Asked and Answered: What happens to lost FSA money?

As you probably know from looking around our site, the 12/31 deadline is just about here. It's an exciting time for us, of course. But it's also an exciting time for FSA owners who have the chance to make the most of their tax-free funds, rather than forfeiting them due to the "use it or lose it" rule.

Whether we're reminding FSA holders of upcoming deadlines, or just sharing some information about these tax-free accounts, "use it or lose it" has become a tagline for our entire team. And, because we offer a growing selection of 4,000+ FSA-eligible products, people usually don't have any trouble using their FSA funds.

Still, with the deadline here, we thought it would be a good idea to revisit the most common questions about FSA funds -- what happens to the money that does get lost? No one likes losing money, no matter the amount. So we thought it was a good idea to remind people of what happens if they end up on the wrong side of the "use it or lose it" rule.

Let's cut to the chase…

You may not like this answer, but your unused FSA money returns to your employer. These funds can be used in a variety of ways, which we'll get to in a bit. Now, before you and your coworkers march down the hall with flaming torches, realize they're not the "bad guys" in this scenario. In fact, they're on your side, and are even taking some risks to make FSAs available to employees.

See it from your company's perspective

It's true -- your employer assumes a good amount of financial risk when you sign up for an FSA. That's because even though you get to contribute to your account little by little, through regular paycheck deductions, you actually have access to the entire year's allocation, right from the beginning of the plan year.

Who's fronting that money? You guessed it, the employers. And they're on the hook for any losses if you leave the company before making a full year's contribution.

In other words, if your plan year begins on January 1, and you opt for an expensive FSA-eligible procedure that week, you can use the entire year's allocation to pay for it tax-free. But if you quit a month later, your company is forced to eat that balance.

So, lost FSA funds from other employees can be used to offset these losses. It's not what your employers want to do. But it's certainly better for them than having to absorb the entire loss.

So where does it go from there?

While we certainly can't fault companies for wanting to protect themselves from potential financial losses, some choose to reinvest this "found" money into its people. No, they can't just refund you the exact amount you lost. But there are several ways they can share the wealth and ease the sting of lost funds.

1. Pooling

Though it's rare, companies could choose to give the money back to its employees directly. It's not as simple as refunding the exact amount lost to each person with an FSA, but employers might opt to pool the collective losses and distribute back to plan participants in a fair, uniform way.

(To be clear, any money returned to participants must be distributed to ALL participants -- not just those who lost funds that year.)

2. Administrative fees

Companies may choose to save these excess funds and use them as a way to offset the costs and fees involved in providing FSAs. By doing so, they can make it easier to offer these accounts to employees.

In this "worst case" scenario, your money ends up used in a way we outlined above. There is good news though -- your employer may offer a few options to help extend your funds and avoid losing them altogether.

1. Grace period

Many employers offer an FSA grace period -- something we've discussed quite a bit in our Learning Centers -- which gives you an extra 2.5 months to use their funds from the previous plan year. For example, if your plan year ends on December 31, you have until March 15 of the following year to use those funds before risking a loss.

2. Rollover

Another common FSA feature is the rollover option, which allows you to carry up to $500 of your FSA dollars to the following year, eliminating any last-minute rushes or lost funds.

Like we said at the beginning of the article, no one likes losing money, which is why we encourage users to create a budget and spend accordingly to meet your family's health care needs. But on the off chance you miss your FSA deadline, know that the money is safe, and might even find its way back to you before long.


From FSA basics to the most specific account details, in our weekly Asked and Answered column, our team gets to the bottom of your most-pressing flex spending questions. It appears every Wednesday, 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.


That's Eligible?! I'm young and healthy … why would I want an FSA?

A flexible spending account (FSA) might sound something more suited for older people or individuals with chronic health conditions, but the truth is that people of all ages and health statuses might be able to benefit from opening an account.

But when I mentioned this to a former coworker he laughed in response. "You're young and healthy. You don't need one of those," he said.

I shrugged off his comment, but here's the deal—whether you're a 25 or 55, medical concerns and health problems don't discriminate. But even beyond that, it's always a good idea to save money (especially when you're young!).

Here's why it might be a smart move to open an FSA even when you're in the prime of your life.

The cost of prescription medicine

In many ways, "young and healthy" is a myth. People of all ages experience a variety of health issues that include both mental health and physical health. In fact, according to a recent study, nearly 40% of 18 to 44-year-old Americans used prescription drugs in the last 30 days. After all, just because you take prescription medicine doesn't mean you are old or have ailing health. It simply means that you take care of your health.

Whether you take prescription drugs every day or twice per year, you might be able to save money on them with an FSA. You can spend FSA funds on prescription medicine. Plus, you can use FSA money to pay for over-the-counter medicines with a doctor's prescription. You can even use your FSA for thousands of non-prescription over-the-counter items.

Copays and deductibles are eligible

A lot can happen in a year. Whether it's an unexpected surgery or a persistent cold, you might find yourself visiting the doctor more than you anticipated. Luckily, you can use FSA funds to pay for copays and deductibles.

That's great news for your bank account because it means that you will save an amount equal to the taxes you would have paid on the money you set aside. You might be young and healthy, that doesn't mean you're not young and broke too.

