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Health-care costs can be shockingly high, even for those with insurance. For example, 2022 Healthcare.gov plans have a maximum out-of-pocket limit of $17,400 for families and $8,700 for individuals.
That’s a lot of money for an insured person, especially with the extra financial difficulties some are still facing due to COVID-19, or lingering symptoms from Long COVID. Unfortunately, chronic health conditions can leave you having to meet this maximum out-of-pocket amount year after year, and having to plan your financial life around it.
If you don’t have money in the bank or in a health savings account (HSA) to cover medical expenses, it’s possible you’ll be stuck charging medical expenses on a credit card. It may be a necessity, particularly if you don’t have an emergency fund for medical bills, but it’s important to be aware of the risks.
Risks of paying medical bills with a credit card
While there are some advantages that come with charging medical expenses to a credit card, you should be aware of the risks, too. The main downsides are financial ones, which we explain below.
High interest rates
For starters, the average credit card APR is currently inching toward 18 percent. If you charge medical expenses to a credit card and take a long time to pay them off, the interest charges you’ll pay over time could be exorbitant.
No ability to negotiate
If you pay with a credit card, you’ll no longer be in a position to negotiate with medical providers. Keep in mind that some hospitals might offer a discount if you pay your entire bill in full, or they may also offer long-term payment plans without interest. If you pay with a credit card and they get their money, your medical debt becomes your problem to deal with.
If you need to carry medical debt for the long-term, you may want to consider a personal loan instead. Not only do personal loans come with interest rates under 16 percent for consumers with good credit, but you’ll get a fixed monthly payment and a repayment timeline that will let you know exactly when you’ll be debt-free.
Best credit cards for medical expenses
Despite the risks, using a credit card for medical expenses can make sense, particularly if your bills are low enough that you can pay them off within a few months or slightly longer. If you have the cash to pay your medical bills in full, using a credit card can help you at least get something back in a roundabout way.
If you’re thinking about this option, here are some of the top cards you should consider and why they could work well for medical debt.
Chase Freedom Unlimited: Best for rewards on medical and drug store needs
If you have a stack of medical bills to pay and you want to capitalize on this spending to earn rewards and avoid interest payments for a time, the Chase Freedom Unlimited is worth a look. For those with recurring medical expenses, the main draw is the 3 pecent back on drugstore purchases. This card also lets users earn 5 percent cash back on travel booked through Chase, 3 percent back on dining and and 1.5 percent cash back on all other spending. These excellent pharmacy rewards mean the Chase Freedom Unlimited can double as your go-to drugstore credit card.
In the meantime, new cardholders can earn a $200 cash bonus after spending $500 within three months of account opening, plus 5 percent back on up to $6,000 spent at gas stations the first year (then 1.5 percent back).
You can also qualify for 0 percent APR on your purchases for 15 months (18.74 percent to 27.49 percent variable APR thereafter), which may be enough time to make a huge dent in your medical bills without having to pay any interest. Once the first 15 months are up, however, you’ll be required to pay the ongoing variable APR, which is considerably higher. For that reason, you should charge medical bills to this card only if you feel you can pay them off within 15 months or at least get pretty close.
- Earning rewards on drugstore purchases and more
- Paying medical bills off during the intro APR period
Wells Fargo Reflect Card: Best for generous 0% intro APR offers and card perks
If you’re not really interested in rewards and just want to avoid interest for as long as you can, consider charging your medical expenses to the Wells Fargo Reflect Card. This card will give you a full 18 months to pay down expenses charged to your card without a dime in interest charges with its intro APR offer on purchases from account opening (intro APR extension of up to 3 months). You can get the up to 21 months of 0 percent intro APR with on-time minimum payments during the intro period. The APR after the intro period ends is 17.49 percent to 29.49 percent variable.
The intro interest offer also applies to qualifying balance transfers from account opening, so this card is yet another option to consider if you have medical debt lingering on other cards with much higher rates. Just be aware of the intro 3 percent balance transfer fee (minimum $5, whichever is greater) that must be paid upfront for each balance transfer you make within 120 days of account opening. After 120 days, the balance transfer fee is 5 percent (minimum $5).
You can also avoid paying an annual fee with this card, and you’ll get benefits like cell phone protection, easy access to your FICO credit score and roadside dispatch.
- Anyone who wants a long introductory APR offer for medical bills
- Consolidation of existing medical debt
AARP Essential Rewards Mastercard from Barclays: Best general card for medical expenses
The AARP® Essential Rewards Mastercard® from Barclays is a solid credit card for medical expenses and other types of spending, although this is only the case if you have the cash to pay off your medical expenses right away. New cardholders can earn a $100 cash bonus after spending $500 within 90 days of account opening. From there, they can earn 3 percent back on gas station and drugstore purchases (excluding Target and Walmart), 2 percent cash back on other eligible medical expenses and 1 percent back on all other purchases.
