Intro to Insurance – What you need to insure (and what insurance to avoid)

Insurance.  The idea sounds pretty reasonable: you pay a smallish payment (called a ‘premium’) on a regular basis (usually monthly), and in exchange, when something bad happens to you or your property, the insurance company covers the damage up to an amount specified in your insurance agreement.

While the idea may sound simple, there are some very important things to understand in order to think about insurance correctly.

It’s a bad bet, but you still have to buy it

Insurance is what is called a ‘negative expectation’ bet.  The insurance company is out to make money.  As a result, they are going to make sure that, on average, they make more money in ‘premiums’ paid to them (from you) than in ‘claims’ paid out (to you.)  Sometimes they’re wrong, sometimes they’re right, but most of the time they’re right.

If getting insurance is a losing bet, then why should people do it?  For only ONE reason: to reduce risk.

Insurance companies, and their commission-seeking agents, will try to sell you unnecessary and expensive policies and options (called ‘riders’) for all sorts of reasonsUse this guide to make sure you only buy the necessary policies that serve the interests of yourself and family.

Risk

Human beings are generally risk-averse when it comes to money.  That means that they’d rather get constant income (think treasury bonds), than income that varies (think stocks.)   As a result, people are willing to give up some money in order to reduce their risks (loss of life, home, car, physical ability to work, etc.)

BUT, because insurance is a losing proposition, you only want to pay for just enough insurance to cover you against big losses.  Any loss that you can cover yourself (usually up to a few thousand dollars), should be covered by you.  This is one reason why it is important to build up and maintain a healthy emergency fund (of at least a few thousand dollars) in something stable like a high-interest savings account or bond fund.

From these principles, we can create a few general insurance-buying rules.

Rule #1 – Only insure what would be financially very painful to replace on your own

If your $3,000-valued used car gets totaled in an accident that’s your fault, it’ll hurt a bit to replace it on your own.  However, if you have some emergency savings, replacing it shouldn’t wipe you out financially.  As a result, you should probably avoid paying for collision auto insurance on a car of that little value.  (On the other hand, if you just bought a new Mercedes with them frog eyes, you’d better insure it.)

Similarly, if you have a $1,000 deductible (the amount you have to pay per accident before the insurance company will kick in anything) on your homeowner’s policy, and your roof caves in, paying that $1,000 shouldn’t cause you to fall on hard times.  Depending on your available savings, income, and comfort with risk, the amount you can pay to replace something without too much pain will vary.

That said, most people should be comfortable with ‘self-insuring’ for losses in the range of $1,000 to $10,000.  Anything over $10,000 should probably be insured (unless you’re really wealthy), and anything under $1,000 should definitely be self-insured by keeping an emergency stash.

One exception to this rule is if somebody else (your employer, the government) is subsidizing the cost of your insurance by paying a substantial part of your premiums.  This often changes the math in favor of you getting more insurance coverage than you would if you had to pay for it on your own.

Rule #2 – Keep your deductibles high and your premiums low

Related to rule #1, rule #2 tells us to increase your deductibles to the maximum level that you’re comfortable with.  Raising deductibles is the surest way to reduce your premiums.  For auto and home policies, $1,000 is a good level to set deductibles to.

Health insurance is a little trickier.  If you’re relatively healthy, or if you can’t afford more comprehensive coverage,  and you have to insure yourself without an employer’s help*, you may want to look at high-deductible ‘catastrophic’ insurance.  Be sure to look at both the deductible AND the annual out-of-pocket maximum.  Combine these two to get a true picture of the most you’ll potentially have to pay in one year.  You can get a feel for what policies are out there at ehealthinsurance.com.

* Even if your employer DOES pay part or all of your health insurance premiums, if you’re young &/or healthy, you should take a good look at any high-deductible health-care plans that your employer offers, especially if the plan is HSA-eligible.  Such employer plans often have extra benefits like employer contributions to an HSA on your behalf, or zero premiums that you have to pay.

Rule #3 –  Err on the high side for coverage limits

While you want to be aggressive by keeping deductibles to the highest level you can afford if and when disaster strikes, you want to play it safe when it comes to protecting yourself from a large loss by having high coverage limits.

The logic behind this is simple: insurance is to protect you from BIG losses.  It’s okay to risk a (relatively) small loss of a few thousand dollars in exchange for lower premiums, but it’s NOT okay to potentially wipe out your finances with low coverage limits.

Here are a few ‘standard’ recommended limits to keep yourself safe (tailor these to your own risk profile and net worth.  The more you have to lose, the more you need to protect.)

Car insurance: Liability limits of “100/300/100” are pretty standard, and correspond $100,000 per person for bodily injury (as in paying for the health costs of someone you injure), $300,000 per accident for bodily injury (total injury costs for all the people you injure), and $100,000 per accident for property damage (paying for that other car/fence/house that you ran into.)

Health insurance: If you’re pretty healthy, or can’t afford more comprehensive insurance, have a deductible of at least $1,000 – $2,000, with an annual out-of-pocket maximum of no more than $5,000 or $10,000 per person or family, respectively, or less paying if that amount in the event of a health catastrophe terrifies you.

