How to Buy Life Insurance

How to buy life insurance

Choosing the right type of life insurance policy and its death benefit can be confusing. Not too long ago, I published a guest post from Baruch Silverman of The Smart Investor on the different types of life insurance. In this post, you’ll learn how to buy life insurance.  Specifically, I’ll help you evaluate which, if any, of those types of policies fit your situation and how to select your death benefit.

Why are You Buying It?

The first thing you want to consider is why you are buying life insurance. Three common purposes are:

  • the death benefit.
  • the investment returns.
  • sheltering gifts to your heirs from income taxes.

Death Benefit

If your primary purpose for purchasing life insurance is the death benefit, you’ll want to focus on term and whole life insurance.

Investment Portfolio

Some people use life insurance similar to other financial securities (such as stocks and bonds). Variable life and universal life have investment components to them. In simplified terms, the total amount you pay as premium for these types of life insurance is split between the amount to cover the cost of a whole life policy and the excess which can be invested. As such, the life insurer doesn’t invest the portion of premium related to the death benefit.  Further, the life insurer reduces the excess to cover its expenses, a risk charge and its profit margin before investing it.

Variable and universal life policies include the cost of whole life insurance.  Thus, only people who want the coverage provided by whole life insurance might consider using life insurance as part of their investment portfolio. Even then, the returns may not be as high as other investment vehicles with similar risk because of the additional costs charged by the life insurer.

Tax Shelter

Sheltering gifts to your heirs from income taxes only applies to the very wealthy (those who have more than $11 million in assets). I’m assuming that the vast majority of my readers aren’t in this situation, so won’t address it here.

Other Considerations

All types of life insurance can have an indirect impact on your investment portfolio. If you purchase life insurance in an amount that will cover your dependents’ basic living expenses, it allows you the option to invest your portfolio in riskier assets in anticipation of getting higher returns. That is, the death benefit itself could be considered a low-risk investment.  It reduces your overall portfolio risk when added to the other assets you own.

Do I Need Life Insurance?

Some people don’t need the death benefit from life insurance. In that case, it doesn’t make sense to buy life insurance as an investment security either. In the last section of this post, I provide the details of estimating your target death benefit. People whose target death benefit is zero are those who don’t need life insurance.   Briefly, characteristics of people who have a target death benefit of zero are:

  • Their available assets are more than their debts. Available assets exclude any illiquid assets (such as any real estate or personal property they own), savings for their dependents’ retirement (but not their retirement as they don’t need retirement savings after you die), emergency savings and any savings designated for large purchases.
  • They have enough money to cover their dependents’ education expenses.
  • Their dependents can support themselves on their existing income plus your available assets, including being able to make debt payments as they are due or after using available assets to pay off any debts.
  • They have enough money to pay any end-of-life expenses related to their death.

If you aren’t sure if you meet these criteria, keep reading!

Term vs. Whole

If  you’ve decided that you are buying life insurance for the death benefit, you need to decide whether term life or whole life insurance will better meet your needs. The primary differences between the two options are the length of time you need the insurance and the cost.

Term Life

If you think you will need life insurance for a limited period of time, term life insurance is likely better for you. For example, you might have dependents who aren’t currently able to cover their living expenses and the cost of any debt.  In that case, you might want to buy life insurance that will pay off your debts and support your dependents until they are independent.  If your needs change, many insurers will let you convert a term life insurance policy to a whole life policy without having to provide medical information or have a physical, one or both of which are often pre-requisites for purchasing whole life insurance.

Term life premiums are constant over the term of any policy you purchase. However, if you buy a policy when you are older, the premium will be higher than if you buy the same policy when you are younger.

Whole Life

If you think you will need life insurance for your entire life, whole life insurance is likely better for you. For example, if you have a spouse or disabled children who will never be able to support themselves, whole life insurance could supplement your savings to help make sure they are able to live more comfortably, regardless of when you die.

In addition to the death benefit, whole life insurance gives you the option to borrow money. As you pay premium, life insurers designate a portion of your premium as the cash value. The cash value is always owned by the insurance company, but you are able to borrow an amount up to the cash value at any time without prior approval, any collateral or impact on your credit score. The interest rates on cash-value loans are less than many other sources, particularly credit cards. If you die before the loan is re-paid, the amount of the loan will be deducted from your death benefit.

Cost Comparison

Whole life insurance is much more expensive than term life when you are young, but eventually becomes less expensive.

