Healthy Choices

FSA tips: Quick ways to spend flexible health dollars

Band-aids are among items on which people can spend their flexible spending money before time to use those funds expires.
Band-aids are among items on which people can spend their flexible spending money before time to use those funds expires.

Have a flexible spending account? Time to empty it, and fast.

Many employers offer workers a health FSA – a spending plan that draws an elected amount of money from each paycheck and puts it aside for out-of-pocket medical, dental and vision expenses. Because the account isn’t taxed, it can lead to lots of savings on health expenses that aren’t always covered, like bandages, prescription medications or home improvements for medical purposes. It can hold up to $2,550 and be used for co-payments, co-insurance and deductibles.

What’s the catch? If users don’t empty their accounts by Jan. 1 of each year, the dollars can get reclaimed by their employer, said Bryan Bentley, a Roseville-based financial adviser. Companies then use the “leftover” funds to offset expenses associated with offering the plan.

Some employers offer a grace period that gives employees until March 15 to drain their accounts. Others will allow up to $500 in FSA money to roll over into 2016. But for many of the approximately 33 million Americans with this type of account, the start of the New Year is a use-it-or-lose-it deadline.

“It’s an exercise in budgeting,” said Bentley, who coaches clients on how much of their salary they should designate to an FSA. “Know your costs, increase it to cover the unknowns, but I wouldn’t max it out just because you can.”

When clients call at the end of the year and ask Bentley what to do with the quickly expiring bucks, he often recommends they go to the optometrist for an eye exam and a new pair of glasses.

“That’s a big bang,” he said. “You can eat up a lot of money. Get high-end ones that you’d never get otherwise, because you’re going to lose it anyway.”

At Pacific Benefits, a Division of Benefit Resource Inc, senior consultant Mimi Lyon directs people to the FSA store, an online shopping site catered to flexible spending account money. People can also get an FSA card front-loaded with money from their employer, which they can use at Rite-Aid, Target and other participating stores.

“There are lots of little ways you can spend this money, you wouldn’t believe it,” she said.

Experts at the FSA store recommended a few quick ways to spend your hard-earned dollars before they disappear:

First aid and everyday health essentials

  • Assorted Band-Aids
  • First aid bags for kids
  • Mini first aid kits for the car
  • Wound treatment/gauze
  • Thermometers
  • Medicine organizers

Quick solutions for aches and pains

  • Hot or cold therapy eye masks
  • Acupressure wrist bands to prevent motion sickness
  • Contact lens solution and contact lens cases
  • Orthopedic neck support
  • Cooling headache sheets for adults and kids

Athletic and outdoor needs

  • Cold packs for neck or back
  • Knee and ankle braces
  • Sunscreen and lip balm
  • Blister treatment
  • Shoe insoles
  • Elastic bandages and wraps

Baby and child health needs

  • Breast pumps and accessories (cleaning wipes, storage bags)
  • Baby sunscreen
  • Thermal-Aid stuffed animals (hot/cold therapy) for kids
  • Baby pacifier digital thermometer
  • NasalCease nosebleed packings
  • Medicators that make it easy to administer medicine to babies, like Munchkin the Medicator

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola