Last year, on the Friday before Labor Day weekend, my fiancé Brendan asked if I wanted to hear something funny. He pointed to the area above his left lip and said that it felt numb. While it looked and felt no different to me, he said when my hand touched the left side of his face, it felt cold. While this was strange, we both thought it would go away in a day or two, so we continued our plans to head out of town for the long weekend.
That Monday evening as we were unpacking our bags and getting ready to return to work, he said his face still felt numb. We reached out to a friend who is a doctor and although he believed it was not serious, he suggested getting it checked out the next day. While Brendan would have been OK waiting a few more days, I insisted he follow our friend's suggestion.
The next day he explained his symptoms to a doctor in urgent care, and was told it was likely Lyme disease, but to confirm they wanted him to get an MRI. Brendan and I were sitting side by side in a hospital room, both of us working on our laptops, when the doctor entered to deliver the results. It wasn't Lyme disease. They had found 2 lesions on his brain—indicating he had muscular sclerosis.
To say this was a shock would be an understatement. Brendan was 29 years old and by all other indications, he was healthy and fit. He had run 7 Boston Marathons to date and had already qualified for the next. He spent most of Labor Day weekend throwing a football around on the beach. And now we were being told that he had a non-curable disease that disrupts the communication between the brain and the body. Over the next month, he had countless doctor appointments—MRIs, spinal taps—and received the medication that he would have to administer for the rest of his life.
It was hard to believe the events that unfolded in the span of 30 days. Obviously, we were shocked by his diagnosis, and on top of that, navigating a complicated health care event was a challenge we simply didn't expect to face at our age. But I realized something very important: Never underestimate the importance of employer benefits.
As a part of my job, I spend much of my time and energy encouraging young adults to engage more in their finances. I love it, mainly because understanding our finances gives us all a better foundation and empowers us to live the lives we envision. When speaking to college students, I talk about how to evaluate a job offer because this is often the first major money decision they have to make as adults in the real world. I spend a lot of time stressing the importance of understanding all the financial considerations that go with a new job, beyond salary. For instance, the financial impact that benefits such as health insurance, a 401(k) retirement savings plan, and profit sharing, have on the total financial package. Despite these discussions, it was Brendan's diagnosis that helped bring these lessons to life for me.
Brendan is lucky enough to have a job that has tremendous benefits beyond his salary. One of the most valuable parts of a strong benefits package is health insurance. While health insurance may not be the most exciting benefit when there are so many perks you hear about these days (hello—bring your dog to the office! Fitness classes in the office!), a catastrophic health problem can be a financial burden even on high earners. In fact, unpaid medical bills are consistently a leading cause of bankruptcies in this country.* Because of his health insurance, Brendan has the peace of mind that a trip to the emergency room wouldn't clean out his bank account. Having a strong benefits package is also a sign that your employer cares about the overall wellbeing of its employees.
Brendan and I work for the same company, Fidelity Investments, which also offers its employees a Health Savings Account (HSA). As the name suggests, an HSA is a savings account that can be used for qualified health care expenses—both for immediate needs not covered by your insurance, but also for saving for longer-term medical expenses in retirement. So it's a great benefit to consider if your employer offers it, as it allows you to maximize your health care dollars. To open an HSA, you must be enrolled in your employer's high-deductible health care plan. The money you contribute to your HSA is usually deducted from your paycheck, so you can set aside pretax dollars through payroll deductions.
In Brendan's case, he was able to use the money he had in his HSA for the out-of-pocket expenses insurance didn't cover. And they add up! Because he didn't have to use all the money in his HSA, he was able to continue to invest the remainder until he needs to use the account again.
This experience underscored the important point I try to make with college students: A job is more than the salary. Brendan will live with this disease for the rest of his life, and understanding his health care and insurance options will continue to be an important part of our overall financial picture. For now, knowing he has health insurance goes a long way in offering us both peace of mind, so that we can continue to do the things in our lives that we enjoy: Going away for long weekends, spending time with friends and family, and training for the next marathon.