Eligibility

Virus prep and your FSA: How to get a head start on 2021

While 2020 was a difficult year, December ended on a high note after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine. Although nationwide vaccine rollouts have officially kicked off, it may be a while until you receive one, depending on your career, age, and health status.

In the meantime, there are plenty of steps you can take to stay healthy until you receive the coveted COVID-19 vaccine. You can even save money on supplies by using your leftover pre-tax flexible spending account (FSA) money. Here are some of the best ways to get ahead of 2021 virus preparedness.

Flexible spending account (FSA) basics

Before getting started, it may be handy to know some of the basics about your flexible spending account (FSA). Your account allows you to set aside pre-tax money from each paycheck to pay for qualified medical expenses. The contribution limit for 2020 was $2,750, and you may contribute up to the same amount for 2021.

Typically, FSA funds are "use-it-or-lose-it" through the end of the year, but depending on your company's FSA rules, you may have a 2.5 month grace period into 2021 or a $550 rollover for unused 2020 money. You will have one option or the other, not both. After that, you will lose whatever is leftover.

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to spend your FSA money, including purchasing must-have COVID-19 supplies. (There's a full list of FSA-eligible medical and dental expenses here.)

How to use your flexible spending account (FSA) for virus prep

As you start looking for ways to spend the money in your flexible spending account (FSA), several items could be smart purchases for virus preparedness. But when in doubt about FSA-eligible expenses, don't hesitate to contact your plan administrator.

In-person COVID-19 testing expenses

While COVID-19 testing is available for free nationwide through health centers and some local pharmacies, there may be specific scenarios when you need to pay out-of-pocket for a test.

For example, some colleges require more frequent COVID-19 testing for on-campus students. You may also need a rapid COVID-19 before boarding a plane for international travel per the latest CDC guidelines.

These COVID-19 tests can be costly, and your insurance company may not be willing to foot the bill. Fortunately, you can use your FSA to reimburse yourself for your unreimbursed COVID-19 testing bills.

At-home COVID-19 tests

If you experience COVID-19 symptoms and don't want to risk exposing others to the virus, you may consider keeping an at-home COVID-19 test handy. These allow you to use a nasal swab or saliva to collect a sample from the comfort of your home, and you can mail in the sample for your test results.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the first at-home COVID-19 test in April 2020, and they have become widely available since then. While there are no guarantees that your insurance will cover at-home COVID-19 tests, you can get a reimbursement from your FSA.

Contact thermometers

If you have a fever or chills, one of the primary COVID-19 symptoms, you may need a thermometer to confirm these body temperature changes. While the country experienced thermometer shortages in 2020, there are plenty of reliable options (for now).

You can use a contact thermometer to take temperatures by armpit, forehead, mouth, or rectum. You may pick a digital thermometer for adults or infants and an ear thermometer for taking a child's temperature. Either thermometer may offer a quick and accurate reading, and depending on the results, you may decide to monitor your symptom(s) from home or take a COVID-19 test.

Contactless thermometers

Contactless thermometers are another popular option for quick readings, allowing you to take someone's temperature without touching their skin. You may choose a temporal artery thermometer (all ages) for a brief forehead reading or a tympanic thermometer (not suitable for newborns) for easy in-ear readings.

Although a temporal artery thermometer may be handy when you need quick readings for the workplace or safety at public events, these thermometers don't offer the same accuracy as digital thermometers.

Over-the-counter medicine

Thanks to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, you can now use your FSA money to pay for certain over-the-counter (OTC) medicines without a prescription. For example, if you're nursing COVID-19 symptoms, you may purchase fever reducers, like Tylenol. You are also free to buy over-the-counter products like nasal decongestants, cough medicine, or cough drops.

Pulse oximeter

If you're a high-risk individual or prefer to err on the side of caution, you may feel safer with a pulse oximeter at your home. You can clip this device to your finger to measure your blood oxygen level and pulse rate, and some products may integrate with the health tracker on your smartphone. Those with pre-existing lung or heart conditions may already have a pulse oximeter per their doctor's orders.

Those who experience life-threatening COVID-19 symptoms, like difficulty breathing, shouldn't try to diagnose the condition from home. The CDC recommends calling 911 or going to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Masks aren't currently flexible spending account (FSA) eligible

Although health experts recommend wearing cloth or surgical masks to protect you and others from the spread of COVID-19, these items aren't currently FSA-eligible. If you have a pre-existing condition, masks may be eligible with a Letter of Medical Necessity (LMN) from your doctor only. FSAstore.com has created a petition to drive public support for this issue, so be sure to lend your voice!

If you're struggling to afford masks, you may check with your public health department for free or reduced-cost options. Some cities and states currently offer free masks for small businesses or residents.

How to prevent getting COVID-19

While it's smart to have the essentials at the ready, you should also focus on prevention. According to the CDC, wearing a mask, staying at least six feet away from others, avoiding crowds, and staying out of poorly ventilated places are some of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

To prevent illness, you should also wash your hands often, especially after spending time in public. If you can't wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, cover all surfaces of your hands with a sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol.

Another way to reduce your risk of illness is by cleaning and disinfecting surfaces you often touch, like doorknobs, handles, countertops, keyboards, and phones. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends these disinfectants for COVID-19.

Be proactive with your flexible spending account (FSA)

Even though we have been grappling with the coronavirus pandemic for almost a year, and nationwide vaccinations have started, the virus is still a threat for most Americans. While prevention, like social distancing and handwashing, may be the best way to avoid getting sick, it may be worthwhile to purchase virus-preparedness essentials before you or a loved one contracts the virus.

Although some supplies can be costly, a tax-friendly account, like your FSA, can make these purchases more affordable. And if you're on the verge of losing a chunk of FSA money from 2020, COVID-19 supplies may be a smart investment for the rest of the pandemic and future health needs.

Thanks for visiting the FSA Learning Center! To stay on top of all FSA news that can affect your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Kate Dore

Kate Dore is a Nashville-based personal finance writer and Candidate for Certified Financial Planner Certification. She teaches financial literacy with Junior Achievement and writes for Lifehacker, Business Insider, Investopedia, and Credit Karma. You can follow her on Twitter at @KateDore.
Eligibility

Thermometers 101: What's the best choice for my family?

Your child's well-being is your top priority, and it's normal to worry about changes in their health. A higher temperature is a common issue and may not signal a severe problem. But you will want the ability to monitor your child's temperature with a reliable thermometer from home, especially with the lingering threat of COVID-19. Our guide covers how to find the best thermometer for your family — during the coronavirus pandemic — and beyond.

How to choose the right thermometer

In 2020, thermometer shortages made it challenging for families to screen each other for fever, one of the symptoms of COVID-19. To increase supply, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) temporarily relaxed its thermometer regulations. While more supply is a good thing, it may be tougher for families to compare options. Here are some factors to consider before picking a thermometer for your family.

  • Accuracy - If you think your child may have a fever, you will need a reliable thermometer for accurate readings until they feel better.
  • Age restrictions - Thermometers aren't a one-size-fits-all device. Some thermometers may be more suitable than others, depending on your child's age.
  • Ease of use - If your thermometer is hard to use, it may be more challenging to get an accurate temperature reading. You will also want to pay attention to speed, especially when dealing with an infant or toddler's readings.
  • Price - You will notice a range of prices depending on the type of thermometer you want. Luckily, you can save money by purchasing a thermometer with pre-tax money using your flexible spending account (FSA) or health savings account (HSA).

Types of thermometers: what's the difference?

Most thermometers fall into two categories: contact or contact-free. Contact thermometers touch the body to take your temperature, whereas contact-free thermometers can get a temperature reading without touching the skin. Here's a closer look at the most common types of contact and contact-free thermometers from the Mayo Clinic.

  • Contact thermometers - Contact thermometers use electronic heat sensors to measure temperatures by armpit, forehead, mouth, or rectum. If you have an infant or children under three, contact thermometers may offer the most accurate temperatures, but oral or rectal readings can be trickier. These thermometers are suitable for all ages, though.
  • Temporal artery thermometers - These contactless thermometers use an infrared scanner to measure your forehead temperature quickly. While they are suitable for any age, temporal artery thermometers tend to be more expensive and less accurate than other types.
  • Tympanic thermometers - Another contactless thermometer, these use an infrared ray in the ear canal. Although these are quick and comfortable, earwax or small curved ear canals may make tympanic thermometers less accurate, and they aren't suitable for newborns.

