Consumers lay out $1,600 yearly for health-care products that flexible spending accounts could have covered

Personal finance

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If you have unspent money in your health-care flexible spending account, now’s the time to make a plan to use it before you lose it. 

Health-care FSAs let workers stash away pretax dollars for qualifying expenses. However, they generally are “use-it-or-lose-it” accounts: Unless your company provides a grace period or lets you carry over some funds into the next year, the standard deadline to spend the money is Dec. 31 of the year in which you make the contributions.

The good news is that even if you don’t have medical needs to spend the funds on — i.e., doctor’s appointments or prescription drugs — an estimated $1,600 is spent by households each year on health care products that could otherwise be purchased using FSA dollars, according to FSAStore.com. This means it’s likely you’d find a way to spend the money on things you’d end up buying anyway.

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“We urge all FSA users to check their balance today and make plans for spending their remaining funds before time runs out,” said Shawna Hausman, chief marketing officer of Health-E Commerce, parent company of FSAStore.

The contribution limit to FSAs this year was $2,850, and in 2023 will be $3,050.

Even with carryover or grace period, forfeitures happen

About a third of companies, 36%, provide a 2.5-month grace period to spend the money, and 42% allow you to roll over a limited amount to the next year, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. At the remaining 23% of companies, you forfeit funds remaining in your account after Dec. 31.

However, being allowed to roll over funds — a limit of $570 this year — or getting a grace period does not necessarily translate into avoiding forfeiture.

Among workers who are allowed to roll over money, 49% end up forfeiting all or part of it, according to EBRI. For those with a grace period, that share is 37%. Additionally, 48% with a traditional Dec. 31 deadline forfeit money, as well, EBRI has found.

 ”Account holders are at risk of forfeiting an estimated $1 billion … to the Dec. 31 deadline,” Hausman said.

A variety of products qualify for FSA money

The list of eligible expenses that qualify for FSA money is longer than it once was, due to congressional action in 2020. For starters, over-the-counter drugs no longer need a prescription to qualify. This includes things such as cold medicines, anti-inflammatories and allergy medicine.

Additionally, menstrual care products are now eligible, as are items that have become pertinent during the pandemic: at-home Covid tests, masks, hand sanitizer and other personal protection equipment used to combat the virus.

Other products that qualify include sunscreen, thermometers, eyecare products, baby monitors and pregnancy tests. FSAstore.com has a list of eligible items if you are uncertain whether something would qualify.

Be aware that the IRS does not allow stockpiling, which generally means you can’t buy more of a product at one time than you can use in that tax year. The specifics, though, are determined by FSA administrators.

If you’re uncertain what the rules are for your FSA, reach out to your company’s human resources department. Alternatively, you can check your online FSA portal (if your company has one) for information. There also should be a phone number on the back of your FSA debit card that you can call.

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