Sunday, January 3, 2021

Health Savings Account (HSA) for Dividend Investors

I recently signed up for a Health Savings Account (HSA) with my employer. A Health Savings Account is a tax-advantaged medical account which is available to individuals in the US who have enrolled into a high-deductible health plan (HDHP). For 2021, individuals cannot contribute more than $3,600/year, while families cannot put more than $7,200. There is a catch-up contribution of $1,000 for those 55 or older. Individuals who are enrolled in Medicare are not eligible to open an HSA. I signed up for the HSA mainly as another way to defer money for future investment. As most of you know, I am already maxing out other tax-deferred accounts in an effort to cut one of my largest expenses.

Benefits

An HSA offers a triple tax advantage in most states. The contributions are before tax, which means that the account holder does not pay Federal, State and FICA taxes. If you were in the 24% marginal tax bracket, had a 5% state income tax rate, and you didn’t pay 7.65% for FICA, you will end up saving 36.65% merely by contributing to an HSA account. On $3,600, this comes out to $1,319.40 in tax savings right off the bat. The money can be used for qualified medical expenses at any age, without having to pay any taxes on such withdrawals. However, support documentation should be retained in case of an audit. Withdrawals not for qualified medical expenses are subject to a 20% penalty and income tax. After age of 65, withdrawals are not subject to a 20% penalty. While they continue to be tax-free for medical expenses, they are taxed at your ordinary income rate for any other type of distribution from the account.

I was attracted to HSA’s because of the large up-front tax deduction. When I contribute money to a tax-deferred vehicle, I have more money under my control, since I reduce the largest expense in my household budget ( taxes). I have done a similar thing by maxing out 401 (k) and Sep IRA contributions since early 2013. I was also attracted by the fact that money put in an HSA account compounds tax-free. In addition, unlike a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), the money does not have to be used by a certain date. Hence with an HSA the money carries over from one year to the next, and thus stays in the account and could potentially compound over time.

Drawbacks

One of the major drawbacks to HSA accounts is the large monthly fees with many providers. When I reviewed different providers in 2014 - 2015, it looked like a minimum account balance that is anywhere between $3,000 - $5,000 has to be maintained in cash, in order to avoid a monthly charge in the range of $2 - $5/month. 

Many employers tend to cover this amount for their employees, so this is a benefit. However, there are additional fees on each withdrawal, ordering checks to pay for items, opening fees, account closing fees etc. Plus, there are monthly fees if you plan to invest that HSA money into something. This is in addition to the fees for failing to maintain a minimum balance in the account. In addition, most of the investment options are limited to mutual funds, some of which have really high expense ratios that come close to 1%/year.

The one positive thing however is that a person is not stuck with an HSA provider, if their employer offers a crappy HSA provider. One can simply rollover the funds from their original HSA administrator, to the HSA administrator of their choice. This is one thing I did a few years ago. I moved my HSA money to LivelyMe, which is a no-cost HSA alternative.

The other drawback is the low limits on how much one can potentially defer. If limits for individuals are increased to at least match those on IRA or Roth IRA accounts, this would be a good start.

Best Providers

I looked at different providers, and looked at their costs to have an account, and availability of investment options. In my research, I give extra points for companies that are not going to charge me $4- $5/month on a $3,000 - $6,000 balance that takes 1 – 2 years to build up, or at least will not charge me monthly fees after my total balances exceed a reasonable amount of dollars. I am talking about eliminating as much in monthly or annual fees are possible, since some administrators tend to charge you an HSA Bank fee if you have less than $3,000 - $5,000 in a bank, in addition to charging you a monthly brokerage fee. I also wanted to find the broker that would allow me as much flexibility as possible in choosing investments that do not cost me a lot. 

When I originally wrote this article in 2015, there were not a lot of good options out there. At the end of 2020 however, there are two great options.

The first one is with Fidelity. Up until a few years ago, it was impossible to open an account with Fidelity. But now, it is relatively easy and anyone can open one to move money to a Fidelity HSA.

It offers No-Fee-HSA's, which means that you have a maximum amount of money working for you. There are no account service charges, minimum fees, or fees to invest your money. You can pretty much invest the money in anything you want from individual stocks, to ETFs or mutual funds. Plus, this is with Fidelity, which is an investing brokerage powerhouse.

The second one is with Lively. It also has no fees for HSA accounts, and also offers free investing options. There are no hidden charges. You can invest the money through TD Ameritrade. The downside for Lively is that it is a relatively new player, so it may not be around for a long time if it gets acquired or goes out of business.

I have used both Fidelity and Lively, and really like the ease of opening and funding accounts. You can do pretty much everything electronically. You do need to fax information if moving assets, but that is similar to moving assets from one broker to the next.

The thing to consider of course is that fees can change if minimum balances are changed as well. Plus, there might be fees assessed if you transfer money from one custodian to the next.

I have contributed to a Health Savings Account since 2015, and have enjoyed the process of accumulating funds there and investing them. One thing to note is that all of my employers that have offered an HSA have also matched a certain portion of contributions. This is similar to a 401 (k) match, but only for HSA's. In a way, it is another account to use to accumulate a nest egg in a tax efficient way.

Health Savings Accounts make perfect sense for those like me who are looking for another vehicle where they get a tax deduction upfront today, and receiving a tax-advantaged growth of their investments. The real nice part is that after age of 65 I can withdraw the money for whatever reasons I desire, and will not have to pay any penalties (if the money is spent on non-medical expenses, it is taxed at ordinary income tax rates). I have decided that even if I have to end up with an index fund in that Health Savings Account, I would be better off than picking individual dividend stocks in a taxable account. Let me walk you through a hypothetical (made-up) calculation.

I calculated that if I choose to invest $1,000 in an HSA that generates a net annual total return of 7%/year, I would end up with $5,807 in 26 years. This return assumes that no taxes are taken and also assumes fees paid are subtracted from returns ( meaning the gross return is slightly higher). However, if I were to earn those $1,000 from my day job but decided not to put them in an HSA, I would be left with $623.50. This is because I would be paying 24% Federal Tax, 5% State Tax, 1% City Tax and 7.65% FICA. If I managed to earn an after-tax annual total return of 9%/year for 26 years in a row, my account balance will be $5860. The break-even point will be 26 years. Of course I am not comparing apples to apples here, because an after-tax return of 9% in a taxable account usually requires a return above 10% even at today’s low rates on dividends and capital gains.

Conclusion

To summarize, I believe that HSA accounts provide several benefits to investors who want to build retirement savings, and have exhausted common vehicles such as 401 (k) or IRA's. The first advantage of HSA's is triple tax advantage, because of the deduction for Federal, State and FICA taxes. This leaves more money working for the investor. The second advantage is tax-deferred growth of that capital for decades. The third advantage is that this money can be withdrawn at any time, penalty free if it is for qualified medical expenses. It can also be withdrawn penalty free after the age of 65.  The money is taxed after the age of 65 if used for non-medical purposes at the ordinary income tax rates. The drawbacks behind HSA's include fees, low variety of investment options and the fact that annual contribution limits are low. Of course, for those of us who understand the power of compounding, we know that even a small contribution of $3,000/year over a period of a couple decades could turn into a few nice supplement to the retirement nest egg.

Relevant Articles:

Why I Considered Tax-Advantaged Accounts for My Dividend Investments
Roth IRA’s for Dividend Investors
Six Dividend Paying Stocks I Purchased for my IRA
Twenty Dividend Stocks I Recently Purchased for my 401 (k) Rollover
Nine Quality Dividend Stocks Purchased for the Roth IRA

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