8 Money-Saving Health and Fitness Tips

Did you know that you can strategically save money and make healthy life choices? Money Girl explains how to take advantage of pandemic relief that puts money in your pocket, use medical savings accounts, claim tax deductions, and find less expensive healthcare insurance for you and your family.

Laura Adams, MBA
7-minute read
Episode #685
The Quick And Dirty

It's time to be strategic about how to stay healthy and save money. By using these 8 incentives, you can cut the cost of healthcare:

  1. Max out your health plan benefits
  2. Consider telehealth services
  3. Use health incentives at work
  4. Open a health savings account (HSA)
  5. Use a flexible savings arrangement (FSA)
  6. Claim medical tax deductions
  7. Get healthcare subsidies
  8. Get temporary COBRA subsidies

Everyone knows that taking care of yourself is critical for your physical health and well being. But you might be worried that staying fit means having to break your budget. Well, I have good news! There are some excellent ways you can stay healthy and also save money. 

This episode will cover eight health and fitness tips you shouldn't miss. You'll learn about relief enacted to help Americans cope during the pandemic and how to use various medical savings accounts and tax deductions. Discover ways to cut the cost of healthcare for you and your family.

Here's what you need to know about each of these money-saving tips.

Tip #1: Max out your health plan benefits

Your health insurance benefits and deductibles get tied to an annual schedule. That means you need to pay attention to the calendar to max out your benefits. 

For instance, if you burn through your health insurance deductible by October and need more covered medical services or products, be sure to get them before the end of the year. Once you reach your annual deductible, your best strategy is to have your insurer cover as much of your medical expenses as possible. 

If you wait to schedule a medical service until the following year, your deductible resets, and you'll have out-of-pocket costs until you reach your deductible for the current year. 

When your health plan comes with capped benefits -- such as a limit on physical therapy sessions or dental work -- it's wise to spread them out over two years, if possible. For example, you might schedule some services in December and some in January. 

Also, don't skimp on your health plan's free preventative services, such as annual physicals, well-woman visits, mammograms, prostate screenings, dental cleanings, and eye exams. If you don't schedule those visits, it's like throwing money away and neglecting your health at the same time. Not a good combo!

I know going to medical appointments can feel like a hassle, but one way to reframe healthcare is to be grateful that you have insurance and access to quality care. Never squander the opportunity to improve or monitor your health, especially when it's a free service. 

Tip #2: Consider telehealth services

Telehealth services aren't new, but the pandemic accelerated their adoption. Federal and state governments incentivized insurers to expand telemedicine capabilities, a win-win for health carriers and their policyholders.

For example, Blue Cross offered a $0 copay for medical and behavioral health telemedicine visits for a period, even though they aren't HIPAA-compliant. Having a virtual visit with a doctor by video chat or phone can save time and money.

Indeed, a telehealth appointment won't help in most emergencies. However, if you have common ailments, such as a cold, flu, allergies, or a rash, it may be much more convenient than having to get to a doctor's office. You can also use telemedicine for mental health counseling, nutrition advice, and medication consultations.

Tip #3: Use health incentives at work

Employers know that healthy workers are good for the company's bottom line. That's why large companies typically offer wellness programs that include financial incentives for losing weight, walking a certain number of miles each day, or completing online health counseling.

Typical rewards for you and your family to reach specific health goals include:

  • Gift cards
  • Health savings account (HSA) contributions
  • Extra vacation time
  • Free or subsidized gym memberships
  • Fitness tracking devices
  • Personal trainers or health coaches

Tip #4: Open a health savings account (HSA)

I'm a big HSA fan because they're one of the most tax-friendly accounts you can have. It allows you to save for current and future medical expenses on a tax-free basis. 

As I previously mentioned, your employer can make HSA contributions on your behalf. Then you can spend them on qualified medical expenses not covered by your health insurance, such as your deductible and co-payments. 

But you can only contribute to an HSA when you have a high-deductible health plan (HDHP). That's a category of insurance requiring a higher-than-normal deductible -- but it has lower premiums. An HDHP may be a good choice, depending on your health needs and expected annual medical expenses.

If you purchase an HSA-eligible health plan at work or as an individual, you can open up and fund an HSA. For 2021, you can contribute up to $3,600 when you have individual coverage or $7,200 when you have a family plan. 

If you spend HSA funds on qualified medical expenses, they don't get taxed. Consider this: if your average income tax rate is 25%, using your HSA gives you a 25% discount on all out-of-pocket medical expenses. That's huge!

After age 55, you can contribute an additional $1,000 each year for either type of health plan. These are the total limits, including amounts contributed by an employer. 

You can take distributions from an HSA to pay a long list of medical expenses, even if your insurance doesn't cover them. That might include dental care, prescription eyeglasses, chiropractic, or acupuncture. 

If you spend HSA funds on qualified medical expenses, they don't get taxed. Consider this: if your average income tax rate is 25%, using your HSA gives you a 25% discount on all out-of-pocket medical expenses. That's huge!

But if you spend money in an HSA on non-qualified expenses, withdrawn amounts are subject to income tax plus an additional 20% penalty. So, it's not wise to put money in an HSA that you might need for everyday living expenses.

