January, 2019
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By In Do the Math, General Benefits Knowledge

What’s your metric?

I am a terrible runner. Seriously, people comment on the way I look when I run, like “Does it hurt to run like that? It looks really painful.” In fact, it sometimes is painful. Before I clued in to buying special shoes for overpronators, I would frequently return from a run to find that my socks were bloody at the ankles from my heels brushing into them.

Yet in spite of my clear lack of form, I have never sought professional instruction for running. I’ve usually just looked at other runners who pass me and try to emulate their style. I’ve made some gains and rarely shed any blood these days, but I’ve relegated myself to being a “slow runner” even at my fastest.

But this morning a small bell rang in my head and said, “Hey dummy, you’ve watched YouTube videos to help you fixed a clogged sink, repair drywall and make a tire swing for your kids. Why haven’t you watched one for your bad running?” I’m super-motivated by the guilt-trips my inner dialogue lays on me, so I searched for “running form correct technique” and came upon this video:

You could say that the video could be a few minutes shorter, but at under 10 minutes it provides great advice in a simple, easy-to-understand format. I watched it and then immediately set about my run, thinking about the fundamentals the video covered…and I cut more than 30 seconds per mile from my time! This was the first attempt at following very easy advice and it resulted in a roughly 5 percent improvement in performance.

That type of metric works for me because it’s easy to track. In about the time it takes me to run a mile, I was able to save what will be countless minutes (and better race results) of time spent flailing from head to toe.

The reason I’m talking about running on a blog about financial independence and benefits is because of another metric we hear and talk a lot about: how much time you spend learning about your benefits. Various studies have shown that the average American worker spends anywhere from 20 to 5 minutes researching the benefits they would like to elect each year. If their company is clued into this statistic and has a solid communication plan, they may be helping you make the most of that limited time. But chances are they are not, and you are not making the most of your benefits as a result.

So, here’s a question and a challenge: What is your metric for learning more about your benefits and what are you willing to do for that metric? Is it money? Quality of life? Time? Sense of achievement? If I told you that, regardless of what your employer does for you, that by spending one hour every open enrollment period researching your benefits could save you thousands of dollars and/or accelerate your FIRE goals, would you do it? Would you shave off that extra 30 seconds by simply paying more attention?

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By In Around the Web, Retirement, Student Loan Debt

Best (and Worst) Places to Pay Down Debt and/or Retire

Two studies came out last week, one by LendingTree on the best cities to pay down debt and one by WalletHub on the best and worst states to retire. I found the study on paying down debt particularly interesting for what it cites as the main indicator that you’re in a good place for working on becoming debt-free: the rent-to-income ratio in every city in the top 10 was less than 20 percent, meaning you’re paying less than 20 percent of your income toward your rent or mortgage on a monthly basis. Other cost-of-living factors also have an influence but since housing is the largest component of most budgets, it’s a no-brainer that what you pay to have a roof over your head will impact how much you can pay down student loan debt and pay up on your retirement savings.

How does this relate to the benefits you receive? Well, more companies are offering benefits in lieu of higher salaries. As such, when you look at your “total compensation” that a company is willing to pay you, pay close attention to the value of the benefits. Are they offering student loan paydown? What kind of 401(k) match do they give? If they’re offering you an HDHP, are they also giving you an HSA contribution and, if so, how much? All of these “benefits” amount to added income for you and should be figured into your budgeting and calculations of rent-to-income ratios, which could make even cities that didn’t make the list look even better — or could make cities that are on the list look worse if your income and benefits aren’t on par with cost of living.

On the flip side, this list focuses on cities. If you are able to work from home or otherwise telecommute, and you’re willing to live further from a city center or in the country altogether, you’re likely going to get your ratio way down, which will greatly boost your savings potential, which will in turn compound itself over time.

Regarding where to retire, again, your combination of income and benefits are important, but then you also add in factors like cost of health care, income tax, property tax, etc. All in all, there are some great places on the list where you can live…and there are some places that you may personally love but they’re not going to do you any favors in making your dollars or health go further in retirement.

One more thing to consider above all else: What makes you happy? I live in Charleston, which is not the most expensive city in the country but also not the one with the lowest rent-to-income ratio. But it’s a beautiful place and I love raising my family here, so I’ve done and will continue to do what makes the most of our place in the here and now and in the future. Love the place you choose and be sure you’re not giving away too much in the present for a greater future — but also know that the right sacrifices will lead you to your right path to happiness.

Here are links to the studies:

“10 Best Places to Pay Down Debt,” LendingTree.com

“Best States to Retire,” WalletHub

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By In Around the Web

The Three Stages of Money

For your weekend reading pleasure, here’s a post I love from our cofounder Shawn on how to think about money in your life journey. It’s posted on his great new personal blog, Platform for Good. Check it out!

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By In Health Financial Accounts, Health Insurance Utilization, Health Savings Accounts (HSAs)

What Expenses Can I Pay with My HSA?

While we at The Benefits of FI see great benefit, no pun intended, in treating your health savings account (HSA) like a second retirement account and not making any withdrawals until you’re in retirement — in the case of HSAs, that’s IRS-standard retirement age. But we know that there may be occasions that arise in which you need to use your HSA funds, or where it’s simply prudent to use those funds because they’ll help you pay more in a shorter period. One such example is the birth of a new child, which is a scenario I’ve spoken about before that originally got my family into an HSA.

