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It's workplace benefits -- including spending accounts -- enrollment time

Most companies that offer worker benefits have open season in the fall. During this time, employees can choose from various types of workplace perks, such as health care coverage, that they want or need.

Scary nurse with big needleAmong the most popular benefits are flexible spending accounts, usually referred to as FSAs.

These workplace accounts can help you pay for medical expenses that aren't covered by insurance, as well as for some child care costs.

They also can save you a few tax dollars

And they are this week's Weekly Tax Tip.

Pre-tax contributions: Whether you have a child care or medical FSA, the contribution mechanism for the accounts is the same. 

You choose a contribution amount to go into the appropriate account or accounts (you can have both) and the money comes directly out of your paycheck and into the FSA(s).

That's good for a couple of reasons.

Since it's automatic, you just have to make your choice once a year (unless there are major life changes; more on this in a minute) and forget about it.

Even better, the amount you contribute to either or both FSAs is taken from your pay before your payroll taxes are calculated. So there's a little less of your income to tax, meaning a slightly smaller tax bite.

Contribution limits: There are, however, limits on how much you can put into either FSA.

For years, child care FSAs have maxed out at $5,000. That's still the case.

But beginning in 2013, there also will be a limit on medical FSAs. You now can contribute no more than $2,500 to the account designated to pay for medical and dental costs.

This restriction is part of the health care reform law, which current FSA owners know has already made it harder to use the account money to pay for over-the-counter drugs.

Use or lose FSA money: The limit on FSA money is one reason why you need to make sure you do the math when deciding how much to contribute.

You want to make sure that you contribute enough to cover out-of-pocket medical expenses that can be paid with FSA money.

But you don't want to put in too much.

One FSA rule that's still in effect is the use-it-or-lose-it requirement. If you leave money in your spending account at the end of the benefits year -- or the two and a half month grace period if your employer allows it -- then your company gets to keep your cash.

Life change could mean FSA changes: While you're usually locked into your FSA amounts until the next benefits enrollment season, there are instances when you can make changes.

These are what the IRS deems as major life changes. They include changes in:

  • Marital status, such as a marriage, divorce, legal separation, annulment or death of a spouse;
  • Dependents, including a birth, adoption, award of legal guardianship or death;
  • Employment status of your spouse or covered dependent, such as going from part-time to full-time work or losing a job;
  • Cost of child care, either significantly higher or lower.

Check with your benefits administrator for other possible situations that would allow for mid-year FSA changes, as well as details on how to make such changes.

And be sure to look into whether enrolling in a child care or medical FSA this benefits season can help you save not only tax dollars, but also help out with your year-round budgeting.

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