What is life insurance and why do you really need it?

A life insurance policy is a contract between you and an insurance company. The basic terms tend to be simple: You make payments – "life insurance premiums" - to the life insurance company; in return, they promise to pay your family or dependents a sum of money if you die.1 This "death benefit" is usually income tax-free.

Not everybody needs life insurance. For instance, it may not be necessary if a person doesn't have a spouse, partner, children, elderly parents, or other dependents – and doesn't plan on acquiring any in the future. However, for anyone who has – or plans on having – one or more dependents who rely on them for financial support, it can be an essential piece in the financial puzzle. With life insurance in place, your dependents are guaranteed some financial stability in the event of your death and the loss of income from your salary, pension, or social security. With no life insurance in place, they may be left with expenses and debts – from mortgage or rent payments to health care and college tuition – financial obligations that they simply can't handle.

If you decide you need life insurance, you should compare the different types of coverage – term life insurance, whole life insurance, universal life insurance – to decide which is best for your needs. Then, think about how much coverage you need, so you can start to get and compare life insurance quotes from different companies. Finally, you should know how to compare life insurance companies to determine which provides the level of protection, stability, and customer service you want.

Comparing different types of life insurance policies

Life insurance isn’t a one-size-fits-all product. Different types of coverage are designed to meet different needs. So if you're making a life insurance comparison, it pays to take a minute to get familiar with your choices.

Term Life Insurance

term life insurance policy covers you for a specific term, typically between 10 and 30 years.    Importantly, your life insurance cost will typically be lower with a term policy than with a permanent life insurance policy with the same death benefit amount. However, when the term expires, your coverage is gone, and you either have to do without life insurance or get a new policy -- and life insurance rates will be higher because you are older. That said, many providers – including Guardian – let you convert a term policy to a permanent life insurance policy for part or all of the coverage period.

Permanent life insurance: Whole Life

A whole life policy is the simplest form of permanent life insurance, providing coverage that lasts your entire life. Like other permanent policies, it includes a cash value that grows over time on a tax-deferred basis, so you don't pay taxes on the gains.2 Compared to other forms of permanent life, a whole life policy provides the most guarantees:

  • The premium payment remains the same for life
  • The death benefit amount is guaranteed
  • Guaranteed cash value growth 

Cash value provides important benefits you can use while you're still alive. For example, you can take out personal loans against it (however, any outstanding loans will be deducted from the death benefit).3 In addition, you can use policy cash value to help pay your premiums and keep your coverage in later years. Or, you can even use the policy's cash value for funds to supplement income in retirement. And when you get a whole life policy from a mutual company, such as Guardian, your cash value can also earn annual dividends.4 While not guaranteed, Guardian has paid dividends to its whole life policyholders for each of the last five years based on a dividend interest rate of more than 5%.

Permanent life insurance: Universal Life

A universal life policy is another form of permanent insurance that offers lifetime coverage and a cash value.5 But there's a fundamental difference compared to a whole life insurance policy: the premiums are variable. This gives flexibility to people with income that varies. With universal life insurance policies, you can raise or lower your premiums as you see fit, within the policy's limits. However, paying less could result in the need to pay higher premiums in later years to keep your coverage.6 Even so, this type of policy can adjust to life circumstances while providing cash value growth. Having another child, moving on to a different job, or taking out a loan to buy a business — might all be instances where this combination of stability and flexibility is needed.

Securing and comparing life insurance quotes

Once you have an idea of which type of coverage may work best for you, the next step will be to determine how much coverage (death benefit) you need. Then you can get some quotes to see how much that coverage might cost.

In simple terms, you want a death benefit that's large enough to provide financial protection by paying for the bills and expenses you won't be able to help with if you're gone. If you're the primary earner, that includes things like rent or a mortgage, credit card debt, college tuition, and health insurance. Even if you're a part-time worker or stay-at-home parent, you should have enough insurance to pay for childcare expenses and funeral costs. Basically, you need enough to cover all the extra costs your dependents would have in your absence, especially while your children are still at home. In general, the more dependents you have and the younger they are, the more coverage you need.

There are many ways to estimate the amount of coverage you need, but for now, we’ll focus on three of the most popular. Once you get closer to purchasing a life insurance policy, consider talking to a financial professional or insurance agent to get a more exact number.

