Great Employee Benefits You'll Actually Use

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What work benefits might you actually want to use and negotiate for? We asked the Oh My Dollar! community for the work benefits they actually used – and the ones that were just useless lip service. In this episode we covered:

  • creative life/work balance benefits
  • how what industry you’re in matters more than the company
  • why benefits effect turnover in industries
  • what creative perks you can negotiate for
  • why sometimes lower paying jobs can be worth the benefits

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Episode Transcript (provided by our Patrons and done by DSW Transcription)

**Lillian Karabaic:** [00:00:00] Welcome to Oh My Dollar!, a personal finance show with a dash of glitter. Dealing with money can be scary, and stressful, but here we give practical, friendly advice about money that helps you tackle the financial overwhelm. I’m your host, Lillian Karabaic.

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[00:00:47] This episode was underwritten by Patrons Tamsen G Association, Warrior Queen, and Chris Giddings. Welcome to our newest patrons that joined during the matching drive – Katherine S., Carrie M., and Sarah W.. To learn more, you can visit

[00:01:05] “Great benefits” is a phrase that we’ve all read on job listings, but I’ve learned that “great” and even “benefits” is kind of based on the industry, and the country. There’s the obvious benefits – sick and holiday time, retirement, and health care – but what other kinds of benefits, or what sort of creative versions of those benefits can you get at a job?

[00:01:28] I’ve had to leave many jobs that I loved because the organization was too small to provide health insurance coverage, and we didn’t have sick or personal time to take. In the end, no amount of caring about the mission of an organization or getting free craft supplies can compensate for the fact that an organization can’t afford to give you a paid week off or make sure you don’t go broke if you get sick (in the United States).

[00:01:51] I have better benefits right now, at a minimum-wage, part-time barista job, than I did as a program director at a local nonprofit. I’ve been really curious about how this varies by industry, as someone who’s mostly worked for either myself, or in nonprofits, which tends to not be known for their great benefits.

[00:02:13] I asked around on the Oh My Dollar! forums for what kind of unique and interesting benefits they’ve either had or heard of at other companies and how it factors into them actually staying at a job. I think one of the most interesting things about benefits is, other than salary, they make such a huge difference in employee retention.

[00:02:35] Obviously, there’s the corporate business-school kind of idea that if you have really great benefits, and employees stick around, it actually costs you less money, overall, because retraining new employees, and searching for new staff – if you’ve ever been engaged in a search process – it takes up a lot of time! It lowers productivity across the organization, and really, if you’ve got a lot of employees, it can really eat into budgets to constantly be retraining people, getting them up to productivity … So, benefits can make a huge difference.

[00:03:08] We looked at whether or not good benefits factored into Oh My Dollar!’s forumers’/folks’ decision to stay at a job. Kind of what we discovered is it largely came down to the industry. If good benefits were standard in the industry, it didn’t really keep people in a job because they could just hop to another job with interesting benefits. But if the benefits were significantly better than other industry jobs, or greatly increased their overall compensation relative to the industry (i.e. bonuses, pensions, things like government pensions), they could lead them to be retained.

[00:03:43] I think, when looking at this, FiFoFum, on the forums, made an excellent point about how different benefits affected their feelings about an organization. Said, “It was more important to me to look at what the benefits were trying to do and communicated about the organization’s values and how they treated employees.”

[00:04:02] For example, benefits that share profits and financial success with you – great. Benefits that communicate appreciation for your good performance – awesome! Benefits that give you a good quality of life, or work/life balance are great. Benefits that let you have control, or direct your own development and path are wonderful; and benefits that help you avoid being nickeled or dimed or having high out-of-pocket costs for the cost of doing business – like insurance, professional development, or even just high commute times – those are great.

[00:04:36] But on the other hand, benefits that are trying to give the appearance to others about the organizational culture (foosball, cucumber-infused water, yoga breaks) that no one really wants or uses – very different. Benefits that have become necessities because of poor work/life balance (feeding you dinners for staying at the office late; late-night home-cab benefits) those kind of things, if they’re based in the fact that there is zero work/life balance year round, and not just that there’s crunch, or that you don’t have a lot of control over your hours – maybe not so great.

