For many people, paying for tampons is a given. Why should feminine hygiene products be priced any differently than other hygiene products?
But when you start to think about the gender disparity involved, things get a little more complicated. A growing number of women are arguing that because men have no equivalent expense, menstrual supplies should be free in public restrooms just like toilet paper.
Let's take a look at the true cost of menstruating, and the argument for making feminine products more financially accessible.
How the Cost of Tampons Adds Up
Even though tampons and other period products are an essential need for women, consumers still have to pay a sales tax on them in 35 states. The average sales tax in the US is 5%, so a $7 box of tampons will cost about 35 cents in taxes. The average woman will use about 240 tampons a year, which comes out to about $50 each year with tax.
A $7 box of tampons may not seem like a huge expense for middle and upper-class women, but it can present a serious problem for low-income women suffering from "period poverty."
Research published in the "Obstetrics and Gynecology" journal found that about two-thirds of low-income women could not afford menstrual products at some point in the previous year. About 20% couldn't afford them every month. About half of the women said they had to choose between buying food or feminine products at some point in the year.
Government assistance programs like Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) don't pay for feminine care products, even though they're a medical necessity.
Women who live in poverty may also lack access to warehouse clubs, where tampons are sold in bulk. If there's no major grocery store in their area, they may be forced to buy period products at convenience stores and drug stores. They may also have less free time to scour around for the best prices.
What Other Countries are Doing
Many activists argue that forcing women to pay for period products is misogynistic, because there is no equivalent expense for men. After years of lobbying, the laws in some countries do seem to be slowly changing.
In 2019, Scotland passed legislation to make tampons and pads free for all women. The country already offered free menstrual products at high schools and colleges. So far, Scotland is the only country in the world to enact such a law, but other countries are starting to reduce taxes on period products.
Starting in 2020, Germany will reduce its tax on tampons and other menstrual items from 19% to 7%. Other countries like Australia, Ireland and Canada recently eliminated their tax on period products altogether.
Still, many nations maintain a high tax rate on period products. For example, Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden charge a 25% tax on tampons and pads.
Ways to Save Money on Tampons
Even if you can't reduce the cost of tampons, you can still find ways to save on them.
Buy a Menstrual Cup
In recent years, menstrual cups have become a common tampon alternative. These are reusable cups that women can use during their entire period cycle. There are different types of menstrual cups, which can last between six months to 10 years before needing to be replaced.
Menstrual cups cost between $25 to $40, depending on the brand and size. For the price of four boxes of tampons, you can buy a menstrual cup that may last a decade. Even if you lose your menstrual cup every few years, it will still be cheaper than buying tampons and pads.
Menstrual cups have a learning curve and may be difficult to insert at first, but most women adapt to them quickly. Plus, they're eco-friendly and can prevent hundreds of tampons from taking up space at a landfill.
Women with heavy flows may also benefit from menstrual cups because they're more leak-proof than tampons. For women who are used to wearing a tampon and a pad, a menstrual cup can be a game changer.
Opt for reusable products
Menstrual cups are just one example of a growing trend in feminine care: reusable and more sustainable options like reusable pads, period underwear and more.
While these products do require a bit more maintenance on your part, the cost savings for reusables makes a compelling argument to work them into your routine. According to Menstrual Cup Reviews, cloth pads for instance can last as long as 5 years with proper care, which may be a compelling option for women looking to cut their menstrual care costs as well as do their part to limit their carbon footprints.
Get an IUD
One drastic way to reduce your dependency on tampons, pads and other menstrual products is to use a hormonal IUD as your birth control method. Using a hormonal IUD may result in lighter periods, thereby reducing your need for tampons. About 20% of women stop having a period altogether one year after IUD insertion.
Most health insurance plans cover the full cost of IUDs, but you should verify this before making an appointment. Remember, only hormonal IUDs may result in smaller periods. If you use a copper IUD, you may actually experience heavier periods.
Use your HSA or FSA
You can use funds from your HSA or FSA to buy tampons and other period products. If you don't currently contribute to your HSA or FSA, you should start now.
Calculate how much you normally spend on those products and save it in your HSA or FSA instead. As an added bonus, you'll get a tax deduction on those contributions.
You can buy any kind of period product with your HSA or FSA card, including tampons, pads, panty liners, menstrual cups and period panties such as Thinx. Make sure to keep your receipt to prove that each purchase is an HSA or FSA-eligible item.
You can't use money from your limited care flexible spending account (LCFSA) or dependent care flexible spending account (DCFSA) to pay for period products.
Zina Kumok is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance. A Certified Financial Health Counselor and Student Loan Counselor, she also works as a money coach helping people one-on-one at Conscious Coins. She has been featured in Lifehacker, DailyWorth and Time. She paid off $28,000 worth of student loans in three years.