Probability of Dying

The graph below provides some initial insights into the difference in cost between whole life and term life, as it shows the probability that you will die at each age. I calculated the values based on 2016 data from the Social Security web site.

Not surprisingly, the probability you will die increases at each age. If you buy whole life insurance, it will cover the entire portion of the graph from your current age until you die. As such, there is a 100% probability that the life insurer will pay your death benefit (assuming you continue to pay your premiums). It is just a question of when.

If you buy a 20-year term policy and you are 30 years old, only the deaths that occur in the portion of the graph below highlighted in green would be covered. That is, you will receive the death benefit if you die between ages 30 and 50 and will get nothing if you die after age 50.

The probability you will die is much smaller in this narrow window than the 100% probability you will die at some point.

Present Value of the Death Benefit

There are many factors that determine the premium for term life and whole life insurance policies, but the most important component relates to the death benefit. Actuaries (who help price life insurance) usually base the portion of premium related to the death benefit as the present value of the death benefit expected to be paid, on average, in each year.

One-Year Term Policy

The chart below shows the present value for $1 of death benefit for several sample policies. For illustration only, I have calculated the present values using a 3% interest rate and the probabilities of dying from the charts above.

The easiest way to see the impact of the increasing probability of dying is to look at the present value of the death benefit for a 1-Year Term Life policy. You can see it increases from almost zero (actually $0.0015 per dollar of death benefit) at age 25 to $0.042 per dollar of death benefit at age 70 which corresponds exactly to the increase in the probability of dying at each age.

Policies with Longer Terms

There are also increases in the present value of the death benefit for the Whole Life and 20-Year Term Life policies as the age you first start buying the policy increases.

You can also see that the present value of the death benefit at age 25 for the Whole Life policy is much, much larger than the present value for either of the two term life policies. This relationship corresponds to the graphs above which compared the probability of dying in a 20-year period as compared to the 100% probability that you will die at some point.

The difference between the Whole Life and 20-Year Term Life policies is fairly small at age 70, because there is a high probability that you will die between age 70 and 90 – the period covered by the 20-Year Term Life policy. In fact, almost 80% of people age 70 will die during the 20-Year Term Life policy period.  As such, the present value of the death benefit for a 20-Year Term Life policy at age 70 is very roughly 80% of the present value of the death benefit for a Whole Life policy.

Annual Premium

The insurance company collects premium over the full life of the insurance policy to cover the present value of the death benefit. That is, you don’t pay all of your premium to the insurance company in one lump sum, but rather on an annual or monthly basis.

Unless you die during the policy term of the Term Life policy, you will pay premium for more years under a Whole Life policy than under a Term Life policy. Therefore, the differences you see above are larger than the differences in premium payments.

Illustration

The chart below shows the annualized amount of the loss costs. That is, I divided the present values of the death benefits by the average number of years an insured is expected to pay their premium. For example, for the 20-Year Term Life policy, the denominator was calculated as the sum of the probabilities that the insured would be alive in each of the 20 years and therefore able to pay his or her premium.

Post 49 Estimated Premium

Although these relationships are not precise, they are roughly representative of the differences in annual premium you might pay for the different types of policies at different ages. At age 25, the annual cost of a Whole Life policy in this illustration is roughly three times the cost of either of the Term Life policies. By age 70, the annual cost of a Whole Life policy is less than the cost of 20-Year Term Life policy because, while the present value of the death benefit isn’t all that different between the two policies, people who buy Whole Life policies make more premium payments, on average.

Reality vs. Illustration

It is important to understand that I prepared these examples as illustrations to help you understand the differences between Whole Life and Term Life insurance premiums. In practice, life insurers use different tables showing the probability of dying and different interest rates than I used for illustration, as well as using more sophisticated methods for calculating the present value of the death benefit and including provisions for expenses, risk and profit.

In practice, I’ve seen estimates that Whole Life annual premiums are anywhere from three to fifteen times more than Term Life premium at young ages. As you are looking at your options, you’ll want to get several premium quotes, as they vary widely depending on your age, location, gender, health and many other factors.

How Much to Buy

As with any financial decision, there are two conflicting factors that will influence the amount of the death benefit you buy on a life insurance policy – your budget and your financial needs. In the section, I will talk about how to estimate the best (i.e., target) death benefit for your situation. Once you’ve selected an amount, you can get quotes from several insurers to see whether the premium for that death benefit will fit in your budget or whether you will need to find the best balance between premium affordability and death benefit for you.

