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Retirement seems far away and that’s part of the reason why employees don’t opt into employee benefit programs, says Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Clear HR Consulting Inc. They don’t think ahead.

It's shortly after 9 p.m. on a Monday night and Jen Schneider, a 34-year-old dental hygienist in Walkerton, Ont., has finally got her kids to bed. Like any other parent with three children under 8, she's ready to hit the hay, too.

The last thing she has the energy and mental capacity for? Looking at her retirement portfolio or poring over her husband's employee benefit plan.

Luckily, Ms. Schneider opened a registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) when she was about 20, back when she had more time and disposable income. She now realizes how providential that decision would become.

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"If I didn't have that set up already, I wouldn't have time to even think about it. Life is so busy now," she says.

Like others in their 30s who are making some of life's biggest financial decisions – think career, marriage, purchasing a home and having kids – Ms. Schneider is trying to juggle expensive commitments and cash flow. Fortunately, her husband's employee benefit plan gives the family a substantial monetary break: a health plan that she uses at least three times a week to deal with chronic pain.

Canadians in their 30s could do worse than follow Ms. Schneider's lead when it comes to taking full advantage of their employee benefits. Pensions, employer matched retirement plans, wellness programs, life insurance and dental benefits can actually add 25 or 30 per cent in value to your base salary, says Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Clear HR Consulting Inc., in Vancouver, which helps small businesses create human resources policies.

Even so, many employees don't bother to sign up for these programs. One 2014 Sun Life Financial study showed that Canadians are missing out on as much as $3-billion in pension contributions by not taking full advantage of their defined contribution plans, in which some employers kick in 3 to 6 per cent of the employee's wage to match what the employee sets aside. Ms. Pau's own consulting work has uncovered similar results.

"You would think that people would jump at it, but for years we've seen that's not the case," Ms. Pau says. "It's kind of like free money. Why are you giving it up?"

This year, as the time approaches to update, re-enroll or redistribute employee benefits, consider some of the most common excuses for leaving money on the table – and ways to turn around that thinking.

Excuse #1

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I don't have the time

It's the ultimate Catch-22 for those in their 30s: Saving for retirement starts to take on new urgency, but sleepless nights, daycare dropoffs and long work hours take their toll. According to a recent Conference Board of Canada survey, 22 per cent of employees with children at home said they were tired every single day.

No wonder picking through an HR tome takes a back seat.

Part of the problem? Many companies that once offered no-brainer defined benefit pension plans are now switching over to defined contribution plans that place the onus on employees to pick and choose funds.

Ms. Pau says these more time-consuming, self-managing plans can hinder employee uptake.

"It requires that you have the time to sift through all the options. Which funds should I be contributing to? People don't necessarily have the time for that," she says.

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The fix

Not sure how to carve out time? Type a two-hour block into the calendar and hire a babysitter if you have to. It could be the best eight bucks an hour you'll ever spend.

Excuse #2

I don't have the interest

Sure, reading through an employee plan is about as exciting as watching a game of lawn bowling, but it can reveal surprising cost-savings that might come in handy some day.

For instance, some employers offer money for adoptions and IVF pregnancy treatments. Others give free marriage and divorce counselling through an employee assistance program. Not exactly chump change in either case.

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Ms. Pau says that part of the reason why employees don't opt into programs is because they don't think ahead. Retirement seems far away, they're not experiencing any health problems – and who's getting a divorce?

In Vancouver, however, with its sky-high housing prices, she says the one benefit younger employees are looking at does tend to be RRSP contributions. Not for retirement though. They want the funds to take advantage of the Home Buyers' Plan that allows them to withdraw money to pay for a first home.

"That's hitting a pain point they'll pay attention to," she says.

The fix

You don't have a crystal ball, but you can play the what-if game. What if your marriage doesn't work out? What if you decide later to ditch your couch potato ways and use the free gym membership? What if you have kids and need that life insurance and orthodontics? Flexible plans let you opt in and out of certain benefits, so check in on your plan every year. Be proactive. Think ahead.

Excuse #3

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I don't understand

According to Ms. Pau, one of the main reasons employees don't opt in to their benefits plan comes down to one thing: They just don't get it. Whether it's apathy on the part of the employee or poor employer communication, plans can seem indecipherable.

A couple of years ago, she asked a client's employees what they knew about their life insurance plan and disability insurance.

"We had some employees say, 'Oh, there's a benefits plan?' They didn't even know they had one," she says now.

The fix

Don't understand the difference between a terminal-earnings formula and a dollar-amount formula? Swallow your pride and ask HR. (And yep, when your employer offers to match 5 per cent of your salary no strings attached, they mean it. There's no conspiracy, as some HR professionals have heard over the years. The money really is yours.)

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Excuse #4

I don't have the money

As a long-time financial adviser in Vancouver, Rhonda Sherwood, not surprisingly, gets this one a lot. Clients in their 30s are trying to make ends meet by living with in-laws to save on mortgage costs and daycare, partnering with siblings to split a home or raising kids in tiny urban condos.

"Many in their 30s are worried they don't contribute to company pensions and so retirement will never be an option. They just don't have the money to save for it," she says.

But employer matching retirement savings programs or employee stock ownership plans are actually the perfect relief for those with only a little money to set aside for later. Even just socking away $25 a week – when matched by the employer – and earning 5-per-cent interest, snowballs to become worth $180,834 after 30 years. That's much better than going it alone.

The fix

Sit with an adviser and go through your benefits plan searching for ways to find the "free" money. Maybe you've been paying for a gym membership, glasses or therapy for your child, not realizing you're eligible for a break. Then use the found money and start saving.

As Ms. Schneider in Walkerton puts it, "Every dollar helps."

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