You set the amount

One of the best things about flexible spending accounts is that you get to determine the amount of money you contribute each year. There's a limit to how much you can add to the account—$2,700 in 2019—but you're able to contribute less.

If you're young and generally healthy, then it might be a good idea to create a list of estimated medical expenses for the upcoming year.

Remember, you can use FSA funds to pay for dental, vision and mental health visits, so estimates for those services should also be included. If you estimate your costs beforehand, it's a win-win for your bank account and your health.

"Use it or lose it" isn't as scary as it sounds

In general, you must use the money in your FSA within the plan year. If you don't, there's a chance you might "lose it" (the money goes back to your employer to help offset the costs of administering the program). But some employers offer grace periods and some employers even allow employees to roll over up to $500 per year.

But even if you end up with some extra money in your FSA at the end of the year and your employer doesn't offer any of those benefits, you don't have to "lose it." You can use your remaining FSA funds to buy FSA-eligible products, and there are thousands of FSA-eligible health items to choose from.

Of course, not all FSAs are created equal. While the IRS has defined IRS-eligible categories, employers can choose to design their FSA to cover some or all of those IRS-allowed expenses. Therefore, we advise that you always check with their FSA plan administrator or HR department about exactly what their FSA will cover.


Don't waste time hunting for ways to spend your tax-free funds. In That's Eligible?!, we'll bring you these updates every Monday, so you don't have to. And for all things flex spending, be sure to check out the rest of our Learning Center, and follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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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.


FSA Deadline: Don't let your funds become an unintentional charity

The holidays are a time for giving, and for many people part of that giving spirit is contributing to a charity (or charities) of choice. And that's awesome.

But one place where you want to avoid being "too giving" is with your FSA account. Not only can't you use FSA funds to gift products or services to others (your FSA can only be used on you or your qualifying dependents), but your unspent FSA money doesn't go to a deserving charity -- it's used for an entirely different purpose.

What happens if you don't spend FSA funds?

Unlike HSAs, FSA funds don't rollover from year-to-year and are instead subject to what is typically called the "use it or lose it" rule.

That money doesn't just disappear. Whatever funds are unused go back to your employer. Now, to be fair, employers don't necessarily want the money back - the IRS requires they get it back. In these situations, it's used to balance losses that happen when employees overspend their accounts and then leave a company. This money helps the company offset the loss.

It's certainly a good use of money for the company, but there are no direct benefits to you. Ask yourself this: Would you donate your paycheck for your company's other financial gaps? Unless the answer is "yes" it's time to start putting your FSA money toward better things.

What to do? Get to spending!

If your plan has a December 31 spending deadline, guess what? That's just weeks away, so take a look at your FSA account. If you have funds remaining, has ways you can make sure you're not losing out on the opportunity to spend wisely.

If you're not sure where to start to zero out that FSA account before the deadline, here are a few out-of-the-box ideas:

The key takeaway is to remember that FSA funds are yours -- and there are a ton of uses you might not have even considered. If you are at risk of losing your FSA funds by December 31, browse through our growing list of more than 4,000 eligible items for your health and wellness.

In the end, make sure that zero balance in your account at the end of the year is because you spent every penny you contributed, and not because you missed out on a fantastic opportunity.


Flexible Spending Accounts get more flexible

Use it or lose it? Maybe not.

Yesterday, the U.S. Treasury and IRS modified the "Use It or Lose It" rule that could go into effect as early as plan year 2013. Millions of Americans rely on the pre-tax FSA to save on out-of-pocket FSA eligible expenses.

What does the modified rule mean for flexible spending accounts?

An employer could:

  • Allow for a carryover of up to $500 of unused FSA funds to the following year. However, the option to give a carryover is up to the employer, and they must change FSA plan documentation to allow for the carryover.
  • Continue offering a grace period instead – an FSA cannot have both the carryover and a grace period.
  • In some instances, employers may opt to not offer either a carryover or a grace period at all, though this is rare.
  • Following the Uniform Coverage rule, FSA funds will remain available to starting on the very first day of the FSA plan year.

“Across the administration, we are always looking for ways to provide added flexibility and commonsense solutions to how people pay for their healthcare,” commented Secretary Jacob J. Lew.

At, we support any measures that would promote FSA growth and those that help FSA participants and our customers.

"The changes to the 'Use it or Lose It' rule promote positive growth for Flexible Spending Accounts. Right now is an important time of the year as it is open enrollment season, which allows employees to opt into an FSA. The 'Use it or Lose it' provision is one of the reasons why many people shy away from FSAs, but FSAs offer major pre-tax savings on out-of-pocket expenses," said Founder and President, Jeremy Miller. "On our site, we sell FSA eligible medical products that people need every day, not just the end of the year when deadlines approach, such as first aid supplies, blood pressure monitors and breast pumps. We support continued FSA growth for the millions of American families who rely on these plans and are hopeful that the changes should boost FSA enrollment significantly."

We recently launched a new FSA Tracker, so that our customers don't have to miss their FSA deadlines. Check out other resources such as our FSA Learning Center for answers to FSA-related questions, FSA Services to find eligible health care providers, the FSA Eligibility List to browse eligible products and an FSA Calculator to estimate expenses during this year’s open enrollment. If you need spend down your FSA, shop for thousands of FSA eligible products and bundles!