The average 65-year-old couple retiring today will need about $300,000 for out-of-pocket healthcare expenses during retirement. And that doesn’t even include long-term care. One way to help pay for this enormous cost is to open a health savings account (HSA), which is a savings and investment vehicle designed to help people pay for medical-related expenses on a tax-free basis.
To open one of these accounts, you must be enrolled in an HSA-eligible, high-deductible health insurance plan (HDHP). These are offered by many employers and also are available on the individual insurance market. One of the little-known advantages of the HSA is that if you delay withdrawing from it until retirement, you’ll have money ready to tap for those out-of-pocket expenses on an as-needed basis.
An HDHP works exactly as it is named; comprehensive coverage does not kick in until the plan member reaches an annual deductible that is typically higher than other healthcare plans. The trade-off for the higher deductible is that monthly premiums are lower. Therefore, this type of plan is generally suited for healthy individuals or families that do not have a lot of ongoing medical expenses.
In 2021, the annual HSA contribution limit is $3,600 for individuals and $7,200 for family coverage. In 2022, these limits increase to $3,650 for individuals and $7,300 for families. Account owners age 55 and older may add another $1,000 “catch-up” contribution. With a work-sponsored HDHP, both the employee and the employer may contribute to the savings account, but their combined contributions may not exceed the annual limit. As long as you are enrolled in an HDHP, you may contribute to the HSA. Even when you no longer contribute, the account belongs to you and may be invested for growth and tapped as needed.
An HSA is maintained at a financial institution, such as a bank. Once saved assets have reached a certain threshold, that custodian will allow the owner to invest a portion of the balance. While the HSA rules technically allow you to invest starting with your first dollar, many custodians have their own minimums required in the HSA (usually $1,000 to $2,500) to be available for medical expenses. Beyond that the balance, the savings can be invested for growth. Also, the owner can transfer money to and from the bank and the investment account as needed.
The invested portion of an HSA is transferred to a brokerage account. There, the owner has a variety of options to invest in, including mutual funds and individual securities. According to Morningstar, more than 80 percent of HSA investment funds have earned gold, silver, or bronze analyst ratings, and the lower end of investment fees range from 0.02 percent to 0.68 percent a year. Note that some investment management fees run higher, so it’s important to compare fees just as you would with any other type of investment.
Triple Tax Advantage
The health savings account features more tax benefits than any other type of investment, including a 401(k), a traditional IRA, or a Roth IRA. That’s because all contributions are tax-free (either through payroll deductions at work, which also avoid FICA taxes or as a tax deduction when health insurance is purchased independently). Moreover, HSA investments grow tax-free. If eventual withdrawals are used to pay for qualified medical expenses, they are not taxed either. So essentially, savings, investments, and gains from an HSA account that are used to pay for healthcare expenses are never subject to taxes. If you do use this money for nonqualified expenses, you’ll have to pay income taxes and, if taken before age 65, a penalty fee as well.
However, consider when most people encounter their highest medical bills: during retirement. If you pay for all out-of-pocket expenses with current income throughout your career, your HSA has the opportunity to grow into a substantial nest egg by (and during) retirement. The most effective use of these funds is to pay for health-related expenses, such as Medicare premiums, dental, and vision care, long-term care insurance premiums, and nursing home costs.
An additional advantage is that health savings accounts are not subject to required minimum distributions. However, be aware that when an HSA is left to a non-spouse heir, it converts to a taxable account – so it’s best to use up these assets while you’re still alive.