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Benefits 101 for Millennials: What You Need to Know

Aug. 10, 2016
Personal Finance
Benefits 101 for Millennials: What You Need to Know
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By Megan Terzian

Learn more about Megan on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor

Are you a new graduate who just landed your first “real” job? Congratulations! Chances are you’re excited and focused on learning everything you can to get off to a great start. But there’s one thing you shouldn’t forget as you begin this new chapter: your workplace benefits.

If you’ve never had to deal with benefits before, the unfamiliar terminology and dizzying number of options might tempt you to just close your eyes and check boxes — but that’s not the best way to choose.

Here’s some basic information about benefits your employer is likely to offer, as well as a few that are less common but still valuable.

Benefits you’ll typically see

Retirement: Most employers offer an individual retirement plan, such as a 401(k). There’s typically a brief waiting period after you’re hired and before you can begin contributing, but once the option is available, you can divert some of your paycheck toward retirement savings pretax.

Many companies even match a portion of your contributions. The match can either be capped at a percentage of your salary — usually between 2% to 5% — or a dollar amount. That’s free money — and a pretty sweet deal!

In most cases, your company’s contributions vest — or become yours — after you’ve worked there for a certain number of years. The money you contribute is always yours, even if you leave before the vesting period ends.

Health/medical: If your company employs more than 50 people, it’s required by law to offer health insurance. Carefully review your employer’s plan options and understand the costs. Look especially for each plan’s co-premium, which is the amount that would be taken out of your check each month to pay for coverage, and your copays, the amount you’d pay out of pocket for health services.

Flexible spending accounts: At many employers, you can divert some of your paycheck into a tax-advantaged account called a flexible spending account. There are two main types: Health FSAs help pay for expenses that aren’t covered by health insurance, and dependent care FSAs help pay the costs of child care for kids under the age of 13. FSA contributions are capped at $2,550 per person for 2016. You lose unspent contributions when the plan year is over unless your employer offers a retention option.

Health savings accounts: If your employer-sponsored health plan has a high deductible, you’re eligible for a health savings account. HSAs are like FSAs in that they allow users to save money tax-free against medical expenses, but the 2016 HSA contribution limit is $3,350 for an individual. And unlike FSA funds, money in an HSA doesn’t expire when the plan year ends.

Vacation and sick time: Some companies offer paid time off, which is a pool of sick days, vacation days and personal days that you can use as you need. Others offer a traditional leave plan with separate vacation and sick days. In this case, your vacation hours are yours to keep: They accrue from year to year up to a cap, and you’ll be reimbursed for the vacation you haven’t taken when you leave the company.

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 also entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons.

Commuter benefits: These benefits let you deduct money from your paycheck before taxes to defray your monthly commuting expenses, such as transit or parking costs. If travel is an integral part of your role, your mileage or public transit costs should be partially or totally reimbursed by your company — and if so, it should cover the premium for travel accident insurance.

Benefits you might see

Dental and vision: These benefits aren’t covered by standard health insurance, and few dental and vision plans pay for everything — but they still help with the costs of routine preventive care, such as yearly exams and dental cleanings. Your employer might pay the entire premium or a portion.

Life insurance: Some employers provide term life insurance benefits, which pay out if you die while working at the company — usually to your family members. Your employer can offer up to $50,000 in coverage on a tax-exempt basis, at no cost to you.

Disability: According to the Council for Disability Awareness, more than 1 in 4 of today’s 20-year-old workers will become disabled at some point in their lives. For that reason, you definitely don’t want to be without a disability policy. They come in two forms: Short-term disability provides benefits for up to six months; long-term disability covers you past that point. If you’re disabled, you’ll typically receive 60% to 66% of your salary — but every policy is different, so read the details carefully. And remember that if you’ve accrued enough work credits, you’ll qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance as well.

Employee assistance programs: These subsidized training and counseling programs can come in handy for employees struggling with issues that could impact their job performance, health or well-being. You might sign up if you’re worried about money management, concerned about work-related stress, or mourning a loss, among other circumstances.

Professional development: If you’re interested in continuing education coursework that applies directly to your role, your company might pay all or part of the cost. It might also pay for you to attend related conferences and seminars.

Volunteer hours: It’s fairly common for bigger companies to give employees a certain amount of hours or days each year to volunteer. Some even have the office volunteer together.

Supplemental insurance: Your employer might offer group rates on other voluntary insurance benefits, though it probably won’t kick in for the premiums. These policies might include auto insurance, homeowners insurance, supplemental insurance for dependents or limited forms of life insurance, such as accidental death and dismemberment. In some cases, AD&D is included in group life insurance.

Benefits you can hope to see

Student loan repayment: Some employers help employees pay off student loan debt. Maximum benefits vary by company.

Fitness club allowance: To encourage employees to stay healthy — and hopefully reduce health insurance costs and sick leave requests — some employers provide allowances or reimbursement for gym memberships.

Pet insurance: This benefit helps you take care of your four-legged best friend. Just like your health insurance, however, it’s important that you understand what the insurance covers and what you’ll owe each month and each visit.

Unlimited paid time off: You read it right: unlimited! This is a big benefits trend right now. Some companies let their employees take paid time off whenever they want for as long as they want. People reportedly take the same amount of time off, regardless of limit, but still value the trust that this benefit exemplifies. After all, your employer is putting its faith in your self-management and self-awareness when it lets you control the time you spend away from your desk.

Review your options

There are a lot of benefit options an employer may offer you, so set aside time when you start to consider the choices. And be prepared to review your selections during your office’s yearly open enrollment period. As your life progresses, your benefit needs might change.

Benefits exist to enhance your life. Understanding your choices will help you take advantage of your total employee package.

Megan Terzian is an associate financial planner with Mosaic Financial Partners.