Taking full advantage of your employee benefits

By Sheryl Smolkin

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SHUTTERSTOCK

Everyone wants a raise and to make more money. One of the easiest ways to do that is to take advantage of your employee benefits. Here’s a checklist that can help you unlock the full potential of your workplace benefits.

  1. Maximize retirement savings
    Many employers match employee contributions to Saskatchewan Pension Plan, the company pension plan or Group RRSP by as much as 5 or 6 per cent of their employees’ salary. Over time it’s worth a bundle.
  2. Consider company stock
    Your company may have a payroll deduction plan that lets you buy shares at a discount. It is a taxable benefit and any decision to buy company stock should be part of your overall investment strategy. When Nortel failed, many employees who owned company shares lost both their jobs and a significant chunk of their nest eggs.
  3. Submit all medical bills
    Often your pharmacy and dentist will submit bills directly to your insurance company. However, other bills must be submitted by you. Check out your plan to see what’s eligible, keep the receipts and submit them. Even small amounts add up.
  4. Coordinate benefit plans
    If you and your spouse, or partner, have benefits make sure they are co-ordinated. Instead of getting a portion of your bills paid, you may be able to collect it all by using both. If a root canal costs $1,000 and your company only pays half, you have a lot to lose.
  5. Health Care Spending Account: Use it or lose it
    Health Spending Accounts are a popular way for employers to give employees benefits choice. The company provides a lump sum, say $500, which can be used to pay for things not fully covered by the basic medical plan. Check your benefits information to understand how your HSA works. Also make sure to read and act upon statements or emails advising you that your HSA balance will be forfeited if it is not used by a certain date.
  6. Monitor your maximums
    Make sure you know how much you can spend each year for dental work, physiotherapy, massage therapy, orthotics or glasses. Time your appointments and purchases accordingly.
  7. Maternity and parental leave top up
    Ottawa pays up to $501 a week for 50 weeks of parental leave, after a two-week waiting period. Many companies pay full salary for the waiting period and top up to 95 or 100 per cent of salary. To be eligible for the government and company benefits you have to accumulate at least 600 hours of insurable employment in the previous year or since you lasted collected benefits.
  8. Employee Assistance Plan
    Employee Assistance Plans offer a lot of value. They are available at no cost to you by telephone 24/7. Getting the help you need when you need it is priceless if it means you can function well enough to keep your job or hold your family together in a crisis.
  9. Tuition reimbursement
    Many companies will pay for tuition if the course is approved and you pass. If your employer is willing to fully or partially fund an Executive MBA, you’ve really hit the jackpot. The 2013/2014 fees for a distance MBA from Athabasca University can be up to $50,000.
  10. Get fit at work
    Take advantage of in-house gyms, sports teams and wellness challenges to get fit for free. Working out is also more affordable if your employer has negotiated a corporate rate at a fitness club and/or subsidizes fitness club memberships.
  11. Use up your vacation days
    Your company probably has restrictions on unused vacation that can be cashed out or carried over to the next year. Check the rules and use them up.
  12. Corporate travel
    Corporate travel can be more of a pain than a perk if it takes you away from home for long periods. However, business travelers rack up a huge number of airline points. Some companies allow employees to charge travel to personal credit cards and retain airline points for personal use. And airline points you earn on the job are not a taxable benefit. Also, if you are going somewhere interesting and your hotel room is paid for, you may be able to take your family along on a vacation for a fraction of the normal cost.

Do you have tips for employees to maximize their use of employee benefits? Share your tips with us at http://wp.me/P1YR2T-JR and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card. And remember to put a dollar in the retirement savings jar every time you use one of our money-saving ideas.

If you would like to send us other money saving ideas, here are the themes for the next three weeks:

06-Oct Seniors Colleges, universities offer free tuition for seniors
10-Oct Thanksgiving Paying it forward: Volunteer opportunities
17-Oct Halloween Cheap and cheerful costumes, snacks

Sept 23: Best from the blogosphere

By Sheryl Smolkin

blogospheregraphic

On Retire Happy, Jim Yih explains why the best retirement plan is to be debt free. Yet according to a new report from Equifax Canada, traditional “golden years” could be becoming rarer for older Canadian consumers as their debt loads rise.

