Benefitting from Benefits
As a non-traditional student completing my Master’s Degree in Accounting, I have had the experience of working at several different types of jobs, most recently a tax internship at a public accounting firm. Throughout my different jobs and in talking with both more experienced accountants and recruiters, benefits are a key aspect of accounting jobs that is often overlooked or ignored by job hunters.
For those beginning their careers, this is often either from lack of knowledge about the benefits, or from a feeling of invincibility that college students often have, thinking that they will never have medical issues and that retirement will never happen. I believe that it is extremely important that everyone be knowledgeable and aware of different benefits in order to make the best choices for themselves.
When I say benefits here, I don’t mean free snacks during busy season or a higher starting salary. I mean 401k, insurance, PTO and various other special programs. I’ve broken down each of these categories to give a brief explanation for those who may not be as knowledgeable or for those who would like to learn a little bit more.
401k: This is your retirement plan. Very few jobs offer a pension plan anymore, so your 401k is where it’s at. Your company deducts money from your paycheck and puts it into your 401k account based on how you choose to set it up.
This money can be taken either before being taxed (pre-tax) or after being taxed (Roth). Once the money has been deposited into your 401k account, you choose how to invest the money. If you choose the pre-tax option, the money grows tax-free, but when you withdraw it you will pay tax on the full amount. If you choose the Roth option, you pay taxes on it before it is deposited, but it will grow tax-free, and you will be able to withdraw it tax-free.
Where the 401k really shines, however, is when your employer will match your contributions. Although the percentage will vary by employer, a common matching amount is 3 percent. This means that if 3 percent of your paycheck is deducted to be put into your 401k, your employer will deposit that same amount into your 401k! It’s essentially free money. If your employer offers any kind of match, I highly recommend contributing at a minimum the amount required to get the full match.
Insurance: For many of us, the only type of insurance we think about right now is auto insurance. However, when you start working, you will have many additional insurance options available for purchase. Here I will discuss the three most common.
The first is health insurance. With some companies you will only have one choice for health insurance, while other companies may offer three or more different health insurance options. When comparing plans, make sure you run the numbers based on your expected usage – sometimes the cheapest is not the best deal, and sometimes the most expensive is not the best coverage.
The second type of insurance is life. The first thing to check with life insurance is whether or not your company already has a free policy in place for you. If not, or if you want a higher coverage, you may want to consult with a specialist to determine what amount you should sign up for.
The third type of common insurance is dental insurance. Dental insurance is generally pretty straightforward, although some companies will offer an enhanced version. If you have had dental issues in the past, you may want to consider this option if it is available.
PTO or Paid Time Off: Rather than vacation days and sick days, most companies simply refer to all days off as PTO. These are days you get paid for but do not work, excluding holidays. While some companies will give you a certain amount of PTO days, many accounting firms have begun a policy of unlimited PTO. This does not mean you can take the whole year off, but rather means that you are not limited to a certain number of days off.
Two important things to remember with PTO days are first, make sure you get it approved by a supervisor so that everyone knows you will be gone and second, TAKE YOUR PTO. Accounting, and especially public accounting, is a very deadline-driven, time-intensive career field. If you just worked four, 70-hour weeks leading up to April 15, take a week off and recuperate. It is very easy to burn yourself out if you don’t take your PTO days.
Other benefits: These include such things as tuition reimbursement/student loan forgiveness (pay for my schooling? Thanks!), Health Savings Account employer contributions (free money for medical costs), maternity/paternity leave (trust me, you need the time off), parking reimbursement (if you work in downtown Dallas, this adds up), profit sharing (if your company makes money, you get a bonus) and CPA bonus (varies by firm, generally only if you pass the exam within the first couple years of starting work). Although not all accounting jobs will offer all of these and some may not offer any of them, it is important that you make yourself aware of what they offer so you don’t miss out.
This summary should give you a head start on understanding and being aware of what benefits are out there. When choosing or starting a new job, benefits are an important part of the process.
A great 401k match can offset a lower salary, and expensive health insurance can make a higher salary less appealing. Benefits should not be the only thing you consider when choosing a job, but they should be a consideration. In addition, make sure you are aware of all of the benefits your company offers once you do start working. You never know what you might be leaving on the table if you don’t do your research!