The best thermometer picks for your family

With thousands of options and many popular choices out of stock, finding the right thermometer can feel impossible. Luckily, we have compared some of the top reviewed options, including features, pricing, and more. These are some of the best thermometer options, depending on your family's needs.

Best Budget Oral / Rectal Thermometer: Mabit Digital Thermometer - $7.99

The Mabis Digital Thermometer is an affordable pick for all ages, offering 60-second oral, rectal, and underarm readings for a tone for peak temperatures and fever alarm above 99.5° F. The device also features a memory recall and automatic shutoff to conserve the battery.

"Much faster than a conventional thermometer. Accurate per my calibration with a high-end thermometer," says verified buyer James M.

Best Ear Thermometer: Caring Mill Instant Ear Thermometer - $29.99

The Caring Mill Instant Ear Thermometer offers a one-second reading with an LCD display screen. You can store up to 20 readings, and there is a color-coded alert and beeping alarm when a temperature exceeds 99.5° F. Caring Mill also donates a portion of every sale to Children's Health Fund, a non-profit dedicated to healthcare for underserved children in the United States.

"I love the size and how easy it is to use and read," writes verified buyer Lisa W.

Best Forehead Thermometer: Sejoy Infrared Forehead Thermometer - $98.99

The Sejoy Infrared Forehead Thermometer is a no-fuss, contactless option for all ages, with temperature readings in only three seconds. The device uses infrared technology for more accurate temperatures and allows you to store up to ten readings.

"Works great, easy to use, and reading comes back in a few seconds," says verified buyer James K.

What temperature is considered a fever?

Although children may get warm from playing, crying, or getting out of a warm bed, their elevated temperature shouldn't last longer than 20 minutes. According to Seattle Children's Hospital, about 80% of children who feel warmer or act sick may have a fever. The best way to know for sure is by taking their temperature, and the following cutoffs may signal a fever:

  • Armpit temperature: 99° F or higher
  • Mouth temperature: 100° F or higher
  • Ear, forehead, or rectal temperature: 100.4° F or higher

While your child's fever may feel like a health emergency, it may not be the major issue you expect. Here's how to tell the difference between an illness to monitor vs. when you need to call the doctor.

When to stay vigilant

While a low-grade fever can be troubling, it isn't necessarily a major concern. According to the Cleveland Clinic, even temperatures up to 102.5° F (three months to three-years-old) or up to 103° F (three-years-old and older) isn't particularly troubling. And fevers lasting less than five days may not be a problem if your child is still eating, drinking, and playing as usual.

When to call the doctor

Although you may not need a medical professional for the scenarios above, the Clinic says there are some scenarios when you will need to call the doctor:

  • Fever for infants under three months
  • Fevers lasting more than five days
  • Fevers above 104° F
  • Fevers that won't come down with fever reducers
  • Difficulty waking up or not drinking enough liquids
  • Temperature above 102° F for more than 48 hours after a vaccine

Be prepared with a thermometer

Whether you're monitoring your child's temperature for a cold, the flu, COVID-19, or another illness, a reliable thermometer is a must-have for every parent's medicine cabinet. While thermometers may vary in cost, you can save money by using your flexible spending account (FSA) to buy one.

As a reminder, these funds go into your FSA before taxes, so spending the money on qualified expenses is a wallet-friendly move. If you still have leftover FSA funds from last year, a thermometer may be a handy purchase to get you through flu season, the pandemic, and your family's future needs.

Thanks for visiting the FSA Learning Center! To stay on top of all FSA news that can affect your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Kate Dore

Kate Dore is a Nashville-based personal finance writer and Candidate for Certified Financial Planner Certification. She teaches financial literacy with Junior Achievement and writes for Lifehacker, Business Insider, Investopedia, and Credit Karma. You can follow her on Twitter at @KateDore.
Eligibility

Generic over-the-counter medicine vs. brand names. What's the best choice?

Few things are more stressful than going to the pharmacy to fill a new prescription. Without calling your health insurance company, you may not know if you have coverage. And even with health insurance coverage, it isn't easy to know how much you will pay out-of-pocket.

Whether your family is relatively healthy or grappling with a chronic illness, most Americans worry about the high cost of prescription drugs. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, nearly half of the U.S. population uses prescription drugs, and many Americans struggle to pay for them. While some federal and state lawmakers have tried to lower the cost, many folks are still spending more than they can afford.

With the government currently focused on the COVID-19 vaccine, it may be a while before lawmakers try to lower the cost of other prescription drugs. In the meantime, there may be a way to make your prescriptions more affordable: generic medicine. We'll cover what to know about generic medicine vs. name-brand drugs and how the switch may benefit your wallet.

What is a generic drug?

It's easy to get turned off by the term "generic." After all, it may evoke imagery of knock-off designer fashion, cheaper electronics, or the less-tasty version of grocery store foods. But generic drugs are a lot different than other types of products.

A generic drug is the same dosage, safety, strength, quality, performance, and method of consumption as a brand-name drug, according to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). Generic drugs go through an intense review process before getting FDA approval. The purpose of the review is to make sure the generic drug is as safe and effective as the name-brand version.

Although a generic drug may have a different color, size, and shape than the name-brand drug, these differences won't impact the generic drug's safety or efficacy. This means you can swap generic medication for name-brand drugs without sacrificing quality.

You can learn more about generic medications by asking your doctor, pharmacist, or by visiting the FDA Generic Drugs Program website.

How do generic medications get FDA approval?

It's normal to worry that a generic medicine may not match the quality of a name-brand drug, but you can rest assured knowing generic medications go through a strict FDA approval process.

Before the FDA approves generic medicine, the company must go through a rigorous review process. The purpose is to prove the generic medication can be a safe and effective substitute for a name-brand drug.

To kick-off the process, the company must submit an abbreviated new drug application (ANDA) showing the generic medication is the same as the name-brand drug in the following ways:

  • The generic medicine must have the same active ingredient as the name-brand drug.
  • It must have the same strength, use, form, and patients must take the medication the same way.
  • The FDA also must sign off on the inactive ingredients.
  • The generic medicine must follow the same strict manufacturing standards as the name-brand version.
  • The FDA must approve the generic medicine container, and it must have the same label as the name-brand drug.

Why is generic medicine cheaper than name-brand drugs?

The biggest perk of generic medicine is it may be significantly cheaper than the name-brand version. Generic drugs are less expensive because they don't require the same animal and human studies to prove their safety and effectiveness. Also, the FDA may approve multiple applications to create one generic medication. Less upfront research and more marketplace competition can mean lower generic medicine costs.

According to the FDA, generic medicine may cost up to 80 to 85% less than their name-brand equivalents. Generic medicine may be even cheaper than ordering drugs online from Canada, according to 2019 research from PharmacyChecker.com, a website devoted to finding lower-priced prescription drugs. 88% of the 40 most popular generic drugs were less expensive in the United States, the report notes.

Is there a generic version of my name-brand drug?

If you're trying to figure out if there is a generic version of your name-brand drug, you can start by asking your local pharmacist. But if you don't feel comfortable asking or your local pharmacy seems too busy, there are three other options to find out:

  • Search the FDA's database -Drugs@FDA, a database of FDA-approved drugs, allows you to search from drugs on your computer or via the mobile app.
  • Check the Orange Book - You can search the Orange Book for generic medicine by typing in the name-brand drug or its active ingredients.

If your search still comes up short, the name-brand drug company may have exclusive rights within the marketplace. This period allows companies to recoup their research and marketing costs, but once it ends, the FDA may approve a generic version of the drug.

When do I need a brand-name drug?

It can be stressful to fill a prescription, especially when you're unsure how much it will cost. Depending on how your doctor wrote the prescription, it may be possible for your pharmacist to make substitutions for a generic drug. But if your doctor specifies that you must use the name-brand, your pharmacist can't swap it without speaking with your doctor first.

While there may be times when your doctor doesn't know about a generic medication, there may be other instances where the name-brand is necessary. For example, if your doctor prescribes a narrow therapeutic index drug, minor changes can make a big difference. According to the FDA, small changes in the dose or concentration in your blood could cause serious health complications, with the possibility of life-threatening results. With these risks in mind, your doctor may opt for a brand-name drug to be safe.

