By Andrew Housser
Last spring, Hewitt Associates surveyed companies on the benefits most commonly offered to employees. Below, as Americans celebrate Labor Day, the list of the most common benefits -- and how to make the most of them.
- Immediate eligibility for a health-care plan. No waiting means no risk period. If your job doesn't offer this, be sure you remain covered during the waiting period. Employees can purchase their former employer's coverage under COBRA legislation. Also check with a broker on the cost of short-term coverage plans, which can be more affordable.
- A 401(k) plan with a typical match of 50 cents for each $1 an employee contributes. It can't be said often enough: If an employer matches 401(k) contributions, employees are throwing away income if they do not contribute to the plan.
- Retirement eligibility at age 65 and health-care coverage to retirees. Health-care coverage post-retirement is a tremendous benefit. Last year, Fidelity Investments reported that the average couple can expect to pay $200,000 for 20 years of health care. If workplace programs cut costs, do take advantage of them.
- Access to a dental plan. This is another money-saver. If an employer does not provide dental coverage, consider your family's needs before purchasing it as an individual. It can save a great deal on dental emergencies; but for routine care, the premiums might outweigh the benefits.
- Access to a vision plan separate from medical or dental coverage. Follow the same caveat as with dental insurance: The costs of vision care seldom are excessive. Prioritize medical coverage.
- A group life insurance plan that pays a year of wages as a death benefit. Life insurance is important to support a family in the event of the death of a breadwinner. Whether an employer provides it or not, look into individual life insurance coverage. It can be had as cheaply as $20 per month for several hundred thousand dollars of coverage.
- Long-term-disability benefits replacing 60 percent of pay. Because individuals are more likely to become disabled than to die, income replacement coverage is very important.
- On average, 11.7 days of vacation and eight to 12 paid holidays a year. Time off is a great benefit -- with these averages, employees are paid not to work four weeks out of the year. Be sure to take the time off that is coming to you -- or understand your company's policy for compensating you for unclaimed vacation time. (If you receive a check at the end of the year, use it to pay off debt or build emergency or retirement savings, securing future time off.)
- Dependent-care spending accounts and health savings accounts. These accounts offer tax advantages. Understand maximum contributions and qualifying expenses, and make the most of these benefits.
- Educational reimbursement up to $5,000. The U.S. Commerce Department estimates a master's degree provides $1.3 million more than a high school diploma in lifetime earnings. If education can strengthen your career, go for it. Be cautious not to borrow more than necessary. And don't dive into a program unless you can secure good grades -- some reimbursement programs demand this focus, and you'll reap more rewards with a strong report card.
As for what workers want, their yearnings center on more time off (for vacation, sabbaticals, kids and aging parents), flexible schedules, and help with errands and mortgages. Meanwhile, until you find that perfect job, make the most of what you do have.