[00:05:12] I thought these were really interesting, looking at the different way that benefits were structured. Looking, overall, at the different types of benefits that people said – and we had way more than I can possibly include in this show – I think I got over 50 responses on this thread … They kind of fell in a couple of categories.

[00:05:31] One of them was benefits that recognize that you have a family and improve things around that; transportation benefits; time-off benefits. This goes above and beyond the normal PTO – creative ways to implement it. Quality of life benefits, which is kind of a big category. Interestingly, food and beverage was such a large category, I had to break it out by itself. Then there were money related benefits, retirement benefits, health-related benefits, and professional development. Then the last category is just kind of fun or weird benefits that oftentimes were very unique to the organization that people worked at.

[00:06:11] Some of the interesting – kind of above and beyond standard practice – family benefits were maternity, or paternity leave being paid. In the United States, we are one of only two countries in the world that does not have paid maternity leave, which means it is up to your organization to provide it. But there were a lot of interesting ways that places implemented it. Most countries don’t mandate paternity leave or leave for coverage in the case of adopting a child, so it was interesting to see the different ways that people had implemented that.

[00:06:45] In the other category, there was also infertility treatment benefits. Actually, working as a corporate barista, the organization that I work for, even though it’s a minimum-wage job, provides up to 50k of infertility treatment. Infertility treatment isn’t covered by most health insurance, although some do. In a lot of countries, it isn’t covered on the national health care plan. So, infertility treatment can be really interesting. Some of these companies also covered just fertility treatment for same-sex couples that need coverage for procuring eggs, or surrogacy, those kinds of things.

[00:07:20] Some places had subsidized or just simply in-house childcare that you didn’t have to wait on a list for, if you were an employee. Free education for family members was one that came up, such as at a college, or at a private lower school for your kids. One I thought was interesting was back-up daycare benefits. They didn’t have an on-site daycare, but it was available for spot use when regular childcare falls through, as long as your kid is healthy; not like a sick kid getting everyone else sick.

[00:07:51] Full-time pay for a 32-hour week for a year for returning new parents. So, that means that you could have one day off a week, or have flex time, but still get paid your full 40-hour-a-week salary. Bereavement leave: emergency dependent-care plan, which is similar to the coverage for daycare, but instead, it will cover a sitter. or a caretaker for a child, or elderly parent, if your regular arrangements fall through. It’s limited use, so it kind of means, “Come to work, regardless, but rather we want to support you, so you can be here when it matters.”

[00:08:24] One forumer, who’s in France, which is known for having pretty good benefits across the field, for any industry, said a set amount of paid days off to take care of sick children, even if they just have a cold. You just need a note from the doctor. Also in France was gifts for your own children for Christmas, chosen by the parents. Flexible schedule was a big one in the category of family – either working four 10-hour days, an eight hour day with a longer lunch, or a shorter lunch so that you can get off earlier.

[00:08:59] In kind of the last category in the family, including fur family, was 25 to 70 percent off pet food. The forumer who said they got this worked at a small, holistic pet supply company, and two-third of their vendors opted into an employee-purchase plan, which gave employees 75 percent off their pet food. Still got a 25-percent discount on brands that didn’t opt in, which meant that while this forumer said they would not go back to working retail, it was amazing for them and their cats!

[00:09:32] The next category was transportation benefits. Company cars not just for people that need them at their job, including fuel and maintenance. Someone who worked at a gas station mentioned that they got free gas for working at the gas station. They actually said it was the best benefits they’ve ever had at any job. Transit and parking pass was a very common one – either free, or at the very least, available pre-tax, which meant you got a discount based on how much you pay on taxes. This is a thing that any employer should be able to set up at no cost to them – just so you know – this pre-tax transit pass. So, if this sounds really good to you, ask your employer if they can set it up. It’s actually a standard part of federal employee benefits that companies can give in the U.S..

