Getting a Flu Shot Is Cheap or Free. Getting Sick Is Really Expensive

free flu shot
Sharon Steinmann / The Penny Hoarder
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“This isn’t prison,” my doctor tells me. “I can’t make you do anything you don’t want. That being said, I highly recommend you get your flu shot today.”

He’s right to expect pushback: Consistently since the 2010-11 flu season, more than half of adults have declined to get a flu vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu season typically peaks between December and February, but it can invite itself to a party in your immune system as early as September.

I, for one, had never received the shot, even as a child. And I was all set to bolster the statistic this year, too.

That is, until I realized exactly how much my negligence might cost me, and how easy and cheap it would be to avoid a few days of couch-ridden misery.

Here’s How Much it Costs to Get the Flu

News flash: Being sick sucks. It feels horrible.

But in case you need more prodding to get poked, you should know the flu can deplete your wallet as quickly as it does your electrolyte levels.

Don’t believe me? Well, consider these costs.

Missing Work

The flu is contagious for a long time, sometimes before you even begin to show symptoms.

And once you do start to feel like death, your Grim Reaper status gets real: For five to seven days, you can easily infect those around you.

Since you’re likely to experience severe symptoms for at least two, maybe three, of those days, you’re almost definitely going to miss at least a day of work. And if you do the truly conscientious thing to avoid spreading your illness, you may miss up to five days of work — and that’s assuming you’ve got a two-day weekend in there somewhere.

I’m lucky to work at a company with unlimited paid sick days, but if you don’t, your absenteeism could pull a lot of money out of your pocket.

If you make $10 per hour and work eight-hour days, your flu would cost you between $80 and $400, before accounting for taxes and other withholdings.

And if you drag your snot-infested self into work (DON’T DO IT), you could spread your illness to your coworkers or customers — at least the ones who also skipped the vaccine.

Doctor’s Visit

When the flu hits hard, sometimes it’s not easy to simply knuckle down, load up on Advil and drink lots of fluids. You might find yourself schlepping to the doctor’s office for prescription-grade meds, or at least to have them confirm you’re not actually dying.

And even if all your doctor does is repeat the advice above, if your health insurance isn’t great or you don’t have any, you might shell out more than $100 to get the “Why didn’t you just get a freaking flu shot?” side-eye from health care professionals.

Sickbed Supplies and Ripple Effects

Although it might not seem like much, you’re also spending money on that sick nest you’ve created on your couch.

Let’s say you go through two boxes of tissues and half a package each of Dayquil and Nyquil.

Even Walmart’s store-brand tissues cost 3 cents apiece, and if you’re like me, you’ll spring for the aloey kind, even though they cost more than double.

Listen, it’s my face. Some things are just worth the money. Tissue cost: $4.97.

And although it’s completely necessary, cold medicine still ain’t cheap. Medicine cost: $19.99.

Plus, there are other, less obvious, costs to think about: soup, whether canned or homemade. If you’re really lucky, the time your loved one puts into preparing the soup for you. Blankets and temperature regulation. Wear and tear on your couch.

If you have kids, you’re probably going to pass your germs to them, so they’ll have to stay home from school for a while. Maybe they’ll stay sick longer than you, forcing you to hire a sitter so you can go back to work.

Maybe they’ll miss a fundamental math class in seventh grade, and you’ll need to hire a tutor.

Or maybe you won’t, and they’ll grow up to be humanities majors instead of super-high-earning coders or computer engineers. Yes, this really does happen — trust me.

4 Ways to Get a Cheap or Free Flu Shot This Year

Getting the flu is sounding worse and worse, huh?

Wouldn’t it be great if there were an easy way to avoid all this misery and financial waste?

Perhaps you see where I’m going with this.

Best of all, the health care community is behind me. Since they want you to just get your gosh-darn flu shot already, there are tons of ways to get a free flu shot.

And no, it doesn’t hurt — at least, not nearly as bad as your throat, head, body and wallet might if you don’t get vaccinated.

So now that you realize exactly how inexcusable it is to avoid the vaccine, here’s where to find it.

1. Your Doctor’s Office

If you have health insurance, your flu shot is more than likely 100% covered — so you can just head to your primary care physician’s office and get it there.

If your doctor’s anything like mine, it’ll put a smile on their face.

2. Your Local Grocery Store or Pharmacy

Stores including Publix, Walmart, Costco, Walgreens and CVS all offer flu shots — which, again, are almost surely covered with a $0 copay under your insurance plan.

If it’s not covered, it’ll run you about $20 at Costco, about $50 at CVS and about $40 at Walgreens.  

Many of these stores even sweeten the deal — after all, they are sticking you with needles.

Publix is offering a $10 gift card when you get your flu shot there. CVS offers a coupon for $5 off a $25 purchase through Dec. 31, with restrictions in some locations, when you get vaccinated.

I took advantage of that last one myself, and now I’m stocked up on toothpaste and deodorant for at least a year. Way better than the silly lollipop they used to give you when you were a kid, right?

3. Your Workplace

Your boss knows the flu can cost you and the company money. If everyone in the office is taken out at once, there could be a serious productivity lapse.

Check to see if your company offers employees free flu shots. Sometimes, companies will bring in a nurse so you don’t even have to leave the office.

4. Your College Campus

Flu season and finals season: They’re the same season.

To avoid that disaster waiting to happen, lots of college campuses offer free flu shots. Most times, all you’ll need is your student ID.

The CDC recommends that you get vaccinated between the early fall and the end of October. It takes about two weeks for the antibodies to kick in.

Stay healthy this winter, Penny Hoarders! After all, with the holidays coming up, you no doubt have better stuff to spend your money on.

Editor Susan Jacobson of The Penny Hoarder contributed to this report.

Jamie Cattanach is a contributing writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her writing has also been featured at The Write Life, Word Riot, Nashville Review and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.