Don't let your flexible spending account money vanish

With 2018 approaching quickly, it's time to make some financial planning moves before year-end. Like making sure to not leave any money in your flexible spending account (FSA). Nearly 29 million workers have one, and money left unspent in it can be forfeited.

FSAs are typically offered as part of an employer-sponsored benefits program. Employees decide how much they want to contribute to the account by estimating what they might spend over the year on various health care, medical and dental items. Money contributed to an FSA is deducted from your pretax pay and can be withdrawn tax-free as long as it's spent on a wide variety of eligible products and services

This tax-free benefit comes with a catch: Money in an FSA is subject to the "use it or lose it" rule.

While you generally must spend the money by the last day of the year, most employers include a grace period of up to 2 ½ additional months. Or instead of a grace period, some employers allow you to carry over up to $500 per year to use in the following year. So it's important to know the rules that apply to your specific plan.  

Annual contributions to FSAs can be as much as $2,600 per year, so it's not just petty cash that could be at risk of forfeiture. And each member of a married couple can have their own FSA, for a total FSA balance of $5,200.

It's important to plan carefully and not put more money in your FSA than you plan to spend on out-of-pocket health care costs. Given the wide variety of FSA-eligible products and services, you should have no reason to leave money in your account. 

Here are a few ideas to get your FSA spending started before you run out of time:

Build a household first aid kit, and stock up on bandages, analgesics, burn and antifungal ointments, etc. All items you would find in a common first aid kit should be eligible, or just buy a premade kit.

Eyecare items such as contact lens cleaning solution and lens cases are reimbursable items.

Contraceptives and birth control requiring a prescription and condoms are eligible. So, too, are home pregnancy test kits and prenatal vitamins.

Prescription and nonprescription eyeglasses and reading glasses are reimbursable. Pick up an extra pair or two to leave in your home, car or office.

Stocking-stuffers like lip balm are eligible items, as are sunscreen products for adults and children.

Shoe cushions, arch supports and orthopedic shoe insoles are eligible and can help make your feet more comfortable during all that holiday shopping.

Electronic devices that monitor your health, such as a blood pressure machine, and make this data available to a medical professional qualify for FSA reimbursement.

Vitamins are eligible as long as you obtain a letter from your doctor saying they're medically necessary, which shouldn't be hard to obtain.

Some items that aren't eligible for FSA spending include teeth-whitening products, botox treatments, breast augmentation, cosmetics, hair growth or hair-removal treatments, and medical marijuana. Also not eligible include premiums for health care, long-term care and disability insurance. Finally, gift cards -- even for a medical provider -- aren't eligible.