Also, if you’re reading this just to get information about how to best manage your money and aren’t on the FIRE path, it’s valuable to know what does and does not qualify as an HSA-eligible expense.

Long story short, there are quite a few things for which you can pay with HSA funds — things like eyeglasses and breast pumps. There are more things that may qualify under special circumstances — things like massages if prescribed by a doctor for pain relief and a wig if due to hair loss from a medical condition or treatment (chemotherapy, for example). And, of course, there are plenty of things you cannot pay for with HSA funds, such as hair removal or hair replacement. Also, uh, veterinary services. Sorry, Fido.

Here is the full list and, for more information on each, here is Publication 502 from the IRS that goes into greater detail on qualifiers and regulations for use.

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By In Uncategorized

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'”

–Martin Luther King

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By In General Benefits Knowledge

‘Tidying Up’ Your Benefits

As it appears the rest of the free world is doing right now, I’m taking in episodes of Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up on Netflix. I hadn’t read the book, so her combination of Japanese precision and Buddhist respect for the contributions of all things has been fresh and energizing.

For those who aren’t familiar with Marie’s “KonMari Method” is a collection of organization techniques, combined with an Eastern spiritual mindset, intended to “spark joy” in people’s lives by helping them remove clutter from their living spaces, thereby removing excess from their lives.

As both a pragmatist and a cynic, my excitement for the Kondo’s methods are tempered with the reality of working and helping run a house with kids with other ideas of what sparks joy. In other words, I am down with the KonMari method, it’ll just probably be a phased rollout in this house.

All that organizing got me thinking about how the FIRE goals of financial freedom and early retirement are perfect bedfellows to KonMari’s mission. The idea is to train yourself to live as modestly as you can, and through that modest living you regain control (financial, physical, emotional) of your life, thereby making it easier for you to spark your own joy.

(Sidenote: I must admit that, as an optimistic cynic, typing “joy” is hard for me — “satisfaction” is much more my speed. But Marie’s spirit is pretty infectious, so I’m powering through it!)

That train of thought, in turn, got me thinking about what kind of the decluttering we can do with our benefits. There’s plenty, so here are some ideas.


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By In Do the Math, Health Insurance, Health Insurance Utilization, Money-Saving Tips

Should You Pay Cash for Medical Care?

In the “My Benefits ‘Intentions’ for 2019 and Beyond” post, I noted that it’s important to always ask the price for a service. The premise is pretty basic — we ask the price for pretty much everything else we want to buy, so why wouldn’t we ask the price and be able to see it before we have something done to us.

Of course, reality can be a relative term in healthcare. First, you’re not always in a position to shop around when it comes to your health. A recent article by Vox writer Sarah Kliff, who’s been tracking and reporting on outrageous emergency room bills for the past year, showed how the largest public hospital in San Francisco is “out of network” for ALL private insurance and the result is insured people getting bills for tens of thousands of dollars. Remember, this is the emergency room and, as one “victim” of a crazy bill noted, she was so overcome with the pain and confusion of her migraine that she didn’t have the capacity to ask where she was being sent for care and whether they were in-network for her insurance.

Second, and this is the nutso boondoggle of our system, prices are really, really hard to get straight because there are so many different negotiated rates that you might pay. There’s a different in-network and out-of-network rate for every different brand insurer and plan a provider accepts. There’s a Medicare rate, a Medicaid rate, and possibly many others.

The one (hopefully) consistent rate is straight-up cash. Depending on what kind of insurance you have and what kind of treatment(s) or service(s) you need, this might be your best bet.


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By In Around the Web, Pet Insurance, Voluntary Benefits

Is Pet Insurance Worth It?

See that photo up there? Those are my boys. I love them with all of my heart, as does the rest of the family. The one on the right (Louie) went to the vet just yesterday and my wife sent me this text message when they were finished: “He’s an expensive child.”

That’s the reality with pets. They may not be nearly as expensive as children in the long run — until somebody figures out a way to send pets off to college — but they’re members of the family and we want to make sure we can care for them as such.

An article from the “Your Money” section of the New York Times walks through the perceived value, or lack thereof, of getting pet insurance. Here’s the TL;DR: Pet insurance is probably not worth it in the same way it’s worth it for humans — except if you get a great deal through your employer. More on that below this list.

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By In General Benefits Knowledge, Uncategorized

My Benefits ‘Intentions’ for 2019 and Beyond

I got an email the other day from someone who referred to what we usually call “resolutions” as “intentions.” I like the change because, confession, I’m not much of a resolution guy. I like goals and do my best to make them both practical and aspirational. With resolutions, it feels more like something you’re told you should do every January 1st because it’s a new year and a new start. OK, great, but that implies that things didn’t go as planned in the previous year, which in turn implies that plans are finite. All of these are true for those who want it to be true. If that’s you, then congratulations on your 2018 goals and good luck in 2019!

For the rest of us, let’s go with “intentions.” It implies that you’re going to do it but not only that — it says that you’ve planned for it, you’re ready for it, it’s going to happen. You intend for it to happen, so it will happen. Go forth and conquer!

With that in mind, here are my three intentions related to benefits in 2019 and beyond, which have been my intentions for years already, through trial and error, consultation, experimentation, and good ol’ luck!

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