One of the common nuggets of financial “wisdom” tossed out there by personal finance writers is the idea of downgrading one’s car insurance to save money. “Cut your collision or comprehensive coverage or raise your deductibles and save a mint!” they’ll say, but such comments don’t take into account the current status of the car in question, nor does it account for your own personal financial state.
How do you know when the time is right to downgrade your car insurance? First, let’s look at the insurance variables we’re looking at, then let’s move through the thought process of figuring it out.
Types of Auto Insurance and Basic Terminology
… just so we’re all on the same page here.
Most states require that you carry at least liability insurance on your automobile as a minimum, so we’ll assume that in all cases you’ll continue to carry liability coverage. Liability coverage takes care of any costs or damage you may do to other people and property during the course of driving, including both bodily injury to others and property damage. These insurances are usually pretty cheap – the only thing you might want to be concerned about is that your coverage limit is quite high.
What we’re mostly concerned about is comprehensive and collision insurance. Collision insurance covers damage to your car when your car hits or is hit by another object, while comprehensive insurance covers losses resulting from incidents other than collision – floods, damage caused by external forces, and so on.
For more specific details on these definitions, check out The Simple Dollar’s useful car insurance guide.
For each type of insurance, you’ll have a deductible, which is the portion of any bill that you will be responsible for. So, if you have a $1,000 deductible and you’re facing $2,500 in damages, you’ll pay $1,000 and the insurance company will pay $1,500. You also have a premium, which is the amount you have to pay the insurance company to maintain the insurance.
What Do You Need?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear and straightforward answer to this question, and it’s because of that lack of clarity that people tend to over-insure – and personal finance writers can get away with simple statements like “eliminate your insurance and raise your deductible to save cash!”
First, should you raise your deductible? From my perspective, your deductible amount should always be directly related to your emergency fund. A single car incident shouldn’t be able to entirely deplete your emergency fund – if it does, you put yourself quickly at risk of something else happening. In fact, I often encourage people to have an emergency fund at least as twice as large as your deductible.
Given that, you can quickly figure out how much deductible you need based on your emergency fund. If you have an enormous emergency fund, for example, you may not even need comprehensive or collision insurance at all, as you have enough cash to just pay for the repairs or the replacement yourself out of pocket.
The way I see it, if you have enough emergency fund that you could pay for an entire replacement car in cash and only reduce your fund by half or less, you don’t need collision or comprehensive insurance. Liability insurance should be all you need. But, of course, most people aren’t in that situation, as it demands a much larger cash emergency fund than most people have access to.
Similarly, at what point should you entirely cut collision coverage and comprehensive insurance on an older car? It’s not an easy question to answer.
I’m currently in this situation with my pickup truck, which is more than a decade old and is approaching the 200,000 mile mark – it has a pretty low Blue Book value at this point. It’s reached a point where my family feels uncomfortable driving it any significant distance at all, so I mostly just use it for local travel within fifty miles of my home (going to the library, getting groceries, and so on). We intend to replace it by early next summer.
Given that, it may in fact make sense for us to drop down to just liability coverage on the vehicle. This would save us several hundred dollars over the winter, and if something severe went wrong with it again, we’d simply go ahead and sell it.
Ask yourself this honest question: if a significant repair needed to be done to your current vehicle, would that be the final push you need to replace it? If that’s the case, do you need collision or comprehensive coverage on that vehicle at all?
Between these two perspectives, you may find that comprehensive and collision insurance aren’t worth it to you. But you may find yourself also feeling unprotected without that insurance. Insurance does have a psychological benefit beyond any directly financial benefits – you can be confident in knowing that even if something bad happens, you’re covered.
If your signs are pointing away from needing collision and comprehensive insurance, but your gut is telling you it’s a bad idea, I recommend just raising your deductible nice and high. That way, you’ve got the security of the insurance while saving money as well. This may be the best option of all for people with used cars and a nice hefty emergency fund, but find that comprehensive and collision insurance makes them feel better about their car.
I look forward to hearing the comments of readers on this topic.