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The Simplest, Most Important ProfHack of All

If you get paid to be in academe–that is, if you are a member of the faculty (full or part-time, tenure-track or not), staff, or administration of a college or university,  or if you are a graduate student with a stipend or assistantship, then there is one thing you need to be doing regularly:

Open your paystub.  If you get an annual statement of benefits (years toward sabbatical, etc.), open it.  If you have retirement benefits and get a statement of accounts, open it.

It is amazing how often people in higher education–smart people–overlook this critical step. Last summer, at the AAUP summer institute, several people in conversation cited the example of people would call their union leadership . . . in order to discover their salary!

Your paycheck has lots of information, all of which is susceptible to error.  (For example: Pay. Withholding.  Leave balances.)  If someone inadvertently clicks the wrong button in a spreadsheet, all of a sudden it looks as though you have 4 years of credit toward longevity pay, rather than 7.  Did you get promoted this year?  Was your raise calculated accurately?   When you got a raise, if you got one, did you tweak the amount you divert into savings?

Here’s just one, totally trivial example: Technically, there are 26.1 biweekly payperiods in a calendar year.  This year, state employees in Connecticut are furloughed 3 days, and, for some unions, our HR is spreading out that temporary pay cut over the entire year.  Helpful!  But the calculation was based on the assumption that there are only 26 pay periods in a year, rather than 26.1.  Which is legit–but if you were expecting to to be based on the usual formula, then your paycheck might’ve been different.

Most of the time, everything’s fine.  But no system is foolproof, and the onus is on you to figure it out.

Another, not-so-trivial example: the shift from defined-benefit to defined-contribution retirement plans–in effect, the turn away from pensions to 401k, 403b, and other such plans–means that you assume all the risk, and need to pay attention to the statements that you get.  (For a terrifying provocative look at the implications of this shift, check out this page about Connecticut retirement plans.) Do representatives from your retirement plan come to campus?  Have you met with them . . . ever?

Academe is plagued by the notion that teaching is a vocation, and with a weird confusion that the “life of the mind” means “I shouldn’t bother myself about money.”  But it’s also probably your livelihood, or you would like it to be.  So it’s worth paying attention to the cash.

A tool that has been very handy for keeping track of your money is Mint.  It’s free, it’s automatic, and it offers reports that you don’t need to be an accountant to understand.  (They were recently acquired, so everyone’s hoping it remains useful and free and easy to use.)

Enough hectoring for 1 night.  Here’s a zombie chaser.

[Photo by flickr user pfala / CC licensed]

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