The Basics of Medicare: How to Choose the Right Plan for You

The Basics of Medicare: How to Choose the Right Plan for You

When you reach 65, you face an important milestone: You are now eligible for Medicare.

Contrary to popular belief, Medicare is not free, and it’s important to understand the ins and outs of Medicare before you sign up. Making the wrong choices can be expensive.

Even if you’ve been on Medicare for years, you may want to re-evaluate your options annually to make sure you’ve got the right plan. The annual open enrollment period, during which you can switch Medicare plans, runs Oct. 15 through Dec. 7.

“I think everyone should consider switching,” says Lita Epstein, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Social Security and Medicare.” “Plans change, benefits change and the premiums change.”

It’s especially important to re-evaluate your options if you have a Medicare Part D drug plan or a Medicare Advantage plan because those plans can change significantly from year to year, dropping and adding drugs and doctors or changing copays and deductibles. “Even if they’re completely happy with their plan, they have to look because things change,” says Diane J. Omdahl, founder and Medicare expert at 65 Incorporated, which helps people choose Medicare coverage.

Medicare plans are actually broken into multiple parts:

  • Part A covers hospital care, skilled nursing, hospice and some home health care. If you or your spouse has at least 10 years of Social Security work history, this part is free. If you don’t have that work history, it can be up to $413 per month. Your premium amount is determined by how many Social Security work credits you have.
  • Part B covers doctor visits, preventive care, outpatient care and hospitals, and some home health care. In 2017, this part will average $109 a month for most Medicare beneficiaries whose incomes are $85,000 a year or less ($170,000 for a couple) and up to $428.60 for those whose annual income exceeds $214,000 ($428,000 for a couple). About 30 percent of beneficiaries will pay $134 per month, up from $121.80 in 2016. Most people find they need a Medigap plan in addition to parts A and B.
  • Part C is also known as a Medicare Advantage plan. It substitutes for parts A and B and, in most cases, Part D, the drug plan. Premiums range from zero dollars to more than $100 a month, varying by location and coverage. According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the average premium in 2017 will be $31.40, down slightly from 2016.
  • Part D covers prescription drugs. Premiums are about $15 to $50 per month, with the average in 2017 expected to be $34 per month, up about $1.50 from the previous year.

About 32 percent of Americans are expected to choose Medicare Advantage plans next year, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Those plans, a combination of HMOs and PPOs, have an out-of-pocket limit, and the average out-of-pocket limit was $5,223 in 2016, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Customers tend to pay more in copays and coinsurance than they do with traditional Medicare, plus have access to fewer doctors and hospitals. Some of the plans include vision, dental and hearing coverage, which is not covered by traditional Medicare, but those services are offered from a limited network of providers. “If you’re healthy and you’re younger … it can be cheaper,” Epstein says. “If you absolutely can’t afford to take a Medigap supplement, a Medicare Advantage plan is going to be the best option.”

Her advice to those who can afford it, however, is to choose traditional Medicare with a supplement because that option offers greater access to top specialists and doesn’t require the insurance company to approve specific treatments. “Managed health care is going to be managed by the insurance company,” she says.

“It’s very, very important that you look at those copays and compare them,” Epstein says. “By the time you figure in one hospitalization, it’s about the same,” she says of the total cost of traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage plans.

No matter what your retirement age, you become eligible for Medicare when you turn 65and you can sign up the three months before your birthday, your birth month and the three months after. If you don’t sign up during this seven-month period, even if you’re still working, you may face a long-term penalty. “They cannot wait until the last minute because of the backlog at Social Security,” Omdahl says.

She warns those signing up for Medicare to pay attention or they may be enrolled in a plan they don’t want. Insurance companies are allowed to sign current customers up for their Medicare Advantage plan unless they specifically say they don’t want the plan. To opt out, they have to respond to a letter from their current carrier, which can easily get lost in all the ads for new Medicare members.

“Anybody turning 65 will tell you that your mailbox is not big enough for all the insurance mail that you get,” Omdahl says. This practice, called “seamless conversion,” has existed for a while, but more insurance companies appear to be using it, she says.

If you start with traditional Medicare and a Medigap supplement, your supplement rate is not based on your health record. But if you start with a Medicare Advantage plan and then switch to traditional Medicare later, the company offering the supplemental coverage will base your premium on your health history and may even deny coverage. “It’s a real risk because everybody’s going to get something as they get older,” Epstein says.

Americans who are very low income may be eligible for extra help with Medicare premiums and health care costs. Beneficiaries in this financial situation can find additional guidance from

The system is complex, and most people should seek help when choosing a plan. The U.S. News Best Medicare Plans site can help you navigate the options and get the right medical coverage, and you can also find information at and If you’re considering several Medicare Advantage plans, call the company that offers each one to verify that the coverage is what you think it is.