[00:10:17] A lot of people mentioned bike-commuter benefits, which could include good and safe parking, shower available so that you can shower when you go to work, and sometimes, reimbursements for repair and maintenance. The local hospital here actually has a bike valet that will park your bike and watch it all day while you’re at work, so you don’t have to bring a lock, and you don’t have to worry about safety of your bike. I actually used to work at the bike valet … It also pays employees $1 a day to ride their bike because they have limited parking, so if they can, in any way, encourage people to ride their bike, it can help, overall, lower costs for them.

[00:10:17] Working in a bike shop, I also got the employee benefit allowing me to get a free overhaul each year on my bike, where the labor was just paid for by the organization. I was also able to order parts at wholesale cost. One forumer mentioned that a place they worked provided clean towels in the shower for bike commuters. It was handy, and also kept wet and smelly towels out of the office, which does sound good. Someone else mentioned a bike-to-work scheme, where you essentially can get a free or nice commuter bike if you stay at the company for two to three years after getting it. That’s a pretty cool benefit!

[00:11:35] A lot of things fell into the category of time off, a lot of people mentioned unlimited PTO, but quite a few people mentioned that unlimited PTO comes with the caveat that you need to actually be encouraged to take it. Some places had a minimum PTO policy, which is more common if you work in a field like accounting, because sometimes there’s a requirement that you take enough time off that they could find out if you were stealing money from the company, if you were in that kind of role. Some places, it was just encouraging people to actually take the paid time off they get, and unlimited PTO. One interesting benefit I saw about PTO was that the official policy was that if you worked four hours that counted as a full day, and you didn’t need to use PTO or vacation time.

[00:12:23] Quality of life benefits were a big one, too. A lot of people mentioned emergency ride home, which is, if you come by bike, or transit, then you can actually get a ride share, or a taxi paid for. Essentially, if you need an emergency ride, the company will cover it. Some people mentioned different work schedules. One I hadn’t heard of was a 9/80 schedule, which means that you work nine-hour days, and then you get an extra day off in every two-week period.

[00:12:52] There’s also a lot of interesting ones for people that work in the service industry. A big one was actually just knowing your schedule far in advance. I’ve worked in service jobs where you have an unpredictable schedule, you work swing shift, and you might not find out your schedule for the following week until Saturday, and the week would start on Sunday, which makes it really frustrating because you can’t book appointments for yourself. You don’t have any idea when your days off are, so it makes it hard to make plans.

[00:13:21] A lot of people that work service industry with variable schedules said a huge benefit was getting a month’s schedule in advance or being able to ask for a specific set day off each week so that they could always make appointments on Fridays and stuff like that. I thought that was interesting. Some people in service industry mentioned that even if they don’t get Saturday and Sunday off, being able to get two days off in a row – so, Wednesday/Thursday, or Thursday/Friday – that kind of consistency means you get a weekend, even though you don’t often get a real weekend in service industry.

[00:13:54] Big quality of life benefit, which is also kind of a transportation benefit, is remote-work capabilities. Someone who lives in the Bay Area said this was a serious benefit. Not only do they not have to commute in every day, in a place where commutes kind of suck, but it also makes travel way easier. Often, they can remotely work even when they are traveling somewhere for fun and not have to take PTO.

[00:14:17] Relocation assistance was listed on this, not just relocating for a job where they want to recruit you, but sometimes relocation assistance when you still work at the job, going as far as paying to have packers move up all your stuff, and ship, and unpack on the other side. Fitness memberships being covered was a big quality of life benefit. Someone else on the forums mentioned that they got time off during the day to go work out, so that you could actually extend your lunch and go to the gym. They got three hours a week that they could charge as administrative time; so they actually got paid to go work out either during their lunch or something like that during the workday.