1. Human Life Value*

Based on the value of your future earnings, a simple way to estimate this is to get 30X your income if you're between 18-40; 20X income if you're between 41-50; 15X income if you're between 51-60; and 10X income if you're between 61-65. After age 65, coverage is based on net worth rather than income. If you are above age 65, you might want to discuss your needs with a financial professional or insurance agent.

2. Consider multiplying your income by 10 – and add college for each child

This approach is a bit simpler: Just multiply your current salary by 10, then add enough to cover college tuition expenses. How much should you add for each child? College isn’t cheap: you should account for somewhere between $100,000 and $150,000 per child. If you split the difference – and have two kids – that’s an extra $250,000.

3. Consider using the DIME formula

This method considers future expenses in addition to future earnings. DIME stands for Debt, Income, Mortgage, and Education – four significant factors to consider when making a detailed estimate of your life insurance needs:

Debt: Total all your debts other than your mortgage. Car payments, credit cards, student loans – even personal obligations such as money you may have borrowed from a sibling to put a down payment on your house. On top of all that, add about $7,000 for final expenses.

Income: How much do you make a year? And how many years will your family need that money? It’s a tricky question to answer, but a good place to start is determining how many years until your youngest child graduates high school. For example, if you make $50,000 and have nine years until your youngest graduates high school, put down $450,000 for income.

Mortgage payments: Look at your last statement and get the payoff amount. If you have a second mortgage or HELOC (Home Equity Line of Credit), add that (if you haven’t already included it in the debt section above).

Education: Anticipated college costs for each of your children. As we said before, figure between $100,000 and $150,000 per child.

Add those four factors all up, and that’s your number. You can also make adjustments (i.e., subtract) for any current savings and life insurance you already carry.

Once you’ve determined a ballpark figure for how much life insurance coverage you need, you can move forward and get a quote for how much the coverage will cost. You may be surprised at how affordable coverage can be. In fact, a recent study by the Life Insurance Marketing and Research Association (LIMRA) found that most people think the price of term life insurance is three times higher than the actual cost. Younger Americans are likely to say it's five times the actual cost.7

How to get life insurance quotes

You can secure quotes for term life insurance policies online, by phone, or via an in-person meeting with a life insurance agent. Generally, you'll want to begin using simple online quote calculators, which provide ballpark estimates based on a few quick questions. Some websites will let you compare term life insurance quotes from several companies at once.

Wondering if you can afford life insurance?

In just a couple of minutes, our calculator can show you some term life insurance quotes to help you get a better feel for how much coverage you need and what it might cost.

Once you've compared quotes and selected which insurance company you'd like to work with, you'll have to speak to a professional and begin the application process. Keep in mind that most initial quotes are estimates which can be revised up or down after you complete the actual application process, which will be more involved than what you'll find on an online quote calculator. The insurer needs to calculate your life expectancy and insurance risk before final rates are set; in most cases, you'll have to answer questions about your family's medical history, lifestyle, income, and most insurance companies will have you take a medical exam.

Quotes for permanent life policies – whole life or universal life – can be requested online, but you won't get the instant answers like you can for term life insurance. You will probably have to provide your name and contact information so that a professional can contact you directly. Generally, the quoting and application process for permanent life insurance is a little more complicated than it is for term life. And, as with term life quotes, the estimated premium amount may be revised up or down after the application process is complete.

Evaluating and comparing life insurance companies

Once you've secured several quotes and narrowed your search down to a few life insurance companies, the last step is to make sure that – in addition to affordable rates – the companies also offer strong financial strength and ratings in areas such as claims fulfillment and customer service. Here are some of the best places to find the answers:

High Financial Strength Ratings (FSRs)

  • Independent organizations rate the financial strength of insurers to ensure their ability to meet obligations. A.M. Best, Standard & Poor's, and Moody’s are independent ratings agencies you can look to for more information. 

High customer satisfaction scores

  • Customer surveys and reviews can tell you how satisfied others are with a company's services. Many in the industry consider J.D. Power & Associates to be one of the best sources of insurance satisfaction data because they conduct an annual customer satisfaction survey of more than 5,000 U.S. life insurance policyholders. In 2022 J.D. Power U.S. Individual Life Satisfaction Survey, Guardian performed above industry average and ranked 7 out of the 23 companies in the study.8

Low customer complaints 

Product selection and customization

  • Some providers focus on term insurance, while others offer both term and permanent with a variety of optional riders that tailor a policy to your needs.10 For example, Guardian provides convertible term and permanent policies, and even has options to help cover people with certain kinds of pre-existing conditions – such as certain cancers, heart disease, even HIV.

