Grab this once-a-year tax break

Fall is here, which means that it is time for the annual running of the workplace benefits gantlet. In all the rush to pick healthcare plans and sort out this HMO from that HSA, do not let your FSA get lost in the alphabet soup of offerings. That is a Flexible Spending Account, and it is a terrific – but often overlooked – tax break for anyone with regular medical expenses, from co-pays to eyeglasses.

A flexible spending account allows you to save up to $2,500 per person each year, before taxes. You set an annual total, and part of that money is deducted each week from your paycheck. As you go through the year and spend money on qualified medical expenses – which are everything from crutches to pregnancy tests – you file for reimbursement.

The savings come in the form of a tax break – none of the money you deposit in a flex account is taxable, so you are saving the equivalent of your marginal tax rate on both your federal and state taxes. For someone living in California, with household income at the U.S. median of $50,000 a year, a $2,000 flex account would cut more than $800 off your taxes, but your $38 weekly deposit would shrink your paycheck by less than $23.

10 things we've all said while filing our taxes
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10 things we've all said while filing our taxes

"It's only January, I have plenty of time!"
You're relaxed, you're casual, what even are taxes anyway? You don't care! It's so far away that filing taxes isn't even remotely on your radar, to be honest.

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"The imminent act of filing is upon me and I literally have nothing ready..."
Tax season is now approaching and that creeping anxiety about getting everything done on time is starting to set in. It's essentially biting at your heels and you know you have to get moving.

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No words. Just emotional paralysis.
You're screwed. You need to start doing your paperwork but you physically do not know where to even begin. It's time. It's happening.

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That anxiety you felt creeping in earlier? Now it's full-fledged onset. This stage is often accompanied by screaming out loud, pulling hair, crying, etc.

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"Wait, did I get all of my papers in? Did I check that one box correctly? Does it look like I'm trying to evade some of these taxes? What if I go to jail? Can I go to jail for that? WHO WILL FEED MY DOG WHEN I AM IN JAIL?!"

It's like handing in an exam in school and wishing you could grab it back and double check your answers one more time.

Who was that celebrity you heard about that went to jail for tax evasion? Because now you're convinced that's totally going to be you.

Spoiler alert: as long as you did everything to the best of your knowledge and ability, you probably won't go to jail. And even if you do, you'll find someone to walk your dog.

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"I got this, I'm almost done, a few more papers and I'm in the clear. I just have to pound through the rest of it. Go me!"

"Go you" is right! Now you're on cruise control and you're on track to get everything done well and on time. You're unstoppable in the delight of the world that is tax filing.

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"Thank god that's over with, now I can relax! What to do with all this stress-free free time!"
Finally, relief. Your papers are filed and sent out into the universe. It's off your back at last. Now on to more important things, like Netflix.

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"When is my return coming? Is this going to be my life for the rest of my life? Yep, it is. So about that return..."
Now, you wait. You want that money. And the inevitable truth that your life will now be a neverending cycle of filing taxes and waiting for your return.

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"SCORE my return was so much better than I expected! I'm buying a new dress. Or five. Probably five, why not?"
You're on a total life-high now. The possibilities of what you can spend your return on seem endless and even if you don't, having a nice bonus hunk of cash in your pocket feels pretty good. It made all of that stress completely worth it.

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"Honestly filing wasn't even that bad this year. And now I don't have to think about it anymore. Well at least not for another year. But no use in worrying about that now!"
Alas, acceptance. You know you'll fall victim to the vicious cycle again when next year rolls around. But truthfully, you wouldn't have it any other way. Okay, you obviously would. But you'll never change your procrastinating ways!

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There is one drawback to a flex account – the "use it or lose it" provision. Any money unspent in the account by the end of the year goes to pay the plan expenses and shortfalls. Fortunately, your benefits year can be longer than 12 months. The IRS allows plans to offer a grace period running up to March 15 as the spending cutoff, giving you 15 months to incur expenses. And, in 2014, the IRS also introduced a carryover option that allows each account to retain up to $500 of unspent flex money for the next year.

Another little-know benefit of flex accounts is that they are not pay as you go. If you have a $500 dental bill early in the year, but only $300 in your flex account, most plans will reimburse the full $500. If you quit the next day, ending your contributions to the plan, the shortfall is covered by the money left unspent in other workers' accounts.

However, if you leave your job with unspent money in a flex account, you do not get a refund. You may have a grace period to use that money by the end of the month or pay period, but that is it. Some plans also allow you to continue your account under the COBRA laws that can extend your employer health benefits.

To figure out if a flex account will work for you – and how much to contribute – review your ongoing and expected medical costs. If you are regularly buying contact lenses, getting prescriptions or other repeated expenses, it is easy to predict your needs. Otherwise, start with enough to cover your basic medical needs from the previous year.

Besides the tax savings, a flex account can help you budget for medical costs, since the money is automatically deducted from your paycheck. A flex account also can act as a savings account, similar to how some people use tax refunds. In that case, you contribute to the account, save your receipts, but do not file for any reimbursement until you can claim a large sum that pays for holiday gifts, a vacation or other big-ticket expense.

If you do leave too much money in a flex account, use it up by scheduling an appointment with a dentist, eye doctor or even acupuncturist right away. There is always a big end-of-the year rush as thousands of other flex savers do the same thing.

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