[00:14:57] A bunch of people mentioned this cool benefit, which is that during the summer, they get half-day Fridays, which, to be fair, it’s so dark right now, I feel like I need to get off earlier in the winter, because it’s totally pitch black, if you get off work at 5:00 and then, it’s the dark times, and you just want to go inside, and hide, and not get anything else done. Is anyone else having this feeling right now? This is the feeling I’m having …

[00:15:21] Food and beverage was a huge category. Obviously, folks that worked for companies that did food and beverage got a lot of cool perks. One of them was free pint of ice cream a week at an ice cream company, free whiskey on International Whiskey Day at a tech company. Some people got free turkey, or you could opt into a veggie roast, or you could choose to donate the turkey during the holidays. Free coffee for home – I get that now. Working at a coffee shop, I can actually take a pound of coffee home a week.

[00:15:54] Really common in service industry is a shift meal or a drink; some places will let you even do alcohol after you clock out. Free coffee, and office snacks was a huge one. We’ve talked quite a bit on the show about what the different coffee setups are. Some places, you have to bring your own coffee; some, you have to pay into a coffee pool. But a big work benefit was free coffee, and office snacks. I worked a temp job where they had so many snacks, I pretty much didn’t have to plan for the office. There was enough snacks that actually fell into the category of breakfast food, quite a lot of people got to our normal office job early, and then would just, you know, make themselves a whole sandwich … Eggs, toast, everything that they wanted for the day. It really can reduce grocery costs quite a lot.

[00:16:43] Someone pointed out on the forums, “I was at a remote office, but at the main office, they’d have catered food brought in every day for lunch. This is something that’s really common in a lot of Bay Area companies, or companies in the tech industry. But since the remote office was way smaller, it wasn’t practical for them to get catered lunch every day. So, instead, the remote people were given $10 per diem per day to go spend on food, which was reimbursed on payroll. This worked out great in Portland because they were able to just walk across the street and get food carts every day and try out different interesting food.” Aaron mentioned that it was also great timing, too, because it was right after he had started to try to cut down his personal food-cart spending.

[00:17:24] In France, a common benefit is subsidized lunch coupons, which are ticket restaurants – very common – which can also be used to purchase groceries sometimes. Someone worked at a grocery store; said, in addition to getting 20 percent off at the grocery store – Oh, I miss that benefit! – they also could get coupons for free grocery items with more around the holidays. The cutest one is that you get a free cake on your birthday.

[00:17:48] In the next category, there was, outside of salary, different kinds of money related benefits. Most of these fall into the category of actual more money in your pocket, not just by reducing expenses, or something like that, but things like profit-sharing, technology allowance, which lets you get whatever technology you need for a home-office setup, or even for your setup in the office, where you can, instead of getting a standard issue, you can choose to get what you want. Performance-related bonuses. Some places had retention bonuses at 5, 10, 15, and 20 years. An international NGO has student loan repayment of about $5,000 a year, which can make a huge difference if you’re getting a lower NGO salary for new grads going into it.

[00:18:38] Then, one of the big ones, obviously, is retirement. Someone mentioned a kind of interesting behavioral-economics thing, which is just automatic 401(k) enrollment as a benefit. A lot of folks that are newer to the workforce might not be thinking about retirement, and the difference between having to choose to opt into your 401(k) by going down to HR, finding the person, filling out a form, choosing the amount, versus the you’re automatically enrolled at three percent of your salary, and we’ll match it kind of thing, or just a, “Oh, here’s a piece of paper. If you just write yes on it, that means you’ll get automatically enrolled.” That can end up being a big perk early in one’s career because it really does add up. Compound interest!

[00:19:23] Frecks on the forum said, “I am staying for the pension. Maybe that’s included in your main list, like health insurance, but for me, that’s the number-one thing. Do I want to teach until I’m 65? Not really. Do I want my full pension benefits? Yes, very much!” Another person on the forum said, “I stay for the pension, or I did until I vested this past Halloween. Now I’m staying for retiree health insurance. I have to work until I’m 60 for that. New hires can’t get that anymore.” And they also mentioned, hopefully, public service loan forgiveness, which is one of those things where you have to stay at a certain kind of employer to qualify for a public service loan forgiveness. Ugh … More on that. We don’t even know if it’s going to happen.

