You've probably heard that Social Security won't pay you a high enough monthly benefit to cover all of your living expenses in retirement, and that you'll need to save money independently to manage your various bills. Many people consistently put money in an IRA or 401(k) plan for this reason -- to ensure that they have savings to tap once their careers come to an end.

But there's another type of retirement savings plan you might be missing out on. And actually, it's an account that offers even more tax benefits than you'll get with an IRA or 401(k).

Two smiling people standing next to dining room table

Image source: Getty Images.

One of the most tax-efficient savings plans out there

Not everyone is eligible to contribute to a health savings account, or HSA. To qualify, you must be enrolled in a high-deductible health insurance plan, and the definition of that changes every year.

But if you are eligible for an HSA, it pays to contribute as much money as you're allowed to for one big reason -- or actually, three. HSAs offer a host of tax benefits -- more so than IRAs and 401(k)s.

With an HSA:

  • Your contributions will go in tax-free
  • The money you don't withdraw immediately can be invested, and gains in your HSA are tax-free
  • Withdrawals to cover qualified medical expenses are tax-free

When we compare HSAs to IRAs and 401(k)s, it's easy to see why they make so much sense. Traditional IRAs and 401(k) also offer tax-free contributions, but investment gains are tax-deferred and withdrawals are taxed. Roth IRAs and 401(k)s offer tax-free gains and withdrawals, but no tax break on contributions.

Is an HSA even a retirement plan?

Technically, you can use an HSA at any time to pay for qualified healthcare expenses. But if you manage your HSA wisely, it can serve as a retirement savings plan.

The funds you put into an HSA never expire, so you can carry that money all the way into retirement. Meanwhile, many seniors find that their largest monthly expense is healthcare. And so having a dedicated account to pay for those costs can come in very handy.

With an HSA, you can withdraw funds during retirement to cover your Medicare premiums and copays. You can also take withdrawals to cover services that Medicare won't pay for, like dental care and eye exams (though Medicare Advantage plans commonly cover these services, original Medicare does not).

Best of all, if you happen to enter retirement with so much money in an HSA that you don't need to spend it all on medical expenses, once you turn 65, there's no penalty for taking an HSA withdrawal for non-healthcare purposes. The worst that'll happen is that you'll be liable for taxes on your withdrawal. But in that case, all you're really doing is making your HSA comparable to a traditional IRA or 401(k).

Don't pass up a key savings opportunity

Socking money away in an HSA could put you in a stronger position to tackle what could be your greatest retirement expense. If you're eligible for an HSA, it's a good idea to do two things:

  • Contribute as much as you can, ideally up to the maximum allowable contribution
  • Avoid dipping into your HSA in the near term so you can invest the money in it and enjoy tax-free gains

Many seniors struggle financially specifically because their healthcare bills become unmanageable. An HSA could help you avoid that fate and set you up for a more comfortable, stress-free retirement.