If the FDA approved a generic version of your brand-name drug, you might be eager to save money by making the switch. But unfortunately, some patients don't tolerate the generic medicine as well. A study from the American Journal of Therapeutics found some patients not tolerating the switch with an antidepressant medication. If you start having troubling side effects or the generic medication doesn't work as well, your doctor may recommend switching back to the original brand-name drug.

Talk to your doctor about generic medicine vs. brand-name drugs

Although generic medicine may be the right choice most of the time, there are instances where your doctor may recommend the brand-name version. Sometimes, there isn't a generic version available, or switching to a generic drug could present a health risk. Even if your doctor signs off on the generic drug, there are no guarantees your body will tolerate the new medication. Like any prescription, you should always discuss generic medicine vs. name-brand drugs with your doctor before making any decisions.

It may be disheartening to learn a name-brand drug is the best or only option. But there is one silver lining: you may use your health savings account (HSA) or flexible spending account (FSA) to cover the cost of your prescription medications. These tax-savvy accounts offer a discount on these eligible medical expenses, which puts more money back into your pocket for other priorities.

Thanks for visiting the FSA Learning Center! To stay on top of all FSA news that can affect your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Kate Dore

Kate Dore is a Nashville-based personal finance writer and Candidate for Certified Financial Planner™ Certification. She teaches financial literacy with Junior Achievement and writes for Lifehacker, Business Insider, Investopedia, and Credit Karma. You can follow her on Twitter at @KateDore.

5 ways your FSA can boost your post-workout recovery

Few things are more satisfying than finishing a tough workout. As you grab a towel to wipe the sweat from your forehead, you may be feeling accomplished. But the work is not over yet. The next step is to focus on your post-workout recovery. Whether you are a cyclist, weightlifter, runner, CrossFitter, or yogi, muscle recovery is an essential part of your workout. And your sore muscles may need more than rest.

While refueling after an intense workout is not cheap, you may use your flexible spending account (FSA) for things like pain relief products. Here is how to use your FSA for the ultimate post-workout recovery.

What happens to your body after an intense workout

Before looking at each of your post-workout recovery options, it may help to understand what happens to your muscles after an intense workout. During a tough workout, your muscles produce lactic acid, which often leads to post-workout muscle soreness. The post-workout recovery process may repair that muscle damage to build strength and prevent injuries. Here are science-backed strategies to support muscle repair after various types of strenuous exercise.

Post-workout recovery tips

Regardless of your preferred type of exercise, experts recommend a few go-to strategies to speed up the muscle recovery process from the National Institute for Fitness and Sport.

  • Prioritize getting enough sleep - The first tactic is to make sure you are getting enough sleep. Try to get at least eight hours of sleep every night, especially after an intense workout.
  • Drink plenty of water - You should also try to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water after your workout. The U.S. National Academies Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine suggests drinking a minimum of 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) per day for women and 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) per day for men. You may need more water depending on where you live, your diet, overall health, and your workout intensity.
  • Fuel your body with the right nutrition - The third tactic is to fuel your body with the proper amounts of healthy and nutritious food. Your body may need more carbohydrates and protein to recover after a tough workout. You can calculate your daily nutrition needs, including the right amount of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, with this calculator from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

1. Weight training

After an intense workout lifting weights, it's essential to focus on your muscle recovery. Luckily, there are some relatively easy ways to expedite muscle repair and improve the recovery process. Here are a couple of recovery options for fitness enthusiasts with a few FSA eligible options mixed in!

  • Foam roller - While using the foam roller may be among your least favorite activities, studies show it may offer some post-workout recovery benefits. According to the Journal of Athletic Training, using a foam roller after an intense workout may cut back on delayed-onset muscle soreness. You may also try a TheraBand Foot Roller on your feet for post-workout heel pain, tired feet, and soreness. By reducing your muscle soreness now, you may recover enough to boost your performance in future workouts.
  • Massage - Massage is another way to support muscle recovery after strenuous exercise. Studies show massage may alleviate delayed-onset muscle soreness and improve your muscle performance. You may experience these benefits by working with a sports massage therapist regularly. However, this service is not FSA eligible and would require a Letter of Medical Necessity from a physician for reimbursement.

2. Long-distance running

There is nothing like the runner's high feeling many athletes experience after logging some miles. As you cool down after going for a long run, it's critical to refuel your body for post-workout recovery. Here are some options to help repair your muscles faster.

  • Tart cherries - As you look for post-workout recovery snacks, you may consider adding tart cherries to your weekly shopping list. A study from the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Sports found that tart cherry juice may reduce inflammation and mend your muscle damage after long-distance runs. But these would fall outside of FSA regulations, as food is not an FSA eligible expense.
  • Epsom salt bath - A hot bath with Epsom salt may be the perfect way to soothe sore muscles after a long run, especially when you have spent time in the cold. This purchase may be FSA-eligible with a letter of medical necessity from your doctor.

3. High-intensity interval training (HIIT)

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts have become a popular way to build strength and endurance. These are intense workouts, and without a focus on recovery, you may be more prone to injury. Here are some proven ways to boost your muscle recovery.

  • Active recovery - An active recovery involves low-intensity exercise, like walking or yoga, after a strenuous workout. Luckily, active recovery exercise requires a lot less effort than your HIIT workout. The International Journal of Exercise Science says active recovery is one way to promote lactate clearance after a HIIT workout.
  • Stretching - A thorough post-workout stretch may be another way to avoid injury. Stretching may prevent your muscles from getting stiff after a HIIT workout. For some added guidance, you may also consider attending a yoga or pilates class.

4. Resistance training

Resistance training uses weight to work your muscles to improve endurance and reduce body fat. These workouts may include your body weight, resistance bands, free weights, or weight machines. Weight lifting is a form of resistance training. Some beneficial ways to aid your post-workout recovery may include:

  • Protein supplements - Experts recommend replacing your energy with a workout recovery supplement as quickly as possible. You may want to focus on beverages with added protein and carbohydrates. While they're a great post-workout idea, supplements aren't FSA-eligible without a Letter of Medical Necessity.
  • Hot and cold compress - When you are experiencing any pain after miles of pounding the pavement, you may try using a hot and cold compress to minimize the swelling or discomfort. If you have an injury, try to resist the urge to start running again until there is no more pain.

5. Circuit training

Circuit training is another popular workout that switches between different types of exercise and targets muscle groups. Like HIIT workouts, improper form and skipping your recovery may lead to an injury (Hospital for Special Surgery). You may enhance your muscle recovery with a few of these tactics.

  • Post-workout recovery drink - While it's important to hydrate with water, your body may need an additional boost to speed up the recovery process. One popular post-workout recovery drink is chocolate milk. Studies show it may be an optimal mix of carbohydrates and protein to fuel muscle recovery. But again, foods are not covered by your FSA so you'll be covering this one out-of-p
  • At-home massage - Massage is a great way to soothe your body and add to muscle recovery after a challenging circuit training workout. If you can't visit a massage therapist or prefer to save money, you may try some at-home massage techniques. You may use tools like a massage gun, acupressure mat, or lacrosse balls. The acupressure mat in particular is covered by your FSA.

Don't skip your post-workout recovery

After a long run or tough workout in the weight room, it may be tempting to enjoy some well-earned rest while skipping your post-workout recovery. The recovery process may be just as important as the workout. Here's why: it's a chance to repair muscle tissue, which may promote muscle growth and improve your strength.

Whether you rely on the foam roller, workout recovery supplements, or massage, you are helping your muscles recover, and you may boost your future performance. But ignoring the recovery process may have the opposite effect. You could experience adverse side effects, like extra muscle soreness, or worse, an injury.

Thanks for visiting the FSA Learning Center! To stay on top of all FSA news that can affect your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Kate Dore

Kate Dore is a Nashville-based personal finance writer and Candidate for Certified Financial Planner Certification. She teaches financial literacy with Junior Achievement and writes for Lifehacker, Business Insider, Investopedia, and Credit Karma. You can follow her on Twitter at @KateDore.