Canadian consumers of all ages continued to increase their debt burden. Total debt rose by nearly $77 billion, or 6.1 per cent, compared with the same time last year. But consumers 65 and older had the greatest year-over-year increase, at 6.5 per cent, according to the credit-monitoring company.

Therefore, in this week’s Best from the Blogosphere, we focus on both how to avoid going into debt and ways to pay off your debt as you approach retirement.

In the blog A Disease Called Debt, an British couple write about how to stop wanting stuff you can’t afford.

Guest bloggers on Becoming Minimalist Gina and Josh Masters recently paid off $60,000 in debt. They offer 33 proven ways to reduce personal debt.  Another guest post from Vincent Nguyen of Self Stairway counters 10 common objections to minimalism.

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to eliminate debt. Determining how fast we can and should eliminate debt starts with a few simple steps discussed on mint.com.

Lee Anne Davies, a leading expert on demographic change shows businesses the value of understanding aging, retirement and money issues. She partners with Globe and Mail personal finance columnist Rob Carrick in the video Seniors in debt.

And on GetSmarterAboutMoney.ca, Laurie Campbell, Executive Director at the Credit Counselling Service of Toronto and Rob Carrick discuss how a credit counsellor can help you get out of serious debt.

Do you follow blogs with terrific ideas for saving money that haven’t been mentioned in our weekly “Best from the blogosphere. Share the information with us on http://wp.me/P1YR2T-JR and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

Saving money on kids extra-curricular activities

By Sheryl Smolkin

SHUTTERSTOCK
SHUTTERSTOCK

Hockey. Swimming lessons. Dance classes. Piano lessons. Just when you finish paying for back-to-school clothes and school supplies, it’s time to register your child for sports and arts activities. And depending on which activity or sport your child selects, your budget can take quite a hit.

In a November 30, 2012 article in the Globe and Mail, Roy McGregor reported that that the average hockey family spends $1,500 a year to be in the game.  He said, “Given the choice between outfitting a kid for soccer rather than hockey can be equal roughly to the choice between walking to the corner store and chartering a helicopter to pick up the milk.”

Too many or the wrong extra-curricular activities can also stress out both kids and parents. For example, parents who have fought a losing battle to get a disinterested child to practice the piano regularly may wonder whether they are getting value for the money spent on lessons.

Here are some of the things you can do to both save money on extra-curricular activities and minimize the wear and tear on your family:

  1. Activities selected:
    When you are selecting extra-curricular activities for your children, consider their interests and aptitudes. If your daughter has been kicking around a soccer ball from a young age or your son begs for dance classes, the choices are obvious. In other cases you may have to be more intuitive.
  2. Public/private:
    Most community centres offer swimming classes and a full range of other activities that are less expensive than programs offered by private vendors. However, registration for publically-supported programs is typically limited or may be by lottery. Find out what is available in your area, when registration opens and what the deadlines are.
  3. Number of activities:
    There is no magic number of extra-curricular activities for each child. This will depend on the amount of homework typically assigned, transportation issues and the energy levels of both children and parents. With our children, I decided that two per child was more than enough.
  4. Family schedule:
    Before you commit time and money to activities for your children, think about how they will integrate into the overall family schedule. If you have one car and each child has an activity at the same time at opposite ends of town, it’s not going to work. If your two children have after school or evening activities four or five days a week, there will be little if any time for relaxation and unstructured play.
  5. Location, location, location:
    The best of all possible worlds is when your child’s school offers activities like sports, the school play or band practices at the beginning or end of the school day. I also struck gold the year that my son had a piano teacher who made house calls! If the only gymnastics class that trains elite athletes is miles away, driving and car pools may be unavoidable. However, whenever possible, stick to activities that are close to home, particularly for young children.
  6. Saving on equipment
    For sports that require expensive gear like hockey or skiing, many communities have equipment exchanges. There are also stores like the Saskatoon Skate Exchange where used equipment in good condition is discounted. Long & McQuade, also in Saskatoon offers rental and rent-to-own programs for musical instruments.
  7.  Stick with it
    Make a deal with your children that if you sign them up for a program they have to stick with it for the semester or the year. Often classes that seem onerous or too difficult get easier in time and by the end of the series a child who was initially reluctant gets great satisfaction from mastering new skills. Also, they need to understand that your budget is finite and they can’t just drop an activity and expect to be registered in another one.
  8. Cut your losses
    In spite of all of your planning, sometimes it doesn’t work. If an inept program leader, unexpected homework loads or frequent colds and flu mean that you and your children simply can’t face the grind of extra-curricular activities, bite the bullet, give something up and see if you can get a portion of the fee reimbursed. It is not worth punishing the individual child or the family for one bad decision.

