Why employees should max out HSA contributions

The article below was published on September 13, 2017 by Employee Benefit News, written by Robert Lawton.

With healthcare open enrollment season quickly approaching, 401(k) plan sponsors may want to spend some time educating participants on the use of health savings accounts. If you offer a high-deductible health plan to your employees, they probably have the ability to contribute to HSAs. I believe that nearly everyone eligible to contribute to an HSA should max out their HSA contributions each year. Here’s why.

HSAs are triple tax-free
HSA payroll contributions are made pre-tax and when balances are used to pay qualified healthcare expenses, they come out of HSA accounts tax-free. Earnings on HSA balances also accumulate tax-free. There are no other employee benefits that work this way.

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HSA payroll contributions are truly tax-free

Unlike pre-tax 401(k) contributions, HSA contributions made from payroll deductions are truly pre-tax in that Medicare and Social Security taxes are not withheld. Both 401(k) pre-tax payroll contributions and HSA payroll contributions are made without deductions for state and federal taxes.

No use it or lose it
Employees may confuse HSAs with flexible spending accounts, where balances not used during a particular year may be forfeited. With HSAs, unused balances carry over to the next year. And so on, forever. Well at least until the employee passes away. HSA balances are never forfeited due to lack of use during a year.

Retiree healthcare expenses
Anyone fortunate enough to accumulate an HSA balance that is carried over into retirement may use it to pay for many routine and non-routine healthcare expenses. HSA balances can be used to pay for prescription drugs, medical premiums, COBRA premiums, dental expenses, Medicare premiums, long-term care insurance premiums and of course any co-pays, deductibles or co-insurance amounts. There are no age 70 1/2 minimum distribution requirements on HSA accounts like there are on 401(k) and IRA accounts. This makes HSA accounts a much more tax-efficient way of paying for healthcare expenses in retirement, especially if the alternative is taking a taxable 401(k) or IRA distribution.

Contribution limits
Maximum annual HSA contribution limits (employer plus employee) for 2018 are modest — $3,450 per individual and $6,900 for a family. Another $1,000 in catch-up contributions is permitted for those age 55 and older. Studies show that more than 80% of employers make some sort of contribution to HSAs for their employees.

HSAs and retirement planning

Most employees would likely benefit from the following contribution strategy incorporating HSA and 401(k) accounts:

1. First, employees should contribute the percentage that allows them to receive the maximum company match in their 401(k) plan. There is no better investment any employee can make than receiving free money.

2. Then, employees should fill up their HSA accounts using payroll contributions. The maximum annual contributions are outlined above.

3. If ability to contribute still exists, employees should then max out their contributions to their 401(k) plan by making either the maximum percentage contribution or reaching their annual limit.

4. Finally, if employees are still able to contribute and are eligible, they should consider contributing to a Roth IRA. Roth IRAs have no age 70 1/2 minimum distribution requirements (like pre-tax IRAs and 401(k) accounts). In addition, account balances may be withdrawn tax-free if certain conditions are met.

The contributions outlined above do not have to be made sequentially. In fact, it would be easiest to make all contributions on a continual, regular basis throughout the year. Employees should calculate each contribution percentage separately and then determine what they can commit to for the year.

The keys to building an account balance that can carry over into retirement include maxing out HSA contributions each year and investing unused contributions so account balances can grow. If your HSAs don’t offer investment funds, think about adding them soon.

HSAs will continue to become a more important source of funds for retirees to pay healthcare expenses as high-deductible health plans become more prevalent. Make sure you educate your employees on their use.

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