For many years, a health savings account (HSA) was something I could only write about, not actively save in. That's because our health insurance plan did not render us eligible for an HSA due to its nonexistent deductible.

Now trust me when I say that not having to meet an in-network deductible was a huge perk -- one big enough to compensate for a lack of HSA eligibility. But last year, my family's health coverage changed, and while it's resulted in a higher deductible than we'd like, the silver lining is finally getting HSA access.

What I like so much about HSAs is that they offer three distinct forms of tax savings. Contributions are tax-free, the same way you get a tax break on the money you put into a traditional 401(k) or IRA. Investment gains in an HSA are also tax-free, and withdrawals are tax-free when your money is used for qualified medical expenses.

A person at a laptop.

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Meanwhile, since opening our HSA, I've incurred my share of medical costs. But I haven't yet tapped our HSA to cover them. Instead, I've made adjustments to my spending to make sure I can pay those bills out of pocket.

That might seem like a silly thing to do when the money in my HSA is clearly there. But when we opened our HSA, I put one rule in place: Do not touch the money unless it's an absolute emergency. And it's a rule I hope to uphold until retirement rolls around.

The best way to maximize an HSA

For many years, my husband and I had a flexible spending account, or FSA, so we were used to specifically trying to spend down our plan balance year after year to avoid forfeiting funds. HSAs don't make you do that. They allow you to invest the funds you don't need right away to grow your money into a larger sum.

That's an option I want to take advantage of. And it's also why I refuse to tap my HSA ahead of retirement if I can help it.

I know a lot of retired people who say that healthcare is their single largest expense. And I don't want to land in a situation where medical bills prevent from me doing the things I want to do as a retiree. So I figure that if I'm able to, ideally, carry a large HSA balance into retirement, it will give me that much more financial flexibility.

As such, I'm willing to give up some near-term financial flexibility. I'll spend less on leisure when a large medical bill shows up so I don't have to tap my HSA. It's worth it to me to do that if it means continuing to enjoy tax-free growth in my account.

Plus, HSAs also offer the benefit of essentially converting to a traditional retirement savings plan at age 65. What that means is that you can take an HSA withdrawal without penalty for any purpose come age 65, whereas prior to that age, nonmedical withdrawals are penalized.

Now, your HSA withdrawals won't be tax-free in that situation. But seeing as how contributions are tax-free, that seems like a reasonable compromise when you're not using your HSA funds for your plan's intended purposes -- healthcare.

It would certainly make my life easier to raid my HSA month after month to cover near-term healthcare bills. But once I finally got my HSA, I told myself I was going to do my best not to touch that money ahead of retirement. And so I'm willing to make spending cuts within reason to uphold that rule.