Rules of Thumb

Not surprisingly, there are some rules of thumb for guiding your selection of a death benefit. Some of the ones I’ve heard are:

  • Three to five times your salary
  • Ten times your total earned income (i.e., salary, value of benefits and bonus)
  • Ten times your total earned income plus $100,000 per child for college

Rules of thumb like these can provide some insights, but they, by definition, can’t take into account your personal circumstances.

Tailored Approach

A better approach for selecting a death benefit is to analyze your own finances and goals for buying life insurance.   I suggest calculating your target death benefit as the total of the amounts needed to meet your goals, considering the following components.

Debt

If you have debt, you’ll want to consider whether your dependents will be able to continue to make the payments on the debt out of their own income. For example, if your spouse’s earned income is high enough to continue to make your mortgage payments, along with all of the other expenses he or she will need to cover if you die, then you might not need to include the remaining principal on your mortgage as a component of your target death benefit. On the other hand, if you are concerned about your dependents’ ability to continue payments on any debt, you’ll want to include the outstanding principal on those debts as a component of your target death benefit. I’ll define this amount as “Debt Principal to be Pre-Paid.”

Final Expenses

When you die, your dependents will incur some one-time expenses. These expenses can include your funeral or memorial costs and professional expenses to settle your estate. I’ll call the amount of these expenses, “Final Expenses.”

Net Future Living Expenses

The next component of your target death benefit calculation is the amount you need to cover your dependents’ future living expenses.

Current Expenses

Start with your household’s total expenses from your budget. This amount will include monthly expenses for everyone in your household, the amounts you are setting aside each month for your designated savings and any amounts you are setting aside for your spouse’s retirement. To be clear, it will exclude any amounts you are saving for your own retirement.

You can eliminate any monthly expenses or amounts for designated savings for things that are only for your benefit. For example, if you spend enough money on clothes for your job to include it in your budget, you can eliminate those expenses. Similarly, you can also eliminate any expenses related to a vehicle that only you drive or designated savings to replace it.

Earned Income

You then need to calculate your dependents’ monthly earned income. This amount may be calculated in two parts – current monthly earned income and future monthly earned income. For example, your spouse may currently work part time as you are relying primarily on your income for support. If you die, your spouse may be able to work full time to increase his or her earned income. Alternately, your spouse may need some education (discussed below) to get the qualifications needed for his or her desired profession.

Extra Expenses

Next, you’ll need to calculate the amount of any expenses that your household will have because of any changes in your spouse’s availability to provide household services. For example, your spouse may work part-time while your children are in school and provide childcare after school. If your spouse starts working full time after your death, you will need to add after-school care expenses to your budget.

Time Periods

The last factor that goes into this calculation is the length of time until you think your dependents will become self-sufficient. For children, you might assume that they will become independent after they turn 18 or graduate from college. The ability of your spouse to become self-sufficient will be a function of his or her skills, education and/or need for more education and household responsibilities (e.g., childcare or elder care).

I suggest splitting the calculation of this component of your death benefit into three time periods – short-term, medium-term and long-term. For each time period, you’ll calculate your net living expenses as expenses minus income. For any periods for which income is more than expenses, set the difference to zero.

  1. Short term – During this time period, you’ll use your current monthly expenses, excluding your personal expenses, and your dependents’ current monthly earned income.
  2. Medium term – During this time period, you’ll use your current monthly expenses with adjustments for extra expenses for services currently provided by your spouse and your dependents’ future monthly earned income.
  3. Long term – During this time period, you’ll assume that your children (other than those who will always be dependent on you for care) are self-sufficient, so can eliminate all expenses related to children and their care from your expenses. You’ll use your spouse’s future monthly earned income. In many households, income in this period will exceed expenses so there may not be a need for death benefits to cover expenses in this period.

You also need to estimate how many months each of these three time periods will last.

Net Future Living Expenses

Your Net Future Living Expense amount for each time period is calculated as the number of months it will last multiplied by monthly net living expense amount. You can then calculate your total Net Future Living Expenses as the sum of the three amounts you calculated for the three time periods.

For those of you who like to see formulas instead of words, you will calculate:

  1. Short-term Net Expenses = Greater of 0 and Current Expenses – Current Income
  2. Medium-term Net Expenses = Greater of 0 and Current Expenses + Extra Expenses – Future Income
  3. Long-term Net Expenses = Greater of 0 and Future Expenses – Future Income
  4. Net Future Living Expenses = (number of months in short-term period x Short-term Net Expenses) + (number of months in medium-term period x Medium-term Net Expenses) + (number of months in long-term period x Long-term Net Expenses)

You could refine this amount by considering inflation and investment returns. Depending on your investment strategy and the time until the funds are used, your investment returns, on average, can be more than inflation. As a conservative first approximation, I suggest using the total without adjustment for inflation and investment returns.

Education

There are two types of education expenses that you might want to include in your target death benefit calculation:

  1. The portion of the cost of education for your children that you want to provide. Some people suggest $100,000 per child for college. This amount may or may not be the right amount depending on how much you expect your children to contribute to their educations, how many years of college education you want to support and what type of school they attend. Prestigious colleges can cost as much as $75,000 to $80,000 a year currently (2020), while in-state tuition (assuming your children live at home while attending college) can cost as little as $15,000 a year in some states. Other children may not go to college or may attend a trade school.
  2. The cost of any education your spouse needs or wants to allow him or her to work in a profession he or she enjoys and allows him or her to earn enough money to increase his or her independence.

Target Death Benefit Calculation

You can now calculate your target death benefit as follows:

Debt Principal to be Pre-Paid

Plus        Final Expenses

Plus        Net Future Living Expenses

Minus   Savings in excess of your real estate and personal property assets, emergency fund, designated savings and spouse’s retirement savings

Plus        Education Expenses

Minus   Amounts in existing college funds

Minus   Any amounts included in your Net Future Living Expenses designated for college

If you are single with no debt, this amount could be zero indicating that you might not need to buy life insurance. If you are married with no children, don’t have a lot of debt and have a spouse who can increase income or decrease expenses to be self-sufficient fairly quickly, you may need only a small death benefit. At the other extreme, if you have several children and a spouse who won’t be able to be financially independent for many years or ever, your target death benefit could exceed $1 million.   As you can see, the specifics of your financial situation are very important to setting a target death benefit and a rule of thumb may not work for you.

The Different Types of Life Insurance

The life insurance landscape is confusing, to put it lightly. One can get lost in the different types of policies and terminologies, such as whole life, term life, cash value, variable life, and a lot more. If you want to purchase life insurance, you need to first understand the different types, how they work, their cost and which type is right for you and your lifestyle. They fall under four basic types: term, whole, universal and variable.

But how do you make sense of all the different types to ensure that you are picking the correct and best one? Here’s a quick breakdown of the four most common types of insurance policies.

Types of Life Insurance

There are two time-frames over which you can buy life insurance – a stated term or the rest of your life. Insurance that provides benefits over a stated term is known as term life. Permanent life policies provide benefits for the rest of your life (as long as you continue to make premium payments). There are three common types of permanent life insurance – whole life, universal life and variable life.

Term Life Insurance

Term life protects the insured for a pre-determined number of years which is usually any period from 10, 15, 20 or 30 years. The length of time the insurance is in effect is the “term” of the policy. When the term ends, the policy can be renewed on an annual basis as long as the premium is paid. Most insurance companies allow the policy owner to renew until the age of 95, after which point the probability of dying is so high as to make the cost of the insurance almost the same as the death benefit. The life insurance offered by employers is usually term life with a term of one year.

Term life is the most popular type of life insurance and the most affordable. Many financial advisors recommend that you buy term life insurance instead of whole life insurance and use the money you save to invest. But remember that this is a piece of general advice and not specific because you should first consider your own needs and personal situation. What product is most appropriate for you will depend on many things.

Here are the main strengths of term life insurance.

Flexibility

Life insurance will provide cash for your beneficiary so your family can deal with the negative financial consequences of your death. Term life insurance policies are very flexible in that they easily adjust to the policyholder’s needs.

Death Benefit

Beneficiaries do not pay income taxes on death benefits from life insurance. If the policy is properly owned, the death benefits can also be free from estate taxes.

Whole Life Insurance

When you buy traditional whole life insurance, the death benefit and the premium stay the same throughout the term of the policy. As indicated in the name, the term of a whole life is your entire life or until you stop paying the premium.

As you get older, the probability that the death benefit will be paid increases leading to increases in the amount of premium needed to pay for the death benefit (as would be seen in the premium increases you would pay if you bought a series of one-year term life insurance policies). You can imagine that the cost gets very high if you live to 80 years old or more. The insurance company could just assign a premium for term life insurance that goes up each year but it will come to a point that it will be very expensive for people at advanced ages.

Under a whole life policy, the insurance companies keep the premium level by charging a premium that is higher in the early years. This premium is more than what they need to pay claims when you are younger so they invest the money and use it to help pay the cost of insurance as you get older while keeping the premium level.