According to Barclays, medical purchases are defined as those made with “Dentists, Orthodontists, Osteopathic Physicians, Chiropractors, Optometrists, Ophthalmologists, Opticians, Optical Goods & Eyeglasses, Chiropodists, Podiatrists, Hospitals, Medical and Dental Laboratories, Hearing Aids, Ambulance Services, Orthopedic Goods, Prosthetic Devices, Nursing and Personal Care Facilities, Medical Services & Health Practitioners not elsewhere classified (NEC) and Doctors not elsewhere classified (NEC), as identified by the merchant category codes.”
This card does not have an annual fee, and it offers 0 percent APR on balance transfers for 15 billing cycles (when balance transfers post within 45 days of account opening), followed by a variable APR of 18.99 percent, 22.99 percent or 27.99 percent. A 5 percent balance transfer fee (minimum $5) will apply if you use this card to consolidate debt. Note that the intro APR does not apply to purchases, so you wouldn’t want to charge medical expenses to this card unless you have the cash to pay them off.
- People with ongoing medical expenses
- Consumers who can afford to pay their credit card balance in full each month
- Consolidating medical debt from other credit cards
Wells Fargo Active Cash Card: Best for earning cash rewards with intro APR offers
If you want to earn cash rewards while also getting an intro APR, the Wells Fargo Active Cash Card could fit the bill. This card comes with no annual fee, and cardholders earn a flat 2 percent in cash rewards on purchases. As an added bonus, the card also comes with 0 percent intro APR on purchases and qualifying balance transfers from account opening for the first 15 months (followed by a variable APR of 19.49 percent, 24.49 percent, or 29.49 percent.
New customers who choose this card can also earn a $200 cash rewards bonus when they sign up and spend $1,000 on purchases within three months of account opening. Other perks include cell phone insurance and contactless payment options.
- People who want to pay down medical bills with the intro APR offer
- Consumers who want to turn their medical bills into cash rewards
- Consumers who want cell phone coverage on a credit card
U.S. Bank Visa Platinum Card: Best for consolidating medical debt
You can also consider the no-annual-fee U.S. Bank Visa Platinum Card if you have a lot of medical debt on other credit cards and need a way to consolidate and pay it down.
It’s one of the best balance transfer credit cards on the market today because you get a whopping 18 billing cycles of 0 percent intro APR on both balance transfers and purchases (then 18.74 percent to 28.74 percent variable APR). Keep in mind the 3 percent balance transfer fee ($5 minimum; balance transfers must be within the first 60 days). You won’t earn rewards with this card, but it has a few other valuable benefits, such as cellphone protection.
- Those who need 18 billing cycles to settle their balance
- Those looking to save money on cellphone insurance
- Consolidating medical debt and other account balances onto one card
CareCredit: Best for in-house medical financing
If you want to apply for a line of credit to cover medical bills and prefer to handle this within your doctor or dentist’s office, you may want to check out CareCredit. While not a traditional credit card, CareCredit is a line of credit offered by medical professionals whose customers need help with their medical bills.
Once you’re approved, CareCredit lets you borrow money to cover medical expenses and pay them off over time. Depending on your credit score, you may even be able to qualify for financing for six to 24 months without any interest, provided you pay your entire bill off during that time. You can then extend your financing period with a 24-to-60-month reduced APR period if you need more time, but this “reduced” interest is on par with or higher than many credit card interest rates.
One downside of CareCredit promotional financing is “deferred interest,” which means you can only avoid all interest payments if you pay your balance off entirely before the introductory offer ends. If you owe a lot for medical expenses and you feel you cannot pay off your bills in full within the promotional period you qualify for, back interest will be charged on the total amount from the purchase date. For that reason, CareCredit is usually best for people who have a small amount of medical debt they can pay off within a short amount of time.
- Zero percent interest promotional offers
- In-house financing
- Paying medical bills off quickly and before the promotional period ends
How to choose the best card to pay for medical expenses
If you plan to charge medical expenses to a credit card, there are some steps you can take to minimize the downsides:
Figure out how much debt you have to pay off
First, you should spend some time figuring out how much you’ll owe in medical bills when all is said and done. If your medical debt is manageable, a card that offers rewards and a limited-time 0 percent APR offer may be a good option.
Decide if you want to earn rewards
Some cards for medical expenses offer rewards for every dollar you spend, but not everyone needs this kind of temptation in their life. After all, cash back credit cards can entice you to spend more since you know you’re getting something in return.
For the most part, earning rewards on purchases only makes sense if you’re avoiding credit card interest. For that reason, you should consider a rewards credit card only if you’re also avoiding interest for a limited time, and if you know you can pay your medical expenses off before your card’s introductory APR offer ends.
Compare 0% APR offers
Finally, be sure to compare introductory APR offers so you know what you’re getting in the end. Some cards offer 0 percent APR only on balance transfers, while others extend zero interest to both purchases and balance transfers for a limited time.
Also, watch out for deferred interest offers that will charge you back interest if you don’t pay your medical bills in full before your introductory period is over. While these kinds of offers are rare, they do exist. Read the fine print of any card you’re considering that has an introductory offer so you don’t unknowingly fall into the deferred interest trap.