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How Much Life Insurance Do You Need?

Calculating how much life insurance you need

Written By Doug Mitchell

Doug Mitchell, CLU holds a BA degree in Finance from Auburn University as well as having obtained a Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU) designation from The American College in Bryn Mahr, PA.  Doug has spent close to 30 years in the insurance and financial planning industry and has held licenses to sell securities, long-term care insurance, health.  Doug is also a financial blogger addressing the topics of life insurance, annuities and retirement income planning.

Holly Mitchell  &

Holly Mitchell’s background in life insurance insurance goes back to 1985 when she worked for her father who was a New York Life agent. Holly has a marketing degree from Auburn University and has had a life insurance license since 2008. In addition to advising life insurance for customers all around the country, Holly is our website fact checker.

Rob Pinner   &

Rob Pinner is the founder and CEO of Pinner Financial Services servicing all 50 states. Rob started his insurance career in 2002.

Louis LaBash

Results-driven and innovative life insurance professional with 30 plus years of life insurance industry sales and marketing experience. Recognized as a pioneer in the field, leveraging phone and internet channels to exceed personal sales of over $100 million during the first decade of the 21st century. Creator of a highly effective intuitive IUL life insurance sales software that facilitated the sale of millions of dollars of indexed universal policies by numerous life insurance agents. Proven track record as a Managing General Agent (MGA), Life Agent, IUL Life Insurance Sales Software developer, and leading-edge creator of insurance marketing tools, educational content, and delivery systems.

Table of Contents

We often get through life by making educated guesses. You’re fixing dinner, using a recipe you’ve never used and suddenly realize you don’t have the rosemary leaves the culinary website or cookbook calls for. So you use basil and hope for the best.

And from what I’ve seen, we do the same thing with life insurance. We pick a nice round number that sounds good, and if the premiums are affordable, we go with that.

How Much Life Insurance Do You Really Need?

There’s nothing wrong with making an educated guess if it’s really backed by some education. But, boy, I’d like to see people think a little more, and gather a little more information, before they buy a life insurance policy.

I’m not the only one who feels this way…

What Do Experts Think?

Martin M. Shenkman, a personal financial specialist and certified public accountant in Paramus, New Jersey had this to say:

Very few people really do the type of analysis that they should be doing with life insurance. They just pick a round number that sounds good. That’s very arbitrary for what might be the most important financial decision you make.” He adds, “People will spend an incredible amount of time picking out a car. Well, I think life insurance a little bit more important than your new car. I admit it’s not as cool as your new car, and it’s not as much fun of a purchase, but God forbid you bite the dust.”

And it isn’t just that people are under-insured themselves. It can go both ways.

“I’ve seen people over-estimate it,” says Michael Goodman, a certified public accountant and personal financial specialist with Wealthstream Advisors in New York City. “But more often than not, they under-estimate.”

Neither may be the worst thing in the world. If you’re over-insured, you are wasting money — but if something does happen to you, your beneficiaries will probably be glad you overcompensated on life insurance.

What If I’m Under-Insured?

If you under-insure your family, assuming your spouse makes a good living, and your kids are old enough that they’re going to be earning a living in the near future, everything will probably work out well enough. And certainly, under-insuring is better than not insuring at all.

But what if your spouse makes nothing close to what you make — and something would happen to you when you’re young? After the money runs out, would your spouse have to take on two jobs?

Would your family eventually have to sell the house and downsize? Would there be enough money around to send the kids to a good college? It’s that sort of misfire in educated guessing that can destroy, well, your kids’ education.

Life Insurance Policy Size: 3 Factors to Consider

Fortunately, it isn’t that hard, but it does take some thinking. And the more thinking you do, the better off your family is going to be.

Goodman says that there are usually at least three factors you’ll need to consider. “They probably won’t apply to everyone,” he adds.

1. Debts

First, are there any debts that you have that somebody else would be responsible for?”

Goodman asks, citing a mortgage. If a car payment is often in the mix, however, you’ll probably want to include enough money to pay that off, and if you have a lot of credit card debt, you’ll definitely want to think about having enough life insurance to pay that off — especially if your spouse is a co-signer.

“I’ve seen people get out of it,” Goodman says, “but if the credit card companies will try to come after the spouse and kids and get money out of the estate if there’s money there.”

OK, so you probably do want to think about those credit cards. And don’t forget about student loans, if you or your spouse still have significant debt that you’re paying off.

2. Responsibilities In Life

Secondly,” Goodman says, “you want to think about any responsibilities you have, like college for your kids that you want to make sure are funded.”

And something to keep in mind, if your children are young. As expensive as college is today, it’s going to be far worse 10 or 20 years from now. You want to be thinking about what a college education may cost when your kids are ready for college and not what it would cost now.

According to Bloomberg, college costs have climbed 500 percent since 1985. (Depressing stuff, right? I think this is why I’m not invited to more parties.)

It’s no secret that college is more expensive than ever nowadays, and it is not uncommon for college graduates of the 21st century to be saddled with debt that will last for decades.

If you’re like most parents, you’ve probably already started saving for your child’s education, but whatever amount you do end up saving probably won’t be enough (tuition costs have been going up every year, going far beyond normal inflation rates). So, you’ll naturally want to factor college expenses into your life insurance value.

3. The Age of Your Child

Thirdly,” Goodman continued, “is there anybody counting on me for any kind of income stream or help over time? That could be a spouse who doesn’t work, or it could be a parent or sibling who depends on you, and of course, if you have kids.”

Goodman says that you should calculate whatever those numbers come out to be, and then look at what’s in the bank account (and will likely stay there). Whatever the difference is, is what you need.

