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Don’t close yourself off to open enrollment

Financial editor Jean Chatzky shares four smart tips on how to make the most of your benefits.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

It's that time of year when companies are (or soon will be) offering open enrollment, meaning you have a chance to look over your benefits and make sure they're still meeting your needs — while taking the smallest chunk possible out of your paycheck.I know: You're still coping with the end of summer, and I am, too. Readjusting to a new schedule that includes getting the kids on the bus and getting myself to back-to-school nights seems like enough to keep my plate overflowing. But you're doing your wallet an injustice if you let open enrollment pass you by. And, chances are, you might be.“We've done research that shows that less than half of people who get communications from their employer about open enrollment actually read them,” says Tom Billet, a senior consultant at Watson Wyatt. Big mistake. Because the menu of benefits gets longer (and more confusing) each year, it can be tempting to stick with what you know. But that's exactly why it's so important to evaluate your options at least once a year, which at many companies now include things like disability insurance, long-term care and flexible spending accounts. I'm not asking you to devote a ton of time to this. An hour. Two hours tops should be plenty of time to see how your current benefits stack up against the alternatives. With the handy cheat sheet below, you're already well on your way:Understand the cost
Between premiums, co-pays and prescription drug prices, it can be tough to figure out what you're actually paying for your health insurance. “What most folks do is just focus on what's coming out of their paycheck for health care, but you really need to think about what kind of health care user you are,” says Craig Johnson, a benefits expert at Mercer Consulting. If you're the type that visits the doctor once a year for a checkup, but toughs it out when cold and flu season hits, the costs of your premiums may mean more to you than your co-pay. But if you have an ongoing condition that requires many visits a year, you probably want to keep the cost of each trip as low as possible, and that's going to mean taking a bigger chunk out of your check each payday. “From a premium perspective, and that's what's coming out of your paycheck, an HMO and PPO would take more out and a health savings account would take less. In exchange for less coming out each pay period, there will be a higher cost each time you need a health care service,” explains Johnson. The other side of this, and something that many people forget to take into consideration, is your spending habits. If you tend to spend every penny of every paycheck, it might be wise to go with a higher premium. That way, the money is taken out in advance and if you have to visit the doctor unexpectedly, you know it will come at a set — and often low — cost. Consider a health savings accountHSAs work by linking an insurance policy with a high deductible to a savings account. Your premiums are lower each month, so you can put the money you save in the savings account, to be used for health care expenses. The best part? The money you don't withdraw grows and can be used for retirement. If you leave your job, your account goes with you.But HSAs aren't for everyone, particularly those who rack up a lot of health care expenses during the year. They often get touted to the young and healthy crowd. But Johnson says these accounts can also be beneficial if you're relatively wealthy, because the money goes into the account before taxes. “If you make an awful lot of money and it doesn't matter how much you pay at the time for care because you can afford it, it can be another tax shelter for you,” Johnson says.Take advantage of flexible spending accountsAlmost anyone can benefit from an FSA, yet most employees who are offered one don't take advantage. The accounts tend to scare people off because it's a use-it-or-lose-it situation: You have to spend the money within a year. But there are a ton of perks, especially if big expenses like braces for the kids are on the horizon. Because contributions to the account come out of your paycheck before taxes are taken out, you're essentially getting a discount of about a quarter to a third when you pay for the large-scale health services that your insurance company isn't likely to cover. You can use the money for the little things that add up fast, too, like over-the-counter medications. “If you're really concerned, do your best to estimate what you think your out-of-pocket health care expenses will be in the coming year. Then put half of that amount in the FSA,” advises Billet. Weigh new insurance optionsDisability and long-term-care insurance are being offered with more frequency now, but not everyone needs this kind of coverage. The window of people who need long-term-care insurance is pretty tight, in fact: If you're in your 50s and have assets between about $300,000 and $2 million, taking the coverage makes sense. Otherwise, you may want to pass, particularly because while you'll get a better rate through your company, most won't subsidize it.Disability, however, is a different story. “At just about every age level, the chances of you becoming disabled are about four times as high as the rate of death,” says Billet. Should that happen, you'll need to replace your income. It can be hard to get an individual disability policy, so take the coverage from your company. Lastly, don't be afraid to ask for help. Your human resources department or benefits administrator is used to working long hours during open enrollment, trust me.

With reporting by Arielle McGowen.

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at “Money” magazine and serves as AOL’s official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC’s “Today” show and is also a columnist for “Life” magazine. She is the author of four books, including “Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day” (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .