ILLUSTRATION BY JONAN EVERETT
Featured image art by Jonan Everett.
When you’re hired at a new job, you’re given all sorts of paperwork to fill out. Chances are, some of the paperwork has to do with your employee benefits. Unfortunately, there is so much going on at the time that you’ll probably just do the minimum required and move on without reading the full benefits package. That’s totally understandable — you want to hit the ground running and make a good impression at your new job. But that could cost you.
Many employers offer benefits that can actually help you save money if you take advantage of them. Here are a few you should look into if they are available to you:
- Retirement plans
- Health savings programs
- Medical savings accounts for dependents
- Transportation spending accounts
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1. Retirement Savings Plans
There are a several retirement savings plans your employer may offer. While the names and specifics of each plan vary, the important thing is to realize if your employer offers one that you can participate in. Once you figure out the type of retirement plan offered, look into it to see what you can and can't do.
The 401(k) plan is one of the most common, but there are others, such as the thrift savings plan (TSP), the 457 plan, and the 403(b) plan. Usually, the particular plan available depends on who your employer is. For instance, 401(k) plans are usually offered by for-profit businesses, while the TSP is offered by the federal government to its employees, including civilian and military personnel. The 457 plans and 403(b) plans can be offered by public schools, colleges, charities, state and local governments, and tax-exempt entities under section 501(c)(3) of the IRS code.
Each of these plans lets you contribute pretax money to a retirement account, allowing you to save even more.
Even better? Some employers will match your contributions up to a certain point. This gives you even more bang for each buck saved.
When you withdraw the money in retirement, you’ll have to pay taxes on the amount you take out, though. Plus, you can’t access the money until you reach the retirement age specified by the rules that regulate each account type.
Other types of plans do exist, especially if you’re employed by a small business. If you’re not sure whether your employer offers any retirement savings plans, it never hurts to ask. Start with your company’s human resources department if you work for a large company, or your manager if you’re with a smaller business.
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2. Savings Vehicles for Medical Expenses
If you want to save money on health care expenses, you may be able to access a flexible spending account (FSA) or a health savings account (HSA), depending on what your employer offers and your health insurance plan.
FSAs allow you to set aside pretax money to pay for qualified medical expenses like prescriptions and copays. However, they don’t cover health insurance premiums. And if the money in an FSA goes unused by the end of the year, you lose it. If you leave your employer before the end of the year and still have a balance, you may lose that, as well.
HSAs also allow you to set aside pretax money to pay for medical expenses, but you own the money. If you don’t spend it by the end of the year, you get to keep it, and in some cases you can even invest it. Sometimes an employer will make a contribution to your HSA to help you get started, too. The downside is you must have a high-deductible health plan (HDHP) in order to qualify to use an HSA. The definition of an HDHP changes every year, so check to see if you qualify.
Both types of accounts have annual limits on contributions, which change yearly. If you use the money for nonmedical expenses, you will have to pay penalties.
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3. Dependent-Care Savings
A dependent-care FSA allows you to save pretax money to pay for dependent-care services. The benefit can help significantly because, as we all know, childcare isn’t cheap. There are annual limits for how much you can contribute that change each tax year.
The money set aside must be used to care for a child who is under age 13 before or after school, for babysitting expenses, and for day care, nursery care, preschool, or summer camp. You can also use the money to care for a spouse or a relative who is physically or mentally incapable of caring for him or herself and lives in your home.
Unfortunately, you must use any money that you put into a plan within that year or else you will forfeit any remaining balance. That means you should be careful to save only as much as you need — or maybe a little less to be safe. Otherwise you’ll lose 100 percent of any money left over at the end of the year.
4. Transportation Savings
Transportation spending accounts (TSAs) are another way to save some cash by using pretax money. You can use the money you set aside in a TSA for parking expenses near your work or business and for other commuting costs, such as buses, commuter rail, ferries, and vanpooling. There are limits to how much you can set aside each month, though the numbers change each year.
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The Bottom Line on Money-Saving Employee Benefits
Your job may offer a number of employee benefits to help you save money. The key is knowing which ones are available to you and how to maximize the benefit of each.