(Keep in mind that even if you do have to pay, say, $300 out of pocket for some annual trip to the doctor, the amount you save in premiums with a high-deductible plan that doesn’t cover such a visit, versus a more comprehensive (=higher premium) plan that would,  might still make the high-deductible plan a smarter choice.)

Your lifetime maximum benefit should be at least $1 million**.

(** You may not have to worry about lifetime & annual maximums: As part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka ‘Obamacare’, lifetime maximums should be unlimited for all health plans at time of this writing (March 2012), however, your annual coverage maximum may NOT be unlimited until at least 2014.  If this part of Obamacare is repealed in the future, as some politicians & voters would like, then you should adhere to the guidance written above this note.)

Life insurance: I have a whole post on life insurance here, but I’ll give you the quick summary:

Buy a 20 – 30 year TERM life insurance policy with guaranteed level-premiums with a death benefit around 5 – 10 times your family’s expenses (say, $500 K – $1 million for a middle class family of 3 or 4.)  Click here to get a quick quote online.

IMPORTANT: You should almost NEVER buy any kind of ‘cash value’ life insurance which goes by seemingly benign names like ‘whole’ or ‘universal’ life.  These are fee-laden policies that should only be considered by the rich who need more ways to avoid paying taxes on their investments.

Long-term disability insurance:  Your employer should offer some form of long-term disability insurance.  If not, you should probably buy some on your own, as you have about a 2:1 greater chance of being disabled by the age of 60 than dying, and you’ll need income if you’re hurt so badly that you can’t work.  I recommend getting coverage for at least 40%, and preferably at least 60%, of your income.

You can reduce your premiums by lengthening the period of time after you’re disabled but before benefits kick in.  This is called the ‘elimination period’ and should be at least 90 days, and perhaps more (180 days to a whole year, if you have enough savings to make it until then without income).

Home insurance:  Buy ‘Guaranteed Replacement Cost Coverage’ (GRCC), which guarantees to pay whatever it would cost to replace your home at today’s prices, regardless of the stated ‘dwelling limit coverage’ in your policy.

If you can’t get/afford GRCC, buy ‘Extended Replacement Cost Coverage’, which typically will replace up to 120 – 150% of the ‘dwelling coverage limit’ specified in your policy.  This helps to protect you if your ‘dwelling coverage limit’ (the amount that your home is insured for) ends up being lower than your home’s new construction value.

Avoid ‘Replacement Cost Coverage’ (pays up to 100% of the ‘dwelling coverage limit’ to replace your home) and ‘Actual Cash Value’ (which pays only the depreciated value of your home’s construction, which is always less than the replacement cost) policies.

Rule #4 – Don’t buy insurance you don’t need

There are tons of silly insurance policies sold that no one should ever buy. I’ll just mention a few here:

1) Pet insurance: fido’s vet bills should be small enough for you to cover yourself in the event of an emergency.

2) Rental car insurance: use your credit card to book a rental car & you should (check your credit card’s policy) be covered already for collision, AND your regular auto policy should cover you for liability, so tell that pushy Hertz salesperson to take a hike when they try to push any kind of rental car insurance on you.

3) Life insurance for children: unless your child is supporting dependents with their income (maybe you have a young Hollywood star that’s supporting you?), there’s no reason to buy life insurance that covers them.

4) Cash value life insurance: I’ve mentioned this once already under the life insurance rules of thumb section, but it bears repeating: all except the wealthy who need more ways to save on taxes should AVOID cash value life insurance, such as ‘whole’ or ‘universal’, like the plague!

5) Insurance targeted at specific, ‘scary’ risks like so-called ‘dread disease’ policies: The policies you have should already be broad enough to cover most risks (or possibly include ‘riders’ to cover some non-standard risks, for example, earthquake protection for your home).  Don’t let fear-mongering insurers push duplicative & expensive policies for specific risks.

Rule #5 – Keep insurance and investments SEPARATE

This rule boils down to avoiding high-cost, heavily-pushed combined insurance-investment products like cash value life insurance (called ‘whole’, ‘universal’, ‘variable’) and annuities (especially variable ones; fixed ones with good rates may sometimes be appropriate, but I prefer investing in fixed income vehicles like bond funds, instead of locking my money up in an annuity.)

Whenever an insurance agent or commission-driven financial ‘advisor’ starts talking about insurance with ‘investment’ components, run the other way.  These products are typically high-fee, low-flexibility money traps that generate high commissions for the people that sell them (because they’re very profitable for insurance companies.  And guess what?  Those profits come out of your pockets.)

Conclusions

Insurance is a useful risk-reducing tool that should ONLY be used to insure against large losses (never against relatively small ones that you can cover using your income and/or emergency savings.)

So, raise those deductibles and cut your premiums, but make sure you err on the high side of benefit amounts & maximum coverage limits, as well as the length of time that a policy will cover you & your family (in the case of life or disability insurance.)

Stay safe and protect your family & money!

P.S.  If you’re shopping for insurance, or just trying to understand your policy, this link from Investopedia provides some explanation of the various aspects of different types of insurance.

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