If you change insurance and no longer have a high deductible health plan, you won't be eligible to make new HSA contributions. Still, you can spend your existing balance on qualified medical expenses for you and your family. There's no spending deadline -- your HSA funds can accumulate indefinitely without penalty.

These are powerful benefits that cut your tax bill and maximize your healthcare buying power. Plus, after you reach age 65, funds in your HSA can be spent on non-qualified expenses without the steep 20% penalty. 

Here's a quick review of the advantages of using an HSA:

  • You make tax-deductible contributions that reduce your taxable income and taxes owed. 
  • You get tax-free growth that allows your account to increase without having to pay tax on investment gains. 
  • You can take tax-free withdrawals of contributions and earnings to spend on many qualified medical expenses.

These are powerful benefits that cut your tax bill and maximize your healthcare buying power. Plus, after you reach age 65, funds in your HSA can be spent on non-qualified expenses without the steep 20% penalty. Therefore, maxing out an HSA each year is a clever way to boost your retirement savings.

Tip #5: Use a flexible savings arrangement (FSA)

Flexible spending accounts or arrangements (FSAs) have similarities to HSAs but are only offered by employers. An FSA allows you or your employer to make contributions on a pretax basis, usually through payroll deductions. For 2021, eligible employees can contribute up to $2,750 to a healthcare FSA. 

If you spend FSA funds on qualified medical expenses, they're never taxed. So, just like with an HSA, you save an amount equal to the income taxes you would have paid on the contributions.

But unlike an HSA, an FSA is a "use-it-or-lose-it" plan. That means you must empty the account every year or only carry over a small amount into the following year. As I mentioned, your HSA funds can roll over from year to year without penalty. However, the Consolidated Appropriations Act allows employers that sponsor FSAs to allow participants to roll over unused amounts from 2020 to 2021 and from 2021 to 2022.

There's another type of account called dependent care or DC-FSA. It's exclusively for childcare expenses, such as daycare, preschool, and after-school programs, for children under age 13. In addition, DC-FSA funds can be spent on elder care if the adult gets claimed as a dependent on your taxes.

A DC-FSA typically comes with a $5,000 contribution limit; however, new COVID regulations increased the pretax contribution limit to $10,500 through 2021 for singles and married couples filing taxes jointly. Married individuals filing separate taxes can contribute up to $5,250.

Tip #6: Claim medical tax deductions

When you itemize deductions (instead of taking the standard deduction for your tax filing status) on your tax return, you can claim a deduction for various healthcare expenses. They include medical costs paid for yourself, your spouse, and dependents, including health insurance premiums — unless they're already excluded from your taxable income by an employer.

There's a long list of medical expenses that qualify for a tax deduction, and some of them may surprise you, such as:

  • Acupuncture
  • Chiropractic care 
  • Contact lenses 
  • Drug addiction treatment  
  • Psychoanalysis  
  • Weight loss programs (when recommended by a doctor to treat a medical condition such as obesity or hypertension)
  • Transportation to medical care

You can review the complete list of deductible medical expenses in IRS Publication 502, Medical and Dental Expenses. They don't include costs meant to improve your general wellbeing or appearance, such as a gym membership, vitamins, cosmetic surgery, or a well-deserved beach vacation. But there are probably many expenses that you might not realize are deductible.

For 2021, the medical deduction applies to the amount of allowable expenses that exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). For example, if your AGI is $50,000 and your unreimbursed medical expenses are $5,000, you could deduct the amount over $3,700 ($50,000 x 7.5%), or $1,250. But if your medical expenses are less than 7.5% of your income, then you can't deduct any of them.

Tip #7: Get healthcare subsidies

If you don't have a health plan through work, getting Affordable Care Act or ACA individual health insurance can be an affordable option. Depending on your income and family size, you may be eligible for a healthcare subsidy that reduces your premium. 

Open enrollment for ACA plans is usually limited to a few weeks at the end of the year. However, you have until August 15, 2021, to change your ACA plan or enroll in a new one due to the pandemic. After that date, you can sign up or change coverage any time if you experience a life event that qualifies for a special enrollment period (SEP), such as having a child, getting married, or relocating to another state.

Tip #8: Get temporary COBRA subsidies

Another pandemic-related health benefit applies if you lose group health coverage at work because you get terminated or have your hours cut. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) provides a 100% COBRA premium subsidy from April 1, 2021, through September 30, 2021. However, the COBRA subsidy doesn't apply to voluntary terminations or getting fired for gross misconduct. 

What questions do you have about health and fitness perks? Leave Laura a voicemail by calling 302-364-0308. Follow her on Instagram and sign up for her weekly newsletter at LauraDAdams.com.

About the Author

Laura Adams, MBA

Laura Adams received an MBA from the University of Florida. She's an award-winning personal finance author, speaker, and consumer advocate who is a frequent, trusted source for the national media. Money-Smart Solopreneur: A Personal Finance System for Freelancers, Entrepreneurs, and Side-Hustlers is her newest title. Laura's previous book, Debt-Free Blueprint: How to Get Out of Debt and Build a Financial Life You Love, was an Amazon #1 New Release. Do you have a money question? Call the Money Girl listener line at 302-364-0308. Your question could be featured on the show.