Make Your Job Work Harder for You

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These days, with unemployment running rampant, even just having a solid, stable full-time job is something you can't take for granted. So if you're fortunate enough to have an employer that gives you good pay and benefits, don't just assume that you're on Easy Street. Instead, make sure you're getting the most out of everything your job offers you.

The ins and outs of employee benefits
With the mass of forms you have to fill out when you first start a job, it's easy to get overwhelmed and not take the time you should to understand all of your benefits and other perks. After all, you want to make a good first impression as you begin a new career, and obsessing over your personal finances rather than getting started with your actual work won't send the right message.

But that doesn't mean you can afford to ignore your benefits. The wrong decisions can cost you thousands of dollars in missed opportunities or extra costs that you could avoid with just a little extra time devoted to learning what you're entitled to as a new worker. Here are two of the biggest steps to take.

Step 1: Start saving.
The first thing you should look at is whether your employer offers a retirement plan, such as a 401(k). If so, you'll probably want to participate -- but you'll need to ask some more questions.

The biggest incentive to put money into a 401(k) is if your employer matches some of your contributions. Many employers will match between 3% and 6% of your contribution by taking the amount you set aside and adding in 50% to 100% of that amount from their own pocket. You may not be entitled to that money right away if you leave your job within the first few years, but after a while, you'll be vested in your matched funds and they'll be yours to keep even if you change jobs.

On the other hand, a big disincentive comes from high-fee investment choices. In fact, several major employers, including Wal-Mart (NYS: WMT) , Regions Financial (NYS: RF) , and State Street (NYS: STT) , have faced lawsuits alleging that they included investment alternatives that either had fees that were too high or were otherwise managed improperly. If your plan doesn't have at least one good investment choice, then you might be better off using an IRA or other savings vehicle.

Step 2: Get (financially) healthy.
Figuring out how to choose the right health insurance can be the hardest part of starting a new job. With many employers increasingly calling on workers to bear a higher percentage of their health-care costs, you have to balance not paying too much in premiums against getting the coverage you need.

Here are some specific things to watch out for:

  • More employers are offering what's known as high-deductible health plans. Offered by major insurance companies including UnitedHealth (NYS: UNH) and Aetna, this coverage has much lower premiums than standard health insurance but also forces workers to pay more in upfront costs, with large deductibles of $1,200 or more before the plan starts making payments. If you have an HDHP, you'll need to know not only exactly what you're responsible for but also how to set up a health savings account or HSA, which will give you tax-favored ways to save for your medical costs. Banks including Wells Fargo (NYS: WFC) and Bank of America (NYS: BAC) offer HSAs, but you may be locked in to whichever financial institution your employer chooses.
  • Many employers let you save pre-tax money toward medical expenses through flex plans. Participating can save you a bundle at tax time, but saving too much can cost you -- because you have to forfeit any flex plan money you don't spend within a short period after the end of each year.
  • Finally, look into any optional coverage your employer offers. Often, independent companies like Aflac (NYS: AFL) offer supplemental coverage. Before you buy, make sure you understand how such coverage coordinates with your regular health insurance.

Be smart
Whether you've just started a new job or have been working at the same employer for years, it pays to take a look at what you're doing with your employee benefits. Given how much is at stake, you truly can't afford not to make the most of the benefits your employer gives you.

Learn more about what you can do to max out your benefits from the Fool's Savings Center. From picking the best health plan to picking up prescription drugs on the cheap, we'll point you in the right direction to save some money.

At the time this article was published

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