Whole, Universal, and Term Life Insurance: What’s the Difference?

At some point in their lives, many people come to the conclusion that they need to have a life insurance policy. Perhaps you’re like me and that realization occurred when you first had children. Maybe some other life event occurred and caused you to consider it. Or perhaps you’re just following the advice from a personal finance book.

Whatever the reason, you’ve made the decision to buy life insurance. Now it’s time to look at the next step in the journey: figuring out what policy options are available to you and which one is best for you.

Use this calculator to compare quotes from multiple life insurance companies.

In this article

    Types of Life Insurance

    Compare term, whole and universal life insurance

     Term life insuranceWhole life insuranceUniversal life insurance
    Premium costsLowestHigherHigher
    Lifelong policyNoYesYes
    Investment ComponentNoYesYes
    Cash Value Growth RateN/ASteady, based on a fixed rate you agree to when you purchase the policyVariable, based on market conditions
    ProsThe most affordable and easiest-to-understand type of life insuranceReliability in cash value growth and death benefitAdjustability of the death benefit and premiums based on your current needs
    ConsIf your term expires before you pass away, all the premiums you paid go toward nothingInflexibility if your needs change over timeSlow cash value growth in times of market turmoil
    Who should consider this type of policy?People looking for the most affordable life insurance possiblePeople who want set-it-and-forget-it life insurancePeople who know they want life insurance but anticipate their exact needs changing over time

    Let’s look at them one at a time.

    What is Term Life Insurance?

    Term life insurance is the simplest form of life insurance to understand and it’s also the least expensive. When you buy a term life insurance policy, you sign up for insurance that will cover you for a particular term – a number of years, in other words. Over the course of that term, you’ll pay in a certain amount of money to the insurance company each year (or quarter or month, depending on your arrangement) – that money is called the premium. If you happen to die during the term, the person(s) you indicate as the beneficiary of your policy will receive the benefit of your policy.

    So, for example, you might have a 20-year term life insurance policy that provides a $500,000 benefit to your spouse or to your children in the event of your death in that 20-year period. To maintain that insurance, you’ll have to pay in some amount each year. Although that premium is locked in for the length of your policy, it does vary a lot from person to person.

    The biggest drawback of term policies is that if you live to the end of the term, you walk away with nothing. The policy only covers you for the number of years designated in your agreement at the start of the policy.

    What is Whole Life Insurance?

    Whole life insurance takes term insurance, gets rid of the “term,” and combines it with an investment package. Whole life insurance is a lifetime insurance package that offers a benefit upon your death to whoever you designate. Often, a whole life insurance package offers a certain minimum benefit, but that benefit might grow over time because a whole life insurance package also features an investment component.

    Over the years, your policy begins to grow a cash value, which you’ll be able to borrow against later on if you so choose. You can even choose to receive dividends from that investment portion later on, though the dividends are usually small unless the insurance package is very large. Some people eventually start using the cash value of the insurance to directly pay the annual premium, meaning they have a policy that lasts for the rest of their life without any annual costs to them.

    The catch for all of this is that the monthly or annual premiums – the amount you pay in each month or each year – are much, much higher than term insurance for the same benefit.

    What is Universal Life Insurance?

    Universal life insurance also lasts a lifetime, but it has the capacity to adjust the benefit later on. Universal insurance is actually very similar to whole life insurance, except that you have the capacity to adjust your benefit upwards or downwards later on depending on your changing insurance needs.

    However, this comes with a cost. The premiums you pay also adjust with universal life insurance depending on current interest rates. The rates are typically much closer to the higher whole life rates than the term rates – in fact, universal life insurance rates are sometimes even higher than whole life insurance rates.

    Isn’t the investment portion of whole and universal life insurance a great benefit? It can be, but you pay a lot for it. Your premiums are going to be much higher than they would be for a term policy.

    Another big problem is that the investment portion of such policies is almost always very slow to grow at first. There are several reasons for that, but one of the big reasons in many cases is that during the initial years of such policies, some of your premiums are going to pay off the commission of the person who sold you the policy. That money cuts into how much can be contributed to the investment.

    So what should you do? Here’s my advice.

    Compare life insurance policies

    Just answer a few, simple questions and we’ll do the rest!

    How to find the right life insurance policy

    • If you have no insurance right now and you’re an adult, get a term policy
    • If you currently have a whole life or universal policy that you’ve had for several years (or more), stick with that

    If you have no insurance right now and you’re an adult, get a term policy. Get one with a term long enough to cover your children reaching adulthood or until you expect that you’ll have enough assets that your spouse will be fine without you. I chose to get a 20-year policy, which covered the years until my children leave the nest, at which point the financial burden on my wife in the event of my death would be much smaller.

    The reason here is simple. A term policy is going to be far less expensive than a whole life policy or a universal policy and you’re likely looking at this policy during a point in your life where your money is already being crunched hard. You’re likely facing student loans, a mortgage, the cost of children… I know how hard of a crunch all of that can be.

    The thing you need to keep in mind is that you’re wanting this insurance mostly to cover you until that crunch period is over with. Ten years, 20 years, maybe at most 30 years from now, you won’t have that mortgage. You won’t have those kids to take care of. You won’t have those student loans. Your financial state will be much more stable.

    Why: Term life insurance is the most affordable type of life insurance — by a significant amount. If you’re interested in life insurance, a term policy is an excellent and cost-effective way to protect your loved ones against known financial burdens.

