How-To Document, Track, and Optimize Vacation Benefits

Vacation and time off policy at work… that is the question! So make sure you ask all the right questions when starting a new job or making a commitment to take more time off this year. You’ll need to study your HR handbook and understand the fine points of your paid time off (PTO) and holiday rules. Only then can you truly maximize your vacation quality and quantity each and every year.

Did you just accept a job offer or receive a promotion at the office? Well first, congratulations are due. In a slow (but recovering as they say) economy it may be possible to negotiate for an extra vacation day or two. If you work for an employer that offers flexible HR benefits, it may be a realistic option. Consult our article “No Money for Raises This Year? Ask for Bonus Vacation Days” to create a convincing plan that prioritizes vacation over salary.

You've got the job! (How many vacation days do I get?)

For the rest of us, you will have to live with the exact number of paid vacation days offered for your position, level, and years of employment.

HR policies for vacation benefits do vary from employer to employer since there are no federal standards (state standards are all over the map, no pun intended). Take this opportunity to follow our step-by-step instructions so you can analyze, question, track, and review your time off from work project plan.

Step 1 – Print Out Your Vacation Benefits Handbook

OK you don’t have to print it out on paper, but at least grab a local PDF copy or take a picture of it with your camera phone. Save it to your DropBox, Google Drive, or EverNote to always have a copy on hand. It may come in handy when policy changes are implemented, for comparison purposes.

Store Vacation Benefits Handbook Online

Remember to Backup your Vacation HR Benefits Document

Now read through the section on vacation benefits, looking for the following subheadings:

  • Chart detailing the annual allocation based on years of service
  • Special policies for new versus experienced hires
  • Procedures for tracking time off with Human Resources
  • Accrual policy for full and part-time workers
  • Roll-over policy (include the harsh sounding “use-it-or-lose-it” verbiage)
  • Accrued time off and employee termination vacation payout

Take notes and circle those areas that are open to interpretation or simply not 100% clear. Focus on the one or two items for which you require clarification from an HR representative.

Ask yourself, are there any aspects of taking time off that are specific to your family and life situation? If you are a new hire, what special rules apply based on the month of your start date or employee status? Are there provisions for work flexibility that you can put in a request for?

Step 2 – Make An Appointment with your HR Representative

Now that you have done your research, request an appointment with HR to discuss these open issues. Even if all your questions are covered by the handbook, it may be useful to meet the person in charge of benefits to build a friendly relationship. You may require their assistance later on in your career.

Next, click over to our popular article to learn the Top 10 Questions About Vacation Days and Paid Time Off Work Policies. It offers detailed descriptions of the following vacation benefit topics:

  • Vacation Days, Personal Days, Floating Days, and Sick Days (oh my!)
  • How to maximize a set amount of Paid Time Off (PTO) for more vacation
  • Vacation waiting period for new hires
  • Vacation accrual rules (start date or first of the year)
  • Vacation benefit brackets based on years of employment
  • Taking less than a full day of vacation (half day off anyone?)
  • Requesting time off and getting it approved (take it when you want to)
  • How to avoid losing vacation days (rollover policy revealed)
Article on Top 10 Vacation Benefit Questions

Click to view the Top 10 Vacation Benefit Questions

Compare your list of issues with those in the top 10 article to finalize your top open questions. Select only those that are most important to your current work-life balance goals. Again, try to stick to just a few questions to respect the time of HR and not put all the attention on time-off issues. Do remember that HR is used to meeting with employees to review a wide variety of benefit questions, especially from new hires.

Step 3 – Track Your Paid Vacation Days

Tracking your own vacation day usage is critical if you want to avoid a mismatch between what you think you’ve earned and what your employer has on the record. You review your salary line item and other pay and deduction amounts to ensure accuracy right? It make financial sense to do the same with your posted vacation day accrual.

It is likely that your paycheck stub will list the number of vacation days or hours (and even fractional hours) as a reference point. It also may be accessible via a benefits web portal managed by HR. This website might also be the place where you request days off in advance.

Regardless, take the time to create a simple spreadsheet or even grab a paper notebook to jot down annual vacation usage.

Vacation tracking spreadsheet template

Above is an example of a spreadsheet created using Google Docs (stored in Google Drive) which is absolutely free to use. The columns are customized with the name of each vacation, the dates off from work, the number of vacation days used (excluding weekends and holidays), and a running total. When you have a spouse or partner and want to coordinate two time-off schedules, duplicate the sheet template and track within separate tabs.

Bonus Tip: Vacation Days Tracker spreadsheet template

Google Sheets (template)VacationCounts has done the hard part for you and created this vacation days, holiday, and time-off tracking template.  You simply make a private copy to be stored for free on your Google Drive and input your paid time off numbers.  It will calculate usage statistics which are graphed on the vacation dashboard.

Read more about it on the Vacation Days Tracker product page.

Step 4 – Review Every Paycheck and Annually

Once you are offered and accept a job, the benefits included are yours to take full advantage of as the rewards from working. These include not just paid time off but also healthcare, overtime, retirement plans (with contribution matching), flex time, commuting incentives, disability insurance, and all the rest.

However there is a final step that must be followed and repeated. If you have followed the steps above, you fully know the rules about taking vacations and have a tracking document in place. Now when you receive a paycheck either weekly, bi-weekly, bi-monthly, or monthly, look for the vacation hours remaining section. Alternatively, login to your HR portal online and grab the latest number.

Compare the HR totals with your vacation tracker spreadsheet (or whichever method you are using) to make certain there are no discrepancies. Of course if you find any mistakes first check if it is just the lag time between payroll and benefits reporting. However it may also be an honest mistake. Bring it up to your benefits contact (now aren’t you glad that you met this person earlier?) to get it corrected as soon as possible.

Pay Stub with Vacation Earned

Also on a yearly basis, review your vacation benefits policy document to see if any changes were introduced. Normally they will be communicated to all staff (usually this is required by law), but it is possible you failed to notice it. See if any new questions or issues result from policy changes and once again present your questions to HR.

Finally in January when each new year arrives, create a clean vacation day tracking document (or duplicate into a new spreadsheet tab) and start the process again.


By keeping a watchful eye on your earned vacation days and understanding the rules on how to use them, you’ll maximize your time off from work. So now the only question is when are you going to take your next vacation? Subscribe to the VacationCounts blog for practical advice on how to get more time off and reminders to make every vacation day count!

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  • K. Draskovich says:

    This is an excellent article. My most recent employer had errors on PTO accruals, and because I kept track I knew when to contact the admin staff with the discrepancy. Also, I was laid off and only then learned that the company would not pay me for the 70+ PTO hours I had.

    • Thank you for the compliment and taking the time to respond. Yes I definitely agree it is important to track your own PTO and vacation days. That is one of the reasons I create the Vacation Days Tracker spreadsheet. Even employers with excellent time off benefits sometimes make mistakes.

      It sounds like in your situation, saving up PTO in good faith for a vacation comes at a risk of losing your hard-earned time off. I am truly sorry to hear that. With minimal legal requirements which vary by state, it is not always easy to know what accrued time off pay you are entitled to when leaving a job for any reason.

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