[00:20:04] The last categories were health-related benefits, which included organ-donation leave. If you donate bone marrow, or a kidney, something like that, getting time off to recover; trans healthcare coverage, above, and in addition to standard health insurance, since a lot of health insurance doesn’t cover it. Someone mentioned getting really great health insurance for expats when they worked for an international NGO at a very low personal contribution. This is kind of like standard health insurance, except as an expat, it can be a lot more complicated to get health insurance, especially if you’re an American expat. This was paying $100 a month for coverage for a four-person family with a very low deductible, and the employer was contributing over $1,000 a month for that. Someone mentioned getting free stop-smoking support for nicotine gum, patches, things like that.

[00:20:55] The next category is professional-development benefits. These really run the gamut. For some people, this was as much as getting a free college degree. At the place where I work, if you don’t have a bachelor’s degree yet, the company will entirely pay for your four-year degree. A lot of places had coverage for up to a certain amount per year towards getting a masters, or professional licensing, or continuing education, including taking courses, going to conferences, getting degrees.

[00:21:27] Some people mentioned something that kind of follows quality of life, but kind of falls into professional development – dry cleaning, and laundering. If you’re in a field like legal, where you need to have a court/corporate dress code, and you’re often working late, or traveling, having dry cleaning, and laundering handled is kind of an interesting employee perk.

[00:21:49] Someone who works in tech mentioned three times a year hackathons, and conferences that basically involve feeding all the engineering for two days, and letting them make or talk whatever they want, or think is interesting, including things that are unrelated to work. This is one of the well-known ones is that Google has a policy, year round, that employees can work on their own projects up to a certain percentage of their time, and a lot of Google products have actually come out of people just kind of hacking on what they want in that extra time.

[00:22:23] Quite a few people pointed out that they got either their employer would pay them for the volunteer time and sometimes, they actually, if they volunteered, the company would match their time and give a donation to a nonprofit that they volunteered with. I actually have that benefit at my coffee job.

[00:22:41] One Oh My Dollar! person pointed out that how professional development benefits are implemented makes a huge difference. There was a division in their company, where staff were really, really burnt out and had expressed that they didn’t have enough support. In addition to working a bunch of hours, the company tried to push professional development, and free grad school as something that they should do …. Also, because it’s paid for, it’s a thing that they have to do outside of work. So, it kind of not only adds the stress of, oh, there’s this expectation you’re going to take advantage of this professional development benefit, but you have to do it on top of already long hours that you’re working.

[00:23:23] I think the last category is the “fun” benefits, or things that often have to do with the type of industry that they get. One of them was a VIP pass to a local music venue. So, essentially, you could get guest-list access, and it was shared for all the staff, but if you wanted to go to a show, you could just get tickets for essentially any show at this venue.

[00:23:44] Someone mentioned a generous budget for morale activities with the team, and the office. They said, “We’re going on a team trip to Amsterdam next month and have sort of a team lunch office event most months. I think this is a really big one that keeps people working here, in my experience, and people seem to actually be friends with the people they work with, far more than the average.”

[00:24:04] I had a work benefit where I got to go on this huge week-long cycling event called Cycle Oregon each year. As a staff member, you were able to ride at least one day during it. You had to work during the event, as well, but you actually got like a really beautiful catered ride somewhere in Oregon. Because it was a bike organization, most people found that a pretty cool benefit.

[00:24:30] An Australian on the forum said, “Where I worked, we previously got crazy staff discounts. Some of the prices were 10 percent of what we wholesaled for. The downside was that they were all construction materials. So, you needed someone to turn them into something, and labor is expensive; and you also needed a construction project. I never needed to purchase anything that was covered.”

[00:24:49] Someone else said, “A friend of mine works for a company that, for many years, used to throw a legendary blow-out holiday party. I’m told some people keep working there for the party. They’ve toned it down in recent years, but people still talk about it.” I can’t imagine staying a whole year just for a holiday party, but it must be really epic.

