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Millennials think too narrowly about benefits, especially retirement contributions

By Janet Kidd Stewart/Tribune News Service • Jun 4, 2019 at 11:00 PM

Asked to name their highest priority benefits for a new job, more than half of millennials in a new survey ranked health insurance highly. Just 36 percent included a company retirement plan match in their top three.

This, despite the existence of a federal health insurance marketplace that guarantees coverage and offers subsidies for lower income workers.

While it’s understandable that young adults on limited budgets would value anything that helps them get ahead today — many of them are strapped with onerous student loan debt — it’s also an ominous sign for their long-term futures, said Gregory Anton, chairman of a financial literacy commission within the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA).

“A mentality of ‘I’ll start saving when I get a bit older’ often results in retirement savings being put on the back burner,” he said in announcing the survey. “Time is an asset, and those just starting their career are in a prime position to take advantage of it.”

The survey of adults between 18 and 34 years old identified a group of millennials who graduated within the last 24 months or will graduate within the next year and are looking for jobs. Nearly two-thirds of them had student loan debt, with an average debt load of $33,332. That’s a lot of dough, particularly for recent graduates, but at the averages it’s still manageable on most grads’ starting salaries.

Asked about a hypothetical $100 that their prospective employers would pay in benefits, respondents overwhelmingly valued employers paying off their student loans. They would assign $65 to student loan forgiveness and just $35 to a company 401(k) match.

Paid time off and working remotely also figured higher on the priority list than retirement funds, AICPA found.

To be sure, there is value in paying off loans. There even is value in alleviating some stress in the workplace by enhancing work flexibility and vacation time.

But what’s clearly overlooked is the value of compounded savings and what it can do for workers over the course of their careers.

Consider the old game of asking someone if they’d like $1 million, or 1 penny, doubled every day for a month. Doubling just a penny every day for 30 days, results in $5.3 million.

Of course, no one’s 401(k) doubles every day. But even a $500 investment, with $100 a month added over 35 years, will be $214,173, assuming an average return of 8 percent, according to this calculator at Investor.gov (https://www.investor.gov/additional-resources/free-financial-planning-tools/compound-interest-calculator).

So, how to think about the benefits being offered at different prospective employers?

—Start with the free retirement money. Assume you’ll at least contribute enough to qualify for the maximum company match. Does one employer match top out at a higher rate than the other? Score one point for that workplace. Ditto for student loan debt forgiveness, but be sure to consider the limits to the benefit. Say one employer kicks in a lot more than the other for retirement. The other offers a better debt forgiveness plan. If you’re drowning in student debt, you may be better off going with that employer, just don’t let it crowd retirement out completely.

—Consider health insurance alternatives. How valuable is that company-paid health insurance anyway? Ask for a schedule of available health plan options and their current costs, and compare it to what you’d pay for an individual plan on the federal marketplace. If there isn’t much difference, don’t make this a factor in choosing an employer. Instead, look at debt repayment and retirement plans.

—Finally, consider the important factors for your own situation. Survey respondents ranked “working remotely” much higher on the priority scale than having tuition reimbursement programs. If you know you’ll be heading back to school in the near term, score that employer higher.

The key is not necessarily to run to the employer with the most benefits, but to choose the place where the benefits suit you best.

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