How I Choose Health Insurance for My Family

How I Choose Health Insurance for My Family

My wife and I have both been self-employed for a few years now, which means that we’ve been on our own when it comes to finding health insurance for ourselves and our two boys.

And I’ll tell you, it’s been a heck of a learning curve. I honestly didn’t know much about choosing between different health insurance plans when I first started, and there are so many different variables that it’s hard to even know where to begin.

But over the years I’ve honed my process and whittled it down to five key variables that I look at every single time I have to make this decision, whether it’s for my own family or for my clients’ families.

And today I’m going to share those five variables with you so that you can make a better decision the next time you’re in charge of choosing a health insurance plan.

A tale of three health insurance plans

In order to show you how I do this in real life, we’re going to compare three health insurance plans that are actually available to me and my family for 2018, using real numbers so that you can see exactly how this works.

For our purposes here, I chose three different plans that represent three different levels of coverage, including the plan I ended up choosing for my family. Here they are:

Bronze plan (smallest premium, largest deductible)

  • Monthly Premium = $1,070
  • Annual Deductible = $12,000
  • Annual Out-of-Pocket Max = $12,000

Silver plan (medium premium, medium deductible)

  • Monthly Premium = $1,664
  • Annual Deductible = $7,000
  • Annual Out-of-Pocket Max = $14,700

Platinum plan (largest premium, smallest deductible)

  • Monthly Premium = $2,120
  • Annual Deductible = $0
  • Annual Out-of-Pocket Max = $4,000

With that, let’s break it all down!

Variable #1: Are our doctors and hospitals in-network?

This one is pretty obvious, but it’s often the most important variable, especially if you have specific doctors that you want to make sure you can continue seeing.

For example, when we lived in Boston my wife had an OB/GYN that we both absolutely loved. She delivered both of our boys and was, quite honestly, one of our favorite people in the world. We still talk about her even though we moved to Florida and haven’t seen her in almost four years.

When a doctor like that is involved, it would take a lot for me to choose a health insurance plan that didn’t have her in-network.

These days we don’t have anyone quite on that level, but there are certain doctors we would prefer to keep and a particular hospital that’s closer to us than any other. All else being equal, we’d like for all of them to be in-network.

One of the nice things about getting health insurance through is that it looks this information up for you. But no matter where you’re getting insurance, you can typically search through the provider directory on the insurance company’s website to find out which doctors and hospitals are in-network.

It’s also worth noting that a provider being out-of-network shouldn’t be an automatic disqualifier. Some health insurance plans offer reduced benefits for out-of-network providers, and those benefits still may be preferable to another plan.

In our case, all three of the health insurance plans we were looking at covered all of the doctors we cared about. Which meant we could move on to the financial variables without worrying about this part of the equation.

Variable #2: What is the guaranteed cost?

This where the fun really starts.

Health insurance plans all have a premium, but I prefer to call it the guaranteed cost because it’s the amount that you’re guaranteed to pay even if you don’t see a single doctor for the entire year.

The trick is to calculate your guaranteed cost as an annual amount so that you can easily compare it to other numbers – like your deductible and out-of-pocket max – that are shown as annual amounts by default.

Here’s the guaranteed cost for each of the plans we’re comparing here:

  • Bronze plan = $12,840
  • Silver plan = $19,968
  • Platinum plan = $25,439

That is, the guaranteed cost of the Bronze plan is $7,128 less than the guaranteed cost of the Silver plan and $12,599 less than the guaranteed cost of the Platinum plan.

Another way to look at it is that you’d need to spend $7,128 on health care under the Bronze plan just to equal the guaranteed cost of the Silver plan. And that’s assuming that all of that care would be free under the Silver plan, which is not the case.

For me, it’s incredibly helpful to see these numbers as annual amounts. Because while I already know that certain plans are more or less expensive just by looking at the monthly premium, it’s often eye-opening to see exactly how much more money I’m committing to health care over the next year.

