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Most employees don’t understand their benefits. Here’s how to make sure you aren’t wasting your money

February 22, 2022, 6:41 PM UTC

So you’ve received a job offer. Now comes the part where you try to understand the intricate web that is also known as your employer’s benefits program. This is no easy task, which is why you might find yourself calling your dad crying, asking “what is life insurance, and should I be worried about someone stealing my social security number enough to sign up for identity theft protection?” as you try to decipher all your different options.

You’re not the only one having a breakdown. Voluntary benefits are confusing for many U.S. workers, including your dad. According to a new survey by Voya Financial, nearly one-third of American workers don’t fully understand the employee benefits they signed up (and paid) for. 

Employees want to get the most out of their voluntary benefits, they just don’t know how. Voya Financial’s findings show that nearly three-quarters (70%) of benefits-eligible workers say they are more likely to work for an employer that offers voluntary benefits, but then only 49% actually take advantage of them. 

Ahead, we have a few tips to help you understand the voluntary benefits your employer offers and how to take full advantage of these perks. That way, you only have to call your dad for advice when your car makes a funny noise and a random light you’ve never seen before starts blinking.

What are voluntary benefits?

Voluntary benefits, like disability insurance, dental insurance, and pet insurance, are benefits outside of your regular health-care and retirement plans. Some portion of the cost is paid for by your employer and the rest is deducted from your paycheck.

You can put voluntary benefits into two categories, says Paul Fronstin, director of the health research and education program at the Employee Benefit Research Institute. There are the benefits that people are excited to use, think car insurance discounts or student loan debt repayment programs. And then there are the ones that employees are less likely to find enticing, like long-term care insurance. 

Voluntary benefits can seem like a great way to save some money. Think of it a bit like buying groceries at Costco: Buying benefits in bulk makes it more affordable for your employer who then passes on the savings to the employees. Yet, it’s still likely you’ll have to pay something, so you’ll want to make sure you’re using the benefits you’re paying for.

Life insurance is one of the most commonly offered voluntary benefit. Gauging whether life insurance is necessary is more of a morbid process that might not seem relevant to younger employees. But rates are lower when you’re younger and if you’re a caregiver, or looking to start a family, this could be a valuable assurance to have.

Knowing which benefits are worthwhile requires you to think about your personal needs. For example, supplemental vision insurance won’t be a priority if you have 20/20 vision and no need for prescription lenses. But sometimes you’ll need to do a little research to make sure the benefit will be something you can use. For example, it’s probably not a great idea to sign up for pet insurance for your senior cat who multiple chronic health problems since pre-existing conditions are often not covered.

It might seem obvious which benefits you want and which ones you don’t, but when trying to review a whole menu of options, the many choices can be overwhelming.

Take your time

You don’t have to rush the benefits sign-up process. Voya Financial’s survey found that the disconnect between wanting benefits and signing up for them was most stark among millennials, who cited lack of time as a reason why they didn’t take advantage of these company perks. 

Rob Grubka, CEO of Health Solutions, Voya Financial theorizes this is because most millennials are busy and focused on advancing their careers, as well as buying homes and starting families, which leaves them little time for considering voluntary benefits. Arguably, they might benefit the most from these programs.

It’s worth carving out time to go through the process carefully since it can get expensive if you don’t make the right choices. 

Mona Zielke, senior operations and claim executive at Voya, gave the example of a trucking company where if the employees selected every voluntary benefit offered it would cost them around $40,000 a year, effectively canceling out their annual salary.

Zielke compares the period of signing up for voluntary benefits to cramming for a test. With little time, confusing terminology, and a lack of motivation to think about the scarier things in life, most employees don’t allow enough time to study. 

“During open enrollment, employees have to make decisions on a wide range of benefits, yet on average, people spend 17 or 18 minutes going through open enrollment.” We often spend more time deciding what show to binge next, points out Zielke.

Phone a friend (or someone with experience)

There are other people beyond your dad who can help guide you through your benefit selection. 

“Younger people just don’t know to ask certain questions, because it’s new for them,” says Fronstin. 

Fronstin suggests connecting with someone who has been through the process before, like a trusted colleague. Asking co-workers what benefits they chose can help make your decisions clearer. 

If your workplace is represented by a union, you can also use your rep as a resource. Fallon Havens, an employee benefits specialist at the NYC Department of Education, recommends setting up a meeting with your union representative to discuss your options.

There’s no shame in asking questions 

While employers and providers want to make the sign-up process easier, they often use jargon that doesn’t always make sense, and you might be left with a lot of questions. “There’s no dumb questions,” says Fronstin. “For a lot of workers, they’re seeing these benefits for the first time” so it’s natural that you wouldn’t understand how they work.

While it might seem scary or even embarrassing, asking questions can help you make sure you have all the information you need to make a smart decision. The disconnect between the benefits that employees want and what they sign up for often comes down to a lack of dialogue.

“In my experience, the discrepancy comes from communication issues,” says Havens, “Oftentimes, when an employee is hired, they might be solely focused on their first paycheck and starting a new opportunity. Things like voluntary benefits might fall through the cracks.”

Look to the internet for tools and advice

Having a wealth of choice can be hard, especially when choosing between options you don’t entirely understand. This is why some employers offer digital tools to help workers comprehend how voluntary benefits can work for them. Voya Financial is working on a personalized digital tool that offers advice on which benefits to choose based on the information you share about yourself and your family.

Zielke encourages all employees to spend more than 18 minutes doing their research. In this case, time is money and the more time you spend evaluating your lifestyle, the more money you can save by making cost-effective decisions.

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