Do you have tips for parents about kid’s extra-curricular activities? Share your tips with us at http://wp.me/P1YR2T-JR and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card. And remember to put a dollar in the retirement savings jar every time you use one of our money-saving ideas.

If you would like to send us other money saving ideas, here are the themes for the next three weeks:

26-Sept Employee benefits Getting value for your employee benefits
06-Oct Seniors Colleges, universities offer free tuition for seniors
10-Oct Thanksgiving Paying it forward: Volunteer opportunities

Sept 16: Best from the blogosphere

By Sheryl Smolkin

blogospheregraphic

This week we share links to blogs about RESPs, insurance and applying for a first job.

If you are still paying off student loans and you don’t want your kids to be burdened with debt, you may be thinking about starting Registered Educational Savings Plans for them. On Retire Happy, Jim Yih discusses the RESP contribution and withdrawal rules.

As a result of flooding over the past several years Robb Engen says his home insurance bill is up by 30%.  In the end he decided to renew the policy as is and start budgeting more for house insurance premiums (and the deductible for possible claims) now and in the future.

In an archived blog, Gail Vaz-Oxlade explains why you shouldn’t buy mortgage insurance, flight accident insurance or accidental death insurance. Don’t forget to read the comments which are almost as interesting as the content.

Recruitment season can be very stressful for students in their final year. On BrighterLife.ca Christine Kang says applying for a first job is like going on a first date and give hints on how you can make a good first impression.

And when that long-awaited job offer comes, Andrew on $he Thinks I’m Cheap says it’s time to negotiate the best possible salary. That’s because a small increase can mean big money when you consider the benefits of compounding, pension contributions, bonuses and other benefits.

Do you follow blogs with terrific ideas for saving money that haven’t been mentioned in our weekly “Best from the blogosphere. Share the information with us on http://wp.me/P1YR2T-JR and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

Your kid’s allowance: Financial literacy 101

By Sheryl Smolkin

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SHUTTERSTOCK

As a card-carrying member of the sandwich generation, I can attest to the fact that financially literate children are one of the best investments you can make in a comfortable retirement.

If you are lucky, your kids will help to take care of you and your money when age or infirmity makes it difficult for you to manage on your own.

Yet an August 2013 ING survey revealed that although kids 11 to 14 generally rate Mom and Dad as good financial role models, many want their parents to better educate them about the following financial issues:

  • 38%: How bank and credit cards work
  • 36%: What things cost and why
  • 27%: How to save their money
  • 26%: How to manage their money.

Exactly what you need to teach kids about money depends on the ages of the children. The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada offers the following suggestions on what financial lessons are appropriate for different age groups:

Ages 4 to 8:

  • Understand that people have a limited amount of money to spend.
  • Use money to buy basic goods and services for simple transactions.
  • Divide allowances or other money received among the financial goals of saving, spending and sharing.
  • Understand that there are choices when it comes to money, and that money spent on one thing means that there is less money available for something else.