    If you currently have a whole life or universal policy that you’ve had for several years (or more), stick with that. At this point in the policy’s life, it’s built some level of cash value inside of it which can be a useful asset going forward. While the annual cost for the policy is higher than a similar term policy, you’ve already made it through the “rough years” with this policy, so stick with it.

    Why: There’s no point in surrendering a policy that you’ve already made premium payments toward for multiple years. Plus, at this point, those premiums are likely already factored into your budget. Keep paying them and you’ll guarantee a death benefit for your loved ones. Plus, the cash value in your account might soon reach a point that it can pay your premiums.

    What if you have kids? I genuinely do not think that most families need to purchase life insurance for their children, unless it’s a very tiny policy to cover funeral expenses. Remember, children do not have dependents, so the only thing that needs to be a concern if they pass on is their funeral costs.

    Why: Because kids don’t have dependents or expenses to cover, they don’t need life insurance for anything beyond funeral expenses.

    Yet many people buy a universal or whole life policy for their children anyway. Why do that? There are actually a few reasons for it.

    First of all, doing so serves as life insurance in case they do die young and thus alleviates funeral expenses for you. This is something that a term policy could handle anyway.

    Second, buying such a policy when the person is a child means that you, as a parent, are the one that’s going to pay for the “rough years” of the policy where the cash value isn’t growing very fast. By the time you hand over the reins of the policy to them in adulthood, the cash value will be growing nicely and it will be a good deal for them to continue the policy.

    There’s also the advantage of obtaining a policy before a long-term health problem would be exposed in the child, which would make it very difficult for them to get life insurance later on.

    Are those reasons enough to get your child such a policy? It really depends on your financial state. If you’re struggling to make ends meet and keep the bills paid, I wouldn’t view such a policy as a priority, but if you are in a healthy financial state and spend significantly less than you earn, there are good reasons for making such a purchase.

    Why: If you want to set your kids up for success in the future, you might consider buying them a whole or universal life insurance policy now.

    If I’m on a budget, what’s the best type of life insurance for me to get?

    If money’s tight but you still want to make sure you get enough coverage to really safeguard your loved ones, you might be wondering, “Which is better, term or whole life insurance?” When you’re comparing costs for term life vs. whole life policies, you’ll see a clear winner emerge every time: term.

    In the term life vs. whole life insurance debate, pricing is the one area where whole coverage just can’t touch term. So when you’re on a budget, the best type of life insurance is a term policy.

    Plus, you’re not necessarily locking yourself into the term. In many cases, you can convert a term life insurance policy into permanent insurance (whole or universal life insurance). If you think you might want to convert your term policy later on, ask about that when you’re gathering quotes to get a full idea of your options.

    The right policy for your needs

    If you’ve decided that a particular type of policy is right for you, spend some time independently figuring out how large of a policy you’d like to get. If you have dependents and are getting a term policy to care for them after your passing, you’ll probably want a term policy with a sizable benefit to ensure that those people in your life don’t suffer for your death. While it’s hard to figure out the “right” number here, I’ve found that this calculator at lifehappens.org has some pretty sensible results. Just put in the numbers that it calls for and it’ll give you a good estimate of how much life insurance you should get.

    Once you have a benefit number in mind, consider how long you want the term to be. My suggestion is that if you’re a parent, you should get a term that covers all of the years until your children would graduate from college.

    With those numbers in hand, start shopping around. Get quotes from several different insurance companies, then research those companies to find out how stable they are and how long of a history they have. For most policies, the state will step in to back up the policy if the company goes bankrupt, but for larger policies, you’re going to want to be very confident in the long-term health of the company.

    Insurance salespeople will promote all kinds of products to you. Take them with a grain of salt. Keep your eye on the ball and keep it simple. Most of those extras that they’re promoting really have no value to you at all, no matter how sweet they make them sound.

    Find the Best Life Insurance

    Save money on life insurance with our simple comparison tool.

    Matching you with providers.
    We found results in
    Click at least 2-3 companies to find the very best rate.

      Powered by HomeInsurance.com (NPN: 8781838)

      Simplified term, whole and universal life insurance

      When you’re shopping for life insurance, you have three options:

      • Term life insurance, which is the cheapest type of life insurance. In exchange for your premiums, your beneficiaries get the death benefit stated in your policy if you die within the policy’s set term, which is usually 10, 20 or 30 years.
      • Whole life insurance, which is a permanent policy — meaning it lasts your lifetime. Whole life insurance also includes a cash value component that grows at a steady rate over time.
      • Universal life insurance, also called adjustable life insurance, is another type of permanent life insurance. It allows you to adjust the death benefit and premiums of your policy through the years. Also, the cash value component of your policy is tied to a market rate, meaning it can fluctuate over time based on the way your policy performs.

      To find the best policy for your needs, it’s crucial to shop around. Make sure to compare policies and offers before you settle on a policy that will adequately protect your family.

      Kacie Goff

      Contributing Writer

      Kacie Goff is a personal finance and insurance writer with over five years of experience covering personal and commercial coverage options. Kacie founded Jot Content, a full-service content agency, in 2018. She lives in Ventura, CA, with her husband and dingo-look alike dog, Babou. When she’s not writing, you can find Kacie practicing yoga, working in her garden or scoping out a new happy hour.

      Reviewed by

      • Aylea Wilkins
        Aylea Wilkins
        Insurance Editor

        Aylea Wilkins is an editor specializing in insurance for The Simple Dollar. After getting a degree in European studies and editing from Brigham Young University, she worked as a writer and editor for a variety of small websites before transitioning to the insurance field.