How an After-Lunch Snooze Almost Cost Her Thousands of Dollars

Alamy As I sat through new-employee orientation at my first bona fide, grown-up job, I was certain death by boredom was imminent. I stared at the basket of snacks in the middle of the conference room table, wondering whether anyone would notice if I nabbed another cookie –– or 10. But when I looked around, I saw my more responsible new colleagues putting pens to papers and signing things.

I looked down at my mini-mountain of documents. Did I want retirement benefits? Umm… No. This brand new college grad wasn’t about to sacrifice a single cent of her paycheck, especially not to some suspect “retirement fund” that locked the money away until 2050. When the lady from HR came to collect my papers, I blurted, “I don’t want this retirement stuff,” or something equally eloquent. “It’s free,” she replied, and so I reluctantly signed.

Then came the speech about our health insurance options. After straining for a few minutes to interpret foreign words like “premium” and “deductible,” my brain shut down. I was covered under my husband’s health insurance, so whatever the presenter had to say didn’t matter to me. I stared at my seat-neighbor’s laptop screensaver as my eyes began to droop. Her puppy sure is cute. Or maybe that photo came with the computer. Either way, it’s a cute puppy. The next thing I knew, the room was emptying, and I gave myself a mental pat on the back for surviving one of the dullest days of my life.

Fast-forward four years to a more responsible, more financially literate me. Those retirement benefits I scoffed at? Thankfully, my husband, Johnny, was wise enough to ask about all those financial information packets that were flooding our mailbox. Now 3 percent of my pretax income automatically goes into a 403(b) — the equivalent of a 401(k) for people in public education and nonprofits — a contribution which is matched by my employer. Add that to the additional 3 percent they contribute just for kicks, and we’re talking thousands of dollars in free money!

And those medical insurance options I so didn’t need? Well, I’ve reversed my initial feelings on those as well. Johnny and I are now on my employer’s plan: Not only is the monthly premium less, but my deductible beats his, too. Once again, thousands saved. Cha-ching!

With open enrollment season in full swing, I welcome the opportunity to ensure I’m making the most of my benefits. Should I enroll in an FSA? Is it time to up my 403(b) contributions? How do I designate our new daughter as my secondary life insurance beneficiary instead of my little sister? (Sorry, Jill –– you can quit plotting our demise.)

So the next time you’re tempted to yawn your way through a benefits meeting, down another cup of coffee and look alive. The last thing you want to do is leave a bunch of cash on the table next to your puddle of drool.

Joanna and Johnny are the writing duo behind, a personal finance blog documenting the joys, pains and realities of living on a budget. Here are a few popular posts from their blog:

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