Variable #3: What is the maximum cost?

Now that we know the minimum cost of each plan, it’s time to figure out the most we could possibly spend in a given year.

This one is pretty easy to calculate as well. All you have to do is add the maximum out-of-pocket amount to the guaranteed cost of each plan, and you have your maximum cost.

Here’s the maximum cost for each of the plans we’re comparing here:

  • Bronze plan = $24,840
  • Silver plan = $34,668
  • Platinum plan = $29,439

One interesting thing to note at this point is that the maximum cost of the Bronze plan is less than the guaranteed cost of the Platinum plan. So while I will continue including the Platinum plan in the comparisons below for informational purposes, in real life we could safely rule it out as an option.

It’s less clear when it comes to the Bronze plan vs. the Silver plan. Both the guaranteed cost and the maximum cost are higher for the Silver plan, which argues in favor of the Bronze plan.

But the maximum cost of the Bronze plan is higher than the guaranteed cost of the Silver plan, so we still need to evaluate one more variable.

Variable #4: What is the estimated cost?

This is where things get a little tricky and imprecise, because this is where you need to make some guesses about the kinds of health care you’ll use in the coming year, figure out how much those services will cost under each health insurance plan, and add those costs to the guaranteed cost to get your estimated cost.

Now, you can get really detailed and thorough with this, trying to outline all of the different doctor’s visits everyone in your family might have and figuring out what all the copays and coinsurance amounts for those services will be.

And while that will occasionally be helpful, most of the time I find that it’s not necessary. It’s often enough to just look at just a couple of services.

As an example, let’s say that you have a chronic condition and you have to see a specialist every month. Here’s how each of our example plans covers specialist visits:

  • Bronze plan = Full price until the deductible is met
  • Silver plan = $65 per visit
  • Platinum plan = $20 per visit

Now let’s assume that the full contracted price of each visit is $200. This means that under the Bronze plan, you’re paying $135-$180 more out-of-pocket each time you have to see this specialist.

Using these numbers, here’s the estimated cost for each plan assuming 12 visits per year:

  • Bronze plan = $15,240
  • Silver plan = $20,748
  • Platinum plan = $25,679

Despite the big difference in the cost of these monthly specialist visits, the Bronze plan is still pretty far ahead.

But what if something really bad happens? What if, on top of those specialist visits, you also have a 3-day inpatient stay that, without insurance, would cost $30,000 dollars? How would that impact the estimated cost?

Let’s break it down.

This particular Bronze plan requires you to pay the full amount of inpatient care until the deductible is met, after which the plan covers the rest of the cost. With a $12,000 deductible, $2,400 of which has already taken up by the specialist visits, this inpatient stay would cost $9,600, bringing the total estimated cost to $24,840.

The Silver plan requires you to pay the full amount of inpatient care until the deductible is met, after which the plan covers 80% the rest of the cost up to the out-of-pocket max. With a $7,000 deductible, $780 of which has already taken up by the specialist visits, this inpatient stay would cost $10,976, bringing the total estimated cost to $31,724.

The Platinum plan simply requires a $350 copay for each day of inpatient care. Over three days that inpatient stay would therefore cost $1,050, bringing the total estimated cost to $26,729.

All of which is to say that given these particular plans, the low-premium, high-deductible Bronze plan seems to come out ahead even when a significant amount of expensive care is needed.

Variable #5: What is the HSA-adjusted maximum cost?

In this situation, the decision is pretty easy. The Bronze plan has the lowest guaranteed cost, the lowest maximum cost, and the lowest estimated cost. Case closed.

But there’s still one more variable that we haven’t considered yet, and that’s the possibility of using a health savings account.

You can click here to get all the details on health savings accounts, or HSAs for short, but the quick version is that you get to contribute money tax-free and then withdraw it tax-free for medical expenses, which essentially results in a discounted cost of healthcare.

