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Get ready for the ‘life planning account’ — a corporate extra for the rest of us

Graduates at commencement at Yale University in 2013. As more companies offer cushy benefits like paying for student loans or lengthy parental leaves, some are weighing "life planning accounts" in response. (Jessica Hill/AP Photo)

Like many things in America these days, the story of employee benefits has become a story of the haves and have nots. On the one side are workers -- particularly young ones -- at Silicon Valley tech companies and Wall Street banks who've been showered with a creative parade of new perks: Longer parental leaves for moms and dads. Student loan reimbursements. Housing assistance. In one case, even money to pay for their weddings.

But most companies aren't Facebook, which pays $4,000 in "baby cash" for new parents (on top of four months of paid leave) or KKR, which will pay for new parents' nannies to fly with them on business travel. They can't afford to offer such niceties to all employees without cutting into traditional benefits like health care or retirement plans -- yet they still want to compete for the best talent by touting desirable extras.

"A lot of [companies] say gosh, that's Silicon Valley, they can do things we can't," says Craig Dolezal, a senior vice president at the human resources consultancy Aon Hewitt. "And that's true in many cases."

[The newest benefit for working moms]

As a result, Dolezal is seeing increasing interest from clients in a new type of benefit he calls a "life planning account" that's a way of responding to these proliferating cushy perks. Employers would fund these taxable accounts with cash that workers could use to spend on approved expenses, such as student loan payments, home closing costs, a child's college savings -- or even the cost of pricey gym options like CrossFit if the corporate discount at L.A. Fitness isn't luxe enough.

None of his clients is actively planning to offer them in this year's open enrollment cycle -- which is under way for 2017 -- Dolezal sees plenty of interest for the following year.

"I can tell you I’m working with probably a dozen organizations that are actively considering some kind of life planning account strategy" for 2018, he says, noting that clients who've been weighing them so far say they'd fund them with $500 to $2,500 a year. Dolezal says some of the delay is due to companies wanting to offer the benefit over a technology platform that's not yet ready.

The concept, which would prohibit employees from using it toward certain expenses that are subject to tax or legal issues, such as health care premiums or 401(k) contributions, would seem to offer several advantages for employers. Again, many companies simply don't have the budget to offer all of these new benefits to all employees; by offering an account where they can pick and choose the expense that fits their needs, employers can seem generous without having to offer a full array of perks to everyone or budget for benefits not everyone can use.

[Why the buffet of employee benefits has exploded over the past 20 years]

It also comes at a time when millennials, in particular, increasingly expect extra perquisites from employers, and when the array of benefits on offer has seen explosive growth. This year, the Society for Human Resource Management surveyed its members on 350 benefits; ten years ago, it asked about 219, and 20 years ago, just 60. "The opportunity to differentiate on traditional benefits isn’t gone, but it’s been sufficiently reduced," Dolezal says.

Meanwhile, some companies have been reticent to offer a benefit like student loan reimbursement -- which has been added at companies like Fidelity and Pricewaterhouse Coopers over the past year -- because they're worried about potential generational backlash. They think "it feels like that’s an allocation of our company dollars to a very specific slice of our workforce," Dolezal says.

Of course, many will probably wonder why companies would go to all the trouble, rather than just paying out the additional cash as a bonus. For now, Dolezal says, companies are interested in promoting what they're doing for workers -- touting the "benefit of the benefit" he says -- though over time they could free up how employees spend the accounts. "If it's a bonus, employers can’t take advantage of the marketing of it."

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