How to Use Every Last Perk from Your Job

The Great Resignation. The Great Reconsideration. The Big Quit. Whatever headlines are calling it, Americans have been leaving their jobs in record-breaking numbers this year—and many employers, desperate to attract and retain talent, have responded by beefing up their benefits packages. 

If you have a full-time job, this might have you thinking… hm, what’s actually in my benefits package, anyway?

It’s not just you. Pamela Capalad, the founder of Brunch & Budget, an affordable financial planning and advocacy company, told VICE that many employees don’t fully understand what’s going on with their benefits and how to best take advantage of them. “I feel like the first day of a new job [employers are] like, ‘Here’s a stack of paperwork, make a bunch of super important decisions,’” said Capalad. After that, it can be easy to forget about benefits as you’re also trying to, you know, learn how to be successful in your new role. 

“The more you understand your benefits plan, the more you can take advantage of every little thing that is available to you,” said Erin Lowry, author of the Broke Millennial book series. But when a whole slew of information—your 401K, paid time off (PTO) policies, life insurance, whatever a Flexible Spending Account is—gets handed over during your first week and you never hear from HR again, she said, “It really puts the burden on the employee to be proactive about reaching out and asking questions.” 

So if we may, let us ease that burden for you the littlest amount. We spoke with experts who’ve dealt with this stuff time and time again to find out how to get the absolute most out of your workplace’s benefits package.

Max Out Your PTO

Let’s start with something pretty straightforward: Take every day of paid time off you can, and don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about it. 

“[It’s] really frustrating to me when people feel that their workplace is a family, like, ‘If I take my paid time off I’m leaving so and so in the lurch, or my boss is going to be mad,’” said Gaby Dunn, author of Bad with Money: The Imperfect Art of Getting Your Financial Sh*t Together and host of the Bad With Money podcast. “That’s your paid time off that you earned. And maybe everyone likes each other, but you’re definitely not a family.”

On average, Americans only use about half—half!—of their PTO each year. Roughly 23 percent of employees take all the time they are entitled to, and nine percent of people don’t take any PTO at all.

That’s not good. Paid time off is an earned benefit that’s part of your paycheck, and not using it is essentially the same as saying, “Oh, the company needs this money—why don’t they take a few hundred dollars out of my pay this month?”

If your company is among the businesses that offer unlimited PTO, Pamela Capalad recommended asking up front how that works practically. At her company, it’s as easy as marking it off in your calendar, but that’s not always the case, and some employers have come under fire for presenting unlimited PTO as a benefit when it’s actually a trap designed to get you to take less time off. Make sure you understand what “unlimited” means for your employer and how it’s implemented. 

Avail yourself of every health specialist your insurance allows

Don’t limit yourself to appointments when something goes wrong: Being proactive about preventive care when you have insurance can save you a lot of pain and money in the future.

“I would get a job and then immediately go to the dentist, immediately go to all my doctor’s appointments,” Dunn said. “Maybe you’re like, ‘Well, I don’t have anything wrong with me.’ Doesn’t matter. Go to the dermatologist. Have them check all your moles.” 

If you’re one of the 45 percent of adults under 30 who don’t have a primary care doctor, this is also a great time to find one. Go see an allergist who can help with your Zyrtec dependency or ask a chiropractor about that nagging lower back ache. These don’t even have to be pressing concerns: You could also get immunizations for future travel or freeze your eggs.

There’s also something called an EAP—an employee assistance program—which exists to support employees struggling with both personal and work-related mental health and well-being issues. Traditionally, EAPs helped employees who were having a tough time at work due to personal factors like substance abuse. But these days, EAPs provide free, confidential support on everything from relationship challenges to financial or legal problems to wellness to child or elder care.

“EAP is a really big one that I’ve been hearing about lately, especially because of the pandemic and mental health,” Dunn said.

If you have an HSA: “Oh, please use it”

That’s Lowry’s plea to workers who have access to a Health Savings Account (HSA), which lets you set aside pre-tax money for health care costs. An HSA works a lot like a personal savings account: You decide how much money to put in it, and you decide what health expenses to spend it on. Unused money rolls over from year to year—it’s yours to do with what you will—and some employers even contribute to them.

Capalad calls it “triple-tax savings.” That means that with an HSA, you’re not paying social security tax, medicare tax, or federal or state tax on money you set aside. The funds grow untaxed, and, as long as you use it for medical expenses, the money isn’t taxed when you take it out. Win, win, win. 