At-home COVID-19 tests: What you need to know

At the beginning of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the United States struggled to keep up with testing demand. Although some places have made improvements, many folks are looking for more convenient COVID-19 testing options. With the winter quickly approaching and some places already seeing an uptick in new infections, you may be seeking alternatives to visiting your local clinic or doctor's office for a test. Here's everything to know about at-home COVID-19 tests and how to decide if it's the right option for you.

What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

Prevention is one of the key elements of slowing the spread of COVID-19. This begins by knowing which COVID-19 symptoms to look for, when you should get tested, and which symptoms may be life-threatening.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with COVID-19 may experience any of the following symptoms, which may range from mild to severe. Typically, these symptoms will appear 2-14 days after you have been exposed to the virus:

  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Fever or chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Sore throat

If you experience any of the COVID-19 symptoms below, the CDC recommends getting immediate emergency medical care by calling 911 or calling ahead to the closest emergency medical facility. These symptoms may be life-threatening.

  • Bluish lips or face
  • Inability to wake or stay away
  • New confusion
  • Persistent pain or pressure in chest
  • Trouble breathing

Should I get tested for COVID-19?

Not everyone needs to get a COVID-19 test. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says you should consider getting tested if you have symptoms or have been in close contact with someone who tested positive. You should also get tested if your healthcare provider recommends it or you have been referred by your local or state health department.

Are at-home COVID-19 tests available?

If you're experiencing any of the symptoms above, you may be nervous about getting tested in public and exposing others to the disease. One alternative to in-person testing is conducting a COVID-19 test from the comfort of your home. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the first at-home COVID-19 test in April 2020. Since then, the agency has authorized several other at-home test providers.

Most companies require that you take an online self-assessment before you can order an at-home COVID-19 test. The kit includes either a nasal swab or saliva test, along with the instructions for collecting a sample. Once the company receives your sample, you should have a positive, negative, or inconclusive result. If you don't receive a positive or negative result, some companies will allow you to retest for COVID-19 for free. You may also receive additional guidance if you receive a positive result.

Are at-home COVID-19 tests accurate?

During a public health crisis, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may allow some unapproved medical products or using unapproved products to diagnose, prevent, or treat life-threatening diseases like COVID-19, particularly when there is no alternative available.

The companies above have FDA Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), which isn't the same thing as FDA cleared or approved. This means these at-home COVID-19 tests are only temporarily authorized during the coronavirus pandemic and haven't gone through the same scrutiny as an FDA-approved or cleared product. Also, the FDA warns that some laboratory-developed tests may have issues.

There are FDA standards for EUA, though. In fact, test accuracy is part of the EUA application. You can read more about the EUA product guidelines here. Several at-home COVID-19 test companies above have self-reported high percentages of COVID-19 test accuracy. For example, Vault claims to receive a positive or negative result 98% of the time. Phosphorus also says they have high levels of sensitivity (97.1%) and specificity (98.2%).

Does my health insurance cover COVID-19 testing?

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) on March 18, 2020. This law includes a provision to make COVID-19 testing more affordable through your health insurance plan. The law says all public and private health insurance plans must cover FDA-approved COVID-19 testing. These health insurance plans aren't allowed to charge you any type of cost-sharing—including deductibles, copayments, or coinsurance—until the public health emergency is over. This includes high-deductible health insurance plans but doesn't apply to short-term health plans.

Does my health insurance cover at-home COVID-19 testing?

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released a series of FAQs about the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. CMS says health insurance plans may cover at-home testing if your medical provider says the test is "medically appropriate" and orders the test on your behalf. If your doctor follows these guidelines, your insurance company shouldn't charge any cost-sharing for at-home COVID-19 tests.

However, some at-home COVID-19 testing companies require upfront payment and will encourage you to ask for reimbursement from your insurance company. Pixel by Labcorp currently offers the most flexible payment options for both insured and uninsured customers. The company may file a claim with your insurance, cover the cost with a federal grant, or allow you to pay out-of-pocket with a credit card. Phosphorus may also be a good option for those without insurance, as the company may offer financial assistance to those who can't afford a test.

If your health insurance company won't cover the cost of an at-home COVID-19 testing kit, you may have another option: using money from your health savings account (HSA) or flexible spending account (FSA). Both accounts may allow you to save money by using pre-tax dollars to pay for an otherwise costly at-home COVID-19 testing kit. This may also be a great option for those who are traveling this holiday season and need to quickly test themselves and their loved ones to ensure that any gatherings are safe. FSAstore.com has begun stocking at-home COVID-19 tests.

Before buying an at-home test, though, check with your HSA or FSA provider for reimbursement policy details. You should also save a copy of your itemized at-home test receipt with your paperwork for tax time next April.

The bottom line

If getting an in-person COVID-19 test isn't an option or you prefer to stay in quarantine, an at-home test may be worth considering.

While there isn't a guarantee your insurance will cover the test, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) says your insurance must pay if you meet certain criteria. It may be more likely if you have symptoms, your doctor says the test is necessary and orders one for you.

If your insurance company won't foot the bill, you may see if you can get reimbursed through your health savings account or flexible spending account. While the tax savings won't offset the cost of the test, you may buy it with pre-tax money, which offers a discount.

Thanks for visiting the FSA Learning Center! To stay on top of all FSA news that can affect your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Kate Dore

Kate Dore is a Nashville-based personal finance writer and Candidate for Certified Financial Planner Certification. She teaches financial literacy with Junior Achievement and writes for Lifehacker, Business Insider, Investopedia, and Credit Karma. You can follow her on Twitter at @KateDore.
Eligibility

5 Alternative Menstrual Products to Tampons and Pads

For those who menstruate, period products are an unavoidable, and costly, monthly expense. According to the Office on Women's Health, periods can last three to seven days per month—from age 12 to 52. Between birth control, tampons, sanitary pads, pain killers, heating pads, and other necessities, you could easily spend more than $18,000 on period products throughout your life, according to a Huffington Post report.

With thousands of dollars on the line—you may wonder if it's time to explore alternatives to tampons and pads. The feminine hygiene products business is worth $6.2 billion in the United States alone—so it's easy to see why companies are so eager to push new options. If you're struggling to figure out which new period products are best—keep reading.

Menstrual cups

Menstrual cups are a popular alternative to tampons and pads. With the right care, you may reuse menstrual cups from six months to ten years. These reusable feminine hygiene products are more than eco-friendly; menstrual cups may also save you more money over time.

One of the biggest downsides to menstrual cups is the hefty $25 to $40 upfront cost—and you may not find the correct size right away. Even with a few of the wrong purchases, though, you may still save money.

Depending on how much you spend on disposable tampons or sanitary pads every month, you could break-even faster than you may expect—and if you buy a menstrual cup that lasts for several years, you could save hundreds of dollars.

Although you may wear a menstrual cup for up to twelve hours—the product may be tough to insert or remove. Also, it may be messier than using a tampon or sanitary pad. Your body may not tolerate a menstrual cup, either—and it may cause vaginal irritation.

Menstrual discs

Another newer alternative to tampons and sanitary pads is menstrual discs. This disposable period product has been getting attention for a few good reasons. You may get twelve glorious hours of leak-free period protection—and you can wear it while having penetrative sex. Some manufacturers also claim the product may cut back on period cramps.

Depending on the brand, a menstrual disc may absorb up to five or six teaspoons of blood—which is equal to about five regular or three super tampons. This makes them appropriate for those with a heavy flow—but you may still prefer to change them more often.

One of the biggest downsides of menstrual discs is the cost. Although they are more absorbent than tampons—you may spend more money on a month's supply.

The other con is most menstrual discs are disposable—which means you may not cut down on monthly waste. If you prefer a reusable option, you may want to compare menstrual cup options. There are some—like the Intima Ziggy Cup, for example—with a design that is a lot like a disc.

Period underwear

Period underwear—a.k.a. menstrual underwear or period panties—is another period product to replace tampons and sanitary pads. This earth-friendly option is washable and reusable. It feels like regular underwear—while still being absorbent. Some brands also say they can control moisture and period odors.

One of the biggest advantages of period underwear is the ability to save money. Although it won't last for several years—like some menstrual cup brands—you can keep it as long as any other type of underwear. For example, Thinx says you may use their product for up to two years.

The downside is you may need to buy more than one pair to last your entire cycle without daily washes. You can expect to pay between $25 to $40 per pair, depending on the brand.

