It’s just about time to navigate the incredibly exciting world of open-enrollment season. Yep, fall equals time to decide what you do and don’t want for everything from 401k distributions to health insurance. But something exciting is lurking in that benefits pack. If your company offers a healthcare flexible spending account (also known as an FSA), don’t overlook it.
Flexible spending accounts can be a wonderful fringe benefit. You set aside a set amount of money into a flex account, and then you can use that money to pay for medical and dental bills, eye exams and prescription glasses, co-pays, orthodontics and prescription drugs.
The money you set aside in the account is pre-tax, so you pay no Social Security or Medicare taxes on the fund, and no federal or state income taxes. Flex accounts “offer an attractive way to save on taxes by using these pre-tax dollars for general medical expenses," said Brad Huffman, a certified financial planner with Future Finances in Worthington. “The net tax savings for the average family could be hundreds or thousands of dollars.”
The amount of money you can set aside in one of these accounts varies by employer, but the maximum allowed by the IRS is about $5,000 per year. “Most people won’t put that much in, so it makes sense to look at your potential expenses to see how they would measure up,” Huffman said. “Look at last year's expenses and see how much would work best for you.”
Once the money is in the plan, watch how you use it.
Some plans give easy access to the cash, either through a checkbook or debit card. You’ll need to save receipts and documentation for expenses paid with flex account money, Huffman said: “This will help you avoid possibly facing a taxable event from any expenses deemed ‘non-qualified.’ Much like filing your income taxes, it’s wise to have good back-up documentation.”
You’ll also need to keep track of how much money is in the account. Most plans have a “use it or lose it” guideline — meaning you have to spend the money or it’s gone. Some plans require you to use all the money by Dec. 30, while others will extend the deadline to March 31 of the following year. It’s wise to err on the side of caution: It’s better to put in a little bit less than what you think you will spend, rather than sock away too much and risk losing it.
Finally, ask your employer for specific guidelines outlining what the money can and can’t be used for. The list of qualifying expenses changed with the passage of the Health Care Reform Act. For instance, non-prescription drugs such as cold medicine are no longer eligible for reimbursement. The penalty for errors can be stiff. If you use your FSA money to pay for non-qualifying expenses, you’ll have to pay income tax on an amount equal to that spent and pay an additional tax penalty of 20 percent on the misused funds.
- Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance for The Columbus Dispatch, bankrate.com and middlepathfinance.com.