Policyholder dividends 

  • Some insurers are owned "mutually" by their policyholders, who can receive dividend payments. So, for example, when you purchase a whole life policy from a mutual insurance company like Guardian, you may get paid a dividend on the cash value portion of your policy, helping to build your cash value further.

Direct underwriting 

  • Some providers issue their own policies, like Guardian. Others sell policies of other companies.

Taking the next step

In addition to doing your own research – such as comparing life insurance quotes - consider talking things over with an insurance agent or financial professional who can help you compare alternative options, determine which type of policy is best for your financial situation, and explain how it can be tailored to your needs. If you don't have someone to discuss insurance with, Guardian can help you find a nearby financial professional who will listen to your needs and help guide you to the right solution.

Frequently asked questions about comparing life insurance

Can you get a life insurance quote online?

Yes. You can get no obligation quotes for term life insurance policies via online quote calculators which generate quotes based on a few simple questions including age and tobacco use. You can also request quotes for permanent life insurance policies online but will probably have to provide contact information so that you can be contacted by a professional.

How much life insurance do I need?

There is no single answer to that question. The coverage a person needs depends on their personal wishes about how to provide for their family, as well as several more objective factors, including age, income, debts, number of dependents, and age of dependents.

Should I get multiple life insurance quotes?

Yes. Purchasing life insurance is an important financial decision, which justifies doing some homework and comparative shopping. Quotes vary widely,  as do insurance company reputations and ratings.

What is the difference between term, whole, universal, and variable life insurance?

Term life insurance covers you for a specific term, typically between 10 and 30 years, and is usually the most affordable type of policy. However, when the term expires, your coverage is gone, and you either have to do without life insurance or get a new policy, which will probably be more expensive because you are older. Permanent life insurance – whole and universal - provides coverage that lasts your entire life. In addition, permanent policies include a cash value that grows over time on a tax-deferred basis, so you don't pay taxes on the gains. That cash value is a financial asset that can be accessed while you are still alive.

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This article is for informational purposes only. Guardian may not offer all products discussed. Please consult with a financial professional to understand what life insurance products are available for sale.

1 All whole life insurance policy guarantees are subject to the timely payment of all required premiums and the claims paying ability of the issuing insurance company. Policy loans and withdrawals affect the guarantees by reducing the policy’s death benefit and cash values.

2 Some whole life polices do not have cash values in the first two years of the policy and don’t pay a dividend until the policy’s third year. Talk to your financial professional and refer to your individual whole life policy illustration for more information.

Guardian, its subsidiaries, agents and employees do not provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. Consult your tax, legal, or accounting professional regarding your individual situation.

3 Policy benefits are reduced by any outstanding loan or loan interest and/or withdrawals. Dividends, if any, are affected by policy loans and loan interest. Withdrawals above the cost basis may result in taxable ordinary income. If the policy lapses, or is surrendered, any outstanding loans considered gain in the policy may be subject to ordinary income taxes. If the policy is a Modified Endowment Contract (MEC), loans are treated like withdrawals, but as gain first, subject to ordinary income taxes. If the policy owner is under 59 ½, any taxable withdrawal may also be subject to a 10% federal tax penalty.

4 Dividends are not guaranteed. They are declared annually by Guardian’s Board of Directors. The total dividend calculation includes mortality experience and expense management as well as investment results

5 Permanent life insurance consists of two types: whole life and universal life. Cash value grows in a participating whole life policy through dividends, which are declared annually by the company's board of directors and are not guaranteed. Cash value grows in a universal life policy through credited interest and decreased insurance costs. The cash value of both policy types benefits when the policyholder pays an amount above the required premium.

6 Universal Life Insurance may lapse prematurely due to inadequate funding (low or no premium), increase in cost of insurance rates as the insured grows older, and a low interest crediting rate. This does not apply to universal life policies which have a secondary guarantee, but if the secondary guarantee requirements are not met the policy will most likely lapse.

7 Source: LIMRA 2020 Insurance Barometer Study

8 Source: Both Life Insurance and Annuity Customer Satisfaction Decline as Pandemic Fears Wane, J.D. Power Finds.

9 Source: Guardian Life Insurance Review 2022 - NerdWallet

10 Riders may incur an additional cost or premium. Riders may not be available in all states.

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