Calculating how much tuition your child will need is harder the younger your child is. This is because, if current patterns continue, it is going to be much more expensive than it is now.

For example, average tuition costs have more than doubled in the past 20 years. If you have only recently become a parent, tuition could very well be double what it is now by the time your child is in college. So, you should revise your insurance policy amount periodically as your child ages.

Alternative Strategy: Get Enough to Live Off the Interest

Shenkman suggests getting enough insurance so that your beneficiary can put it in an account and live off the interest.

I know that’s going to be too steep of a goal and price for a lot of families — for instance, Shenkman says that would probably mean buying a $2.5 million life insurance policy if you want your family to live off $100,000 a year — and he concedes that it’s not going to be necessary if your spouse has a high-paying job that he or she loves.

Still, it’s that type of thinking that’s so important if you want to make a good attempt at getting the right amount of life insurance you need.

Other Factors To Consider

You may not feel you can protect your family from every financial emergency through your life insurance, but keep in mind that your spouse could be laid off from her or his great job. And if so, is he or she is the type of industry where you can bounce back easily?  Do you want to contribute to your kids’ weddings? Do you want to help out your parents if they’re aging and struggling?

You don’t want to spend so much on life insurance, of course, where you’re in a situation that you have a possible financially awesome future set up for your family — but as long as you’re alive, you’re all going to be in the poorhouse. You want premiums that you can manage just fine, and it may be that you can’t budget for every possible scenario your family may face in the future.

But I’m just bringing up all these possible expenses because you never know what might happen, and if you want to help your beneficiaries, and you’re in the financial position to do so, you need to be thinking far beyond simply picking a big round number that sounds good.

And, really, planning and thinking about how much money your family might need if you’re gone is a great way to help you, now and later, with your future budgeting. In any case, however, when you figure out your life insurance payout, just make sure your educated guess is more educated than simply a guess.

After all, you can return those jeans if they don’t fit. But if something would happen to you, and your family realizes that your life insurance policy was way too small, there’s no returning it for something bigger. We can calm your fears by helping you with a life insurance final expense policy from the best-rated term life insurance companies that will take care of your funeral costs and put your mind at ease.

Perhaps you’re older and wondering if you can get life insurance quotes over 60. If so, we can answer your questions and help you get the coverage you deserve.

Understanding the Different Types of Insurance Policies

As you shop, you’ll encounter two major types of life insurance: term insurance and whole life insurance. These policies are the most standard; however, some companies offer additional options – especially for those people who don’t traditionally qualify.

Some of these options include Universal and Variable Life Insurance. If you understand the different types of policies, then you’ll know what to ask for when it comes time.

Each policy type ultimately determines your amount of coverage. First, let’s consider the standard policies and what they’re good for.

Term Insurance

This type of policy is dependent upon a particular coverage period or set amount of living years. Typically, your beneficiaries only receive funds if you pass away within the designated period. Term life policies are ideal for both their affordability and their flexibility.

Whether you need coverage for five years or 25 years, there is a term life policy to meet your needs. You not only get to decide how much life insurance you need but also how long you need it for.

Why to Buy: Policyholders don’t have to invest to buy in; therefore, it’s a more affordable option. According to JD Power, “Term life insurance is good for short-term needs. Two good examples of this are to cover your children’s college education and to cover your mortgage.”

Whole Life Insurance

This policy type covers your entire life, rather than a designated couple of decades. This option is generally more expensive. The provider will sometimes invest your policy to make more money – in some cases, you may benefit from this investment.

If you are an average individual looking for comprehensive and affordable coverage, we generally recommend term life policies; however, there are some applicants who could benefit from a whole life policy.

Why To Buy: Unlike term life, whole is a permanent investment. MSN Money notes a good rule of thumb: “If it is more than 20 years, permanent life is probably the way to go.”

Shop Around for the Best Rates

Choosing the right amount of insurance relies on knowing what’s out there.

Different companies may offer individual incentives that you may not realize until you start browsing. allows you to set terms, compare rates, and choose a company that’s in line with your budget.

Do compare similar products from insurance companies. Don’t make a hurried decision. The more time you spend shopping around for the best rates and coverage, the better the chances that you’ll choose the right amount of coverage.

Deciding on the right amount of insurance isn’t impossible. What’s holding you back from purchasing life insurance? Waiting for someone to approach you isn’t the answer.

The same study from notes, “Among consumers who said they wanted to review their coverage or thought they might need more, half shopped for life insurance.”

Only half of the consumers realize that to get a deal they need to browse what’s out there. Which half of the population will you be a part of? In the end, shopping around will help you evaluate exactly the options you need while reviewing what’s available.

If you’ve already started shopping, what are some of the frustrations you’ve encountered when making sense of the available policies and options that weren’t covered above? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Picture of Doug Mitchell, CLU

Doug Mitchell, CLU

Doug Mitchell, CLU holds a BA degree in Finance from Auburn University as well as having obtained a Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU) designation from The American College in Bryn Mahr, PA. Doug has spent close to 30 years in the life insurance and financial planning industry and has held licenses to sell securities, long-term care insurance, health. Some other notable items about Doug: Top of the Table Million Dollar Round Table member (MDRT). (MDRT is a global, independent association of the world’s leading life insurance advisors) | Premier Partner with Lincoln Financial and Cabinet Member | Served two years as President of the Auburn/Opelika Association of Financial Advisors | Life Millionaire status at Horace Mann Insurance Company and was awarded the Life Agent of the Year Award | New York Life, Executive Council Member | Currently serves as President of Ogletree Financial, a life insurance General Agency. | Doug is also a financial blogger addressing the topics of life insurance, annuities and retirement income planning.

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