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How to save money in the next three weeks

  • Story Highlights
  • Many FSA accounts expire soon. Look at what qualifies for use-it-or-lose-it fund
  • Take advantage of vision benefits, elective surgeries if you've met deductible
  • Wellness initiatives, prescription drugs and some drugstore purchases also qualify
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By Elizabeth Cohen
CNN Medical Correspondent
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(CNN) -- Jo-Lynne Shane is furiously looking for ways to spend $500 in the next three weeks. If she doesn't, that money will disappear at the stroke of midnight December 31.

Jo-Lynne Shane, who gives cost-cutting tips on her blog, is trying to use up her FSA account.

Shane, a mother of three who lives in a suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has that much money left in her family's healthcare Flexible Spending Account. By the rules of the IRS, any money she doesn't spend by the end of this year vanishes.

"If you don't use it, you lose it," said Shane, who gives cost-cutting tips to other mothers on her blog, Musings of a Housewife.

She admits that it can hard to focus on finances during the holiday season. But if you don't want to lose money in the next three weeks, follow these five tips from health insurance experts.

1. Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA)

These are accounts where your employer takes pre-tax dollars out of your paycheck to be spent on health-care expenses. You decide how much to take out each year.

Sometimes people think they can use FSA money only to pay for doctor's bills and prescription drugs, but many over-the-counter items -- from acne drugs to wart removers -- are legitimate FSA expenses.

Here's an A to Z list of eligible FSA expenses, and here's a guide to reimbursement for over-the-counter products.

Some people actually have until March 15 to spend their 2008 FSA money. Check with your employer to find out your situation.

2. Vision benefits

If your plan gives you money toward a new pair of eyeglasses every year, or contact lenses, make sure to use these benefits before they expire at the end of the year.

3. Elective surgeries

"Let's say you need knee surgery and you've been putting it off for a while. If you've already met your deductible for 2008, have the surgery before the end of the year, or you'll have to start your deductible all over again," said Amy O'Meara Chambers, an employee benefits lawyer and associate vice president for market development at Priority Health, a health insurance company based in Michigan. Video Watch more on how to maximize your healthcare savings »

For example, let's say your insurance has a $1,000 annual deductible. This means you have to spend $1,000 of your own money before insurance kicks in.

If you've met your deductible for 2008, have the surgery now, or else you'll have to pay that $1,000 deductible when you have the surgery next year.

The same goes for doctor's appointments if you've met your deductible.

"Go to the dermatologist, dentist, optometrist and other appointments you might have put off," advised Tobie Stanger, a senior editor at Consumer Reports.

4. Prescription drugs

It's the same principle as the elective surgeries. If you can, fill prescriptions now so you won't have to shell out whatever your deductible is next year. Stanger advises purchasing a three-month supply before the end of the year if possible.

5. Wellness requirements

A new trend among employers is to offer rewards -- gift cards, cash or lower premiums -- to employees who take certain wellness initiatives, such as joining a health club or getting an annual physical.

"A lot of these offers are very time-sensitive; you have to do them by the end of the year to get the rewards," O'Meara Chambers said. "So make sure you don't miss out."

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As for Shane, she's working on a plan with her orthodontist to pay now for $300 worth of work she knows she'll need in 2009. As for the other $200 that will be left in her FSA, she's thinking about buying contact lenses she knows she'll need in the future.

If that doesn't do it, her husband, Paul, has an idea. "He says we can always go to CVS and stock up on Tylenol and Band-Aids," she said.

CNN's Jennifer Pifer-Bixler and Marcy Heard contributed to this report.

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