We’ve talked quite a bit about issues surrounding medical debt. It’s a leading cause of bankruptcy and presents a significant financial burden to many Americans. Usually when we talk about medical costs, though, it’s in the context of emergency situations and necessary costs. But what about those medical expenses and operations that aren’t necessary? These are referred to as “elective procedures” and can create a significant burden if you aren’t careful. Our use of the term “elective surgery” in this article means operations that aren’t medically necessary and are completely optional and up to the patient’s discretion. This is different from the use of “elective surgery” which sometimes refers to procedures that are necessary (or at least explicitly recommended by doctors) but are scheduled in advance. Let’s take a closer look at the elective procedures that pose the biggest threat to your finances, along with some ideas for how to better manage them.
The Cost of Common Elective Medical Procedures
It’s no wonder that elective medical expenses can become a burden; they cost significant amounts of money. Here’s what we’ve found from various sources as the average costs of popular operations:
- Breast augmentation: $3,681
- Liposuction: $2,815
- Tummy tuck: $5,381
- Breast lift: $4,174
- Eyelid lift: $2,726
- Lasik: $2,073 per eye
- Teeth straightening: $4,800
- In-office teeth whitening: $650
- IVF cycle: $12,400
- IUI cycle: $4,174
And here’s a quick infographic to recap some of the biggies.
If you’ve already gone through with one of these operations, or you’re planning to in the future, you need to understand how to manage the debt. While the surgery might be elective, paying for it certainly is not. Let’s look at some of the common ways to finance these expenses and how you can manage them after the fact.
Medical Credit Cards
Medical credit cards are a good concept on the surface. They are specifically designed for these types of situations and they have introductory periods of little or no interest. This means you might be able to pay off most or all of the account in full before you’ll be charged too much extra. There’s one big issue you need to watch out for, though. If you can’t pay it off before the promotional period is over, you’ll be subject to interest, making the endeavor more expensive than you originally planned.
People also have a way of putting these expenses on regular, run of the mill credit cards. And unfortunately, this is often done without giving any thought to other options that might be available. While this may be a bit less true with elective procedures, the general rule of thumb is that physicians and medical offices are generally willing to work with you to make arrangements, often with little or no interest and almost always in an arrangement that would be better than using a credit card. You should avoid credit cards if at all possible. Interest rates on credit cards will make the operation much more expensive (and can lead to a much bigger debt crisis), and trying to pay everything off before a low interest promotional period expires likely isn’t worth the risk.
One loan product that is commonly used when individuals take on new debt (often by choice: home renovations, etc.) is the Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC). While it may be a popular resource, it’s one we encourage people to avoid, since it’s a form of secured debt consolidation. As a secured debt, it requires you to offer up collateral against the loan, in this case your house. Sure, you might have a reliable job and source of income, but is that something you know with certainty that you will keep long-term? Unfortunately, none of us can predict a financial emergency that could be lurking around the corner. So before you take out a HELOC to fund an elective operation, be sure to ask yourself “Is this procedure worth my home?” In most cases, the answer is a clear “no.”
One tried and true form of borrowing money is “asking around,” usually from friends and family. Especially when you’re in a pinch and need the money to be immediately available, it can seem like a good idea to take on low or zero-interest debt from a loved one instead of a less favorable loan from a financial institution. In some cases, this is definitely a fine method to pursue, but with an expense that’s optional, such as these sorts of surgeries, it’s likely not a good idea. We’ll take a closer look at a much better option available to you than borrowing the money, but in the meantime think about this: do you really want your close relationship to become strained by the added tension of owing money? It creates an awkward dynamic in even the best of relationships, and you won’t want either party to walk away feeling like they got a bad deal.
Arrangements with Doctor’s Office
One of the best options when you’re financing this expense (or just about any medical expense) is to make arrangements directly with your provider. Typically, they will offer you a payment plan that is financed at low interest, or sometimes even interest free. On top of this, they will usually allow you to extend the payment plan far into the future. And the last perk is that even if you aren’t able to pay in full one month, a partial payment is usually excepted without immediate consequences. The level of flexibility you are offered will depend on the provider, but the basic idea here is that you will be given reasonable terms if you pursue this approach—much more reasonable terms than if you finance elsewhere. There are other strategies you can employ in this regard as well, so be sure to check out our full guide on negotiating medical expenses to learn more.
The Better Way to Pay for Elective Surgery
Rather than rely on one of the aforementioned problematic methods, why not try this instead: save up for the expense? Ok, we know that sounds old-school and boring, and you’re probably thinking that it isn’t feasible (after all, we showed just how expensive some of these operations can be). But stick with us, we promise it’s more feasible than you think.
Step 1: Identify a Timeline
Like with any big purchase, setting a timeline to pay for it is extremely important. If you decide you want an elective operation in the next few months, that doesn’t give you time to prepare. But if you can think of these purchases as goals you’d like to achieve in the next one to two years, they become much more achievable. Let’s use an eyelid lift as an example. To fully fund the procedure, you will need $2,726. If you plan the procedure for twelve months out, that means you would need to save $227 per month (total cost, divided by 12), assuming you don’t already have some money set aside. But if you plan this for two years out, you only need to save $114 per month! That’s not much of an addition to a monthly budget, especially considering that most people pay more than this in cable and cell phone bills each month, and these can easily be reduced (think: switching to Netflix and pay-as-you-go phone service).
Step 2: Cutting Costs
That brings us to the second step, which is to make the appropriate budget changes. Now, if you are living paycheck to paycheck with very little wiggle room in your budget, then an optional procedure might not be in the cards for you currently. If it isn’t mediacally necessary, we can safely consider it to be a budgetary “want.” And if you aren’t on solid financial ground, “wants” don’t fit into the picture. But if you have the income to meet your basic needs, have additional money left over each month and have some fat you can trim out of your budget, then this a feasible course of action for you. You will want to get rid of some excess spending each month in order to meet your savings goal for the operation. Even just a few small changes might be enough in savings to fully fund the expense.
Step 3: Leverage Other Resources
The last step here is to leverage other options available to you, most notably your insurance and any price flexibility the provider may offer. Know your coverage well (so that you don’t overpay and can maximize your insurer’s contributions) and be sure to do price research on the provider as well. (Again, check out our post on negotiating medical expenses).
Like we said, “saving for it” is likely a boring answer for how to pay for your elective health operations, but it’s the best approach you could use. Keep in mind that the difficulty involved will depend on your current situation and the type of operation you are pursuing. Fertility treatments, like IVF for example, are much more expensive and thus problematic for your budget. In these cases, you will either need to opt for long-term planning or use a wise, diversified strategy of savings and low-risk financing.
Want More Help?
If you need help planning ahead for a purchase like this or managing debt you already have from medical expenses, we can help. Our free budget review can help you make an action plan for your goals, and our debt management program might be able to repay your debts in a way that’s more favorable to you. For more information, learn about how Clearpoint can help with medical debt.