December is here, which means Christmas cheer, Hanukkah joy — and for some flexible health spending account holders, a mad rush to purchase medical supplies.
Medical Flexible Spending Accounts (or FSAs) allow people who get health insurance at work to set aside part of their pre-tax paycheck (up to $2,500 annually) for health-care purchases. FSA dollars can be spent on doctor appointment co-pays and co-insurance. Or, they can be spent on lots of drugstore items that range from over-the-counter drugs (think painkillers and allergy medications) to less-medical-seeming items (sunscreen, contact solution, and condoms are all FSA-eligible).
FSA dollars expire at the end of each year — I became acutely aware of this fact earlier this month, when I realized I had a decent amount left in my account. So I started to do some research: what could I buy with my leftover FSA dollars? Here are some of the greatest deals I discovered.
Your goal: Never, ever purchase Advil again
Your purchase: Ibuprofen jumbo pack. First things first: never buy Advil — the generic version works equally well. Pharmacists don't buy brand-name, over-the-counter medications, and you shouldn't either. Second: you can use FSA dollars to buy unlimited amounts of over-the-counter medications, but you will need a doctor's prescription to do so. This is a relatively recent change to FSA regulations that took effect in 2011 and is part of Obamacare. So before you go crazy stocking up on ibuprofen, or any other over-the-counter medication, keep in mind you're going to have to get your doctor's sign-off.
Your goal: stock up on something you'll definitely use, without a prescription
Your purchase: Contact solution. If making an appointment with your doctor isn't in the cards over the next few weeks, and you're among America's 36 million contact-lens wearers, contact solution can be an excellent choice for FSA spending. Sunscreen, too, is another good option — although keep in mind sunscreen does tend to expire a little bit faster.
Your goal: Save your FSA dollars for next year
Your purchase: Some cookies for your HR department. Companies do actually have some discretion to stretch FSA dollars into the new year. Federal regulations allow them to do two things. First, they can extend the spending period two and a half months until March 15, 2015. Second, they can allow employees to roll over a maximum of $500 into next year's account. While companies have the flexibility to make these accommodations, they are not required to — hence the cookies to bribe them.
Your goal: Get a Halloween costume for next year
Your purchase: A stethoscope. Yes, it's expensive. Yes, you can probably get a fake one much cheaper. So no, on second thought, you probably should not buy this — go with the ibuprofen jumbo pack instead. Really.
Your goal: Do some shopping outside of a drugstore
Your purchase: Prescription sunglasses. FSA rules allow you to spend your account on prescription lenses, whether those are for regular glasses or sunglasses. And nearly anybody who sells glasses will accept FSA dollars, included the beloved-by-hipsters-everywhere site Warby Parker.
Your goal: Safe sex in 2015
Your purchase: A jumbo pack of condoms. This variety pack of condoms from FSAStore.com goes for $89.99 and has nearly 100 condoms — enough to have safe sex every four days in 2015.
If your goal is to prevent pregnancy as well, you can also use a few more FSA dollars to buy some ibuprofen to take before getting an IUD inserted (or, if you're a guy, buy some ibuprofen for your partner). While condoms are the best option for preventing STDs, they're not a great contraceptive. The long-acting contraceptive, meanwhile, is 20 times more effective at preventing pregnancy than condoms, which can be put on incorrectly and thus subject to human error. And, last but not least, if you're trying to have a baby in 2015, of course you can spend FSA dollars on that too.
Your goal: Hit a New Year's resolution
Your purchase: Nicorette. The number of Americans who smoke hit an all-time low recently. If you want to be among those who quit in 2015, you can use your FSA dollars to purchase a smoking cessation aid like Nicorette to assist your quitting effort.
Your goal: Spend as much money as possible, as quickly as possible
Your purchase: A defibrillator. Certain medical equipment qualifies for FSA spending, and defibrillators, which are used to give someone a dose of electric energy during a heart attack, are among the eligible purchases. Depending on where you purchase it, a defibrillator usually runs in the neighborhood of $1,100 or so — enough to eat up nearly half of the FSA account limit. A co-worker here at Vox told me about a friend who used leftover FSA dollars to buy defibrillators as Christmas gifts for his parents. While Vox does not necessarily endorse said gift-giving, it is certainly the present that says "I think you might die soon....but I hope you don't!"
Your goal: Christmas shopping for children
Your purchase: Stuffed animals. FSA dollars are not great for Christmas shopping. But if you must — and you're looking for a less expensive (or less morbid) gift than a defibrillator — you can actually use the dollars to purchase stuffed animals that contain heating pads. Take out the heating pad and you have a kind-of-okay teddy bear. Merry Christmas, children!