Another perk is sustainability. If reducing waste is important to you, you may consider switching to period underwear. Each pair may absorb two to four tampons of blood—which means a lot fewer tampons or sanitary pads going into the landfill every month. Period underwear may be less convenient than tampons, though. If you're traveling, you may prefer the ease of disposable products.

Period underwear also offers gender-neutral options—like period boy shorts or period boxer briefs. These products may cause less body dysphoria for gender non-conforming or transgender folks.

Reusable cloth pads

Reusable cloth pads are another sustainable period product. These pads—which may come in more than one piece—work like disposable sanitary pads. The biggest differences are you may snap them into place—along with the ability to wash and reuse them.

There are different sized reusable cloth pads—depending on your flow—and you should expect to change them every two to six hours. Some folks may even use them as back-up protection for tampons. These period products may be more breathable and flexible than disposable sanitary pads—but you still won't be able to swim with them.

Although one of the biggest advantages may be the ability to save money over time, you may need to buy a bunch to get started—which could be costly. For example, one pack of three may not be enough to get you through your cycle and could cost almost $40.

Another perk is skipping the waste of tampons and disposable sanitary pads. While they won't last as long as one of the more durable menstrual cups—you will still prevent more period products from going into the landfill.

Menstrual sponges

Menstrual sponges—a.k.a. sea sponges or sanitary sponges—are another eco-friendly alternative to tampons and sanitary pads. You may reuse these products for six to twelve months—and they have become more popular among folks looking to cut back on waste.

The problem is, menstrual sponges aren't federally-regulated—or a top pick among medical professionals. In fact, some gynecologists urge those who menstruate to avoid them. Menstrual sponges may have unwanted particles—like yeast, mold, sand, and grit. These period products may also have bacteria that could cause toxic shock syndrome.

If you're eager to find a more sustainable period product, there are much safer options to choose from. You may avoid waste with other products on this list—including menstrual cups, period underwear, or reusable cloth pads.

The best alternative menstrual product to tampons and pads

There are plenty of reasons to explore alternatives to tampons and pads. Whether you want to save money, create less waste, or try something new—there is no shortage of new period products. The problem is, some feminine care products may be too expensive to experiment with—or continue using long-term.

Luckily, new legislation has made it more affordable. Thanks to the CARES Act, you now have more ways to spend money in your health savings account (HSA) or your flexible spending account (FSA). The new law allows you to use money from either account to pay for menstrual products.

Since your money goes into both accounts pre-tax, you're getting a discount for every dollar you spend on menstrual products. This may offer more wiggle room in your budget to explore new period products—and see which one you want to include in your monthly menstruation routine.

Thanks for visiting the FSA Learning Center! To stay on top of all FSA news that can affect your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Kate Dore

Kate Dore is a Nashville-based personal finance writer and Candidate for Certified Financial Planner Certification. She teaches financial literacy with Junior Achievement and writes for Lifehacker, Business Insider, Investopedia, and Credit Karma. You can follow her on Twitter at @KateDore.

6 Types of Period Products: Know Your Options

Let's face it—there is nothing cheap about period products. Those who menstruate may have an average of 450 periods over their lifetime, according to the Association of Reproductive Health Care Professionals. And with the average period lasting two to seven days, you may easily spend $1,000 (or more!) on a lifetime supply of period products.

Luckily, lawmakers recently voted to make these basic necessities more affordable. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Congress passed the $2 trillion CARES Act in March. This landmark piece of legislation includes a provision for menstrual products—which finally makes them health savings account (HSA) and flexible spending account (FSA) eligible.

Here's what to know about the best period care products on the market—and how to decide which one may be right for your menstrual flow.

Tampons

Tampons are one of the best-known types of menstrual products. Made of cotton, rayon, or a blend of the two, tampons are disposable products with a cylindrical shape. You may insert tampons into your vagina with a cardboard or plastic applicator—or by using your fingers.

There is a range of tampons on the market—including light to heavy flow—or scented and unscented options. You may also buy tampons made from organic cotton.

If your body tolerates tampons well, you won't be able to feel them. You can take part in normal activities while wearing on, like swimming or team sports, and tampons are easy and convenient to transport.

The biggest downside of tampons is the potential for toxic shock syndrome, which has the potential to be life-threatening. But you may avoid trouble with less absorbent tampons—and by changing them more frequently. According to the Food and Drug Administration, you should change your tampon every four to eight hours.

Another downside of tampons is the high ongoing expense. A box of tampons may cost between $6 to $13 per box—and depending on your flow, the product may create a significant amount of waste every month.

Sanitary pads

Sanitary pads—a.k.a. sanitary napkins, menstrual pads, panty liners, or pads—are the most popular type of menstrual product. Made with natural or synthetic fibers, this disposable product may be cotton or rayon. Sanitary pads also come in a variety of thicknesses, depending on your flow.

You may wear a sanitary pad externally—stuck to the inside of your underwear—which is a big difference from tampons. One major benefit: you don't have to worry about getting toxic shock syndrome, which makes them a great alternative to tampons.

If you have a heavier period, you may feel more comfortable wearing a sanitary pad—and some folks may wear one as a back-up for tampons on heavier period days. Sanitary pads may also be a good option if tampons may cause irritation or dryness.

One of the biggest downsides of sanitary pads is the ongoing expense. A box of sanitary pads may cost between $6 to $10, depending on the number of pads and absorbency. You may have to replace your sanitary pad every few hours—which, like tampons, creates a lot of waste.

Menstrual cups

If you're looking for ways to save money and to create less waste, you may want to try a menstrual cup. So, what is a menstrual cup? Made of silicone, latex, rubber, or elastomer—menstrual cups may be reusable—and come in a variety of sizes.

The biggest advantage of a reusable menstrual cup is it may last for up to ten years. You can wear a menstrual cup for up to twelve hours—and it won't stop you from any normal activities.

One major downside of these new period products is the initial cost. While you may spend money less over time, there's a bigger upfront expense. You should expect to spend anywhere from $25 to $40. Another negative is menstrual cups may offer less protection—and it may not be enough for those with a heavier flow.

Period underwear

Another reusable option to consider is period underwear—a.k.a. period panties or menstrual underwear. What are period panties? These garments are different from regular underwear because they have multiple layers. This makes period underwear more absorbent than conventional tampons or sanitary pads. Some folks use them as back-up period protection—particularly at night.

The biggest downside of period underwear is the upfront cost. You may spend $25 to $40 per pair—and you may need several pairs to make it through your period every month. The good news is you may save more money over time—and create less waste from disposable tampons or pads. Another con: Period underwear may absorb two tampons of blood—but you still have to change them on a regular basis. This may be inconvenient—and potentially messy—when you are away from home.

You may also buy other versions of period underwear: period boy shorts or period boxer briefs. These may products cut back on body dysphoria for transgender or gender non-conforming folks.

Reusable cloth pads

A third wallet and eco-friendly option—reusable cloth pads—may also be worth a look. Reusable cloth pads, which usually come in two pieces, work like disposable sanitary pads. The biggest difference is you can wash and use them again.

The biggest pro of reusable cloth pads is the ability to save money over time. You may also create a lot less waste, as you need to change disposable sanitary pads every few hours. Reusable cloth pads may also be less bulky than disposable pads. This could make them more flexible, breathable, and less visible through clothing.

One major disadvantage is the initial cost, though. Reusable cloth pads may cost between $20 to $30—and like period underwear—you may need several pairs to make it through your period. Also, depending on the color, you may need to wash them fast—otherwise, you may wind up with period stains.

Menstrual disks

Menstrual discs are round, flexible rings that sit at the base of your cervix and collect blood in a soft bag. Made of medical-grade polymer, you may insert a menstrual disc with your fingers—and it will mold to your shape. You may wear this single-use period product for up to twelve hours.

One of the biggest perks of a menstrual disc is you may have penetrative sexual intercourse while wearing one. This is a big difference from a menstrual cup—which you must remove before engaging in the same activity.

Menstrual discs are also less likely to slip, like a disposable or reusable sanitary pad. This makes it a better option for high-impact exercise. Some companies also claim to reduce some period-related pain—but reviews are mixed.

The biggest downside to menstrual discs is the price. It may cost up to $11 to $15 for 8 discs—which is more costly than conventional tampons. Another negative is there is messier removal compared to menstrual cups.

