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Placing a Dollar Value on Good Health

Q. I started going to a massage therapist for some back pain about six months ago. It costs $70 for an hour massage, and I have appointments every other week. It's helped the pain a great deal, but I was shocked to tally up my bills recently to find that I'd already spent almost $1,000! I'd like to keep going, but I'd also like to avoid going broke. Any thoughts on what I should do?
-- Jenny C., Modesto, California

A. Anytime something gets up over $1,000 a year, you start to think of how much of your salary that amounts to -- never a great feeling. But you also have to ask yourself, "What do I value more, my money or my well-being?" It's a question I had to ask myself at one time. When I first started my career, I wound up with a horrible case of carpal tunnel syndrome. I could barely move my hands, much less type. My doctor wanted to put me in casts up to my elbows. I talked him out of it by promising to visit an acupuncturist and perhaps combine that with massage. My health-care plan didn't cover either one, but I went anyway. As a consequence, I regained the complete use of my hands, avoided surgery and pills, and never felt better.

My point is, sometimes the expense is worth it. You wouldn't forgo groceries or heating your home just to save money, and, at some point, you need to put your health care into the same nonnegotiable category. Just as water pipes will freeze in winter if you don't turn on the heat, not taking care of your back could have its costs: doctor visits, painkiller prescriptions, or physical therapy if the pain gets out of hand. Think of massage as a necessary expense, and you'll find a way to work it into your budget, no matter what.

One way to make it a little more affordable: See if your employer offers a health savings account (and if they don't, ask them to reconsider; HSAs are a great way to make health care more affordable). Basically, these plans allow you to set aside a portion of your pre-tax salary for health-care expenses -- up to $2,900 for individuals and $5,800 for families in 2008. You choose the amount you want to set aside, your employer puts it into a special account, and you use that money for your health-care needs without ever paying taxes on it. Your back massages will likely qualify if your doctor or chiropractor is willing to recommend them for you.

As long as you have a comfortable income and no significant debt, the money you're spending on massages each month isn't really a huge price to pay for your well-being. So I say go ahead and take care of yourself, and stop feeling so guilty. Being healthy is definitely worth it.

Text by Tracy Fernandez Rysavy

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