Retirement Weekly: 4 ways to win open enrollment and make the most of your workplace benefits

While it’s always hard to say goodbye to summer, it can help to think of this as the beginning of a new season focused on a different aspect of self-care: financial health.

This is the time of year when most companies hold open enrollment for their workplace benefits programs, giving you a chance to rethink your election choices and potentially tap more deeply into workplace resources. It’s also a great opportunity to check in with yourself about how your current financial strategy is working for you and what you can do differently to move closer toward your goals.

In fact, how you navigate open enrollment season can help set you on track for building greater financial knowledge and overall well being that can have a ripple effect on your money the rest of the year—and well into the future. Fortunately, you don’t need to be a math whiz or financial expert to make this open enrollment a success for yourself. Start with these four simple steps to help you clarify your priorities and navigate your benefits in a way that makes the most sense for wherever you are today.

1. Think holistically and broadly.

Most of us think of compensation in terms of what we receive in exchange for doing work, but we don’t always recognize workplace benefits as part of this equation. If you think about your workplace benefits as part of your income, they start to look different. For example, beyond a paycheck, your employer may also be your source of medical insurance, retirement savings, equity compensation, and other important benefits that can play a fundamental role in your financial foundation.

Additionally, many companies offer benefits and perks that can help you enhance your financial knowledge and stretch your dollar, including financial wellness programs, discount programs, financial coaching, financial planning, or other forms of financial education. While corporate discounts can sometimes be overlooked as nonessential in the grand scheme of things, they can make an actual difference within the context of your complete financial picture. The bottom line is that if your company offers financial benefits, it can be just as important to think strategically about how you manage these resources as it is to think about how you manage your paycheck.

2. Do your homework and educate yourself.

Cost and affordability can be a major factor when choosing your benefits elections, so take the time to assess your current financial status and decide what amount of paycheck deductions or savings you can afford to allocate toward different benefits. From there, you’ll be better able to identify areas where you can apply workplace benefits more effectively. Start with your budget: Free tools like online debt calculators, retirement calculators, and budgeting apps can help you track your monthly income and expenses—your workplace may include some of these. The 50/30/20 rule can serve as a good starting point for budgeting, with 50% of your budget covering needs, 30% wants, and 20% savings and investments. Every dollar should have a purpose.

Next, educate yourself on your choices so that you are empowered to say yes and no from a position of greater awareness. Many companies offer promotional webinars or events as a part of their benefits during the open enrollment season. Even if you’re a veteran employee who has been around for a while, it’s worthwhile to participate so you don’t miss out on any new opportunities or helpful information. Get all your plan details, including how to contact support and locate important information. Ask your employer about any additional guidance they may provide that can help you navigate your financial life and personalize your elections—for example, our 2023 State of the Workplace study found nearly nine in 10 HR leaders offer financial wellness programs to help counterbalance work-life stressors.

3. Align your choices with your goals.

Make sure your benefits elections match your goals. Decide which goals that are most important to you, and be as specific as possible: For example, if you want to buy a home in five years, do the math to see how much you’ll need to set aside each month to build up an adequate down payment in that allotted time. Breaking your goals down into digestible chunks like this can also help you zero in on opportunities where you can plug in across the spectrum of your workplace benefits to better support your progress.

Beyond direct contributions to retirement benefits, your workplace may offer additional benefits that can help you cut costs or build investments—like discount programs, an emergency saving account match, or equity compensation. There may be additional opportunities to save through emergency backup care, education benefits, and financial wellness programs, which in turn can help free up your budget to reallocate more funds toward your goals. It may also be worth adjusting your benefit elections to take fuller advantage of company benefits that can help reduce taxable income through retirement savings vehicles like 401(k)s, or reflecting on your prior year’s medical expenses to determine whether a tax-deferred HSA savings plans could help.

4. Build a support system.

Finally, workplace benefits can seem overwhelming to navigate, and one of the best steps you can take during open enrollment season is to reach out for personalized guidance to help you connect your workplace benefits with your overall financial strategy. If your company offers access to a financial coach or adviser through a financial wellness or retirement plan, talk to them. Many employees never think of asking their employers for help, but companies invest a lot in their benefit programs, and they want to make sure you are engaged, supported, and satisfied. Access to personalized financial advice is an increasingly popular way to help support employees.

Ultimately, your workplace benefits are a tool that can help you strengthen your financial position and improve your overall well-being. Go into open enrollment season with a fresh perspective and clear goals, and you’ll be better prepared to create a strategy that works both for where you are today and where you want to be in the future.

(Not all products and services are available in all jurisdictions.)

Craig Rubino is head of participant insights, financial wellness and learning at Morgan Stanley at Work.

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