As you choose your benefits for 2020, don't overlook a key saving account that could beat your 401(k) plan — at least in terms of taxes.
This year, nearly 3 in 10 employers that offer workplace benefits provided a high-deductible health insurance plan along with a tax-advantaged savings account, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
These health savings accounts come with three main tax benefits: You can contribute to them on a pretax or tax-deductible basis, and your savings grow free of taxes over time. You can also make tax-free withdrawals to cover qualified medical expenses.
There's a fourth less well-known tax advantage: Contributions you make to your HSA on a pretax basis avoid Social Security and Medicare taxes, often known as FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act) taxes.
The same applies to contributions your employer makes to your HSA.
This FICA tax is 15.3% that you share with your employer.
The point is so compelling, it can spur companies to make even larger employer contributions to workers' HSA accounts, said Aaron Pottichen, senior vice president of Alliant Retirement Consulting in Austin, Texas.
Indeed, in 2018, workers in high-deductible plans with HSAs received an average annual employer contribution of $603 for single coverage and $1,073 for family coverage, according to the Kaiser foundation.
In 2020, you'll be able to contribute up to $3,550 to your HSA if you have self-only insurance coverage. This amount goes up to $7,100 for family plans
"The communication that we have is that every dollar you spend on your employees goes further because Uncle Sam isn't digging his hand into it," Pottichen said.
Consider a married employee who is in the 24% federal income tax bracket and is setting aside $7,000 annually on a pretax basis into his HSA.
This person would save more than $535 annually in Social Security and Medicare taxes alone each year, according to Pete Isberg, vice president of government relations at ADP, a payroll company.
Further, those contributions aren't subject to federal income taxes, resulting in another $1,680 in annual savings, according to Isberg's calculations.
This participant would save even more if he or she resides in a state that doesn't subject HSA contributions to income tax.
See below for Isberg's example.
Tax savings of an HSA under a 'cafeteria plan'
• Contribution: $7,000
• Federal Income tax (24% bracket): $1,680
• Social Security (6.2%): $434
• Medicare (1.45%) $101.50
• State Income tax (assume 6%) $420
• Total savings: $2,635.50
If that same participant invested the money that would have otherwise gone to taxes, and it grew at a 3% interest rate, his family would save $30,200 over 10 years, Isberg said.
Remember, companies split the cost of the FICA tax with their workers, so employers' contributions to HSAs also avoid this levy.
"Employers like health savings accounts because they also save on Social Security and Medicare taxes," Isberg said.
"In this example, an employer with 100 employees all taking advantage of an HSA under a cafeteria plan may save over $53,500 annually, that would otherwise simply be a tax expense," he said.
The contributions you make to a traditional 401(k) plan aren't subject to the same tax treatment as your HSA savings.
While 401(k) plan contributions avoid federal income taxes, they still face the FICA tax. When you withdraw money from this retirement account, the distribution is subject to income taxes, plus a 10% penalty if you're under 59½.
Meanwhile, distributions from an HSA are tax-free if they're for qualified medical expenses. But if you pull the money out for other reasons, you'll pay income taxes and a 20% penalty that's in effect until you're 65.
"If you know you're using the money for those medical expenses, the HSA is much more attractive than putting the money in the 401(k)," said Eric Bronnenkant, a CPA and head of tax at Betterment.
You don't have to choose one account over the other.
Here's how you can fund both your 401(k) and HSA, according to Debbie Freeman, a CPA and director of financial planning at Peak Financial Advisors in Denver.
"You know your contributions are going in and being immediately invested," Freeman said.