I spent 10 minutes on the phone with HR this week. And because of it, I am going to get $1,000 back in my paycheck.
When COVID-19 put a major kink in our childcare plans, I didn’t even think to look at the HR benefits we had set up last year. My husband had a lightbulb moment while driving to work. He shot me a text asking me to check what we had allocated for our dependent care flexible spending account.
We had been socking away funds to cover this summer’s anticipated camp expenses. Now that camps aren’t happening, we aren’t going to use that money I elected to have docked from my monthly pay. If I stop it today, that will save me $1,000—and I could even get back what has already been taken out!
I typically consider benefits paperwork a “set it and forget it” exercise. I do it when I’m told, and I don’t really look at it until the next time. But now that we’re all in this strange new world, I realized some of my other benefits might have changed while I’ve been work-from-home-school-momming.
After talking to HR professionals, here are five benefits mistakes I’ve learned you don’t want to make right now:
1. Save for dependent care you aren’t using.
Every month I contribute to a flexible spending account that we utilize to pay for our daughters’ daycare and summer camp expenses. As they get older, we have reduced this amount, but it’s still dollars coming out of my monthly check.
Depending on when your benefit cycle starts and ends, there could be a significant amount of cash coming out with nowhere to go. (Especially if the dollars do not roll over.)
What to do instead: Check your contributions and look for an option to decline or edit the existing coverage. Then reach out about the opportunity to receive the dollars already locked inside the flexible spending account.
2. Cancel 401 or 403b contributions.
If you are enrolled in a match program, many companies have suspended their contributions to 401/403b accounts due to financial hardship. This is not ideal, because this is free money.
Although you might be inclined to reduce your contributions in light of this, try to resist the temptation. Even a small percentage towards these accounts has the potential to have a big impact on your future financial stability. It’s your money and keeping it locked in will generate more interest over time.
What to do instead: Review company policies, but don’t remove any funds unless you absolutely must. Double check any communications about a match suspension and keep an eye out for any changes.
3. Ignore your health savings or flex spending opportunities.
If you utilize this opt-in benefit, you are contributing to it on a regular basis, even if you are not making any withdrawals. Many employers have adjusted their claim filing policies during this time and also expanded the list of over-the-counter items that can be reimbursed.
This means you can submit receipts for items dating back to the first of the year and include things such as pain relievers, baby supplies and other items that are not typically covered.
What to do instead: Take a quick second to peek at your contributions and any balances available.
4. Decline connectivity upgrades.
Working from home requires working technology. Many companies are offering to upgrade things such as laptops and Wi-Fi access to ensure that employees are as efficient as possible while at home. Even if you already have a connection at home, this is an opportunity to either improve it or add it, and bill it back to your employer.
It’s also an opportunity to enhance the file sharing and online project management tools that were never relevant before now. There are a lot out there to choose from, but they carry a price tag.
What to do instead: Connect with your employer and ask about their willingness to pay for and/or reimburse for your home tech expenses such as your wireless network, mobile data plans, data storage tools like Dropbox or Slack, project management tools and more. If this was offered to you in the early stages of the work-from-home orders, circle back on it and accept the opportunity. What’s good for getting email quicker is also good for watching Netflix and Disney+.
5. Hold on to your paid time off days (PTO).
I was today years old when I learned that I can cash in PTO before it expires. No, really. I looked at my balance of unused days and did the math to see how many I will lose if I don’t take another vacation day before they expire.
Given my options are limited to staycations and the occasional family visit, I do not see the opportunity for a significant use of vacation time in my near future. Before I lost the days I have worked for, I cashed them out for dollars added to my paycheck.
What to do instead: Think about your options and the number of days you have available. If you are in danger of losing the time, take a few days to yourself at home with no work obligations or cash it in for additional dollars, if you can. (Not all states require employers to pay out unused vacation days.)
Now more than ever, ignoring an opportunity to review your benefits could leave valuable cash or time on the table. Who doesn’t like more money in their pockets?
Erin Kraebber is a career strategist and coach for women who want to be both good mothers and excel in their career. Erin is a seasoned marketing professional with a 15-year-long corporate career in collegiate athletics. She is a mom to two daughters who fill her with equal measures of love and anxiety. She is active in her pursuit to find satisfaction in the space where motherhood and career success merge. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Facebook.