It turns out that the “lost decade” of zero growth not only pertains to the stock market, but to personal income too. The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that median household income fell 10% from 2000 to 2010 when inflation is factored in. In a slow growth/high unemployment economy, you may not have the power to negotiate for fat raises. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to raise your “pay.” 

Imagine you dropped a $100 bill on the street, would you keep on walking or pick it up? Bet you wouldn’t dream of walking away from cash that is rightfully yours. Yet that’s what happens if you don’t take full advantage of benefits offered by your employer.   

Based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2011 National Compensation Survey, employee benefits add up to 30% of total compensation for private sector employees, and 35% – 40% for government employees. At a salary of $50,000, benefits are worth way more than chump change at $15,000 – $20,000.

Are you cashing in on your total compensation? 

You’re about to have another chance to make sure you are. September to November is the typical time of year for benefits re-enrollment. The menu of benefits varies for each company, with the most common being medical, life and disability insurance, paid time off, and a retirement plan – with or without a company contribution. Less common perks can include tuition reimbursement, subsidies for transportation, lunches, cell phones, adoption, legal, tax and financial services. New benefit trends include rewards for health and wellness activities — because a healthy workforce saves companies (and you) money. 

Whatever is on your benefit menu, follow these tips to get the maximum reward for your hard work.

  1. Be on time and complete. There is a starting and an ending date for benefits enrollment. Incomplete paperwork can be the same as never having turned it in at all. You know that sick feeling when you miss an airplane? Spare yourself and be on time. 

  2. Dig through benefit materials like you’re on a treasure hunt. Look at benefit information with fresh $$$ eyes. Don’t assume last year’s benefits are the same this year. In today’s cost-cutting environment, benefits and costs can change dramatically from year to year. Opt into benefits that make your life better, protect you or someone who depends on you, and/or save you money. Remember that group employee benefits are almost always better values than if you bought them on your own. Closely consider benefits available to your immediate and extended family, like medical, life and even long term care (LTC) insurance. 

  3. Evaluate and choose your best options, with input from your partner/spouse. Compare options based on your needs, taking into account choices your partner may have too. Determine the benefits with “best value” not just the cheapest. Health insurance is a benefit where it doesn’t pay to cut corners. Utilize decision-making tools provided by your employer, or create your own side-by-side comparison of benefits, deductibles, co-pays, premiums and exclusions.

Lastly, take note of benefits that are “portable”, meaning you get to keep them even if you leave the company. If you’re concerned that losing certain benefits would put yours or your family’s wellbeing in jeopardy, consider supplementing with your own “benefits” that are not employer dependent. For instance, buy your own life insurance policy to supplement what your employer offers. That way, if your employer coverage ends, your dependents are still protected. This is especially important if you’re concerned that a health condition may limit your ability to get life insurance later on. 

It pays to invest time and effort to make the most of your employee benefits, and may take the sting out of stingy salary raises.   

Plan Well…Live Well

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