You can find ratings of Medicare Advantage plans from the National Committee for Quality Assurance. You can also get phone or in-person help from your State Health Insurance Assistance Programs. Those agencies often maintain office hours at senior centers or other locations. U.S. News also highlights the Best Medicare Advantage Plansand Best Medicare Part D Plans.

Freebies You Can Get in October 2017

Freebies You Can Get in October 2017

Read on for the free food and other goodies you can get this month.

Family eating meal at outdoor restaurant together.

Restaurants are offering free kids meals this October. (Getty Images)

Fun-size chocolate bars and candy corn flow freely throughout October, a month synonymous with Halloween. But candy isn’t the only thing you can get for free during the spooky month this year. Here are some of the best freebies you can get in October.


Free coffee from Tim Hortons 

Sept. 29 to Oct. 8

National Coffee Day took place in September, but Tim Hortons is extending the celebration. Up until Oct. 8, you can get a free original blend, dark roast, decaf or iced coffee of any size when you download the Tim Hortons app.


Free kids meal at Baja Fresh
Oct. 31

This Halloween, Baja Fresh is hooking families up with a free kids meal with the purchase of an adult entree. No costume is required, but you must be a member of Club Baja to access the deal.


Free kids meal at Bertucci’s
Oct. 25 to Nov. 1

During the week leading up to Halloween, Bertucci’s is treating children in costume to free kids meals. The purchase of an adult entree is required.


Free kids meal at Carrows Restaurants 
Oct. 31

Carrows doles out free kids meals to costumed children with the purchase of an adult entree on Halloween. To redeem the deal, check with your local Carrows to see whether it is participating this Halloween.


Free tickets at Chuck E. Cheese 
Oct. 1 to Oct. 31

In honor of “Chucktober,” kids in costume can get 50 free tickets all month long at Chuck E. Cheese.


Free kids meal at Coco’s Bakery Restaurants 
Oct. 31

Every Halloween, Coco’s Bakery Restaurants hands out free kids meals to youngsters in costume with the purchase of an adult entree. To see whether your restaurant will participate this Halloween, contact your local Coco’s Bakery.


Free taco at Chuy’s 
Oct. 4

To celebrate National Taco Day, Chuy’s is giving away free entrees to guests who visit in a taco costume. On the holiday, Chuy’s will also offer $1 crispy beef tacos and $1 off Mexican beers.


Free tacos at Del Taco 
Oct. 1 to Oct. 31

All month long, you can get two free grilled chicken tacos if you sign up for Raving Fan e-Club at Del Taco. As a member, you’ll also receive one free premium shake on your birthday.


Free kids meal at HomeTown Buffet 
Oct. 31

Many HomeTown Buffet locations celebrate Halloween by inviting kids wearing Halloween costumes to eat free with the purchase of an adult buffet meal. Check with your local restaurant to see whether it will offer a free kids buffet this year.


Free scary face pancake at IHOP 
Oct. 31

To celebrate Halloween, IHOP is serving up free design-your-own scary face pancakes to youngsters. The buttermilk pancakes feature a whipped topping mouth with a strawberry nose, plus two mini Oreo cookie “eyes” and candy corn “fangs.”


Free kids meal McAlister’s Deli 
Oct. 31

To celebrate Halloween, McAlister’s Deli hooks up kids in costume with a free kids meal with the purchase of an adult entree. Contact your local restaurant for confirmation of participation and details.


Free pizza from Mellow Mushroom 
Sept. 19 to Oct. 31

Mellow Mushroom has partnered with No Kid Hungry to raise money for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. Donate $5 to No Kid Hungry and receive a free small pepperoni pizza the next time you dine at Mellow Mushroom.


Free kids meal at Mimi’s Cafe 
Oct. 31

On Halloween, Mimi’s Cafe locations will offer free kids meals to youngsters, costume or no costume, with the purchase of an adult entree. Check with your local Mimi’s to ensure participation.


Free pizza from Papa Gino’s Pizzeria 
Sept. 23 to Oct. 31

In recognition of Fire Safety Month, Papa Gino’s sponsors Fire Safety Open Houses throughout October. At these events, guests can visit their local fire station to learn about fire awareness and enjoy free pizza from Papa Gino’s. Visit to find an event near you.

4 Ways to Protect Yourself From Financial Disasters

4 Ways to Protect Yourself From Financial Disasters

Here’s how to prepare for unexpected bills and survive financial disasters.

Woman worried about financial problems.

Don’t let unanticipated expenses derail your financial plans.

 When it comes to unexpected bills, such as car repair or medical bills, most of us are not prepared. And as financial disasters, such as a job loss or a debilitating medical condition, get more serious, the less prepared we are. A 2015 study from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that more than half of Americans are not prepared for unexpected bills. Another Pew study from 2015 found that 55 percent of American households did not have the cash savings to replace one month of income. While worrying about the unexpected will keep you up at night, there are some simple steps you can take to prepare your finances and ease your mind.

