Summary: If you aren’t taking full advantage of Section 125 plans, you’re giving money away.
Most school districts (and most employers in general) give you access to Section 125 plans which, much like the better known 401k plan, is named after a section of the federal tax code. Despite these being around for a while, many folks don’t completely understand them or take full advantage of them. While the specifics of what your employer offers may vary a little, most are pretty similar. I’ll use Littleton Public Schools as my example, but most likely your employer will be very, very similar.
The reason Section 125 plans are so useful for you is that they allow you to pay for various things pre-tax. How beneficial that is for you depends on what tax bracket you’re in, the more money you make, the more beneficial it is. Most educators are typically in the 25% or 28% federal tax bracket, and everyone in Colorado pays 4.63% in state income tax , so that means you’re typically saving between 29.63% and 32.63% in income taxes for every dollar you can put into a Section 125 plan. But, as an educator paying into Colorado PERA, you save an additional 8% because your Section 125 contributions also come out pre-PERA deduction, which brings your total savings to 37.63% to 40.63% (FYI – this also saves your school district money, as they don’t have to pay contributions on that amount either.)
Update January 2022: All of these percentages have changed since I wrote this (and will change again in the future). Those that were in the 25% federal tax bracket are currently in the 22% bracket. Colorado has lowered the state tax to 4.55%. Your PERA contribution has increased and will be 11% starting in July 2022. That currently adds up to 37.55%.
So, what are these Section 125 plans? There are typically five components:
- Paying insurance premiums pre-tax (Premium Only Plan, or POP)
- Health Savings Accounts (HSA, goes with High-Deductible Plans)
- Health Flexible Spending Account (FSA). If you don’t have an HSA, can be used to pay for out-of-pocket medical expenses.
- Limited Purpose Flexible Spending Account (Limited Purpose FSA). Can be used in addition to an HSA to pay for out-of-pocket dental or vision expenses only.
- Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account (Dependent Care FSA). Can be used to pay for child care expenses.
Let’s look at each one briefly. (Note: this is not an in-depth look, just an overview, we can delve into much more detail in person.)
Premium Only Plan: Unless you are within 3 to 5 years of PERA retirement*, this one is a must. It takes whatever you pay in health, dental and vision insurance premiums and exempts those amounts from both income taxes and your PERA contribution. It’s basically free money – take it.
Health Savings Accounts: There’s a lot to say about High Deductible Plans and HSA’s but, to keep this brief, if you have a high-deductible plan an HSA is perhaps the best tax-advantaged option out there. It’s often referred to as a “triple-advantaged” plan, because contributions, earnings and withdrawals (for eligible expenses) are all tax free (as a bonus, your employer often contributes to this as well – more free money). Essentially, you never pay taxes on this money. Many folks just use it to pay their healthcare expenses on a yearly basis but, if you can afford to pay those expenses with other money, letting it accumulate and grow over time (invested in low-cost index funds) can be an incredible wealth builder. (2017 Contribution Limits: $3400 individual/$6750 family, additional $1000 if over 55, balance rolls over year to year.) Note that HSA contributions come out pre-tax and pre-FICA, but not pre-PERA.
Health Flexible Spending Account: This existed before HSA’s and, for those folks who don’t have a high-deductible, this is still a great option. The money you put in and then use for eligible expenses is never taxed but, unlike the HSA, this is “use it or lose it” so you don’t want to put more in here than you can spend in a year. (2017 Contribution Limits: $2600)
Limited Purpose Flexible Spending Account: When paired with an HSA, this money can be used for dental or vision expenses. It’s a great way to put additional money aside tax free but, unlike the HSA, it is also use it or lose it (some employers allow you to carry over up to $500 from one year to the next). (2017 Contribution Limits: $2600)
Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account: If you have young children in day care, this is a great option to pay at least some of those expenses pre-tax. Again, it’s use it or lose it, so plan the amount wisely. Many years ago I had a conversation with someone who said they didn’t bother with this because they just deducted it when they filed their income taxes. This is not optimal, as if you do that you lose the 8% PERA savings (11% as of July 2022) and, depending on your itemized deductions, you may not get to claim the entire $5000. (2017 Contribution Limits: $5000).
So, let’s put some example numbers with this. How much savings you realize varies tremendously, not only based on your tax bracket, but based on the size of your family and what expenses you have, but I’ll try to pick a “typical” educator family (even though there is no such thing). For this example, I’m going to have the educator be married with two children, one of whom is in day care. The educator will cover themselves and their children (but not their spouse) for health and dental, and be employee-only for vision. They will choose the Kaiser High-Deductible Plan and the Low Cigna Dental Plan. They will max out the Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account with $5000, contribute $100 a month to their HSA (plus the district contribution), and pay for all insurance premiums pre-tax. (Their spouse would probably realize additional savings by utilizing some of these at their employer for their coverage.)
- Kaiser HDHP Employee Premium: $391.29/month
- Cigna Low Option Dental Employee Premium: $34.76/month
- VSP Employee Only Employee Premium: $11.29/month
- Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account: $416.66/month
- HSA Contribution: $100 month (district adds $85/month)
- No Limited Purpose contributions
That totals $954 a month, or $11,448 a year (not including the $1020 the district contributes toward the HSA). Assuming the family is the 25% federal tax bracket, that equates to a savings of $4308 in a year in taxes and PERA contributions. Keep in mind that you also have $2220 in your HSA to either spend or preferably rollover from year to year, for a total “savings” of $6528. Again, it could be a lot less than that if you’re doing employee only coverage (although still worth it), or a whole lot more if you’re doing family coverage, using Cigna for health care, and/or contributing more to your HSA and the Limited Purpose FSA.
As with everything financial, the specifics of your situation matters, so if you choose to work with me, we’ll work through all the permutations. In a future post, I’ll talk more about retirement accounts (401k/403b/457 plans) and how, when you combine them with Section 125 plans, you can dramatically lower your taxes.
*Very Important: If your PERA membership date is before June 30, 2019, and you are within 3 to 5 years of PERA retirement, you want to opt-out of all Section 125 deductions because it will lower your retirement benefit (lowers your HAS). If your PERA membership date is after June 30, 2019, then you want to have them come out pre-tax for your entire career (you won’t get the pre-PERA benefit of it, but that also means you won’t have to stop during your HAS years).