“If your tax bracket is 20 percent, that means for every dollar you put in, you save 20 cents; for every 100 dollars you save 20 dollars,” Capalad said. “You’re basically getting 20 percent off on medical expenses.” 

Flexible Spending Accounts, or FSAs, are a little different. They also let you pay for medical expenses with pre-tax dollars, but unlike HSAs, you have to spend the money by the end of the year. But both accounts are pre-tax, and both can cover a lot of stuff beyond doctor’s appointments—like contact lenses, sunscreen, condoms, tampons, and Tums. (You can find a full FSA/HSA eligibility list here.)

Pay attention to disability insurance

Disability insurance works by covering your salary up to a percentage if you’re injured or contract an illness. There are two kinds, short-term and long-term, and they’re a little bit different in cost and structure. Short-term disability generally covers a portion of your income—typically between 60 and 70 percent—for around three to six months. Long-term disability pays something closer to 40 to 60 percent of your salary, but does so over a period of several years, or until you turn a given age. 

A lot of employers pay for disability insurance, and Capalad said that, if they don’t, it usually costs just $5 or $6 per paycheck for you to opt in yourself. But while one in four adults will become disabled before they reach retirement age, only 38 percent of workers have short-term disability coverage, and just 33 percent have long-term coverage. “A lot of people don’t know they should elect to do it or that they have to opt in, so they don’t,” she explained. “That’s one where if you see you can opt in, do it.

Disability insurance doesn’t just cover catastrophic injuries on the factory floor (though it does cover stuff like that, too). A qualifying “disability” could be COVID or cancer—any illness or injury that prevents you from being able to work. Or, it could be a way around your company’s shitty parental leave policy: In many states, you can use short-term disability to cover maternity leave. Depending on the policy, you may be able to cover elective procedures like gender-affirming surgery or if you’re diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or depression. But coverage can vary widely from plan to plan, so this is one you might want to talk over with HR—more on that later. 

Plan for retirement (no, seriously)

If you, like me, are a Millennial or a member of Gen Z, planning for retirement can feel pointless at best. “Even before the pandemic, I was fielding questions of, ‘How likely is it that retirement’s even gonna be a thing, and we’re not going to be in a Mad Max situation?’” Lowry said. Why contribute to your retirement plan in a backsliding democracy as the entire planet spins towards a climate apocalypse?

Unfortunately—and no one is more upset about this than me—Lowry says a retirement fund is probably the number-one benefit that’s going to help you truly build your wealth. “And if you don’t do something to be proactive about securing your financial future,” she said, “then you’re guaranteeing yourself a financial apocalypse.” 

Some employers offer to match your 401k contribution, depositing a percentage of each dollar you invest in your retirement account up to a certain amount. All the experts we spoke to encourage you to max that out—otherwise you’re leaving money on the table. (Just make sure you’re aware of your company’s vesting schedule, as some employers make you wait a certain amount of time before taking ownership of the funds they’ve contributed to your 401k.)

And if you’re in a position where you really need the money now, not in a theoretical future where they’re able to retire in their sixties, Lowry had one final ask.

“My challenge on that one would be: Start with half a percent, or one percent,” she said. Because it’s tax-advantaged—meaning you pay taxes when you withdraw, instead of now—you probably won’t see a huge chunk of change missing from your paycheck. “And then, every six months, try to push it up by another half of a percent or a percentage.” 

That slow increase—adding a percent over time, or when you get a raise—can make saving for retirement feel slightly more doable rather than putting in 10 percent up front. 

Keep an eye out for other perks

Lowry was blunt about this: “Look for every little possible way you can suck money out of your company.”

Some companies offer education plans, where they’ll pay out a certain amount of money for workers to take classes for continuing education or go back to school. Others have student loan repayment assistance programs. Some places have commuter benefits that let you pay for public transportation with pre-tax dollars. Commute by bike? My last employer paid a certain dollar amount towards tune-ups and fixes a year. 

Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing that can be wildly different depending on the workplace, and it probably involves a little research on your end. “My biggest piece of advice is: Read through the benefits booklet and go to the benefits meeting, because you’re going to find some little tidbit that you didn’t know before,” said Capalad. 

That’s the best way to find out if there are corporate discounts you can take advantage of or set up—things like special deals and discounts on gym memberships, cell phone plans, magazine subscriptions, or shopping at local businesses. Capalad said her husband’s employer actually covers a monthly Peloton subscription, and other surprising benefits can include free ebooks and audiobooks or a Spotify Premium subscription.

