Your body is your greatest asset, and taking good care of it can help you live longer and better—and also avoid costly conditions, like diabetes and heart disease, down the road.
But in addition to scheduling regular visits with your M.D., there are plenty of other proactive measures you can take to keep your health in check—without sabotaging your budget in the process. We spoke to doctors, dietitians and other health care pros for their top money-saving tips for hacking costs on everything from pricey prescriptions to mind-and-body-healing massages.
Health Cost Hack: Get Meds For Less
Even if you’re relatively healthy and have decent insurance coverage, the cost of prescription co-pays can really add up. Before you shell out for next month’s batch of birth control pills or allergy meds, ask your doc if she has some to give you gratis. “We often have free samples in the office, and it never hurts to ask,” says Sandra Adamson Fryhofer, M.D., an Atlanta-based internist and adjunct associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine.
Another smart option is to inquire about switching from a brand-name drug to the generic version. For even greater savings, fill the script at Target, Walmart or Kroger—these retailers offer hundreds of generics for just $4, compared to the $15 to $30 you’ll likely pay for prescription meds through other pharmacies, says Fryhofer.
Wellness Cost Hack: Book a Massage-Therapist-in-Training Session
Getting regular rubdowns can help alleviate a variety of ailments, from headaches and insomnia to back pain and sports injuries—plus it feels really good. An appointment with an experienced practitioner doesn’t come cheap, but a student can unkink those muscles for less. Just don’t expect fluffy robes and spa amenities!
Many massage schools throughout the country host clinics that are open to the public, which means you can get a treatment for as little as $30 a session, while also helping a wannabe therapist work toward a degree. A few programs to check out: Swedish Institute College of Health Sciences, The Massage School and the National Holistic Institute.
Health Cost Hack: Set Aside Pre-Tax Dollars For Medical Care
The next time open enrollment comes around, consider signing up for a flexible spending account (FSA) or health savings account (HSA). The money you sock away (tax-free) in either account can be used toward medical expenses, including co-pays, contact lenses, dental work, mental health counseling and even acupuncture if recommended by your doctor. So “get a rough idea of how much you might spend monthly, and make sure the right amount is set aside,” says Martin B. Rosen, executive vice president and cofounder of Health Advocate, Inc., a health-care advocacy and assistance company.
Just keep a couple of things in mind when choosing your account: With a traditional FSA, you need to be careful not to overestimate, since you’ll lose any funds you don’t use up by the end of the year, unless your employer determines otherwise. HSAs, on the other hand, provide more flexibility—the money rolls over from year to year and collects interest—but you can only open one if you have a high-deductible insurance plan.
Wellness Cost Hack: Buy Frozen Fruits and Veggies
Healthy food doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Frozen produce is usually much cheaper than the fresh stuff—and you may be surprised to learn that it can be just as good for you. “In many cases it’s even more nutritious because fruits and vegetables are taken straight from the fields to the manufacturer and frozen,” says Libby Mills, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. ” ‘Fresh’ items may have traveled all over the country, then sat in the supermarket for days, losing nutrients before you buy them.”
When you do opt for fresh produce, buy what’s in season. Strawberries, for example, are very pricey in the winter—and aren’t especially tasty. But come springtime, it’s a different story. “Eating seasonally means better flavor and a better price,” Mills says.
And while we’re on the topic of fruits and veggies, although organic produce might be worth the extra cost if you’re intent on avoiding pesticides, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, says Mills. Save cash by choosing conventional (non-organic) fruits and veggies that are “prepackaged” in their own skin, such as avocados, bananas and melons.
Health Cost Hack: Head to an Urgent Care Center for More Routine Medical Conditions
Unless you can’t breathe, are bleeding profusely or suspect that you’re having a heart attack or stroke, consider bypassing the hospital for more routine medical issues. “If you go to the E.R. for a non-life-threatening concern, you could be waiting around a long time for care and spending a lot more money—especially if you have a high deductible to meet,” Rosen says. Health-care providers at urgent care centers are well-equipped to treat common problems, like sprains, such minor allergic reactions as hives, the flu and strep throat.
Wellness Cost Hack: Work Out Without Limits
You don’t need to belong to a fancy health club to stay fit, especially if your insurance doesn’t help shoulder any of the cost, says Panteleimon Ekkekakis, Ph.D., associate professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University. Instead, simply aim to move more—and sit less. “Be mindful of how modern ‘conveniences’ have engineered physical activity out of our lives: Walk or bike instead of driving short distances, use a manual lawnmower, and wash your car instead of going through the automatic car wash,” he says. “You can actually save money if you choose these physically active options over the mechanized ones.”
Another tip: If you do belong to a gym, talk to your HR representative about whether your health insurance provider will cover part of the cost of your annual membership. In some cases, you can receive a portion of the fee reimbursed if you attend the gym a predetermined amount of visits in a six-month period.
Wellness Cost Hack: Buy Store-Brand Sunscreen
A higher price tag doesn’t necessarily translate to better skin protection. In fact, testing conducted last year by Consumer Reports revealed that two of the least expensive products on the market—Up & Up (Target) Sport SPF 50 spray and Equate (Walmart) Ultra Protection SPF 50 lotion—did the best job at screening harmful rays. So look for these brands, or simply choose any affordable option with a minimum SPF of 30 with broad-spectrum protection that shields both UVA and UVB rays.
Health Cost Hack: Read Your Medical Insurance Policy’s Fine Print
Many plans offer bonus benefits, like coverage for complementary and alternative medicine offered through acupuncturists, massage therapists, naturopaths and chiropractors. “The key is to check your benefits materials,” Rosen says. “You could be missing out.”