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Flex-Ed: I owe money on my tax return... an FSA could have helped

Accounts

My jaw dropped when I received the email from my accountant. I stared at my tax bill in disbelief for a few minutes, but reality quickly set in: I owe the IRS over $3,000. As it turns out, I'm one of the taxpayers who had insufficient tax withholding throughout 2018 and now owes money due to the Tax Cuts and Job Act that became official last year.

As it turns out, I'm one of the estimated 30 million Americans who owe money on their taxes this year. I'm lucky enough to have the funds to pay my bill in full, but it's still painful to part with the money. In many ways, I should have known better. Because here's the truth: I did not have an FSA in 2018.

It's embarrassing to admit because I thought I had already learned my lesson about tax-free health accounts. But once again, life happened. So as a result, I missed the boat on opening an FSA in 2018, and now I'm paying the price (literally).

It's too late to change what happened, but it's not too late to learn from it. Here's how much money I might have been able to save on taxes if I had opened an FSA.

My health care costs

After tallying my health care expenses — doctor's appointments, prescription medication, dental treatment and FSA-eligible supplies — I spent nearly $2,500 on health care in 2018. Nearly half of that came from unexpected dental treatment, which was FSA-eligible.

But the truth is that I thought I spent much less on health-related expenses last year. In fact, when I estimated how much I would spend on health care in 2018, I thought that I would spend $700. In other words, I thought I would spend $800 less than I actually did. Yikes.

My optimistic estimate about my health care expenses is actually part of human nature and our overly optimistic predictions for the future. It's often known as the optimistic update bias. This is important to understand because it can help us plan more realistically for the future.

The FSA calculator

I was shocked when I finally sat down to look at how much money I could have saved with an FSA last year. According to the FSA Store calculator, I could have saved $1,816 on taxes. That doesn't mean that I would necessarily owe less in taxes (although I probably would because it would have lowered my overall taxable income) but I would have paid less in taxes upfront.

The real kicker is that my 2018 net pay would have been nearly $2,000 higher if I had put $2,500 into my FSA. Plus, according to the calculator, I could have "broken even"—not saved or spent any extra money—if I had spent at least $684 from my FSA. In other words, even if I had set aside $2,500, but only spent the $700 I thought I would need for 2018, I wouldn't have gained or lost anything. (Although I probably could have used my extra funds to buy FSA-eligible health supplies…)

How to avoid these mistakes

The truth about my health-related finances is that I fell into the trap of short-term planning. I had a lot of financial goals for 2018 — investing, travelling, preparing for graduate school — and I wanted to save as much money as possible, and in my effort to cut costs, I actually ended up spending more money in the long-run.

It's great to be optimistic about the future, but if there's one thing I learned this year, it's that a healthy dose of skepticism (and number crunching) is better for my budget and my sanity.

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New to FSAs? Need a refresher course in all things flex spending? Our weekly Flex-Ed column gives you a weekly dose of FSA Living 101, offering tips for making the most of your tax-free funds. Look for it every Thursday, exclusively on the FSAstore.com Learning Center.

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