Quick life insurance takeaways up front
1) AVOID buying ‘cash value’ life insurance policies (whole, universal, variable).
2) Instead, buy TERM life insurance with guaranteed level-premiums.
3) Buy a term of 30 years. The term you choose should be long enough to make sure all of your dependents will be financially independent when the term expires and you are no longer covered. This means your kids should be out of college & gainfully employed, your house paid off, and your spouse & yourself should have plenty of retirement money socked away by the end. Err on the side of a longer term than you think you’ll need: it’s usually not much more costly than a shorter term. Policies are cheap when you’re young and healthy (so quit smoking/don’t smoke.)
4) Get a death benefit of $1,000,000. The ‘death benefit’ should be large enough to pay off your family’s debts and provide at least 5 – 10 years’-worth (or more, especially if your spouse doesn’t work) of living expenses. If you make a lot and live life relatively high on the hog, you might want $2,000,000. If you’re strapped for cash and used to living on less, $500,000 might do it.
5) Go get a quote HERE. Also, check with your employer to see what coverage they offer and compare rates. Many employers offer a little coverage for free (say, 1-2x your base salary), and give you the option to buy more.
6) Make a decision and buy coverage from a company with an AM Best or Moody’s financial strength rating of at least A or A- to protect your family!
Why I hate insurance, even though I need it & buy it
If there’s one thing I hate, it’s high-fee financial products. Of these, insurance products are often some of the worst offenders. The main perpetrators are ‘cash value’ life insurance and annuities (although there are plenty of other useless types of insurance to avoid.)
Anyone with dependents (those that depend on your income) needs life insurance. That being said, Ward’s rule #1 when buying insurance is ‘DON’T!’ What I mean by that is ONLY buy insurance for things that can’t be planned & paid for by your own savings. If you were fabulously wealthy and had already saved, say, 25 times your family’s annual spending needs in your retirement fund, then you probably don’t need any life insurance at all.
Alternately, even if you aren’t rich: if you don’t have any significant debt, have no dependents, your spouse makes enough money to live off by themselves, and you have other savings, you may not need any life insurance either (or at least no more than the paltry amount offered by your employer as part of your standard benefits package.)
For most of us, especially when we’re young, starting a family, and relatively low on the net worth totem pole, we need life insurance to protect our families in the unlikely-but-possible event of our early demise.
The only life insurance you’ll ever need
Most insurance companies will try to sell you some type of ‘cash value’ life insurance policy. These include ‘whole life’, ‘universal life’, and ‘variable life’ policies. Cash value policies all have an investment component to them as well as a ‘death benefit’ (a lump sum paid out to your beneficiaries when you die, regardless of your investment amount in the policy.) The catch is that these policies are awful because they hit you with high fees (often in the form of the terrible investment choices with high expense ratios that come with your cash value life insurance policy.)
My general rule of thumb (and by ‘general’, I mean you should nearly always do this!) is to keep your insurance and investments strictly separate! Therefore, say it with me, “I will NEVER buy cash value life insurance no matter what an insurance agent or financial salesperson (sometimes disguised as an ‘advisor’) tells me!”*
Okay, so what life insurance SHOULD you buy? Term life! Term provides one thing, a death benefit, and that’s it. Fortunately, that’s exactly what you need.
How term life insurance works
When you buy a term life policy, you pay an annual premium. The older or more unhealthy you are, the higher the cost (since there’s a greater probability that you’ll die, forcing the insurance company to cough up the dough to your heirs.) If you die within a certain period of time (the ‘term’, often 20 or 30 years), the insurance company pays the beneficiaries listed in your policy a ‘death benefit’ of some fixed amount of money that you’ve specified when you buy the policy (typically in $100 K increments, the most common amounts being $500 K or $1 million.)
