So now you've done it. After months of promising yourself you would see a financial planner soon, you've finally done it. You're sitting across from him at his mahogany desk in his plush, newly decorated office.
In preparation for plotting your individual wealth-building plan, he asks you how much life insurance you receive as part of your compensation at work. You don't know.
What kind of pension payments will you receive at retirement? How soon are you vested in the pension plan at work? You don't know. So you have to work up your courage again, this time to make an appointment with your personnel department where you work.
To save time, find out about your benefits before sitting down with a financial adviser or planner. Benefits can range from 35 to 40 percent of your financial compensation, so don't discount them, says Jerry Rosenbloom, professor of insurance at the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania.
''We ask that they bring in their employee benefits books and the (payment projection) printouts that some of the larger companies provide,'' says Charles Lefkowitz, president of Financial Blueprints Inc. His clients usually know what they have, but don't always know how to ''maximize those benefits,'' he adds, and that is where he can help.
What do you need to know?
* Life, health, and disability insurance: Take a copy of your spouse's insurance plan and find out if the two programs overlap.
* Pension plan: When is it vested? (When can you leave the company without losing the benefits?) Normally it will be vested in stages. For example, it could be 25 percent vested in 5 years of service, 50 percent in 10, and 100 percent in 15 years.
People usually find out about vesting after losing unvested benefits when they change jobs, says Judith Zabalaoui, president of Resource Management Inc., a financial planner in Metairie, La. Be aware of what you may be leaving behind, but don't stay in a bad place professionally just to retain unvested benefits, she advises.
* 401(k) plans, savings, or thrift plans: How much does your employer contribute to your plan (if a contribution is made)? This is a case in which an employee could overuse benefits. It might be better to deposit extra money over and above the employer-matched amount into an account yielding higher interest than the thift plan account, says Mr. Lefkowitz. Sometimes employees are given a choice of investment vehicles for these funds. Bring that information along, he tells his clients, so that he can help them decide which one to choose.
* Profit sharing: How much has accrued? How much is vested?
* Stock options: What kinds of options do you own? When do they expire?
It's easy to get this information - just ask your compnay personnel department. ''Most firms are making more attempts to communicate through benefit statements,'' says Mr. Rosenbloom. Ms. Zabalaoui agrees. The companies give their employees benefit information ''six ways from Sunday,'' she says. The problem is trying to figure out what it all means.
For example, your coverage may provide 80 percent payment of all major medical costs after a certain deductible amount. But many people have learned the hard way, she says, that this actually means 80 percent (after the deductible) of the ''allowable expense'' - a price allowed by the insurance company for each medical service - which may not be the same as the price set by the hospital.
''We start with the benefit program as the core'' of a plan to achieve financial security, says Ms. Zabalaoui. Then ''we build on that core.''
Her clients' goal is to be able to live entirely off their investment income, she adds. If the client should become unable to work before this goal is reached , insurance can substitute for investment income as a temporary safety net. The client should review insurance coverage every five years or so, paring it down as investment capital - and potential interest income - grows into its place.