Tips to Maximize Your Benefits for Employee Recognition Week suggests employees make the most of insurance, retirement, benefit plans

SAN MATEO, Calif., March 7, 2007 - The first full week of March is Employee Recognition Week, and in its honor, co-founder and co-CEO Brad Stroh recommends employees reward themselves by making the most of the compensation that doesn't appear on a pay stub: employee benefits. "The value of benefits can add as much as 30 percent to 40 percent of your salary to your compensation," Stroh said. "These benefits might include paid time off; medical, disability and life insurance; and less common benefits such as tuition reimbursement. Other benefits are flexible -- depending on how you take advantage of them -- and can add tremendously to your long-term well-being by providing tax and savings advantages." Stroh's tips for maximizing benefits include the following:

  1. Maximize retirement plan contributions. Try your utmost to contribute the greatest amount allowed to your company's retirement fund, Stroh said, especially if the company matches contributions to a 401(k) or 403(b) plan. "If you don't contribute the maximum, and your company matches contributions, you're saying 'no thanks' to thousands of dollars a year," he explained. Do not forget that pre-tax 401(k) contributions and the employer's matching contributions belong to the employee and can be rolled over to an IRA or another 401(k) when leaving the company. The employer's human resources department and a tax advisor can help determine individual contribution limits.
  2. Meet "vesting" requirements. Some companies contribute profit-sharing or other bonuses to employees' retirement funds. Employees usually must remain with the company for five to 10 years to be fully "vested" in these benefits -- that is, to claim their portion. "If another job opportunity arises, remember to take into account these lost benefits when comparing your current job income and benefits with the prospective job," Stroh said.
  3. Choose health coverage wisely. Don't choose a health plan impetuously. Instead, evaluate all the options available before selecting coverage. For some people, low monthly premiums make the most sense; others might benefit from paying more per month but obtaining more covered care. And with ever-expanding options available for expensive treatments such as transplants and surgery, finding the highest lifetime limit on coverage might make sense. Research options at a site such as /health-insurance/.
  4. Use "cafeteria" plans. Also called flexible benefit plans or flexible spending accounts, these plans allow employees to choose where they want to direct benefit dollars. One employee might divert some pre-tax income to cover child care expenses; another might set aside funds to pay for a teen's orthodontia. Other benefits might include disability insurance, vacation pay, adoption assistance and group life insurance.
  5. Take vacation -- or be paid for it. Time off is a valuable benefit. Employees who are eligible for 10 paid holidays, five sick or personal days and two weeks' vacation, are allowed not to work for nearly 12 percent of the year -- and still be paid. Studies show time off improves work performance and mental health. "Do maintain your dedication to your job, but don't hesitate to take off the time you deserve," Stroh suggested. "For example, keep track of personal days. Many jobs allow employees to carry over unused personal days for the next year, or add them to a sick 'bank' for employees with serious health conditions to borrow."

Even if "designer" benefits such as massages in the office, paid dry cleaning or nap breaks at work are just a pipe dream, employees can honor themselves by using the benefits they do have to the utmost. "By doing so, you effectively give yourself a raise -- and a much-deserved pat on the back," Stroh said. Based in San Mateo, Calif., is a free one-stop online portal where consumers can educate themselves about complex personal finance issues and save money by choosing the best-value products and services. Since 2002, and its partner company, Freedom Financial Network, have served more than 10,000 customers nationwide while managing more than $350 million in consumer debt. The company's co-founders and CEOs, Andrew Housser and Brad Stroh, were named Northern California finalists in Ernst & Young's 2006 Entrepreneur of the Year Awards.