Understand your current finances: You can’t prepare your finances unless you have a clear picture of your income and spending. First, determine your average monthly income, including salary and any other money you bring in. Then list your average monthly spending, including everything from your student loan debt or car payment to what you spend on hobbies or entertainment. Add up all your spending and that is your total expenses for the month. If your income is higher than your expenses, then the difference is what you can apply to saving for the unexpected. If your expenses are higher than your income, then you need to evaluate your finances and find ways to reduce your spending.

Make an emergency budget: Once you have a clear picture of your finances, you need to calculate the minimum you need every month to cover your expenses. Start by prioritizing your bills. Look at your expenses and list just your monthly necessities. These are expenses you couldn’t live without or need to pay every month, such as rent, mortgage, car payment, groceries and utilities. Now list your optional spending, such as a gym membership, cable TV, eating out and Netflix. The total of your necessities is what you need on hand every month.

Examine your optional spending and see if there is anything you can drop or reduce. Instead of going out to lunch every day, go out every other day. Instead of the full cable package, go for the basic channels. Whatever is left on the list is now your emergency budget. If something unexpected does happen, the emergency budget is the first place you can go to drop the spending you can live without and lower your expenses.

Get your finances in order: With all your information in front of you, now is the time to evaluate your finances. If you have credit card debt, look to pay off or pay down your credit card balances. Keeping your credit card balances down gives you more available credit for emergencies. Is the interest rate on your mortgage high? You might be able to refinance at a lower rate. Make sure you’re contributing the full amount to your retirement fund or 401(k).

You should also check whether you are adequately covered with insurance. Check your health insurance to see whether you and your family have the right coverage in case of a medical emergency. Check your homeowners or rental insurance to make sure you are covered in the event of a natural disaster. Consider getting optional coverage such as life insurance or disability insurance to make sure you and your family are taken care of if the worst happens.

Build an emergency fund: One of the most important tools you can have to prepare for financial disasters is an emergency fund. Usually kept in a savings account, so you can easily access it when you need to, an emergency fund is money you set aside to cover your essential bills. The goal is to have at least enough money to cover you for three months. This money would go to living expenses such as food and rent. Most households don’t have that much, so don’t panic.

 Even if you are starting from zero, having that total of your essential expenses gives you the number you need to reach. Contributing what you can afford each month will still give you that much more of a cushion in case of an emergency. Once you reach your three-month number, don’t stop contributing. Financial disasters can come in unexpected ways, so the more you have, the better your chances to make it through.
7 Foods to Buy When You’re Broke

7 Foods to Buy When You’re Broke

If you’re confined to a strict food budget, you should consider green vegetables, brown rice or beans.

Woman reading her shopping list in the supermarket

Trying to live on a food budget of about $4 per day can be quite a challenge. People quickly discover this when they take the Food Stamp Challenge and try to learn what it’s like to be poor for a week.

The challenge mirrors what someone can get through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the federal program that helps low-income people buy groceries. One in seven Americans receive the benefits, which were significantly reduced by Congress in November.

To qualify, a family of four can have an annual net income of up to $23,556, which puts them at the federal poverty level. They would then receive up to $632 a month in SNAP benefits, which equates to about $5.25 a day per person for food. The average SNAP recipient receives $4 per day, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

While getting this extra money can mean the difference between eating and going hungry, the limited funds can make it difficult to choose which food to buy. Getting the most nutrition for your money can be hard when you don’t have a lot of money for groceries, but it’s not impossible.

According to dieticians and nutritionists, some foods are better than others when you’re trying to stretch a dollar. Here are seven that you should consider when funds are tight:

Brown rice. The vitamins, minerals and antioxidants are some of the benefits, but one of the biggest pluses may be that the high amount of fiber in brown rice helps slow digestion and fill you up for a long time.

“Fiber is one of the best [nutritional components] that helps with satiety, or the feeling of fullness,” says Rachel Begun, a food and nutrition consultant in Boulder, Colo.”They also help to spread the food dollar because they’re a component of meals that can help you make a fulfilling dish.”

Beans. Like many items at the grocery store, buying in bulk can save a lot of money. Dry beans can cost about $1 per pound and expand to three times their volume when cooked, turning three to four cups of dry beans into nine cups when cooked, says Carol Wasserman, a certified holistic health practitioner in Manhattan.

And beans, like rice, can be flavored with spices and herbs to make the main portion of a meal.

“We have to kind of shift our thinking from having the meat be the center of the plate,” and be more creative with other dishes, such as rice and beans, says Julieanna Hever, a plant-based dietician in Los Angeles and host of a healthy living talk show on Veria Living.

