-class pillars of the community. My father was an accountant. It’s a fairly poor rural area, and most people worked in a factory or waitressed or something. My dad was actually a professional person with a sign out in front. [My parents] had one car, and they drove it until it fell apart, and then they bought a new one, usually a station wagon. They had a fairly modest house. We took a vacation as a family for two weeks and rented a little cabin in Maine. And drove–nobody flew anywhere. I can’t remember anyone who had a second car. Everyone walked everywhere; children certainly didn’t have $100 sneakers. It amazes me now that my younger brother, who still lives there and who has a job that’s roughly equal to the job my dad had when I was growing up … he has three teenage daughters. And since they were about nine, they’ve each had their own color TV, and they have their own CD players, they all have their own telephone lines, because they complain about calls not being able to get through” (The New York Times).

Our lifestyles have changed dramatically since the 1950s, even more so since the 1900s.  What we now consider necessities—two cars per family (at least), exotic vacations, designer clothes, Internet access and cable tv, college education, just to name a few—were not priorities, or even available, in earlier times.

 

Another phenomenon of spending is that the U.S consumer is quickly bored by what he has.

We can see this phenomenon whenever new electronic devices are released.  Even though their current smartphones, iPads, etc. are working just fine, people are eager to get the newest release.  Never mind that it may cost hundreds of dollars that they really don’t need to spend.

The same mindset is present when people choose to lease a car rather than buy it so that they can continually have a “new” car to drive every few years.  Never mind that leasing costs them much more than buying a car, especially if they buy a used car.

People also frequently redecorate their homes, even though what they have is working just fine.  When they redecorate, they often buy all new towels, couches, etc., depending on what room that they’re “updating.”  Now, we tend to replace long before an item is worn out.

This is a luxury that people in the 1900s didn’t have.  My grandmother, who lived through the Great Depression, regularly washed out plastic baggies over and over again.  Rather than throwing them away, she would get 5 to 10 uses from each bag.  If something like a kitchen towel got a hole, she didn’t throw it away; she mended it.  We’ve lost that bit of frugality that earlier generations developed out of necessity.

Undoubtedly, many in the middle class are feeling a financial strain.  While some of that is due to modern day high costs (such as earning less money because our employers have to take so much out for taxes and insurance costs), much of it is also due to our increased expectations and standards.

The next time your budget feels unbelievable tight, look around your house and see how much you have compared to what your ancestors had 100 years ago.

How about you all? Is there a “necessity” you can do without to find more room in the budget?  Can you be content without the latest new electronic upgrade?

***Photo courtesy of http://www.idpinthat.com/edit/5340

7 Things Wealthy People Never Do

The following post is by MPFJ staff writer,Laurie Blank.  Laurie is a wife, mother to 4 and homesteader who blogs about personal finance, self-sufficiency and life in general over at The Frugal Farmer. Part witty, part introspective and part silly, her goal in blogging is to help others find their way to financial freedom and to a simpler, more peaceful life.

If you’ve ever read Tom Corley’s Rich Habits or Thomas Stanley’s The Millionaire Next Door, you probably know that there are things wealthy people never do. The rich have a habit of behaving differently than the non-rich and in learning, studying and working to emulate their habits I’ve learned that the results of living the way the wealthy live affect both life and finances.

Here are seven things the rich never do. If you can learn to follow their lead, I’d be willing to bet your money would grow.

 

Fall for Advertising Gimmicks

If you ever take the time to view commercials and advertisements with a skeptical eye, you’d find that the goal of advertisers is to make you think you cannot live a full life without their product. Product users are always smiling, usually look phenomenal and give off the illusion that they have a perfect-beyond-perfect life.

The wealthy don’t fall for that lie. They have a clear understanding of what truly makes them happy and they know “stuff” isn’t part of the answer.

 

Neglect Their Savings Account

This report shows us that the Average American saves 5.7% of their income. And you know that since that is the average, it means that many people aren’t saving at all. In fact, this report shows that 62% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings.

Adversely, the wealthy save as much as 51 percent of their income. While you might say “Well, yeah, they can afford to save that much of their income – duh!” there is another factor to their wealth and their plush savings accounts – they started saving early (usually as teenagers) and they formed a habit of putting money in savings every month – no matter what.

The study linked in the last paragraph found that one of the key factors in their willingness to save was that their parents taught them the importance of building a savings habit from an early age. Ironically, many of these young teen savers also starting investing a portion of their savings in the stock market while very young.

 

Stop Learning

Eighty-eight percent of wealthy people read non-fiction books every day for at least thirty minutes. They have a love for learning and then using what they’ve learned to reach goals that they’ve set. They spend very little time in front of the TV, opting instead for bettering their lives and increasing their knowledge via learning.

 

Make Impulse Purchases

The wealthy make it a habit to avoid impulse purchases. They think through any purchases, determining what – if any – value the purchase will truly bring to their lives before they buy.

 

Ignore Their Health

Seventy-six percent of the wealthy get some type of aerobic (cardiovascular) exercise such as running or biking four days a week or more. The thing about good health is that it helps you to think more clearly, and to have more energy to work toward the goals you’ve set.

 

Live Without a Plan

Seventy percent of the wealthy set at least one goal per year – and then make a plan with actionable steps that will help them reach that goal.

 

Act with Mediocrity

Speaking of goals, that’s another thing the rich never do: they never act with mediocrity. In other words, when they choose to do something, they commit to doing it well. Go big or go home is their theory.

Successful people – whether it’s being successful at growing wealth, gaining health or whatever avenue of success they choose – reach their level of success because they do things differently than those who aren’t successful. If you’re looking to bring more success into your life, consider doing what the successful do and dropping the habits like those mentioned above, as those habits will most certainly lead to unrealized dreams.

How about you all? What are things you are currently doing – and not doing – in order to reach your goals?

Share your experiences by commenting below! 

***Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/togawanderings/5899676716/in/