Health savings accounts (HSAs) are savings vehicles that offer big tax benefits and can help you cover what may be your largest expense in retirement: health care.

When it comes to big expenses in retirement, there’s the fun stuff: membership in a golf club, bucket-list vacations and spoiling your grandchildren. But for many retirees, the single biggest expense is less exciting to plan for: health-care costs.

An average retired couple, both age 65, may need nearly $300,000 in after-tax savings to cover health-care expenses in retirement.1 As people live longer and health-care cost inflation continues to outpace general inflation, it’s more important than ever to prepare for such expenses and to protect your financial security through your golden years. 

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For many, that upfront planning includes the use of a health savings account (HSA), an often-misunderstood savings vehicle offered in certain employer-sponsored health insurance plans. HSAs can be a good savings vehicle, but they can also be confusing, and even savers who use an HSA may not be getting all of their potential benefits.

Here’s what you need to know:

What is an HSA?

HSAs are savings vehicles that offer a triple tax advantage:

  1. Contributions go into the HSA tax-free.

  2. You can invest that money and enjoy tax-free growth potential.

  3. Withdrawals for qualified health expenses don’t incur taxes.

You can open and contribute to an HSA only if you have a high-deductible health plan—a medical plan offering, often sponsored by employers, that has become common in recent years. Today, nearly 9-in-10 employers offer a high-deductible health plan, and a quarter of employers only offer high-deductible plans.2 These health plans tend to have relatively low premiums and high out-of-pocket expenses, which the HSA is meant to help offset.

“People often see the high deductible and get scared away, but it’s worth a conversation with your Financial Advisor about the financial benefits that the HSA can offer,” says Dana Erdfarb, Vice President, HR Benefits Planning and Management at Morgan Stanley.

An Extra Retirement Account

If you’re already maxing out your 401(k) contributions, your HSA can serve as another place for you to save for retirement. HSA funds remain in your account from year-to-year if they aren’t spent, and you even retain ownership of the account if you leave your job or switch health plans. That means any investment earnings in your HSA have the potential to grow for decades, effectively creating an extra tax-advantaged retirement fund—in addition to your 401(k) and any IRAs—that you can earmark for health-care expenses later in life. Keep in mind, though, that if you switch from a high deductible health plan to another type of health plan, you will not be able to contribute further to an HSA until you are once again covered by a high deductible health plan.

You have until Tax Day 2020 to contribute to an HSA account established in 2019—up to $3,500 for individuals, $7,000 for families. In 2020, individuals can put up to $3,550 into an HSA, and families can save $7,100, while individuals over age 55 can save an additional $1,000 per year in an HSA.3

You may also get some help from your employer. In 2018, about 4-in-10 companies contributed to employee HSA accounts, giving an average of $515.

Paying for Medical Costs along the Way

If you use after-tax dollars to pay for big-ticket health expenses now, you can also save your receipts to give yourself a windfall via a tax-free HSA reimbursement years or decades later—even if you choose to use the money prior to retirement.

“You have the flexibility to submit claims for qualified medical expenses that you’ve already paid out-of-pocket since establishing your HSA and get reimbursed whenever you want,” says Jennifer Cacciatore, Executive Director, HR Retirement & Investments, for Morgan Stanley.

While you aren’t allowed to contribute to an HSA once you’ve enrolled in Medicare, these accounts offer new benefits in retirement. In addition to using your HSA for qualified medical expenses, after age 65 you can use it for non-medical expenses without penalty, though taxes will be incurred.5 And, unlike 401(k) plans and IRAs, HSAs don’t have minimum distribution requirements once you turn 70 ½, so you can keep your money in the HSA until you’re ready to use it. 

Consider the Bigger Financial Picture

Most HSA providers allow account holders to invest their holdings once they reach a certain balance. Just as you have a limited set of investment options to choose from in a 401(k), your HSA provider typically offers a predetermined list of investments. Your Financial Advisor can help you select the best choices from the provider’s menu.

If you aren’t satisfied with the investment options or fees in the HSA offered through work, you can shop around and put money into an outside HSA plan. Keep in mind, though, that going with a different HSA account means your employer won’t automatically deposit the money tax-free on your behalf or pay any administrative fees for maintaining the account, and your contribution will be subject to Social Security and Medicare tax. You’ll have to fund the HSA with after-tax dollars throughout the year and then reconcile it on your tax return at the end of the year.

Of course, your HSA is just one piece of a bigger picture when it comes to your financial life. Decisions about whether to put money into an HSA, how much to save and when to use that money, should all fit into that bigger picture. Talk with your Morgan Stanley Financial Advisor today about how you can save for an optimal retirement and cover health-care costs later in life.