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The hottest workplace benefit for the newly-graduated set isn’t 401(k) matches or even student debt repayment.
It’s health insurance.
More than half of the people participating in a survey conducted by the American Institute of CPAs said medical coverage was a “top three workplace benefit.”
The accounting association polled 547 adults from September, 2018.
The participants have either graduated from college in the last 24 months or are due to complete their higher education in the next 12 months.
Paid time off and student loan forgiveness followed in second and third places, respectively.
Employer matches to the 401(k) plan came in fifth.
“It’s the short-term mindset and being aware of how many dollars you have,” said Sean Stein Smith, a CPA and member of the AICPA’s financial literacy commission.
“I’m a big advocate of encouraging everyone at the very least to put money into their 401(k) and get the employer match,” he said. “It’s a 100% return on your money.”
Extra cash toward debt
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Recent graduates would also rather allocate a higher percentage of benefit dollars toward reducing their student loan debt.
Given a hypothetical $100 in workplace benefit dollars that their employer could divide between repaying student loan debt and another employee benefit, new graduates would rather their employer direct more money toward debt elimination.
For instance, they would prefer to allocate $61 toward the student debt and $39 toward health insurance, the AICPA found. The allocation was similar for paid time off and for tuition reimbursement.
The 401(k) employer contribution also took a backseat here. New graduates would rather direct $65 toward loan repayment and only $35 toward the match.
“As someone who’s just getting out of college and in the market for that first job, being able to handle that student debt is top priority and front of mind,” said Smith.
Review your benefits
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Recent graduates should closely analyze the benefits package they’re getting at their first employer and see how they can stretch their dollars.
“Every health insurance policy is different, and every 401(k) plan is different,” said Smith. “Always be sure to read the fine print of the benefits and understand what you’re getting.”
Here are a few places to start:
• Your retirement plan: Get to know the investment options available in your company’s plan. Be on the lookout for high fees, which can sap your returns. If your employer offers you a match, be sure to contribute at least enough to qualify for it.
Be aware of any vesting schedules that apply to the employer contribution. Companies reward workers who remain long-term by gradually granting them ownership of the match.
If you leave the company before you’re fully vested, you forfeit a portion of the match.
• Your health plan: Premiums are only a portion of your expenses. Be aware of your co-insurance, deductibles and out-of-pocket limits, too.
Further, some employers also offer high-deductible plans with health savings accounts.
So-called health savings accounts allow you to save pretax or tax-deductible dollars, have them grow free of taxes and then withdraw the money tax-free for qualified medical costs.
You aren’t required to spend down your HSA, so you can keep it growing year after year.
Workers with single coverage can put away up to $3,500 in an HSA in 2019. This limit goes up to $7,000 for family plans.
• Student debt repayment: Get into the nitty-gritty with your employer before you participate in a student loan repayment perk at work.
You’d want to understand how this benefit interacts with other offerings, including your 401(k). Indeed, the IRS issued a private letter ruling in August 2018, allowing one employer to add a student loan benefit program.
In this plan, enrollees who make a student loan repayment of at least 2% of their eligible pay will receive a 5% employer matching contribution to the retirement plan.
“See what happens if you change roles within the company or if you decide to leave down the line, the impact it will have on your benefits,” said Stein.