Fall is a time of leaves changing colors, children going back to school, families enjoying Thanksgiving dinners, and… open enrollment. Yes, it’s the opportunity for most employees to select which benefits they will choose for the following year. Here are some of the most common mistakes we see people make:
Not fully understanding the value of an HSA-eligible health insurance plan. HSA-eligible high deductible health plans tend to come with lower premiums (what you pay per month or paycheck for your coverage) but higher deductibles (what you pay out-of-pocket before most of the insurance benefits kick in) than more standard health insurance plans. In addition, they make you eligible to contribute pre-tax dollars to an HSA (health savings account) that can be used tax-free for qualified medical expenses at any time.
While it’s easy to compare the difference in premiums and deductibles, don’t forget to factor in the value of the HSA. First, many employers will actually make contributions to your HSA for you. That’s free money! If you contribute on top of that, you also get a break on your taxes (including FICA if you contribute from your paycheck).
For example, I spoke with an employee who would save almost $1,900 a year in premiums by choosing the high deductible health plan. In addition, he would receive $1,000 in his HSA from his employer and would save almost another $2,000 in taxes by contributing another $6,000 to the HSA. The $4,900 in total savings dwarfed the difference in deductibles.
Under or over funding an FSA. FSAs (flexible spending accounts) let you put money away pre-tax that can be used tax-free for health or dependent care expenses. If you’re in the 24% tax bracket, that’s like getting a 24% discount on those eligible expenses! Not taking full advantage of these accounts could cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars in lost tax breaks.
However, there is a catch. Unlike HSAs, FSAs are mostly “use it or lose it” so you don’t want to contribute more than what you’re pretty sure you can spend. (Having a general health care FSA also precludes you from contributing to the more valuable HSA in the same year.) If you do end up with extra money in the account at the end of the year, try to use it by stocking up on qualified supplies like contact lenses and prescription drugs. You can find FSA-eligible items here.
Not taking advantage of a prepaid legal plan. Do you have updated estate planning documents like a will, durable power of attorney, advance health care directive, and living trust? If not, you can save a lot of money by using your employer’s prepaid legal service to have these documents drafted or updated. You pay a fee per paycheck, but the legal services are free or heavily discounted. You can then choose not to renew it the following year after you’ve gotten your documents in place.
Ignoring disability insurance. Disability insurance is often overlooked even though about 25% of 20-yr olds are likely to be out of work for at least a year due to a disability before they reach normal retirement age. If your employer doesn’t provide it, you may want to purchase it. The good news is that employee-paid disability benefits are tax-free.
Not having enough life insurance. Your employer may offer you life insurance coverage equal to one or more times your salary, but you may want to purchase supplemental life insurance if you have dependents. You can use this calculator to estimate how much you need. Then compare the cost of purchasing it through your employer with the cost of a term policy in the individual market. (See if your coverage at work can be converted to an individual policy once you leave the job.)
Your benefits can be a significant part of your total compensation and open enrollment can be your only chance to take full advantage of many of them. When in doubt about your selection of benefits, find out if your employer offers a financial wellness program with free guidance and coaching from unbiased financial planners who are trained on your particular benefits. Then go and enjoy the holidays knowing that your family is protected.
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