Did you know you could save for retirement by spending money? Health savings accounts (HSAs) are a new way for employees to save for retirement and pay for healthcare expenses. Read on to learn more about HSAs and how they can help you save for retirement.


The old adage, “You need to spend money to make money,” is applicable to many areas of life and business, but when it comes to retirement, not so much. Particularly for people who are enrolled in retirement accounts, like the 401(k) or IRA.

After all, the more you’re able to fund these accounts on a yearly basis, the sooner you’ll be able to accrue enough money to retire to that beach condo or cabin in the backcountry.  But in recent years, a newcomer has entered the retirement planning picture offering a novel new way to save money: By spending it.

The health savings account (HSA) has the potential to influence the spending/saving conundrum many young professionals face: Do I spend my HSA money on qualifying health care expenses (which can save me up to 40 percent on the dollar) or do I pay out of pocket for the same expenses and watch my HSA balance grow?

What many people don’t realize is that yearly HSA contributions are tax-deductible. So if account holders aren’t factoring in doctor co-payments, prescription drugs and the thousands of over-the-counter health products that tax-advantaged HSA funds can cover, they may be missing an opportunity to save in taxes each year.

By maximizing their contributions and paying with HSA funds as opposed to out-of-pocket, HSA users can cover products they were going to purchase anyway with tax-free funds, while using whatever is rolled over to save for retirement.

Spending more to save more. Who knew?

Here’s some food for thought that savvy employersshould consider sharing with employees of all ages.

Facts about health savings accounts (HSAs)

HSAs were created in 2003, but unlike flexible spending accounts (FSAs) that work on a year-to-year basis, HSAs have no deadlines and funds roll over annually. HSAs also feature a “triple tax benefit,” in that HSA contributions reduce your taxable income, interest earned on the HSA balance accrues tax free, and withdrawals for qualifying health expenses are not taxed.

Account holders can set aside up to $3,500 (2019 individual health plan enrollment limit) annually and $7,000 if participating in the health plan as two-person or family, and these funds can cover a huge range of qualifying medical products and services.

HSAs can only be funded if the account holder is enrolled in an HSA-qualified high-deductible health plan (HDHP). If the account holder loses coverage, he/she can still use the money in the HSA to cover qualifying health care expenses, but will be unable to deposit more funds until HDHP coverage resumes. The IRS defines an HSA-qualified HDHP as any plan with a deductible of at least $1,350 for an individual or $2,700 for a family (in 2019 – limits are adjusted each year).

Despite their relatively short lifespan, HSAs are among the fastest growing tax-advantaged accounts in the United States today. In 2017, HSAs hit 22 million accounts for the first time, but a massive growth in HSA investment assets is the real story. HSA investment assets grew to an estimated $8.3 billion at the end of December, up 53 percent year-over-year (2017 Year-End Devenir HSA Research Report).

However, while HSAs offer immediate tax benefits, they also have a key differentiator: the ability to save for retirement. HSA funds roll over from year to year, giving account holders the option to pay for expenses out of pocket while they are employed and save their HSA for retirement.

If account holders use their HSA funds for non-qualified expenses, they will face a 20% tax penalty. However, once they are Medicare-eligible at age 65, that tax penalty disappears and HSA funds can be withdrawn for any expense and  will only be taxed as income. Additionally, once employees  turn 55, they  can contribute an extra $1,000 per year to their HSAs, a “catch-up contribution,” to bolster their HSA nest eggs before retirement. When all is said and done, diligently funding an HSA can provide a major boost to employees’ financial bottom lines in retirement.

What’s the best HSA strategy by income level?

HSAs have immediate tax-saving benefits and long-term retirement potential, but they require different savings strategies based on your income level.

Ideally, if you have the financial means to do so, putting aside the HSA maximum each year may allow you to cover health expenses as they come up and continue saving for retirement down the road. But even if you’re depositing far below the yearly contribution limit, your HSA can provide a boost to your financial wellness now and in the future.

I’ve seen this firsthand. Before we launched our e-commerce store for all HSA-eligible medical products, we extensively researched the profiles of the primary HSA user groups through partnerships with HSA plan providers.

We then created “personas” that provide insights on how to communicate with different audiences about HSA management at varying points in the account holder’s life cycle, and these same lessons can be just as vital to employers.

The following contribution strategies are based on these personas and offer insights that could help employees get their HSA nest egg off and growing. These suggestions offer a means of getting started.

As employees receive pay raises and promotions, they may be able to increase their HSA contributions over time, but this can be a way to get their health care savings off the ground and then adjust to life with an HSA.

Disclaimer: These personas are for illustrative purposes only and in all cases you may want to speak with a tax or financial advisor. Information provided should not be considered tax or legal advice.

1. Employee Type: Millennials/Gen-Z with an income between $35-75k/year

For the vast majority of young professionals starting out, health care is not at the top of their budget priorities. However, high-deductible health plans have low monthly premiums, and by contributing to an HSA, an account holder can cover these expenses until the deductible is exhausted. For this group of employees, starting off small and gradually increasing contributions as income increases is a sound financial solution.

Potential Contribution Range: $1,000-$1,500

2. Employee Type: Full-Time HDHP Users Enrolled with an income between $35-60k/year

With many companies switching to all HDHP health plan options, a large contingent of workers find themselves using HDHPs for the first time. For this group, it’s all about finding the right balance between tax savings and the ability to cover necessary health expenses. Setting aside money in an HSA will allow workers to reduce how much they pay in taxes yearly by reducing their taxable income, while being able to pay down their deductible with HSA funds at the same time.

Potential Contribution Range: $1,000-$1,500

3. Employee Type: Staff with Families with an income between $75-100k/year

Low premiums from an HDHP plan are attractive for these employees, but parents will have far more health expenses to cover and more opportunities to utilize tax-free funds to cover health and wellness products. With more opportunities to spend down their deductible with qualifying health expenses and the resulting tax savings, parents should strive to put the family maximum contribution ($7000 for 2019) into their HSAs.

Potential Contribution Range:$4,000-$6,900

4. Employee Type: Pre-Retirement Staff with an income between $100-200k/year

Employees who are in their peak earning years have the greatest opportunity to put away thousands in tax-free funds through an HSA. So whenever possible, they should be encouraged to contribute the largest possible allocation to their HSA on a yearly basis. Additionally, employees age 55 and over can contribute an extra $1,000 to their HSA annually until they reach Medicare age at 65 to fast-track their HSA earnings.

Potential Contribution Range: HSA Maximum ($3,500 individual, $7,000 families for 2019)

What else should employers know about HSAs?

Employers can help employees get the most out of HSAs. Here are some tips:

  • Employers should consider contributing to their employees’ accounts on an annual basis. Employer contributions to an HSA are tax-deductible, and this has the added bonus for employees of making it easier to max out their contributions annually.
  • Remember: Employer and employee contributions cannot exceed the yearly HSA contribution limits ($3,500 individual, $7,000 family for 2019), so make this information clear to employees during open enrollment.
  • If employees are still on the fence about HSAs, remind them that deductible expenses can be paid for with HSA funds, and yearly HSA contributions are tax-deductible for employees as well.

SOURCE:
Miller, J (2 July 2018) “What’s the best combination of spending/saving with an HSA?” [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.benefitspro.com/2018/06/08/whats-the-best-combination-of-spendingsaving-with/