Make HR work for you

Going to HR can feel weird and scary—I get that. Human Resources is ultimately there to protect your employer, and legally speaking, they have no obligation to take the employee’s side. Some HR departments are great, and others completely suck. This is the way of the corporate world.

However! Their job description typically entails responsibilities like compensation and benefits—and, crucially, employee recruitment and retention. “It’s expensive for companies when people leave and they have to hire someone,” Lowry said. They want to keep hold of millennial and Gen Z job-hoppers, which means keeping them happy, which means you have more leverage than you might think.

Capalad noted that someone or many someones at your company spent a lot of time putting their benefits package together to be just that: a benefit to the employee. So: “Don’t be shy about asking questions,” she said. “That’s what the HR department is there for. You don’t have to have a specific question—you can just say, ‘I don’t know what this is, can you tell me what it is?’” If nobody’s using certain benefits, they might even go away—it’s good for everyone if employees are asking about and taking advantage of this stuff. In other words, she said: “Be a squeaky wheel.”

Lowry added that people “don’t know what they don’t know.” If you’re dealing with an HR department where everyone is over 50 and chugging towards retirement, they might not understand how much a student loan repayment program might benefit your company’s workforce. Maybe this goes beyond asking questions—it might be something you and your coworkers discuss together and bring to the table. Just make sure that any time you go to lobby for something, you position it as a benefit to the employer: This program is a tax break for them, this benefit will help with retention. 

“Get people together,” Lowry said, “and be like, ‘This is a huge thing for X number of your employees, and if you’re not going to raise our wages, this is one way you could really help us out.’” 

Talk to your coworkers, or with friends at other jobs

Speaking of getting people together: If going to HR feels too weird or you’re worried you’ll face consequences for being too pushy, talk to your coworkers, especially those who’ve been there longer than you. Make a friend you can trust, or poke around Glassdoor and LinkedIn to find out what kinds of benefits other people at other companies in similar positions are getting. 

Lowry suggested starting an accountability group with friends, whether those are people you know at work or friends with jobs elsewhere. Talk about your salaries, your retirement goals (I know), and what strategies are helping you get the most benefits out of your employer. This can be a great way to skill share and un-gatekeep manager knowledge—it’s how she found out short-term disability can cover maternity leave.

The whole song and dance around keeping salaries secret, locking information up with HR, and leaving employees in the dark is also, Dunn noted, one of the reasons we need unions. And if you’re talking to coworkers about things like wages, benefits, and working conditions, you’re already taking the first step towards unionizing.

Get… creative

Have you ever considered, um, borrowing—you know what, let’s call it “liberating”—office supplies? Just to speak hypothetically about something I have never done?

“This is not great advice, but when I was super young and poor, I would just, like, take toilet paper,” Dunn laughed. “I’d fill up my backpack with toilet paper and snacks. Because it’s kind of like, they’re probably not paying you enough. Nobody is paying anybody enough. Whatever you can get for free, do it up.”

You’d be amazed how many years you can go without shelling out for a single tampon or grabbing coffee filters at the grocery store. I have a pretty nice wireless mouse in my home office that was accidentally pilfered years ago—when I left the job, no one thought to ask for it back. Just… you know, something to think about.

Take your time, and don’t feel like you have to do it all at once

I don’t know about you, but never once in all my years of public school or even college did anyone explain this stuff to me. Yet, somehow, there’s a weird expectation that we should all understand the differences between flexible spending accounts and health savings accounts, or that we know when and why disability insurance will be helpful.

“Give yourself grace going through the process of dealing with your benefits,” Lowry said. “It does not have to happen all at once.”

Lowry challenged people to put it on their calendar once a quarter. Every three months or so, check in with a different portion of your benefits plan. Maybe first you focus on retirement: setting it up, making sure the money is invested and not just sitting in a cash management account that doesn’t collect interest for you, checking that you’re seeing growth. Take a look at disability insurance in the next quarter, then study the ins and outs of health insurance in the next. 

Remember, too, that the job is a job—not your family, and not your identity. That’s something to keep in mind no matter how good your benefits package is. Dunn remembers working at one media company early in their career, when it wasn’t uncommon to see people at their desks at 7 p.m. or later, night after night. If asked about it, they’d shrug, and be like, “Well, there’s beer here.”

“I was like, no,” Dunn said. “The beers are not compensation for the hours of your life.”

Follow Em Cassel on Twitter.

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