How Much Life Insurance Do You Really Need?

I can’t tell you how often I’m contacted by readers who tell me the story of their lives, then ask the big question: how much life insurance do I need? I’ll hear from twenty four year old single women and forty year old men with a wife and three children. I’ll hear from people with almost nothing and people with hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank. They all ask the same question.

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In this article

    What Type of Life Insurance Should I Get?

    First of all, term life insurance is the way to go. Other types of policies tie a subpar investment into the insurance policy. If you want to invest, invest separately with a firm that specializes in investments and will customize an investment to meet your needs.

    Term policies are simple to understand. They offer a certain amount of coverage over a certain period of time. If you keep up your premiums (your regular payments), if you die within that time period, your stated beneficiary will receive the value of the insurance. So, if you buy a $500,000 ten year term and you die within that time period, your beneficiary receives $500,000. If you live through the end of the policy, you’re back to square one.

    Here’s the thing, though. Not everyone needs life insurance. For starters, people who have been careful savers throughout their lives often have no need for life insurance as they’ve accumulated enough wealth on their own to sustain their family. Similarly, people with no dependents often have little need for life insurance if they have much cash in the bank at all (to cover funeral expenses, for example). Life insurance is only necessary if, in the event of your death, people would be left in a financial bind without some sort of resource.

    How Long Should My Term Be?

    For parents, you should get a term long enough that the children you plan to have are independent before the term expires. Otherwise, it’s about your own comfort level. Shorter terms tend to have cheaper monthly premiums, but if you aren’t careful with your money, you may find yourself buying a new, more expensive policy in ten or twenty years.

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    How Much Life Insurance to Buy?

    To answer this question, I think there are three key things to consider.

    First, what’s the income shortfall for the people left behind? Simply put, how much money each year would your survivors need to maintain their standard of living? This isn’t just straight replacing your salary, since they won’t have your costs any more.

    Second, how long will they need that income shortfall? If you have young children, it will be quite a while. If you just have a partner, they may not need it for as long. You should talk this over carefully with your partner so that you both can make a realistic decision. I usually encourage people to calculate for their children’s needs until age twenty or so.

    Additional things to consider: your own funeral expenses, the cost of college for your children, any donations you’d like made in your name, and special care needs (for example, if you’re taking care of an elderly relative, who will do it when you’re gone?).

    Third, how much do you have now? What’s in your savings? Your investments (like your 401(k))? What other insurance policies do you have? Would your family stay in their current house, or would they downgrade?

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      The calculation is simple. Figure up the first number, multiply it by the second number, and then subtract the third number. That’s how much life insurance you should have, in a thumbnail sketch.

      If you’re unsure about certain numbers – and you probably will be – round up. It’s better to aim too high than to aim too low and let people down.

      In the end, though, remember that the real thing you’re buying with life insurance is peace of mind. Going through these calculations and then actually purchasing a policy serves the purpose of letting you sleep better at night.

      Good luck!

      Trent Hamm

      Founder & Columnist

      Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.