Personal Finance

Here's how to plan for higher health-care costs in retirement

Key Points
  • Fidelity Investments estimates that a healthy 65-year-old couple retiring this year will need $280,000 to cover their health-care costs in retirement.
  • Financial advisors suggest consumers think about those expenses as part of their overall retirement plan rather than a stand-alone number.
Retiree health costs
Retiree health costs

Thinking about how to cover health-care costs in retirement shouldn't be so stressful that it triggers a visit to the doctor.

The numbers can be intimidating, no doubt.

A new analysis from Fidelity Investments estimates that a healthy 65-year-old couple retiring this year will need $280,000 to cover their health-care costs. For individuals, the projection is $133,000 for a man and $147,000 for a woman.

Fidelity's calculations include premiums, cost-sharing provisions and out-of-pocket costs associated with Medicare parts A, B, and D. But the figures do not include other health expenses such as over-the-counter medications, most dental services and long-term care, and do not factor in any employer-provided retiree health coverage.

"Actual assets needed may be more or less depending on actual health status, area of residence, and longevity," Fidelity says.

The estimate is up 2 percent from $275,000 last year, the smallest increase in the annual analysis since 2014. Part of the reason is that drug costs have, at least for now, leveled off, said Hope Manion, senior vice president with Fidelity Benefits Consulting.

"Offsetting that though, we're seeing in the actuarial data that people are continuing to live longer," she said, which means additional years of expenses to anticipate.

Consumers planning for retirement can't expect such moderate cost increases every year. Health care will continue to be "a difficult pill to save for," Manion said.

So how do you plan?

First: Don't focus on that $280,000 figure, which is "a huge scare factor," said physician and certified financial planner Carolyn McClanahan. She's a co-founder of Whealthcare Planning, a company that helps people plan for the finances of aging

"This is a lump sum of what people spend on average," said McClanahan, who is also director of financial planning for Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida. "Your first question should be, 'Am I average?'"

A consumer with a healthy lifestyle, or who lives in an area with a good Medicare Advantage program, could see lower costs, she said.

Think about your health costs as part of your overall retirement plan when you're assessing savings strategies.

"It's a cash flow issue, not a lump sum expense," McClanahan said. "I tell people, save for the future and do what you can to control your medical expenses, just like you try to control your other expenses."

Keep in mind that strategies can differ based on the age at which you retire, too. Those retiring early (i.e. before age 65), will need to price out coverage options like staying on an employer's plan under COBRA or buying a marketplace plan.

Aiming to retire at 65 or later? You'll need to make sure you don't miss the enrollment window for Medicare Part B, McClanahan said, and weigh a Medicare Advantage Plan for extra coverage.

Health savings accounts, or HSAs, can be an important resource to save during your working years, certified financial planner Erika Safran, founder of Safran Wealth Advisors in New York City, told CNBC last week.

The accounts, available to workers with high-deductible health plans, offer a triple tax advantage, she said. Contributions are either pretax or tax-deductible, typically grow tax-free and can be withdrawn without incurring taxes when used toward qualified medical expenses.

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"Not only can the funds be used for care, but they can also be used for premiums," Safran said. "That's an excellent way to save for future health-care costs on a pretax basis."

(If you're healthy in retirement, you could even withdraw the funds to cover other, nonmedical expenses. You'd incur taxes on such a withdrawal.)

Taking steps now to improve your health can pay off, McClanahan said. The triple benefit of doing so is that you feel better as you age, can keep your health-care costs down and are able to work longer — improving financial stability and happiness.

"You've still got to save for the future, but the ability to age well gives you flexibility," she said.

"On the Money" airs on CNBC Saturdays at 5:30 a.m. ET. Check listings for air times in local markets.

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