It's good to count your fringe benefits -- while they're intact. Many don't know what they get; IRS would like to have a share

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If you have a job, you have a salary. If it's a full-time job, you also have, to varying degrees, a collection of fringe benefits that costs your employer about an additional 40 percent of your pay. Yet many workers do not know what that 40 percent contains, or how they can get at it. And that lack of knowledge may prove costly in coming years, if efforts to revise and ``simplify'' the income tax code result in some of these benefits being taxed. Until the tax laws are changed, people with a generous collection of fringe benefits should see if they can make greater use of them, putting more money into tax-free retirement savings accounts, for example.

It is also a good time for two-earner married couples to compare their fringe benefit packages and see if there are overlapping areas that one spouse could eliminate. The most common example of this, says Justin Heater, a financial planner in Cambridge, Mass., is medical insurance.

Employers often pay as much as 80 percent -- sometimes 100 percent -- of the premiums on group medical plans, Mr. Heater notes, so they will usually be happy to drop coverage for an individual whose spouse has a family plan that covers both of them.

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In a recently published book, ``Take Charge of Your Finances'' (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, $14.95), Mr. Heater discusses employee benefits, including those that are so commonplace they are no longer thought of as fringes, but as automatic ``rights'' to be provided by almost every employer.

These include lunch and coffee breaks, vacations, and holidays off. You may not think of these as fringes, but you can be sure your boss does, especially if you work in a company that has to hire a few extra people to cover your job during these times.

So far, no one has begun to talk about taxing these benefits. But people have started to discuss, at the least, indirectly taxing some of the other benefits, what Mr. Heater calls the ``meat of the matter,'' the insurance coverages and money-accumulation programs. Given the possibility that money put into retirement-savings programs may at a minimum be partially taxed, he recommends that people find out what is available to them and shovel in as much as they can afford.

``Get what you can before the party's over,'' he says. ``Use what's available to you when it's available to you, and always expect change.''

One retirement-savings program where Heater expects to see at least some change is the 401(k) salary reduction plan. These have been generally available for only a few years, but their advantages have already persuaded half the Fortune 500 companies to offer them to their employees. Between the pretax money a worker puts in and the employer's matching contribution, as much as 25 percent of salary, or $30,000, whichever is less, can be set aside every year. The interest it earns is tax-free until withdrawal.

While several proposals are being discussed to make these plans less painful to the tax collector, Heater believes the most likely change will be a reduction in the amount of pre-tax dollars that can be contributed, perhaps to 10 percent of salary.

Congress might also impose stiffer penalties for early withdrawals, place more restrictions on the ability to borrow from a 401(k), or eliminate 10-year forward averaging, a technique that eases the tax bite when money is taken out at retirement.

Because the constituency for the 401(k) has grown so large, Heater doubts Congress will be willing to eliminate the plans altogether or even limit them severely.

But another retirement-saving program would be improved under the Treasury Department's plan. The individual retirement account (IRA) now has a maximum annual contribution ceiling of $2,000 and $2,250 for married couples where there is only one wage earner. The proposal would raise the ceiling for individuals to $2,500 and an additional $2,000 for nonworking spouses. While many people open their own IRAs, some employers have set up payroll-deduction programs to make it easier to save, though the company does not add anything on its own.

Apart from any changes that might take place in the taxing of employee benefits, Heater recommends an inventory of your fringes. For example, do you know how long your salary will continue in the event of a long-term disability? At many companies, three to six months -- after you have been working there a year or so -- is normal. After that, there is often a gradual reduction in pay.

In the same vein, do you know how much group term life insurance you have through your employer? One to three times your annual salary is not uncommon.

Knowing about things like salary-continuation policies and life insurance can play a big part in decisions about how much additional coverage you buy. If you want disability insurance, for example, you may not have to buy as much as you would if your salary did not continue for a few months.

And you can make additional savings by purchasing less life insurance, if your employer is providing a substantial amount of your needs here. You can also throw away all those life insurance offers that come through the mail slot.

Some employers let you purchase additional life insurance, plus homeowner or auto insurance, at perhaps lower rates than you could get on your own. You may also be able to get this coverage through a credit union, if your company is part of one and you are a member.

If you would like a question considered for publication in this column, please send it to Moneywise, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115. No personal replies can be given by mail or phone. References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation by this newspaper.

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