Beans are also a very healthy choice. They are high in fiber and protein, low in fat and sodium and have minerals such as iron, potassium, magnesium, copper and zinc, along with vitamins such as folic acid, thiamin, niacin and B6.

Potatoes. These versatile vegetables can be added to casseroles and used in a variety of ways, and they’re every bit as nutritious as colored vegetables, Begun says. They contain 45 percent of the recommended daily nutritional intake of vitamin C, 18 percent of fiber and 18 percent of potassium, a mineral that regulates blood pressure, she says. They’ve been found to have the lowest cost source of dietary potassium.

The average potato is virtually fat free, with a high water and fiber content to make it ideal for weight-loss at 200 calories for an average baked potato, according to information from Be careful how you cook them. Frying a potato raises fat content from 0 to 8 grams.

Green vegetables. Any leafy greens, such as broccoli, spinach and kale, have lots of nutrients per calorie and help protect against inflammation and disease, Never says. Some lettuces can be bitter, she says, but can be offset in a salad with carrots, beets and other sweet vegetables.

“People aren’t really used to it,” she says of bitter greens such as kale. “It’s kind of a taste bud transition that some people have to get used to.”

Instead of buying an expensive dressing for any of these foods, Wasserman suggests mixing a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil with juice from half of a lemon or lime.

Frozen vegetables. Buying fresh vegetables in season is an inexpensive way to get them, but frozen vegetables are a good option too, Begun says. They’re picked at the peak of their flavor and aren’t nutritionally inferior to fresh ones. The downside of fresh vegetables is they might be picked before their height of ripeness and often travel many miles to a grocery store, she says.

Peanut butter. This is another economic source of protein, rich in healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Peanuts contain resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine, says Sharon Palmer, a Duarte, Calif.-based food and nutrition writer who covers plant-powered diets.

Protein bars. You may not want to make them the only part of your diet, but they obviously have protein in them and cost about $2 each. Andrew Ross and his wife, who live in Baltimore, eat a Quest protein bar from GNC every three hours from when the time they wake up until when they go to bed. They started this habit in April and he’s lost 78 pounds so far.

They also eat Power Pak pudding once a day, which contains 30 grams of protein per can and less than 200 calories. The protein bars have 20 grams of protein and less than 200 calories. Ross estimates that they spend less than $400 per month on food and drinks, saving money by buying in bulk during sales.

The best answer to getting the most nutritional foods for your buck may be to simply buy fresh food that’s in season and not to fall for the theory that fast food is cheaper than what you can purchase at the grocery store. “People don’t think out of the box,” Wasserman says. Fast food may be quicker than preparing a meal at home, but it won’t beat buying fresh fruit and vegetables in taste or cost, she says.

Why Your 50s Are a Good Time to Begin Thinking About Long-Term Care

Why Your 50s Are a Good Time to Begin Thinking About Long-Term Care

Think about it before you need to think about it.

Middle-aged couple

“The key to purchasing long-term care insurance is to do so when you’re still healthy to qualify.”

Sure, it seems crazy to start thinking about a possible future when you’re infirmed and need long-term health care if you’re only in your 50s. You’re young, or relatively young, and healthy. But that’s the point.

You don’t want to someday be unable to take care of yourself and wish that you had done some pre-planning. If you’re in your 50s, and you’re not thinking about long-term care, these are some reasons you should be considering it.

You have plenty of time. That’s why planning for long-term care now is a good idea. If you wait to plan for long-term care in your 60s, 70s or beyond, you’re going to find that certain strategies aren’t available (or practical) any longer.

There are generally three approaches people take to long-term care, according to Sam Price, an independent broker and agent with Assurance Financial Solutions in Birmingham, Alabama. You can:

Pay for the care yourself. That is, no insurance, no government help – just you. You could research how much you’d likely spend if you became chronically ill, Price says. He also adds that this really isn’t realistic for many people.

“The problem with self-funding is that people may find themselves needing that money10 to 15 years into their retirement just to make it. So people who are intent upon self-funding might find themselves without options later on,” he says.

Let Medicaid pay for it. Not Medicare, which won’t pay for long-term care. “But Medicaid was created to do just that,” Price says. “For persons with typically less than $150,000 to $200,000 in retirement assets, Medicaid may make more sense.”

But he advises talking to an elder-care attorney, who can guide you through the ins and outs of Medicaid.

Let insurance pay for your care. After you pay for the insurance, of course – such as long-term insurance or a hybrid life insurance and long-term care policy.

“Clients who find insurance appealing need a competent broker that can walk them through the myriad of options available,” Price says.

There are other things to consider, too, says Karen Lee, a certified financial planner with her own firm, Karen Lee & Associates, in Atlanta.