Ages 9 to 14:

  • Recognize the difference between needs and wants.
  • Understand the importance of saving a portion (for example, 10%) of all money received and the value of an emergency fund.
  • Create a savings plan for short-term and long-term financial goals.
  • Identify regular family financial commitments and know that families use household income to meet those commitments.
  • Create a simple budget for an activity or event.

Ages 15 to 18:

  • Understand the pros and cons of different payment options such as cash, debit cards and credit cards.
  • Understand different kinds of investments (GICs, stocks, bonds and mutual funds).
  • Understand the time-value of money (for example, past, present and future worth of money) and opportunity costs.
  • Understand the concept of “living within your means” and why it is important.

I think much of what my offspring learned about budgeting and saving came through osmosis and the school of hard knocks. But my husband and I did one thing that helped our children understand the value of a dollar at a young age.

Paying them weekly allowances was a real nuisance because I never had the right change. It was also very tempting to withhold the money for minor misdemeanours which did little to promote family harmony.

So we started giving them monthly cheques instead. We opened accounts for them at the Royal Bank because they had a low-fee ATM in the convenience store at the end of our street. The kids also got their own bank cards so they could easily make deposits and withdrawals.

The deal was that they had to pay with their own money for specific things like movies, school lunches and bus fare (in the case of my daughter who was older).

I knew it was working the day my son – who was 10 or 11 at the time – missed the school bus for the second or third time. Instead of expecting me or his Dad to bail him out, he called a taxi and had the driver stop by the ATM on the way so he could take out enough money to pay the fare.

I can’t remember if he gave the driver a tip, I guess that was a story for another day.

Do you have tips for parents about kids’ allowances?  Share your tips with us at http://wp.me/P1YR2T-JR and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card. And remember to put a dollar in the retirement savings jar every time you use one of our money-saving ideas.

If you would like to send us other money saving ideas, here are the themes for the next three weeks:

19-Sept Extracurricular activities How many and how much?
26-Sept Employee benefits Getting value for your employee benefits
06-Oct Seniors Colleges, universities offer free tuition for seniors

Sept 9: Best from the blogosphere

By Sheryl Smolkin

blogospheregraphic

Most of us are aware that saving for retirement is a must even if our savings currently fall short of what we will need. But many people have not thought much about estate planning and don’t even have a will. So this week we focus on blogs and websites that will help you and your family with end-of-life planning.

Secrets to writing a will is an article in Canadian Living that draws on the expertise of Janet Sim, past chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s National Wills, Estates and Trusts Section.

The Investor Education Fund’s blog GetSmarterAboutMoney.ca has a section on death and dying with links to blogs about a variety of related topics such as wills, reducing your estate costs and what happens to your life insurance when you die.

Acting as an executor can be very challenging. On retirehappy.ca Jim Yih provides a helpful checklist for executors.

Estate Law Canada is a valuable collection of blogs by Newfoundland lawyer and author Lynne Butler. Her most recent blog discusses what happens to the share of someone who dies before receiving her inheritance.

Widowed.ca is a free online resource for widows, widowers and their families, providing an easy way to locate a wide variety of information and services needed after the loss of a loved one. Check out the Q and As and Janet Baccarani and Jennifer Black’s book Managing Alone.

Do you follow blogs with terrific ideas for saving money that haven’t been mentioned in our weekly “Best from the blogosphere. Share the information with us on http://wp.me/P1YR2T-JR and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

Insurance college students need

By Sheryl Smolkin

SHUTTERSTOCK
SHUTTERSTOCK

When you are budgeting for your child’s college or university education, tuition, books, accommodation and food are at the top of the list. But don’t forget to consider whether or not your child will require individual health, home or automobile insurance once he/she comes from or is moving to a different city, province or country.

Health Insurance:

The Government of Saskatchewan’s Health Plan provides basic hospital and medical health coverage to residents of Saskatchewan at no charge. If an international student arrives directly from his/her home country, coverage starts on the day of arrival.

The student must have a valid study permit, proof of registered, full time status and a Saskatchewan resident address. A spouse or dependant living with the student at a Saskatchewan residence with immigration documents allowing a stay longer than six months is also eligible for coverage.