Example: You’re a 28-year-old non-smoking male in good health. You determine that your wife and child would need $500 K to live on if you were to die. You figure that in 30 years your kid will have graduated from college and your wife will be doing fine, so you buy a 30 year term policy with a $500,000 death benefit. You would likely pay a premium of around $400 – $500 per year, less than the price of a cell phone plan!
Make sure you buy a ‘guaranteed level-premium’ policy. This means you are essentially renewing the policy each year and paying the same price to do so. Without this your rates can fluctuate and/or you can be denied coverage if your health changes for the worst.
You can always cancel your policy if, say, you strike it rich and no longer have a need for the insurance. (Although, it may pay to keep the policy anyway if you’re deep into the term since the premiums are relatively cheap compared to what it would cost you to buy new term life insurance at your decrepit old age.)
How big of a death benefit do you need?
This is a tricky question, but some general rules of thumb are helpful. If you don’t want to go through this exercise and you can afford it, just get $1,000,000 and call it good.
To be more precise, consider your family’s annual expenses, your outstanding debts, and your assets. Most people want enough so that their spouse can pay off the mortgage, cover the kids’ college, and pay for any funeral expenses and other miscellaneous debts you leave behind, as well as have enough to live on to make up for your loss of income for the next few years, and any necessary single-parent help like childcare for the kids.
For most families, somewhere between $500 K to $1 M should do it. The more assets you already have, such as your 401k, stock accounts, any social security death benefits accrued, the more money your spouse makes, and the closer your kids are to being financial independent, the less life insurance you need. If you’re young, term is cheap, so err on the high side for the death benefit.
A sample calculation might go like this: 10 years of annual family expenditures: $60,000/year x 10 years = $600,000 + mortgage and other debt of $300,000 + today’s cost of 4 years of college at Your State University for 1 child ($100,000) = $1,000,000.
How long of a term should you get?
If your spouse works and could support themselves (not including the costs of raising children), then I would recommend getting a term policy to get your kid’s through college. So, estimate when your last child will graduate college and be self-sufficient (the two are not necessarily synonymous) and get a policy that will last at least that long. Again, err on the safe side, so if you or your wife is pregnant with what you expect to be your last child, round up to a 30 year policy.
Get a quote and buy a policy from an A-rated company
I like Quickquote.com for getting comparable online term life insurance quotes**. You can play around and get a feel for premium costs when varying term length and death benefit amounts.
Compare these quotes to the prices offered by your employer for life insurance (and check to see what they might already give you as part of your standard benefits package.)
Lastly, make sure that the insurance company you buy a policy from has an AM Best or Moody’s financial strength rating of at least ‘A’ or ‘A-‘, which means ‘excellent’. This helps insure that the company is stable enough to still be around if and when your family needs the payout. The quotes you get from the above sites will tell you the rating.
Tip: I’ve found that round number periods like 20 and 30 years seem to cost much less than one would think given the relatively expensive 15 or 25 year periods. Also, the more benefit you buy, the cheaper it is per dollar of premium; another reason to err high on the death benefit.
* The only situation where you MIGHT consider cash value life insurance is the following: you’re wealthy and in a high tax bracket AND you’ve already maxed out ALL of your tax-advantaged retirement savings (401k, IRAs, HSAs if applicable, college savings plans if you need those for someone.) Not only that, but you must have AT LEAST 15 – 20 years until retirement in order to offset the fees with the marginal tax benefits from cash value life policies.
SO, if you are within 15 years of retirement, STOP, don’t buy cash value life. Similarly, even if you ARE 15+ years from retirement, max out all of your (far superior) tax-advantaged retirement savings options before even considering cash value life. Even if you pass these two criteria, give this some serious thought with a fee-only financial advisor.
** I also used selectquote.com, but I DON’T recommend them because you don’t get instant results online (instead, some insurance agent will call you up to give you your ‘free’ result, which is really just an excuse for them to sell you a policy. I hate being sold to!) I also struck accuquote.com from the list because they called me (twice! by two different salespeople!) to give me the ‘hard sell’ after I got the online quotes. This really irritates me.