Most people would think twice about taking a job that offered poor employee benefits, but the reality is when bootstrapping a new venture or joining a start up, you may not have access to the same benefits offering that Corporate America affords. Don't get me wrong; leaving traditional Corporate America to found my own company was one of the best choices I've ever made in my life, bar none. However, as with most fantastic opportunities, there are costs. One of the most conspicuous was losing access to the cushy employee benefits offered by the large organizations I had previously worked with.

Although smart small businesses are researching creative ways to offer their employees solid benefit packages, most simply can't match the scale of those offered by large firms. So whether you are contemplating working for yourself, staying put at a larger firm, or seeking to ensure that you and your family are taken care of in the unfortunate case of a lay-off, I encourage you to immediately begin taking advantage of the employee benefits available to you!

If you're like most people, you glanced at the thick employee manual that your employer provided you when you first started, then stashed it on the bottom of your shelf, promising yourself that you'd look at it for real "later." Well later has arrived, folks! Dust it off and take the time to review it carefully—benefits range widely across employers. Even the thickest manuals typically have a note indicating that they are not comprehensive, so it's a good idea to write down any questions that it doesn't cover and then call the toll-free number and speak with someone who can help you with more specific questions. Of course I'm not suggesting that you use services that you don't need, but rather that you don't inadvertently become complacent and miss out on benefits that you need and that will enhance your life.

Below are some of the benefits that I find that people who leave big firms miss the most:

  • Heavily-Subsidized Health Benefits. While your co-pays are (hopefully!) relatively low, so take the time to schedule appointments for you and your family. Start with your general practitioner and dentist, and schedule with specialists as needed after that. Consider any "big-ticket" needs such as laser eye surgery, braces, or non-standard dental work. Take advantage of discounted gym memberships and commuting assistance. And while not offered as widely, don't forget that many companies have started covering more non-traditional benefits like acupuncture, chiropractic visits, and nutritional guidance. Finally, if you haven't already, look into how changes to federal healthcare laws may have changed your benefits.

  • Education. Whether you enroll in an undergraduate or graduate program, participate in a seminar that features Continuing Education Units, or attend conferences that help you maintain currency in your field. If your company is willing to pay for your education, go ahead and sign up! 

  • Sabbaticals. While not as widely offered, some companies offer employees with longer tenure paid sabbaticals. Whether you want to explore the African continent, go to cooking school, or participate in a language immersion program, wouldn't it be wonderful to take a break while still getting paid? Check out your options.

  • Savings Plans. Everyone knows that if your employee offers savings plans, you should contribute - especially if they have a matching program! So if you haven't yet signed up, make sure you do! It's best to save the maximum you can, but at a minimum, save enough to qualify for that employer match. It makes no sense to turn down free money.

Benefits are an essential part of any compensation package, and when we underutilize them, it's akin to throwing money out the window. So don't be wasteful. And if you're thinking of starting out on your own, or going to work at a start-up, well, it's probably wise to take advantage of whatever employee benefits are available while you have them!