How much money it saves you depends on how much you contribute and what tax bracket you’re in. The maximum family contribution in 2018 is $6,900, which, if you’re in the 25% tax bracket, would save you $1,725 in taxes ($6,900 * 0.25).

The catch is that you are only allowed to contribute to a health savings account if you are enrolled in a qualifying high-deductible health insurance plan. And in our case, the Bronze plan we were considering is HSA-eligible while the Silver and Platinum plans are not.

So, if we chose the Bronze plan and contributed $6,900 to a health savings account, we would effectively reduce the maximum cost of that plan by $1,725.

This variable doesn’t end up affecting the decision in this example, since the Bronze plan was already clearly the best option. But in other situations it might be the tipping point that sways you to choose the high-deductible plan over your other options.

Choosing the right health insurance for your family

Your health insurance options and your family’s medical needs will be different than mine. Sometimes it will make sense to take the lower premium with the higher deductible, and other times it will make more sense to pay a higher premium in return for a lower deductible and/or better coverage of certain types of care.

Either way, this process should give you a better sense of the true cost of each plan, making it easier for you to choose the right health insurance for your family.

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8 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Linden November 21, 2017

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the post…great framework. Two other things that I think are worth mentioning:
    – if you’re eligible for subsidies, does the subsidy amount vary based on plan?
    – if you’re self-employed and thus eligible to deduct the cost of health insurance, does the amount you can deduct vary based on plan?

    Even if the answer to both of these questions is “no” – it would be helpful to mention that… Thanks again!

  • Katharina November 22, 2017

    Hi Matt,

    Thank you for breaking this down so thoroughly. Your blog post are always welcome.


    • Matt Becker November 22, 2017

      You’re welcome! And thank you for the kind words.

  • Patricia Hernandez December 5, 2017

    Hi Matt:

    Thank you so much for your explanation. It makes it so much easier to make a decision.
    I need some help with my situation and was wondering if you could help me. My husband and I are in our 50’s and have our own small business (only the two of us) We earn aprox. $100.000 a year. We are both very healthy. This year we only spent $600 in our medicals. However, our daughter, who just turned 23, suffers from a chronic desease call Crohn’s. She needs to get treatments at Mayo clinic in Jacksonville, Florida every 6 weeks. Each treatment cost more than $20000. Could we have her get her Insurance from healthcare. gov and get a less expensive insurance for us through a private company (Since we do not qualify for the health It is very complicated and I don’t know what would be the best solution. If you have any advise for me, I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks, Patty

    • Matt Becker December 5, 2017

      I’m glad this was helpful Patricia! And I would say a couple of things in response to your question:

      1. I don’t know all the circumstances of your situation, but it sounds to me like you may be eligible for health insurance through Like you, my wife and I both own small businesses and we get health insurance through the exchange. There may be others reasons that you’re not eligible, but I wanted to mention that first.
      2. As for how and what kind of coverage to get for your daughter, that’s unfortunately not something I have the expertise to answer. I would suggest reaching out to a few independent health insurance agents in your area to see if they could help. You can also find someone to help you navigate the insurance options in the exchange at

      Good luck Patricia. I hope you find something that works!

  • Karl Strube October 28, 2021

    Matt, I have saved this article and come back to it often as my family has had to change insurances multiple times over the last few years and are about to do so again. It’s tiring, but this rubric is so helpful. So, thank you.

    I’m curious, do you use individual or family amounts for the deductibles and OOP Maximums in your analysis? Almost seems like there might be a case for using individual deductibles and family OOP Max?

    • Matt Becker November 9, 2021

      Thanks for the kind words Karl and I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to answer your question. I generally use the family numbers because I’m trying to understand the worst-case scenario of each plan. But if there is one family member you expect to use a significant amount of medical care, certainly looking at the individual numbers could be helpful as well, especially if you’re trying to decide between multiple plans that are otherwise fairly similar.

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