Generally students who go to school in another province but intend to return to their home province to live after graduation continue to be covered by the provincial medicare plan of their home province.

However, a student from another Canadian province who becomes a resident in Saskatchewan will be eligible for Saskatchewan Health coverage three months after setting up a residence in the province. Similar eligibility requirements apply for students moving from Saskatchewan to other Canadian provinces.

If the health plan of the province a student is leaving does not cover health cost during this three month period, he/she should have private health insurance.

Students will also require supplemental health care insurance that covers medical, dental and drug expenses not covered under the provincial medical plan. Children under 21 can be claimed as dependants under a parent’s employer-sponsored group benefits plan.

A full-time student attending an educational institution recognized under the Income Tax Act (Canada) is also considered an eligible dependent under an employer-sponsored group benefits plan until the age of 25, as long as he/she is entirely dependent on the parent for financial support.

Colleges and universities typically have group health insurance for students with the premium included in the tuition fee. It may be possible to opt-out with proof of other coverage. In cases where your child is covered under both your employer’s plan and the university’s student health and dental plan, the university plan is the first payer.

Auto insurance:

If a student with a car moves from Saskatchewan to another province or vice versa, it is important to follow the proper guidelines to fulfill the licensing and vehicle requirements of the province and ensure insurance coverage continues without interruption.

The Kanetix website has a handy cheat sheet which includes the government ministries, agencies or departments you should contact to ensure you know the applcable licensing and vehicle registration rules.

First of all, students should notify their current insurance supplier that they intend to take a car to another province to attend school. Policies and rules vary by company so they should speak with their licensed representative before leaving to avoid any lapses in coverage.

Students can learn more about the requirements of the province where they will be attending school at the links below.
British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, OntarioQuebecNewfoundland & Labrador, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island 

Home insurance:

An August 2012 TD Insurance poll found half of Canadian renters under 35 do not have tenants’ insurance. In a press release announcing the results of the poll, Dave Minor, Vice President, TD Insurance sets the record straight for renters by debunking the five most common renter’s insurance myths:

Myth #1: If something happens, it will be covered by the landlord’s policy

Nearly one-third of Canadian renters under 35 (32%) incorrectly believe they are covered under their landlord’s insurance policy. But Minor says your landlord’s insurance likely only covers the building you live in and not your personal possessions or your liability for accidents.

Myth #2: My roommate has insurance, so I should be covered too since we live together

“Generally, renter’s insurance does not cover your roommate and instead only covers your own personal belongings,” says Minor. But if roommates are considering purchasing joint insurance, they should discuss how they will pay for the policy and have a clear understanding of what each roommate’s valuables are worth.

Myth #3: The chances of something actually happening are so small it’s not worth the cost

Accidents can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere, and the financial impact can be significant. A number of common incidents and simple mistakes that are generally covered under renter’s insurance, including:

  • A break-in.
  • A party where there is accidental damage to a neighbour’s property or a neighbour’s property.
  • A pipe freezes and breaks.

Myth #4: Renter’s insurance isn’t affordable

Renter’s insurance can be very affordable, and there are several ways to save. Purchasing auto and renter’s insurance with the same insurance provider, or through a student association can often yield discounts.

Myth #5: I’m covered under my parents’ insurance policy

Students may be covered by their parents’ policy if they live away from home while at school, but this coverage can be limited. Speak with your insurance provider to find out what coverage your child will need. Renter’s insurance is inexpensive and you may decide that it is best if your kids have their own policy.

Do you have tips for college or university students about insurance they may need once they move out?  Share your tips with us at http://wp.me/P1YR2T-JR and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card. And remember to put a dollar in the retirement savings jar every time you use one of our money-saving ideas.

If you would like to send us other money saving ideas, here are the themes for the next three weeks:

12-Sept Kid’s allowance How much and what your children have to do to get an allowance?
19-Sept Extracurricular activities How many and how much?
26-Sept Employee benefits Getting value for your employee benefits