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Making the most of open season

Open enrollment season is upon us. The hubby got his information packet last week and has until mid-November to decide what company benefits he we want.

The biggest benefit for most of us is health insurance. But companies offer all sorts of options.

There's dental insurance and medical spending accounts to complement your medical coverage; ways to help pay for child care and commuting costs; life, long-term and disability policies; prepaid legal services; and educational assistance.

And we can't forget the retirement account options.

Benefits_package_2 Whew! If your company offers a wide selection of benefits, be sure you give yourself enough time to evaluate the possibilities and make a considered choice.

And if you've been at your job for a while, don't just assume that what you signed up for last year, or the last few years, is still appropriate.

Not only could your circumstances have changed in the last 12 months, but it's also very possible that your employer may have changed, for better or worse, what it offered during the last benefits sign-up season.

Tax breaks, too: The beauty of many company-provided benefits is that in addition to getting you services you need at a more reasonable cost, they can also save you some tax dollars.

Y'all all know by heart the song and dance about pretax dollars going into your 401(k) account, so I won't repeat it here. But I must at least encourage you to sign up if you haven't already. And if you do have an account, consider upping your contributions.

Once you get that benefit taken care of, check out these other possibilities.

Pay with an FSA.
By putting money, pretax like with your 410(k) account, into a flexible spending account (or two), you'll have money ready to cover costs you were going to face anyway.

A medical FSA will take care of costs that your basic coverage misses. A child care FSA will help you come up with $5,000 to pay the caregiver who looks after your child while you work. This story has more on how these accounts can help. And I blogged here on ways you can spend your medical FSA money.

TRIP up your commuting costs.
Transportation Reimbursement Incentive Programs (TRIP) can help you save tax dollars based on the cost of your daily commute. This essentially is an FSA for some commuting costs. Your pretax payroll deductions go into a TRIP account from which you are reimbursed to pay for transit passes or, in some cases, qualified parking expenses.

The monthly maximum you can contribute for mass transit (buses, trains, els, subways, etc.) is $105. The monthly maximum for parking-related expenses is $200. This calculator can help you see how much this benefit could save you.

Improve your mind.
Some employers offer tax-free educational assistance, as much as $5,250. Benefits typically include payments for tuition and fees, books, supplies and equipment. The payments may be for either undergraduate- or graduate-level courses. And the payments don't have to be for work-related courses.

Get Ready for College has more info on educational benefits from the boss. You also should check out chapter 11 of IRS Publication 970.

Add to your family.
A growing number of employers offer benefits to adoptive parents. In 1990, a Hewitt Associates survey found that only 12 percent of employers offered some kind of adoption benefits. By 1995, that had increased to 23 percent. In the 2004, a Hewitt survey of 936 major U.S. employers found the percentage was at 39 percent, with an average maximum reimbursement of $3,879 for adoption expenses.

These are just a few of the possible perks you might get from your boss. So this open season, make sure you know exactly what's being offered at your job and sign up!


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