Which period product is right for you?

It's easy to get overwhelmed by all the feminine care products on the market—especially when few of them are cheap. (Thanks, tampon tax!) Fortunately, you now have the option to use your health savings account (HSA) or flexible spending account (FSA) to pay for them.

Now that you can use pre-tax HSA or FSA money to buy menstrual products, it's like you're getting a discount on each item you buy. This may make it more affordable to try some of the more costly, reusable period products—like period underwear or a menstrual cup—which may save you more money in the long-run.

As you try new period feminine hygiene products, be sure to save your receipts for tax time. Although these items are now qualified medical expenses—you still need to keep track of FSA and HSA reimbursements.

Thanks for visiting the FSA Learning Center! To stay on top of all FSA news that can affect your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Kate Dore

Kate Dore is a Nashville-based personal finance writer and Candidate for Certified Financial Planner Certification. She teaches financial literacy with Junior Achievement and writes for Lifehacker, Business Insider, Investopedia, and Credit Karma. You can follow her on Twitter at @KateDore.
Living Well

The Best Feminine Hygiene Wash for You

Few things cause more embarrassment than issues with your vagina. Whether you're reeling from vaginal discomfort, itch, or odor, you may feel too ashamed to talk about it, which may stop you from visiting a healthcare provider. The problem is, this can lead to an array of do-it-yourself solutions—including feminine hygiene products—which could lead to further complications.

To make matters worse, the feminine hygiene industry represents billions of dollars in sales in the United States. You may notice dozens of feminine hygiene products while walking down the aisles of your local drugstore and wonder if you should try one. But you can protect your wallet by understanding some of the basics. Here's what you should know about feminine hygiene—and which products may be right for you.

Feminine hygiene 101

Let's start with some of the basics of your anatomy and vaginal hygiene.

First, you should know the difference between your vagina and vulva. Your vagina is the inner muscular tract from your cervix to your vaginal opening. Your vulva is all the external parts—your inner and outer labia, clitoris, clitoral hood, the vestibule (around the vaginal opening), and the urethral opening.

To keep your vagina and vulva healthy, you need to maintain your pH and bacterial balance. Your body uses estrogen to keep your vagina healthy by encouraging lactobacilli to grow. These bacteria keep the pH balance of your vagina slightly acidic—which may protect your vagina from microorganisms that can cause disease. Your vagina may also have yeast but the acidity usually keeps the amount under control (ACOG).

Is my vaginal discharge normal?

Probably. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), your vagina produces a natural discharge at puberty. You will have vaginal discharge every month and it changes throughout your menstrual cycle. The discharge keeps your genitals clean by removing dead cells from the walls of your vagina.

Your vaginal discharge may be normal if it's clear or white—and it shouldn't have a noticeable odor. If the color, amount, odor, or consistency of your discharge changes, it may be a sign that something is off. A strong odor may be the sign of an infection that needs medical treatment. While it may be tempting, you shouldn't try to cover up strong odors with any type of spray, deodorant, or douche (ACOG).

How to identify and treat a vaginal infection

If your vaginal pH balance gets disrupted, it may cause an infection. The two most common types of vaginal infections are bacterial vaginosis (BV) or a yeast infection.

Bacterial vaginosis happens when too much bacteria grow in your vagina. You may identify bacterial vaginosis if you have more discharge than usual or a strong "fishy" odor. A doctor may prescribe antibiotics to clear up the infection—which you may take by mouth or insert into your vagina.

Similarly, yeast infections happen when there is too much yeast in your vagina. Some of the causes for yeast infections may be lubricants, spermicides, some antibiotics (which may kill too much of your good bacteria), or being pregnant. The most common sign of a yeast infection is when your vulva burns or itches. A doctor may treat yeast infections with a medication—either taken orally or vaginally.

You may also experience vulvovaginal changes during different stages of your life—like during pregnancy and menopause. When you are pregnant, your levels of estrogen and progesterone may shift—which can make vaginal infections more common. There may be some vaginal changes after giving birth, as well.

You may also experience changes to your vagina and urinary tract during menopause. These changes may make your vagina dryer and thinner and may cause discomfort. Luckily, you can explore a variety of treatment options with your healthcare provider (ACOG).

Do I need to wash my vagina?

No, you don't need to wash the inside of your vagina because it produces its own natural discharge throughout the month—kind of like a self-cleaning oven. You do need to wash your vulva, though. As a reminder, this includes your inner and outer labia, clitoris, clitoral hood, the vestibule (around the vaginal opening), and the urethral opening.

According to the Mayo Clinic, you don't need to wash your vulva with anything more than warm water. Adding something else—like anti-bacterial soap or chemicals—has the ability to disrupt your vagina's natural pH balance.

Should I use feminine hygiene wash?

Feminine hygiene products may include feminine hygiene washes, intimate washes, feminine wipes, douches, or deodorants—and the short answer is no, you shouldn't use them.

Several studies have found douching—which involves flushing the vagina with water or cleaners—may be particularly harmful. By disrupting your vagina's natural pH, you may be more vulnerable to other infections, like sexually transmitted infections (STI). This may increase your risk of getting cervical cancer or pelvic inflammatory disease.

The same study found intimate washes may be risky, as well. These products may increase your risk of bacterial infections by 3.5 times and urinary tract infections (UTI) by over 2 times. Unfortunately, intimate cleansing wipes may cause the same problem by preventing the growth of healthy bacteria (Medical News Today).

How to practice good feminine hygiene

Are you noticing a vaginal odor that isn't from a vaginal infection? It may be coming from your inner thighs and skin folds—not your vagina. The Mayo Clinic recommends the following intimate hygiene tips to keep your vagina and vulva clean and healthy:

  • Skip any type of deodorant, perfume, gels, or powder in the vagina.
  • Try to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Avoid tight-fitting underwear, pantyhose, girdles, or pants—especially at night when you are going to sleep.
  • White cotton underwear is the healthiest option.
  • Use a mild detergent and wash your underwear separate from your other clothing.
  • Consider using a menstrual cup or tampons during your period and change each one frequently to prevent leakage.

Good feminine hygiene and sex

Vaginal odors may be particularly troublesome in the bedroom. If you're worried about vaginal odor while having sex, don't use a feminine hygiene wash or start douching. Instead, consider taking a shower with warm water first. If you're experiencing vaginal irritation or abnormal discharge, consider using a condom and making an appointment with your healthcare provider.

After sex, you should try to urinate to avoid getting a urinary tract infection (UTI), particularly if you are prone to contracting them (The Mayo Clinic). If you use sex toys, make sure to clean the part that touched your body with hot water and liquid antibacterial soap—or follow the manufacturer's specific cleaning instructions.

Keep your feminine hygiene simple

When it comes to good feminine hygiene, there's one good rule of thumb to remember—less is more. You don't need costly feminine hygiene washes, perfumes, or deodorants to clean your vagina and vulva. If you're experiencing unpleasant odors, these products may only make your problems worse. Instead, you may keep your vagina and vulva clean with daily showering and cleaning your genitals with warm water. If you start noticing something is off—like more discharge, itching, or a strong odor—speak to your healthcare provider as soon as possible. While your issue may be common, you may need a doctor to prescribe a medication to clear up a vaginal infection.


Thanks for visiting the FSA Learning Center! To stay on top of all FSA news that can affect your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Kate Dore

Kate Dore is a Nashville-based personal finance writer and Candidate for Certified Financial Planner™ Certification. She teaches financial literacy with Junior Achievement and writes for Lifehacker, Business Insider, Investopedia, and Credit Karma. You can follow her on Twitter at @KateDore.

Living Well

Tampons Vs Pads: Which is Right for You

Which is better: tampons vs. pads? Folks have been asking for years—and the debate may continue as new menstrual products emerge. You may pick a side early in your menstrual journey or make the switch many years down the road. The problem is there are many factors at play that can make the decision tougher than you expect.

The good news is it's now cheaper to try all the different options on the market. In March, the CARES Act finally made menstrual products FSA and HSA-eligible. This means you can now use pre-tax dollars to pay for things like tampons, sanitary pads, menstrual cups, and more. Whether you're starting out—or want to make a switch—we have covered the most popular product options. Here's how to decide which is right for you.

