Real Money: Your mid-year FSA check-in (Part 1)

Summer is here! Time to break out the swimsuits, pack for vacation ... and take a look at your flexible spending account (FSA)? No, this doesn't seem as exciting as a trip to the beach, but it's never a bad idea to take a closer look at your FSA to see how well it's holding up at the mid-year mark.

Marguerita Cheng, a certified financial planner in Gaithersburg, Maryland, advises people with FSAs "ask, not judge" how their anticipated spending is meeting their actual needs at the 2018 halfway point. No need for harsh self-criticism. Reviewing expenses can help you get back on track if needed and prepare you so there are fewer surprises when open enrollment begins in a few months.

"If you're like me and you blew through it, it's not necessarily a bad thing because I contributed the maximum," Cheng said. A one-time expense, a $750 deposit for her daughter's orthodontic work, caused her to hit the healthcare FSA ceiling of $2,650 per person per year. Although she maxed out mid-year, she's pleased to take full advantage and lowered her taxable income. Cheng added, "The good news far outweighs the bad news."

For those close to spending all the money they've put aside or already done so, it pays to examine what caused the early exhaustion to see if it's an extraordinary event or a new recurring expense that could change your calculations for next year.

Maybe your health insurance company raised a prescription copay in the last few months or you faced an unpredictable medical expense. These events are beyond your control.

People in the opposite category -- those who accumulated more funds than they've tapped thus far -- should consider looking at eligible goods and services they may not realize are covered by their FSAs. And for those who find they're about where they thought they would be by June, congratulations! You can hit the beach before the rest of us.

If you underestimated your expenses or received a new diagnosis that caused you to exhaust your funds earlier than expected, don't despair. You can take the lessons and plan to contribute more next year if you haven't already, up to that $2,650 limit.

"The more chronic the illness, the more [FSAs] are beneficial because it's something that persists and that they'll continue to be treated for, which will then keep the expense going," said Darin Shebesta, a certified financial planner in Scottsdale, Arizona.

If you're in the under-spending camp, no need to rush out and recklessly purchase items you may not need because you're afraid of the "use it or lose it" rule. But it's a good idea to take stock to see what you might be overlooking.

For example, you and your dependents may be enjoying a healthful year with few doctor visits and therefore little reason to tap your FSA. But say your child needs pricier disposable contact lenses to play sports, or you decide it's time to try acupuncture for an ongoing medical issue.

Expenses like these are typically FSA-eligible. (Acupuncture may require you receive a letter of medical necessity from your doctor. This serves as documentation of medical need, to be submitted to your FSA third-party administrator.)

What's more, many employers offer a grace period where employees can claim FSA money into the first quarter of the following year, reducing the panic that comes from feeling behind in your FSA. Make sure to find out if your employer offers an extension so you know how to pace your spending in the second half of the year.

[Check out Part 2 of this feature here.]


Whether you budget week-to-week, or plan to use your FSA for bigger things, our weekly Real Money column will help you maximize your flex spending dollars. Look for it every Tuesday, exclusively on the Learning Center. And for the latest info about your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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