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RESEARCH Coping with Medical Costs through Life



Individuals face different types of financial challenges over the life cycle. As the JPMorgan Chase Institute has shown, income volatility drops with age while expense volatility remains high across the age spectrum (Farrell and Greig, 2017). Nearly four in ten families—particularly older families—make an extraordinary payment related to health, auto repair, and tax in a given year, payments that might be hard to anticipate. One in six families (16 percent) makes an extraordinary medical payment in any given year, but families 65 years and older are about twice as likely as families under 30 years to have made an extraordinary medical payment.

Recent healthcare reform policy debates have focused on the degree to which families should be expected to shoulder the costs of healthcare services. Their ability to do so is linked closely to not only income, but also age. In this insight, the JPMorgan Chase Institute compares the incidence of extraordinary medical payments and their impact on financial outcomes for different age groups.

Though the need to make major medical payments can occur across all age levels and increases over time, both the financial conditions of families and the resources they have to respond to such expenses differs among younger (18-29 years), middle-aged (30-64 years), and older families (65+ years). Based on a sample of nearly 100,000 families from 2013 to 2015, JPMorgan Chase Institute data show that younger and middle-aged families were more likely to make medical payments in months when they had higher income and liquid assets.  However, older families, who had higher liquid assets and experienced less income volatility, did not demonstrate this pattern as strongly. We also observed that there were many younger and older families who increased their revolving credit card debt after making major medical payments, and that these increases persisted, and even grew, in the 12 month period after the medical payment.

Key Facts

Based on a sample of nearly 100,000 families from 2013 to 2015, we observe:

  • The incidence and magnitude of extraordinary medical payments increased with age.
  • Younger families (18-29 years) had lower liquid assets and higher income volatility and were much more likely than older families (65+ years) to make extraordinary medical payments in months when they had a higher ability to pay.
  • Among younger families (18-29 years) and older families (65+ years), revolving credit card debt remained more than 10 percent higher relative to baseline a year after the medical payment.
  • A year after making an extraordinary medical payment, younger families (18-29 years) were most likely to have newly taken on revolving credit card debt, while older families (65+ years) experienced the greatest increase in amount of debt.


About the data

The JPMorgan Chase Institute assembled a de-identified sample of 96,000 core Chase checking account customers between 2013 and 2015, for whom we could categorize at least 80 percent of expenses and who had ever made an extraordinary medical payment.1 For the purposes of our research, the unit of analysis is the primary account holder, whom we subsequently refer to as a family. We grouped families by age based on the age of the primary account holder, recognizing that other account users or family members paid for through the account may have been of any age.2 In evaluating the impact on financial outcomes, we focused on a sub-sample of 55,000 families who had made exactly one extraordinary medical payment between 2013 and 2015.

We defined a medical payment as “extraordinary” if the monthly expense was at least $400, more than one percent of annual income, and more than two standard deviations away from the family’s average monthly medical expenses.3 These three criteria ensured that the magnitude of the medical payment was both large and unusual, hence extraordinary, for each family across the income spectrum. We examined changes in families’ overall financial behavior that coincided with an extraordinary medical payment relative to a baseline period between four and six months prior to the medical payment.4 We describe our key insights below.


Families respond to extraordinary medical payments differently over the life cycle. Our analysis shows that younger families, who had lower liquid assets and experienced more income volatility, timed their medical payments with increases in income and liquid assets. For older families, medical bills are more commonplace and frequent. Their exact timing and amount can remain uncertain, however. Older families had less volatile incomes and greater liquid assets, which they tended to draw down in order to pay a major medical bill. Still, for both groups, there were many families who turned to revolving credit card debt to cope. Revolving credit card debt remained elevated a year after the medical payment among both younger and older families, with younger families sustaining the largest increase in credit card debt. This increased revolving credit card debt could be particularly challenging for older families, as they tended to have lower incomes with which to reduce the credit card debt.

These findings support the need for more effective financial solutions to help younger and older families weather health-related financial shocks. These solutions could help families build an everyday cash buffer, potentially through employer-sponsored pre-tax health reimbursement accounts or other “side-car” savings accounts, to allow families to pay for medical services when they need them without having to rely on income and asset spikes or credit card debt.

Additionally consumers might benefit from better tools and payment options to help families anticipate and manage their medical expenses. Patients should be able to see full, accurate estimates of their healthcare costs as or before costs are incurred. When the bill arrives they might benefit from having flexible payment options, including financing options over the short and long run, as well as discounts for paying on time. In planning for and managing their medical expenses over time, consumers might be well served by more integrated tools that help consumers shop around for non-emergency care and put their medical-related account balances, bills, and payments all in one place.

Better understanding the incidence and impacts of major medical expenses among the young and the old is critical to designing effective solutions tailored to the needs of families in different life stages.

Suggested Citation
Farrell, Diana and Greig, Fiona. “Coping with Medical Costs through Life.” JPMorgan Chase Institute, 2017.



Diana Farrell

Founding and Former President & CEO

Fiona Greig

Former Co-President