Pads

As you're comparing menstrual products, sanitary pads—which stick to the inside of your underwear—may be the first one to try. Pads are made with natural and synthetic fibers, including rayon and cotton. They are the most popular menstrual product option, according to a FiveThirtyEight report—and it's easy to see why.

If you have a heavier period, you may consider sanitary pads for more protection. Some women also use them as a back-up with tampons. You may prefer sanitary pads if you find tampons uncomfortable or hate to insert them. There are different pad thicknesses to choose from and you won't have to worry about toxic shock syndrome.

Although sanitary pads are the top option for many women, there are some cons to consider. They may be visible through some clothing—and are tough to wear with certain types of underwear. Sanitary pads may shift when you move and you can't swim while wearing one. Depending on your flow, you may have to replace your sanitary pad every few hours, which may create a lot of waste.

Tampons

Tampons, which reign second in popularity, are cotton pads you insert into the vagina with an applicator or your fingers. Depending on your flow, there are different tampon sizes, from light to heavy.

There are many perks to using tampons. If you insert it the right way, you won't be able to feel it. The product isn't visible through your clothing and you don't have to worry about it shifting. The product is also smaller than a sanitary pad, which makes it easier to fit into a purse or your pocket. Another plus: you can swim while wearing a tampon.

Unfortunately, the biggest downside is a scary one: the potential for toxic shock syndrome. While it doesn't happen often—around 0.8 to 3.4 per 100,000 people in the United States—it can be life-threatening. You may avoid the risk of getting toxic shock syndrome by using lower absorbency tampons and changing them often.

Another downside is tampons can be uncomfortable—and can cause irritation or dryness. Tampons are also a less environmentally-friendly option with millions going into the landfill every year.

Menstrual cups

Fun fact: according to MedicalNewsToday, menstrual cups have been around since 1932. L.J. Goodard patented a bell-shaped receptacle that women could use to insert into their vagina to collect menstrual blood. Today's menstrual cups look similar—but are made of medical-grade silicone, latex, rubber, or elastomer.

If you're trying to cut back on waste, you may look for reusable menstrual cups. These products come in a variety of sizes and are easy to clean. Best of all, a reusable menstrual cup may last for up to 10 years.

Some more perks: you may wear a menstrual cup for up to 12 hours. Once you have inserted a menstrual cup, you won't feel it—and you can wear it while swimming or having sex. It won't impact your outfit choices, your vagina's PH, and it may prevent odors.

There are some downsides, though. Although you may save money in the long-term, there is a high upfront cost of $25 to $40. Menstrual cups can also be messy—and may not be enough protection for those with heavy periods. They can be tough to insert, and if you're not careful, you could dislodge an IUD.

Period underwear

Another option that has been growing in popularity is period underwear—a.k.a. menstrual underwear or period panties. These reusable garments may absorb up to a couple of tampons or sanitary pads worth of blood.

While you may spend more upfront, you may use them longer, which will save you money over time. Plus, you won't be contributing to waste like tampons or sanitary pads. They may be enough for a light or medium flow—and some women use them as nighttime back-up protection.

One of the biggest downsides is the upfront cost—which is more than regular underwear—and they may not be enough for heavy periods. You also may have to spend more time washing period underwear. This could make them a less convenient option.

While many menstrual products market themselves to women, there's also a growing list of gender-neutral options. These gender-neutral products may cause less body dysphoria for folks who menstruate but don't identify as female. For example, some companies have started selling period boy shorts or boxer briefs.

Menstrual disks

Menstrual disks are a newer disposable menstrual product option. According to the University of Texas at Austin, the disks are made of medical-grade polymer—and mold to your shape. You can insert the disk with your fingers. It rests at the bottom of your cervix where it collects your menstrual fluid into a soft bag.

You may still have sex while wearing a menstrual disk, which is a unique perk. There's also less of a chance the product will slip, making it an ideal option for wearing during exercise. The biggest downside is the price. A box of eight to twelve disks may cost between $10 to $20 and you may use eight disks for every cycle. It's a more expensive option than tampons disposable sanitary pads.

Reusable cloth pads

If you're on the market for reusable menstrual products, you may also check out cloth sanitary pads. These two-piece products work the same way disposable sanitary pads do. The biggest difference is the ability to wash and reuse them.

One of the upsides of reusable cloth pads is they may be cheaper than buying disposable sanitary pads over time. They also may be more flexible, breathable, and less bulky. You may also pick reusable pads if you're looking to reduce waste.

Some of the potential downsides of cloth sanitary napkins are the bigger upfront costs and the inconvenience of washing them. If you don't wash cloth sanitary pads quickly enough, they may stain.

Tampons vs pads: which is right for you

When it comes to the tampons vs pads debate, there are plenty of strong arguments for either side. There are also fans of other options like menstrual cups, period underwear, discs, sponges, and more. Before selecting your go-to period product, you may want to try some of the different options yourself.


As the tampon tax continues to spike the price of these products, you may be looking for ways to save. Luckily, the CARES Act has made it easier than ever to use your pre-tax FSA money on menstrual products. Your final decision may depend on cost, convenience, and comfort—which may be easier to gauge after you have tested each one.


Thanks for visiting the FSA Learning Center! To stay on top of all FSA news that can affect your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Kate Dore

Kate Dore is a Nashville-based personal finance writer and Candidate for Certified Financial Planner Certification. She teaches financial literacy with Junior Achievement and writes for Lifehacker, Business Insider, Investopedia, and Credit Karma. You can follow her on Twitter at @KateDore.

Living Well

Real Money: Is dental insurance worth the cost?

For many of us, paying for a filling or root canal can be painful. And if you're like me — one of the 23% of folks without dental insurance — going to the dentist costs a small fortune.

Without any issues, I shelled out $380 for dental care last year. That's $155 for two cleanings, plus an extra $70 for x-rays. Other than a small gum graft and a couple of cavities, I've avoided any major dental problems.

Based on my history of "good teeth," I've skipped paying for dental insurance myself for 11 of the past 12 years. But what happens if things get worse? I did some research to find out when dental insurance actually pays off.

What most dental insurance covers

According to the National Association of Dental Plans (NADP), most policies cover the following areas:

  • Preventative care (cleaning and routine visits)
  • Restorative care (crowns or fillings)
  • Endodontics (root canals)
  • Oral surgery (minor surgeries and tooth removal)
  • Orthodontics (braces)
  • Periodontics (scaling or root planning)
  • Prosthodontics (bridges or dentures)

If you have an individual policy, there's typically a one-year waiting period for the last three. Also, you may need an extra rider to have orthodontics coverage.

How much your provider will pay

Like other types of insurance, it's rare for a policy to cover everything for the more expensive procedures. Here's what they usually pay for:

  • Preventative care - Most plans cover 100%. This usually includes cleanings, oral evaluations, x-rays, and sealants for certain age groups.
  • Basic procedures - You can expect plans to cover 60-80% for basic procedures. This includes office visits, extractions, fillings, periodontal treatment, and root canals.
  • Major procedures - Many plans only cover 50%. Bridges, crowns, dentures, inlays are all major procedures. It's possible your plan may put some basic procedures — like root canals — into this category too.

Only half of dental PPOs will cover more than $1,500 per year. The other half cap annual benefits below $1,500.

How much dental insurance costs

If you have dental insurance, it's likely through your company's group plan. Premiums range from $14.06 to $30.57 per month or $168.72 to $366.84 per year. Family plans are more expensive — ranging from $27.08 to $56.73 per month — or $324.96 to $680.76 per year.

Unfortunately, there isn't recent data on individual dental plans. When I searched my Marketplace, individual dental insurance plans ranged from $13.19 to $46.57 per month.

Analyzing my own dental plan options

When it comes to healthcare, I stay with the same doctors for as long as I can. When I searched Nashville's Marketplace, only two plans covered my dentist. The monthly premiums for these plans are $26.03 and $32.79.

One first covers preventative care at 70-90% The second pays 100% for the same services. Both plans have an annual limit of $1,000. Choosing the more expensive plan means paying $13 more per year. The benefit is 60-80% savings on basic services and 50% savings on major services. Insurance kicks in after a $50 deductible for both of plans.

I am unlikely to use basic or major services, so I have skipped dental insurance again for 2020. I will pay my $380 out-of-pocket with my health savings account.

