How to Hack Your HR Benefits Like a Boss
Because adulting actually does come with some perks—and you should take advantage. Part of our series on navigating your career.
So you nailed the interview, got the job, and settled into your new desk. You're officially on your way to #adulting like a real human. But successful employment is more than clocking in from 9-to-5 and cashing your paycheck each week; real-world jobs come with some extra benefits that-if you take advantage-can save you some serious cash. (More: 16 Money Rules Every Woman Should Know by Age 30)
"A lot of people leave money on the table because they don't sign up for benefits," says Kimberly Palmer, author of Generation Earn: The Young Professional's Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back. "Either they're not aware of them or they're just a hassle to sign up for, but you can save yourself a ton of money by making sure you do sign up for the ones that are available."
While some people get a comprehensive benefits orientation that covers all the available options, Palmer says other times you need to reach out to your HR rep to get the full menu of perks. Want to know what to look for? We broke down the four most important types of benefits you can snag from your job. Knowing all these acronyms and numbers will be worth it-we promise.
1. Master Your 401k
This is one of those super adult-y things you think you don't need to worry about-until everyone has one except you. Basically, a 401k is a retirement plan that's sponsored by your employer. You elect for a certain amount of money to be taken out of your paycheck each month, and it automatically goes into a savings account.
How much should you put away? Palmer recommends 10-15 percent of your salary, if you can swing it. If you start doing that in your 20s, Palmer says you'll easily save enough for your retirement over the course of your lifespan. "If that's just not doable and your budget is super tight, you should just aim to save the maximum amount for matching," says Palmer.
The Hack: As of 2015, 73 percent of employers ran some sort of 401k matching program, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). That means whatever you elect to go into your retirement savings, your company will match it by contributing to your savings on their own dime. Amazing, right? But before you think "free money!" and set aside 75 percent of your paycheck in an attempt to beat the system, know this: there's usually a maximum the company will match. A standard for most companies is to match half of the first six percent, Palmer says, meaning, they'll match half your contribution, with a max contribution of three percent.
The Math: Let's say you make about $50,000 a year (which is the average starting salary for 2015 grads with a bachelor's degree, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers). If you were to contribute 10 percent of your pre-tax salary to your 401k, you're saving $5,000 a year. If your company matches half of the first six percent, they're adding an additional $1,500 without you having to do anything. Pretty clutch, right?
Not big on numbers? You can also find handy contribution calculators online, from services like Fidelity, that show you how much you're saving and how much your employer is contributing over the course of your entire lifetime (depending on salary, contribution percentage, yearly raise, retirement age, etc.).
2. Flex Your FSA Muscles
FSA is a pretty simple acronym: flexible spending account. But when it's jumbled up with a bunch of other health care and benefits jargon, it can be easy to overlook them as just another one of "those confusing things my parents have that I don't need." But they can save you some serious dough if you put in the leg work and stay organized.
The jist: FSAs are savings accounts you can use to pay for specific things, from medical costs to transportation and parking to childcare. Like your 401k, a specific amount money you choose each month will be taken out of your paycheck pre-tax and put into a special account.
The Hack: Even if you aren't enrolled in your employers health insurance plan, you can still take advantage of a health care FSA to cover expenses like contact lenses or routine health checkups. The transportation FSA is especially helpful-if you know you spend a certain amount on parking or a subway card each month, you have that taken out pre-tax too.
The Math: You might be thinking, "pre-tax, so what?" but paying for these mandatory expenses straight from your paycheck can save you a lot of money over time that would otherwise go to taxes. For example, let's say you spend $100 in subway fares each month to get to work. And let's say you live in New York and have a $50,000 salary. About 25 percent of your income goes to taxes. If you have that $100 subway money taken out of your paycheck pre-tax each month, you're going to save about $25 each month. And, hey, that adds up to something like five extra fancy Starbucks lattes a month, or an extra $1,500 in the bank after five years.
Palmer notes that you need to be ok with that money from your paycheck being otherwise untouchable (read: you can't use it for things other than what the account is specified for). But if you can stay organized with your receipts and paperwork, FSAs can be so worth your while.
3. Get Money Back for Being Healthy
There are even more perks to the general fitness craze than the fact that you can now buy workout clothes in every store; many employers now offer a host of wellness or work/life benefits that they didn't offer when, say, you're parents were young adults. These perks include things like free health screenings and fitness offerings at work (like an in-office gym or fitness classes), free on-site nutrition counseling or personal training, and discounted mental health counseling, says Palmer. You can also grab discounts or reimbursements for your gym memberships and healthy living tools like Fitbits or other trackers too. Most companies will match up to a certain dollar amount per month, year, or product, Palmer says.
The Hack: If you already pay for a gym membership each month, getting money back from your company for it can be as easy as submitting a log of your visits to the gym. Dying for a new Fitbit? Instead of scouring the Internet for a discounted model or digging for coupon codes, you might be able to submit your receipt and get some money back from your company. (Psst...Here's The Best Fitness Tracker for Your Personality.)
The Math: Every company handles wellness benefits differently, says Palmer. But most have a pretty basic reimbursement program when it comes to gym memberships; if your company offers a cap of $500 in fitness club reimbursement per year, that means any membership under $40 a month will essentially be free. If you #treatyoself to a fancier gym, you can still think of it as a big discount.
4. Chip Away at Student Loans
If you've graduated any time in the last few decades, you know the student debt problem is a big one. In 2014, almost 70 percent of graduating college seniors had some sort of student debt, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. The average amount of debt: $28,950 per student. When you're looking at an average starting salary of $50,000, the outlook isn't good.
But there is some good news: more and more companies are offering student loan assistance for their employees through a process similar to 401k matching. As of 2015, only three percent of employers offered this benefit, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, but it's becoming increasingly popular, says Palmer.
The Hack: Continue to pay your student loans each month (as you should be doing), and submit the correct paperwork to your employer. They'll either help by paying the loan company directly or writing you a check to reimburse you, says Palmer. The biggest key: keep track of all the paperwork and documentation.
The Math: This one totally depends on your company's policy and dollar limit for student loan repayment. But let's say they match a max of $200 a month, says Palmer-that's still saving you $2,400 a year. Worth every bit of paperwork, right?
The biggest thing to note about all these benefits is that they're different at every company. Enter: your new HR BFF. Hit her up about all your benefits questions. If you can save money by putting in a little extra effort, why wouldn't you? (Just think of how many brunches it will buy, you guys!) Adulting isn't so bad afterall.