Money in Flexible Spending Accounts Will Soon Evaporate

Miss your FSA deadline, and it can cost you as much as $2,600. Here's what you must know about these tax-advantaged accounts for paying medical costs.

Money in Flexible Spending Accounts Will Soon Evaporate Photo by Still Life Photography / Shutterstock.com

It’s time to use it or lose it for many folks with flexible spending accounts, the tax-advantaged vehicles that help you pay for medical expenses.

Money in FSAs generally must be used within your health insurance plan year.

Employers are allowed — but not required — to offer one of two extensions of sorts, according to the federal government. But both are limited. Employers can:

  • Provide a “grace period” of up to 2 ½ extra months to use the money in your FSA.
  • Allow you to carry over up to $500 per year to use in the following year.

Healthcare.gov explains:

“At the end of the year or grace period, you lose any money left over in your FSA. So, it’s important to plan carefully and not put more money in your FSA than you think you’ll spend within a year on things like copayments, coinsurance, drugs, and other allowed health care costs.”

What is a flexible spending account?

FSAs, generally offered through employers, are a type of tax-advantaged account that enables you to pay for eligible out-of-pocket health care costs with pre-tax earnings. That’s because you don’t pay taxes on the money you put into an FSA.

For tax year 2018, you can have up to $2,650 of your earnings placed in an FSA, according to the Internal Revenue Service. This contribution works similarly to how income is withheld from your paycheck to be invested in an employer-sponsored 401(k) account, for example.

Costs that can be paid for out of an FSA include:

  • Copayments
  • Deductibles
  • Prescription medications
  • Over-the-counter medications with a doctor’s prescription (except for OTC insulin)
  • Medical equipment like crutches
  • Supplies like bandages
  • Diagnostic devices like blood sugar test kits

FSA vs. HSA

An FSA is not to be confused with a health savings account, or HSA. Both enable you to effectively pay for eligible health care expenses tax-free, but HSAs have a few other big benefits that FSAs lack.

For example, money in an HSA can be put in a savings or investment account, making HSAs similar to tax-sheltered retirement accounts like IRAs or 401(k)s. We detail this in “More Americans Are Using This Tool to Save — Should You Join Them?

Another advantage of HSAs but not FSAs: As we note in “10 Tips to Maximize Your High-Deductible Health Plan,” any money you put in an HSA remains in the account year after year if you don’t spend it.

However, to qualify for an HSA, your health insurance deductible must be relatively high. Such rules do not apply to an FSA.

What are your thoughts on the benefits of FSAs or HSAs? Let us know by commenting below or on our Facebook page.

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