Figuring out how much to contribute to your FSA is a bit like deciding how much food to bring on a backpacking trip. Once you get out in the wilderness, you're stuck with the rations you've brought - if you packed too much, you may have to toss it along the way. If you packed too little, you'll have to end the trip early.
Because you can't change FSA contributions mid-year unless you have a qualifying event, like changes in marital or work status, it pays to contribute the right amount. Contribute too little and you may end up with some hefty out-of-pocket expenses.
Contribute too much and you'll be faced with a dilemma - roll over up to $500 to the next year or try to spend the remaining balance in the first two and a half months. Everyone has a magic number for how much they should contribute to their FSA. Here's one way to find yours.
Go through last year's expenses
The best way to decide how much to save for health care expenses is to look at how much you spent the previous year. Log on to your insurance account and see if you can find the total amount you paid, not including monthly premiums.
If you ran into a major health problem, you should evaluate if next year will be similar. Some issues, like diabetes or asthma, require more-frequent doctors' visits. Others, like appendicitis, happen once a lifetime.
If you had a costly medical emergency, consider the likelihood that it will occur again and whether or not to include that figure in your estimate.
Compare health insurance plans
Even if you're signing up for a similar health insurance policy, the deductibles, copays and coinsurance rates might change from year to year. Compare the figures to see if you'll be paying more and adjust your FSA contribution accordingly.
For example, if your health insurance copay is increasing from $40 a visit to $60, add up how many visits you made last year and multiply them by $20.
Think ahead about major procedures
Sometimes you know about major operations and procedures ahead of time, so you can plan ahead. If you know this is the year when you're going to get LASIK surgery or finally get your knees replaced, call the insurance company to get an estimate of those costs.
Most of the time you can get an accurate idea of the expenses you're facing. If the insurance company can only guess what your costs might be, go with the higher end of the estimate. This way, you'll be covered in case you end up paying more.
What if you picked the wrong number?
If you end up saving more than you needed, ask your HR rep about the company's rollover policy. Most will either let you roll over $500 or give you a grace period of 2.5 months to spend the remainder. If you saved too little, try upping your contributions next year to maximize your tax-free benefits.
Finding your FSA magic number is essentially, a guessing game. Don't be surprised if you estimate too much or too little the first time you do it. It's all about taking charge of your finances and making the most educated guess possible.
From FSA basics to the most specific account details, in our weeklyAsked and Answeredcolumn, our team gets to the bottom of your most-pressing flex spending questions. It appears every Wednesday, exclusively on the FSAstore.com Learning Center. And for the latest info about your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.