Job Hunting: Higher Pay vs. Better Benefits

When looking for a job, people often focus on finding a job that pays the most salary. Unless the difference in pay is significant, more income does not always determine the best job offer. There are even some salaries without benefits offered to job hunters.

When choosing between a job with benefits versus high pay, it is essential to consider the entire package:?salary, medical and dental benefits, insurance coverage, and especially retirement plans under which an employee would be covered.

Key Takeaways

  • When choosing the right job, there are trade-offs between higher take-home pay and more significant fringe benefits.
  • Higher pay means improved cash flows and buying power for immediate purchases or investments.
  • Greater benefits, which may be challenging to put an exact dollar amount on, often provide a security net for a health event or during retirement.
  • Employer benefits differ significantly in terms of scope and generosity. Be careful to understand the pros and cons of each option.
  • Being able to work remotely is often considered a valuable benefit.

Healthcare Benefits

If it comes down to a job with benefits versus a job with no benefits, it is usually best to take the job with benefits, which millions of American workers have chosen. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation's 2022 Employer Health Benefits Survey, employer-sponsored insurance covers approximately 159 million people.

The cost? In 2022, the average annual premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance were $7,911 for single coverage and $22,463 for family coverage, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's 2022 Employer Health Benefits Survey.

These premiums are usually paid in full by the employer or treated as a shared cost between the employer and employee. In addition, not all healthcare benefits are the same. Premium plans may offer lower deductibles, no copays, or a wider network. Understand not only what proportion of healthcare your employer may cover but the quality of services offered.

Retirement Benefits

The retirement plan program is an integral part of your compensation package and could determine the lifestyle you can afford during your retirement years. Below are some choices you may face.

Higher Salary vs. Retirement Plan

An employer that does not offer a retirement plan might not be worth considering unless the salary being offered is such that it will allow you to comfortably add contributions to your nest egg on your own. These contributions should be comparable to those provided by other companies with a retirement plan.

If your employer offers a 401(k) plan, the IRS allows you to contribute up to $22,500 in 2023 and $23,000 in 2024. Besides the benefit of your retirement account being funded with pretax dollars, some employers offer matching contributions, matching the amount the employee contributes up to a certain percentage.

Any matching contributions, profit-sharing contributions, and the income tax you would save through salary deferral should be considered when comparing job offers. For example, consider that some companies offer a 50% on all contributions up to the IRS limit. In 2023, this may end up being an extra $11,250 (not considering catch-up contributions).

Defined-Contribution vs. Defined-Benefit Plan

If potential employer A offers a 401(k) plan and potential employer B offers a defined-benefit program, employer B is often the better choice. With a defined-benefit plan, your plan benefits are not affected by market performance. Instead, investment risks are borne by your employer, and unless your employer files for bankruptcy and cannot fund the plan, your pension is guaranteed.

Some may argue that, by nature, defined-benefit plans are risky given the probability of the employer being unable to fund the plan. However, these plans are protected by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

While your benefits may be reduced, you are guaranteed to receive a minimum percentage of your promised benefits. With a 401(k) plan, you accept responsibility for the investment risks and potential losses due to market fluctuations.

Guaranteed Contributions

Money-purchase pension plans and target-benefit plans include guaranteed contribution features. As such, the employer is mandated to contribute to the plan each year for as long as the plan is maintained or subject to stiff penalties.

Profit-sharing plans often include discretionary contribution features, which means the employer is not required to fund the plan each year. This makes the money-purchase and target-benefit plans more attractive than a profit-sharing plan. There are exceptions to this general rule, as an employer can include a mandatory contribution feature in its profit-sharing.

Salary Deferral

If both plans include a salary deferral feature, check to see if there is a cap on the amount that can be deferred other than the statutory limit. For instance, the employer may limit deferrals to 10% of compensation. If that is what you will be deferring anyway, it is not an issue, but if you want to defer more than that amount, the plan may be too restrictive for your retirement needs.

For employees, lower out-of-pocket expenses mean more disposable funds, and these can be added to your retirement nest egg.

Qualified Plan vs. an IRA-Based Plan

Qualified plans usually include distribution-restriction features that may force you to leave the funds untouched until you retire or change employers. This can be a good feature because it prevents the removal of funds from the nest egg for non-necessities.

IRA-based plans, such as SEP IRAs and SIMPLE IRAs, have no distribution restrictions, which means that withdrawals from the fund are allowed. However, there are early-withdrawal fees and taxes that will be assessed, with the amount determined by when a plan beneficiary withdraws money. A plan that has a loan option may be worth considering. Other features, such as contribution limits and creditor protection, should be considered if you need to choose between the two potential plans.

Suppose you are weighing two employers, and neither one offers a retirement program. In that case, you can consider looking elsewhere or determine whether the compensation package will allow you to fund your retirement accounts, such as traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, tax-deferred annuities, and other savings programs.

Cafeteria Plan Benefits

Choosing the employer with the better cafeteria plan benefits may mean fewer out-of-pocket expenses for medical and dental needs, as well as better insurance protection for your dependents. A cafeteria plan is an employee benefit plan that allows staff to choose from various pre-tax benefits. It is also referred to as a "flexible benefit plan" or Section 125 plan.

Cafeteria plans include benefits such as:

What Is the Difference Between Salary and Benefits?

A salary, also referred to as wages or compensation, are direct payments for work performed at a company. In addition to this pay, an employee may receive indirect payments for their work. These indirect payments are benefits, and they range from health care coverage to retirement plan perks.

Should I Take Higher Pay or Better Benefits?

The answer to this question will vary between every individual, but the primary thing to consider is the cashflow implications. With higher pay, you will have greater immediate purchasing power. On the other hand, better benefits may improve your lifestyle in ways that the additional purchasing power cannot compensate for. In the end, the main thing to consider is how important having more money in your paycheck is compared to other perks.

What If My Company Doesn't Offer Benefits?

Companies are not required to offer certain benefits. As long as your company is not breaking any employee requirement, not offering benefits is fine. However, employees need health insurance at the least, and you should factor in lost benefits (or benefits you could receive at another employer) as part of your potential compensation should you leave your company.

Can You Negotiate Benefits?

Yes, but there may be some benefits that are company-standard that can't be negotiated. For example, companies are often confined on their health insurance offerings and locked into a single, universal 401(k) match. On the other hand, in-office perks, benefits relating to transportation into work, or stipends for external spending can sometimes be negotiated.

The Bottom Line

Bear in mind that your total employment compensation is not limited to your salary. Consideration must be given to the benefits an employer offers.

If you want to get a good understanding of a potential employer's benefits package, ask for a copy of its summary plan description (SPD), which is usually provided to current or former employees and beneficiaries.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Kaiser Family Foundation. "Employer Health Benefits 2022 Annual Survey," Page 6.

  2. Internal Revenue Service. “401(k) Limit Increases to $23,000 for 2024, IRA Limit Rises to $7,000.”

  3. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). "Your Guaranteed Pension: Single-Employer Plans."

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "A Guide to Common Qualified Plan Requirements."

  5. Internal Revenue Service. "IRA FAQs."

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - Exceptions to Tax on Early Distributions."

  7. Internal Revenue Service. "FAQs for Government Entities Regarding Cafeteria Plans."

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