Sunday, January 5, 2014

Are Health Savings Accounts the Next Retirement Plan?

retirement
retirement (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)
It is no secret that end of life care consumes the majority of health care dollars. In fact, about 80% of all money spent on health care is spent during the last two years of a person's life. The problem with this is that many people have exhausted savings and sold off assets by that point to afford care. Health savings accounts (HSAs) may provide a solution to the problems of health care expenditures in old age. In some ways, they are like a retirement plan for your health needs. 


Qualified Expenses


HSAs, such as those offered by HSAforAmerica.com, are health care plans that provide tax benefits. In essence, as long as the money that is put into an HSA is spent on health care, it is tax free. This feature of HSAs has led many to compare them to individual retirement accounts (IRAs) and other tax-advantaged retirement plans. In truth, HSAs are even better than most IRAs because while HSA monies are guaranteed never to be taxed if spent on health care needs.

Qualified expenses can include a number of things that might traditionally be thought of as lodging. For instance, nursing home and retirement community expenses are completely covered so long as the individual lives in the facility due to medical necessity. Even hotel stays, home improvements, care equipment, alternative medicine, certain types of furniture, and more are covered if necessary for medical care. That means that room, board, transportation, and meals can be paid for, tax free, from HSA savings.

Essentially, the HSA offers a true tax free way to save for retirement. Though it may seem like a gimmick, the truth is that it is cheaper to pay for end of life care through an HSA than through Medicare or traditional insurance. HSA money is simply earnings that have been set aside over time. The best way to look at an HSA as encouragement to save for retirement, something everyone ought to be doing anyway.

As a final note, at age 65, HSA money can be withdrawn for non-medical purposes without penalty. Though you will pay tax on the money, it works just like an IRA, so the tax rate is lower than for other types of income. That means that an HSA is probably a better safety net for most people than an IRA due the flexibility that an HSA offers.

How to Treat an HSA Like a Retirement Account


Start Early


The key to a successful HSA that will see an individual through retirement is to start early. An account that is allowed to grow relatively untouched, for an average of 20 years, will be worth a substantial amount of money after compound interest is considered. If you can find a job with an employer who contributes, especially early in your career, savings will accumulate even faster.

Use Other Accounts


There is no rule that says you must use HSA funds before you use other monies to pay for health care. If you can afford it, then you might be further ahead to pay for medical costs without using HSA funds. Then, the roll over from year to year will be greater and the compounding effect will be enhanced.

Don't Touch


Though it will be tempting, from time to time, to use HSA money for some large expense beyond health care, don't do it. The penalty for doing so is 20% over and above the tax you will pay by claiming the withdrawal as income. Leave the money where it is, unless you need it for health care.

Coming Out Ahead


If you start early and save diligently, an HSA could be the best retirement plan you invest in. Remember that HSA funds can be invested, so don't be afraid to go for mutual funds or other investments just as you would with other retirement income. Remember that you are investing in your health with this money, so treat it with the respect it deserves.

Ron Sheffer researches money matters in the healthcare industry. He often blogs about his insights to help people make smart decisions.



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