So here’s my story. I grew up in a great household with two loving, caring, semi-strict, well-educated, and encouraging parents (oh and I have a sister– she’s cool too). Upon high school graduation, I went to the great institution of Howard University (shout out to HU), all the while having my health insurance covered through my parents. After about a million internships, both paid and unpaid, and a diploma from Howard, I gladly walked my butt into Corporate America. As a result, I starting paying for my own insurance provided through my job. Fast forward a few years to when I decided to quit my job and move to Paris to pursue grad school, my insurance was now being paid for by my school (well, technically by Uncle Sam and my student loans). Fast forward a little more, post graduate degree and back in the U.S., and I’m living a little more of a “free spirit” lifestyle then before I left, and realizing I need to make arrangements to get my own insurance for the first time in my life.

In my mission to better educate myself on the matter, it was a bit difficult to find a comprehensive explanation of the options I had available. They don’t teach you this stuff in school, but what I do know that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell — not that I’ve ever used that information, but I’ve hyperlinked it for those of you who want to brush up on your cell biology.

Anyway, as a result, I made this little guide to help those of you in a similar predicament.

Before we begin, please note, under the healthcare law, you must have qualifying health coverage or pay a penalty on your next federal tax return. Besides the fact that nobody wants to pay that penalty, protecting yourself with health insurance is simply a smart financial decision. All it takes is one unexpected accident or health scare to alter your financial situation drastically.  

Key Terminology

Whether you’re in college and haven’t started making these decisions or just need a little refresher, here are a few terms you should know to make intelligent and informed decisions regarding your healthcare.

Provider Network A list of the doctors, other health care providers, and hospitals that a plan has contracted with to provide medical care to its members. These providers are called “network providers” or “in-network providers.” A provider that hasn’t contracted with the plan is called an “out-of-network provider.”

Insurance Premium – The amount you pay for your health insurance every month. In addition to your premium, you’ll usually have to pay other costs for your healthcare, including a deductible, copayments, and coinsurance.

Copayment – A fixed amount ($20, for example) you pay for a covered healthcare service after you’ve paid your deductible.

Coinsurance – The percentage of costs of a covered health care service you pay (20%, for example) after you’ve paid your deductible.

Deductible – The amount you pay for covered healthcare services before your insurance plan starts to pay. With a $2,000 deductible, for example, you pay the first $2,000 of covered services yourself.

Independent Health Care Options

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point you in the direction of healthcare.gov. It’s a health insurance exchange website operated under the U.S. federal government, and it is an extremely helpful reference. I highly encourage you all to visit the website and see what options are available for your specific needs.

If you are under the age of 30, you have a few more options.

The Parent’s Plan – Milk your youth–it doesn’t last forever! If you’re under the age of 26, you can likely get on a parent’s health insurance plan. You can join or stay on a parent’s plan even if you get married, have a child, are in school, or are not claimed as a tax dependent. It’s a sad day when you have to give this up, so take advantage now.

Student Health Plans – If you’re in school, you may also be able to enroll in a student health plan. This means you’re considered covered under the healthcare law, and won’t have to pay the penalty for not having insurance. Be sure to check with the plan the plan and your school to be sure. In many instances it is already paid for by your tuition and you can get a insurance card from your on-campus health clinic.

Emergency Health Care – Another option available to individuals under 30 is the “Catastrophic” health plan. It’s a way to protect yourself mainly from worst-case scenarios. These plans have low monthly premiums and very high deductibles (around $7,000). They may be an affordable way to protect yourself from worst-case scenarios, like getting seriously sick or injured, but you’ll pay most routine medical expenses yourself.

For those over the age of 30, you can start by using this tool to see if your income puts you in the range to save on an insurance plan. You’ll also find out if you’re in the range for Medicaid in your state. It takes less than a minute–I did it myself. More importantly, you can get all information on 2018 health insurance plans and prices available to you and your specific situation (state of residency, income, number of persons in your household, etc.) though this tool.