Is dental insurance actually worth it?

In an ideal world, a crystal ball could predict your future health care needs. But reality looks a lot different. You need to consider a plan's annual premiums and what you get for paying them. Be realistic about your upcoming needs.

The policy's annual limit and how much it covers may help you decide. It's difficult to predict the future of your teeth, so you may need to rely on your dental history. Based on your past experience, you can assess how risky it may be to skip insurance.

Oral care needs


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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 FSAstore.com Learning Center. And for the latest info about your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Real Money: How to navigate Healthcare.gov when you're expecting

Few surprises are more exciting than learning your family is pregnant. There are endless calls to make, photos to share, and parties to plan. Once the thrill of the news settles down, the reality of your growing family may shift your attention to the expense.

As one of my colleagues covered last week, having a baby isn't always easy, especially without an employer to help cover the bill. So, let's revisit the topic for new parents. Thankfully, there are steps you can take now to soften the financial sting later.

Maternity care is covered

If you're expecting and don't have health insurance there's good news. Because of the Affordable Care Act, you're covered even with a pre-existing condition. This means insurers can't turn you away for being pregnant. Open enrollment is officially underway, so now is the perfect time to sign up through Healthcare.gov or your state's exchange.

Other new parent needs


How a lower deductible plan pays off

All Marketplace plans cover pregnancy and having a baby. The problem is, each plan's coverage is different. The only way to find out specifics is by digging into the plan's Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC).

A couple of bronze plans with similar monthly premiums could have different out-of-pocket expenses. In my case, both plans have a $7,900 limit on how much you will pay out-of-pocket. But there are major differences before you get there.

One plan covers 100% of services after hitting their $7,900 deductible. The other's deductible is a little lower at $7,000, but you're still on the hook for 50% of services after that. As you can imagine, you may owe more if any part of your pregnancy doesn't go as planned. Or you pick out-of-network providers.

To cut back on costly surprises, consider paying higher monthly premiums for a lower deductible. Because maternity care is so unpredictable, you may reach the deductible quickly. If you're feeling overwhelmed, take a few minutes to read through our ultimate guide to open enrollment.

Stick with providers in your network

One of the perks of shopping for health insurance on Healthcare.gov, is you can filter plans by specific doctors and hospitals. Knowing who you want to see and where you want to go now may save you from heartache later. When making appointments, always confirm specialists are covered — even when they work at an in-network hospital.

You can change your plan after the baby is born

Once the baby's here, you have the choice to stick with your current plan or pick a new one. That's because giving birth kicks you into a Special Enrollment Period. If you prefer a plan with lower premiums and a higher deductible, this is your opportunity to make a change. When you give birth, the clock starts ticking, and you have 60 days to decide.

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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 FSAstore.com Learning Center. And for the latest info about your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Basics

Flex-Ed: Staying ahead of your year-end FSA deadlines

You had the best intentions when you put money into your flexible spending account (FSA). But as the calendar winds down (and don't be afraid, but November is already here!) the holidays can disrupt your to-do list, and that money could easily go to waste. Luckily, there's still plenty of time to make smart year-end FSA spending decisions. We'll cover how to make the most of your money — while avoiding IRS scrutiny.

Know these key dates

When it comes to maximizing your FSA, knowledge is power. Start by asking your plan administrator for details about your key FSA deadlines (and know the difference between them!). These may include:

  • Rollover - If your company offers a rollover, you'll have an opportunity to keep $500 in your account from the previous year.
  • Grace period - Some employers offer up to 2½ extra months after the annual deadline to use your FSA money. If the annual deadline is December 31, a grace period extends your deadline to March 15.
  • Run-out period - This is your deadline to submit receipts from the previous year. Most companies offer a 90-day run-off period after the deadline. If your plan's deadline is December 31, you'll have until March 31 to be reimbursed.

Before crafting your FSA spending plan, it's critical to know these deadlines. Your company could offer a rollover, grace period, or hard deadline on December 31. Once you know your plan's deadlines, set more than one reminder to avoid surprises.

Where can you spend your FSA money?

If you're taxing your brain, it may be worth revisiting what you purchased over the past year. Now is the perfect time to reimburse yourself for an FSA-eligible expense you may have missed.

Taking inventory of the past couple years of spending may also jog your memory. Are you overdue for an eye exam? Have you been putting off a specialist visit? Did you skip your annual trip to the dermatologist? Time slips away faster than you may expect. You may be able to use your extra FSA money on basic necessities.

If you're still feeling nervous, our foolproof list of FSA-eligible products and services has you covered.

Resist the urge to stockpile

We've said it before, but it's worth mentioning again - try not to "stockpile" FSA-eligible products. There's no hard and fast rule about this, but being too frivolous with these funds can trigger some unwanted IRS attention.

Look, we get it. Things happen — the holidays creep in and before you know it, you're up against the FSA spending deadline. While it may be tempting to splurge on a lifetime supply of gauze, experts urge against it.

If you're trying to follow the rules — and you should be — FSA purchases should cover your current needs. This means things you need through the end of the year. Does that mean your administrator will show up to inspect your bottle of nasal spray? Probably not.

But buying three bottles in December could trigger a red flag. If that happens, it's possible your administrator won't reimburse you. Then you're stuck with too much nasal spray and you spent money unnecessarily.

If your plan offers a rollover or grace period, it may be easier to avoid the temptation to stockpile. Plus, you'll have extra time to plan for the medical expenses you actually need.

Be smart with year-end FSA spending

One of the best things about your FSA is spending pre-tax money on medical necessities. But if you're not careful, you may have to surrender the unused funds. Unless you're flush with cash, returning FSA money to your employer at the end of the year is less than ideal.

The good news is you can use this year's missteps to plan for next year's FSA spending. Planning ahead may help you avoid the same trouble next December.

Start here!

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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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Flex-Ed: Speaking to millennials at open enrollment

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar. You spend hours preparing for a company meeting on employee benefits. But when it's time to share information, some employees are visibly less interested. By the end of the meeting, eyes have glazed over, and attention has disappeared.

Fast forward to open enrollment. Maybe it's a little early to tackle this, but this same group of employees is pretty disengaged. And they are less likely to understand what your company offers. So it's better to start now and avoid confusion later.

Millennials may be first to say, "I've got this." But the truth is, open enrollment can be confusing and stressful. Key details may be glossed over. And as a result, they may be less likely to opt in. Here are some tips on how to spark interest before the onslaught of paperwork begins.

Communication matters

If you're offering the types of benefits millennials value most — great. But do they actually understand what you offer? Communication is critical. Try going beyond in-person meetings, letters, or emails. Share the message in bite-sized pieces through texts, blog posts, or videos. Repeating what matters may be the key to boosting millennial engagement.

Highlight ways to save

Millennials may have a reputation for frivolous spending. But that's not the case with healthcare. Research has revealed nearly half of millennials have skipped or delayed care to save money. Become a trusted resource and advocate by making benefits easier to understand. Break healthcare benefits down into manageable chunks.

Oh, be sure to ditch the industry jargon. These might be common terms to some, but it always helps to decipher things like coinsurance, copayment, or out-of-pocket maximum, providing real-world examples of how each of these will impact their wallets.

Flexible spending accounts (FSAs) are another way to save on taxes. Money shifts into a special account before being paid. Explain the "use it or lose it" rules and why it requires some extra planning. There's no "magic number" that works for all employees. Everyone's needs are different. Ask these questions to guide them through the decision process:

  • How much money did you spend last year? Sifting through old receipts can be a snooze, but it's helpful to have a baseline for planning purposes.
  • Do you have any major health expenses planned? Time to stop putting off that root canal? Or is your family expecting a baby? You're likely to use 100% of the year's FSA money — and more. But if you're expecting routine check-ups, contributing the full amount may not make sense.
  • Does your company offer a high-deductible health plan? A recent survey found most millennials don't understand how they work. To make matters worse, 70% waste up to $750 because of mistakes at open enrollment. Maybe a health savings account (HSA) is a viable alternative.

Grab attention before open enrollment

No one wants to read a stack of papers. Try delivering the information other ways. Consider which benefits are most valuable to millennials and highlight them — more than once. Helping your employees make the most of their benefits could save them a lot of money. Best of all, they may want to stick around longer.

New FSA-eligible arrivals...


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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.