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Flex-Ed: It's never too early to map out your open enrollment

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Sitting down and looking through mounds of paperwork and websites, and reading confusing jargon isn't the most exciting thing in the world. But you shouldn't let open enrollment wait until it's too late to make a smart decision. Start by considering how your health plan affects you and your family.

We know it's only mid-August. But that doesn't change the fact that you shouldn't wait until the last minute to map out your open enrollment benefits. There are lots of benefits to do doing so -- the biggest one being your health. And you may save some money as well. Just think about when you have a medical emergency and have to take out a loan to pay down your bills. Or when you've had opportunities to enroll in FSAs in the past, and chose not to.

Don't make the same mistakes by putting these decisions off until "later." Instead, get a head start and have your ducks in a row, so when it comes time to choose a plan, you can make the best choice for your needs.

Learn from past open enrollment mistakes

We're not recommending you beat yourself up. We're just saying this is a great time to assess what worked -- and what didn't -- with your past health care spending decisions. Think about how you came to decide past health plans and see what you could have done differently.

First, go back and think about why you picked a certain plan. Is it because it was the least expensive? Were tax-free spending or savings options on your list of priorities?

Once you have those answers, then think back and figure out whether you looked at all the features available and what would happen if you had to pay out of pocket. You can also think about how you're currently taking advantage of the plan. Have you been maximizing your benefits? Do you regret not opening a FSA?

Once you have this locked down, you can make a list of what you're looking for in a health plan -- the things that might fall under that "regret" umbrella. If you end up choosing the same one you currently have, then at least you have a good idea of what to expect in the coming year. If not, you'll know exactly what to look for when upgrading to a new one.

Pretend you're applying for a new health plan each year

Even if your employer allows you to passively continue your health plan selection every year, don't. Be more proactive, even if you're content with what's offered. In other words, you want to pretend you're applying for a new plan each year, for the exact reasons mentioned above.

Doing so will also give you a chance to see if there are any perks or benefits that you missed, and helps with better communication between you and the HR department. That's because you'll remember to update relevant information and ensure you're asking the right questions to reassess your choice.

Don't be afraid to be "confused"

Pretending you're confused is a mindset shift you can take in order to make sure you're clear on what it is you're getting into. The premise is simple: read the entirety of your health plan and assume you know nothing. Look at every piece of jargon and prepare a list of questions to ask the open enrollment representative.

For example, one of the best questions you can ask is ones relate to cost benefit trade-offs. Is there a way you can have a representative answer your questions about your specific situation and predict a cost calculation? What if you want to an FSA? Or does it make more sense to choose a qualified high-deductible health plan with an HSA?

No, you're not going to annoy anyone in your HR department (at least it shouldn't). After all it is your health and your wallet. Treat open enrollment as a year-long planning event and you'll reap the benefits in the year to come.

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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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