Maximize your employee benefits in 3 simple steps

(BPT) - With the autumn season near, thoughts naturally turn to cooler temperatures, football games and holiday preparations. Another annual ritual synonymous with the season - but not one that many spend enough time on or particularly enjoy - is open enrollment.

Open enrollment is the period of time employees throughout the U.S. can enroll in or change coverage for benefits, such as health and disability insurance, or other offerings like employee discounts on auto and home insurance, legal services and financial planning. Since changes to benefits are not available throughout the year outside of special circumstances, such as after you get married or have a baby, it's important to take time going into the fall season to think about how your needs have changed since last year.

Preparing for open enrollment

According to a recent open enrollment survey by MetLife, 45 percent of U.S. employees say they dread selecting benefits as much as they do asking for a raise (the data is higher for female employees - 48 percent). It's no wonder then that one in five workers spends only a few minutes reviewing their benefit options.

The process doesn't need to be overwhelming, and by taking time now to think about your short- and long-term financial goals, and seek out advice from trusted friends, family or colleagues, you'll be ready to make the most of open enrollment.

1. Look ahead

Every journey begins with an initial step, but first, you need to know which direction you want to go. This means taking time to consider your goals and figuring out what is most important to you. Use this knowledge to evaluate the different benefits your employer offers and determine how they can help you meet your goals. Accident and critical illness coverage, for example, provides lump sum payments that can offset high out-of-pocket medical costs, which are increasingly common with high deductible health plans. Covering expenses with this type of insurance can help you avoid dipping into savings designated for a home purchase, education or other big-ticket items.

Think about ...

  • What are your most immediate short-term financial goals?
  • Which long-term goals should you prioritize?
  • How would you handle an unexpected expense from an illness or accident?

2. Reach out

Many people shy away from openly talking about their finances, but friends, family and co-workers can be valuable resources. Check to see how their benefits have helped them navigate everyday challenges as well as more difficult situations. For instance, you might think life insurance in your 20s is foolish if you don't have a spouse or children, but it could be important. With student loans burdening the millennial generation, it's crucial to understand that some of these debts don't go away should something happen, and could leave loved ones saddled with the expense. Asking questions is how we learn, and most people love being asked for advice. Don't be afraid. When it comes to your financial future, sometimes an honest conversation with people you trust can make all the difference.

Think about ...

  • Do you have student loans that would be difficult for loved ones to pay off in your absence?
  • Have you asked friends if life insurance has made an impact in their lives?
  • Did you know that you can list a nonprofit organization as a beneficiary on a life insurance policy?

3. Discover savings

Look beyond traditional benefits offered by your employer and see if other perks are available. One of the best places to start your search is the company's website. Here, you may find a host of discounts on products you already purchase, such as cell phone service, auto, home or pet insurance, and legal plans. It isn't only the 56 percent of Americans who, according to a Gallup survey, don't have a will who could benefit from a legal plan; legal plans are a convenient, affordable option that provide access to qualified attorneys who can help address a range of personal issues from filing estate planning documents to purchasing and selling a home or handling speeding tickets and identity theft.

Think about ...

  • Are you leveraging your company's discounts on things you already pay for?
  • Would you know the right lawyer to contact in the event you needed help with a landlord dispute?
  • Do you have estate planning essentials - such as a will or healthcare proxy - in place?

The decisions you make to maximize your benefits during open enrollment have important financial implications, so it's essential to consider the options and make wise choices. The time you invest in preparing today can pay off later - for both you and your finances.

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