They can be difficult to understand, but it’s important to optimize your employee benefits. Negotiating your contract and benefits can pay off…literally!

I never thought reading the fine print of a contract would save me $20,000.

Let me back up here. I worked at an international school filled with expat students and the staff wasn’t well compensated compared to other schools in the area. The pay wasn’t bad, but it was the employee benefits that was the problem. Nobody ever bothered to negotiate or make sure their contract was fully enforced. They just assumed the business owner would shoot down their requests.

If you’ve ever worked in China, you probably know that an employer is legally obligated to provide health insurance. Instead, the owners at my school did no such thing. When I first got hired, I wasn’t too worried about this as my health was great and going to the doctors in China is pretty cheap. A few times I got really sick and only paid less than $30, including medications.

Then my husband and I found out I was pregnant. All of a sudden, we went from random $30 doctor’s visits to what would eventually cost us $20,000.

Luckily, I wasn’t afraid of standing up to my boss. In the end, I got my entire prenatal, birth, and postnatal bills covered.

You may have a great employer, but learning good communication and due diligence skills will help you maximize your pay and benefits. Along with strong negotiation techniques, these skills will also help you as you transition to new jobs, careers, or even if you’re getting a promotion at your current job. Here’s what I learned on my mission to make sure my $20,000 worth of health care bills were covered:

Read Every Single Word

Yes, it’s pretty common sense, isn’t it? But I’ve been guilty so many times of not reading a contract properly before signing on the dotted line, especially ones that involve investments. Even though I did read the one for my last employer, there were parts of it I forgot. We’re humans; it happens to the best of us.

Before even thinking about approaching my employer about health coverage, I went through my contract with a fine tooth comb. This is so I could show him that I did my research and had talking points when it came time to talk about paying for medical expenses.

I was so thankful I did this because near the end of the document, it literally said “the employer would pay for 100% of healthcare costs.” Since there was also a part of it written in Chinese, I had a trusted friend look over it to see if it also said it in Chinese (which it did).

If I’d never read it, I wouldn’t have had a strong argument on my side. I urge you to read your contract again and again to help you with your negotiations, and to make sure you get what’s yours.

Talk to a Trusted Mentor

I was pretty nervous going to the school’s owner about forking over $20,000. Before I did, I went to the principal of the school to talk about the whole situation. I trusted her and knew she would be able to offer objective advice to help my cause.

And that she did. Not only did she support me in asking for that money, she pushed me to negotiate for paid time off after I gave birth (that wasn’t included). We chatted about how I would approach that situation and how to ensure the owner would actually listen to what I had to say. Perhaps most importantly, she gave me the confidence to stand up for what was rightfully mine.

If you have a trusted coworker, boss, or friend, ask them to help you prepare. They could practice negotiating with you, lend your documents a second pair of eyes, or offer you a different perspective you may have never thought about otherwise.

I’m so thankful I had such a great resource to help guide me throughout this painful process.

Be Prepared to Meet Resistance

I knew the owner was cheap so I was prepared for a bit of backlash when I went to speak to him. After all, if he was willing to break the law and not provide health insurance, how could I expect him to readily agree to my demands?

When I met with him, I brought the original contract and various medical bills to show how much being pregnant would cost. I’m glad I spoke with the principal because he flat out refused. Then and there I whipped out the documents and pointed to the exact line where it said he had to pay 100% of all my medical costs.

While he scanned the Chinese portion of the documents, I talked about taking time off. I knew that local female employees are legally entitled to three months off, but I told him I’d be willing to take 6 weeks. I also mentioned that I could report him about not giving us health insurance and perhaps it was actually cheaper for him long term if he did that instead of paying for medical expenses as they came up.

I breathed a sigh of relief as he agreed to everything I asked. I was so thankful I could just focus on my pregnancy, giving birth, and resting for six weeks with my beautiful baby boy.

The next school year, we all got medical insurance.

While I didn’t love the whole process (hopefully not all will be like this one), I am thankful I stood my ground and asked for what was rightfully mine. Tough conversations and negotiations may feel icky, but it’s all about showcasing your value and working with someone so that you both win. Yes, the owner wasn’t the greatest person to talk to, but I got my $20,000 of medical bills covered and he got to save money in the long run. A win-win if you ask me.

Sarah Li Cain is an experienced content marketing writer specializing in FinTech, credit, loans, personal finance, alternative investments, international business and k12 education. Her work has appeared in Fortune 500 companies, publications and startups such as AOL Jobs, Magnify Money, Credit Karma, FluentU, Pearson Teachability and Chicago Tribune. Sarah specializes in writing compelling content that weaves in strong storytelling. It has helped the brands she’s worked with not only engage their audience, but be remembered in a sea of content.

Any third-party resources or websites referenced above are not under Society of Grownups control. Society of Grownups cannot guarantee and are not responsible for the accuracy of the resources, websites, or any products or services available through such resources or websites.

While Society of Grownups hopes the information is useful, it’s only intended to provide general education. It’s not legal, tax, or investment advice, and may not apply or be useful to your specific financial situation. If you need recommendations geared to your personal financial situation, schedule time with a financial planner professional.

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