[00:25:07] Company parties that are at a place can be kind of a great family benefit (summer party at an amusement park for you and your family; Christmas party). Someone mentioned that people with kids loved a free day – including food, drinks, rides, prizes – at the amusement park, and a lot of people were really upset when it stopped. Aelvie said, “New to me is a biweekly chair massage that you can sign up for, at $1 a minute, with a five-minute minimum.” Interesting …

[00:25:38] In the end, it seems evident that benefits and perks are largely a benefit of industry standards more than the individual company, and industries that tend to be more regulated or lacking in benefits or perks, great benefits at one company can make a huge difference in employee retention.

[00:25:53] Sunflower has had many jobs in an industry with perks, like sabbaticals; 10-percent 401(k) matches; commuter benefits; one-day remote work; free on-site gyms, and said, “Part of the reason this hasn’t kept me at a particular job is that I switch roles to companies with very similar benefits. So, it has become something of a baseline, but mostly the high pay that’s come with fancy jobs has given me the financial freedom to pursue things I actually want to do. It turns out I value career changes more than I value an on-site masseuse. I’m probably leaving my job soon without anything lined up, and my plan is to look for something at a very small company which presumably will not have any of these kind of perks.”

[00:26:32] I think something is really interesting about this is how much the industry influences. One Oh My Dollar! listener, who works for a small advocacy nonprofit that she cares passionately about, complained that her organization’s model was built upon a founder who has access to her partner’s health insurance, and good salary. The rest of the staff are struggling with no health insurance, and job posts count on people willing to work in the same conditions. She said that even though she loves the work, and mission – no other organization is doing this advocacy work – she’s still looking for another job because she can’t go another year without health insurance.

[00:27:10] Numerous people pointed out that, particularly in the nonprofit field, this lack of benefits is systemic. Even if an organization has the money for benefits for employees, many funders, including individuals, foundations, and government contracts, don’t want to fund “overhead,” which includes many employee salaries, and benefits. As a grant writer, I’ve written many grants where the line item for actual paid staff time to actually run the program turned out to be lower than the federal calculation for volunteer labor, which the government values at $25.43 per hour, currently.

[00:27:45] Not prioritizing benefits for staff either limits your pool of candidates to people that either don’t have another better option and, therefore, might leave when a job that values them more highly pops up, or who have the privilege to not care about benefits at all because they have a spouse, or a parent that covers them on health insurance, or they have the financial resources to not worry about that.

[00:28:07] I think it’s interesting to look at different employee benefits and look at the ways they vary based on industry. I think largely what we’ve learned is that it really does depend on what other companies are doing within the industry. If you work in an industry like small nonprofits, it’s quite typical to not have employee benefits. If you’re in kind of a lower service job, good employee benefits can keep you there, which is, theoretically, why corporations might choose to do that when their employees are more unskilled labor.

[00:28:44] It’s really interesting to look at this, and if you’re in the position of implementing benefits for your company, think about what the goal is for your employees. Do you want them to work longer, and harder? Well, there are some pretty obvious benefits in there – free dinner; having an on-site gym, or childcare; those kind of things. If you want to support them holistically, as people, you can look more at healthcare benefits, or family benefits, or professional development.

[00:29:12] I think it’s interesting to look at these different ones, and I’d love to hear if you have a cool work benefit that didn’t get mentioned here. You can always join the conversation on our forums, or you can write us your financial worries, or successes, or stories of great benefits at You can tweet us at @Anomalily, or @ohmydollar.

[00:29:33] Oh My Dollar! is recorded at the XRAY FM Studios in Portland, Oregon, and is syndicated through PRX. This episode was engineered by Tony Scholl. Our videographer is Chase Spross. Our intro music is by Aaron Parecki, and I am your host, and personal finance educator, Lillian Karabaic. Thank you for listening and til next time, remember to manage your money so it doesn’t manage you.