The main advantages of whole life insurance are as follows.

Lifetime Guaranteed Insurance

With whole life, the insurance company guarantees a premium amount that you have to pay. This means that this amount will stay the same for the rest of your life and will not increase. You can also rest assured that your loved ones/beneficiaries will receive a guaranteed, lump-sum payment at the time of your demise. You may also choose your business to be a beneficiary if you want.

Cash Value Accumulation

Aside from having life insurance for life, whole life also allows you to build a significant cash asset, as the insurance company sets aside a portion of the premium in an account. What’s more, your cash asset under a whole life policy is not going to be dependent on the ups and downs of the market at any time. You can also borrow against the cash value portion of your whole life policy. So, in case you need money for other things in the future such as payment for a home, college funding or a business loan, you’ll have a ready source of borrowing.

Tax Benefits

Whole life insurance carries with it numerous tax benefits, one of which is the tax-advantaged buildup of cash value. Also, many whole life policies provide dividends representing a portion of the insurance company’s profits that are paid to policyholders. Whole life insurance dividends may be guaranteed or non-guaranteed depending on the policy. The good thing is that even if you are accumulating dividends on the policy, you can defer paying the tax for them. This feature is one of the reasons that make whole life slightly more expensive than both term and universal policies. But take note that the policy is not flexible like the others.

Universal Life Insurance

Universal life falls under the umbrella of permanent life insurance options. It provides more flexibility than whole life.

There are three main components of universal life.

Death Benefits

You can choose from 2 options when determining how you want the beneficiary to receive the death benefits:

• Type A Death Benefit or Level Death Benefit. It’s up to you to pick a level of the death benefit, one that starts off as a single amount and stays level or the same for the life of the policy, regardless of its cash value.

• Type B Death Benefit: The other option is a combination of a specific death benefit and then the insurance company adds the cash value accumulation feature that accumulates over the life of the policy.

The Cash Value Portion

The insurance company allocates a portion of your premiums to an interest-crediting strategy of your choosing. In the basic form of Universal Life, interest is credited at a fixed rate by the insurance company. Some policies, known as Variable Life as discussed below, allow people to invest in mutual funds.

Flexible Premiums

The owner of a universal life policy has the option to pay as much or as little premium above a stated minimum. Although this flexibility attracts many insurance customers, a good percentage find it confusing at the same time. In term life insurance, you pay a certain amount every month or every year and you already know what the death benefit will be. But here, the shifting balances of premiums and death benefits are more complicated than what the majority of people need. Plus, it comes with the same extra costs as other permanent policies.

Another major difference between universal life and whole life policies is that policyholders of universal life can pay the premiums as they desire. However, in order to remain active, the policy must have sufficient available cash value to pay for the cost of insurance.

This isn’t something that you can do with a whole life policy because you can’t change the premiums to suit your present economic situation.

Variable Life Insurance

Variable life is similar to whole life with a different treatment of the cash value component.

In whole life and universal life policies, the fund managers keep the cash value component in a savings account. Although the growth is small when compared to other investment options, there is an assurance of the minimum rate guaranteed by the insurer. The insurance company also makes dividend payments from time to time.

Investment of Cash Value

When it comes to variable life, you’d imagine that it is some type of investment vehicle. The funds are in a mutual fund-like sub-accounts where there is potential for bigger growth. But there’s also the possibility of losing money depending on how the market behaves. The insurance company places the cash value in the stock market. Unlike universal life insurance policies, the insurer of a variable life insurance policy does not guarantee that your cash value won’t decrease.

If you are seeking higher, tax-deferred growth, variable life insurance policies are better investment options than whole life policies because they are like a “super-IRA.” However, you can only invest in the sub-accounts that are available through your policy. You don’t have the option to choose from the wide variety of mutual funds that are on the open market.

While premiums for a variable life can be lower than whole life, it is riskier since the company invests in the stock market. Many people don’t know much about the stock market and don’t know how to properly manage the funds to adjust to the market conditions. An average person won’t have the necessary skills or experience to do it effectively. These features limit a variable life insurance policy as an investment option and as a life insurance choice. The limits on investment choices is common to all permanent policy types.

Cost Comparison

The premium for a term life insurance policy is less than the premium for a whole life policy in the first several years you own it.  As you get older, you are increasingly likely to die so the premium for term life insurance increases and eventually become more expensive than if you were paying for a whole life policy you started buying when you were younger.

Cost of Term Life Policies

You might think that it is a disadvantage to choosing term life. After all, you have to die first to receive money (which does not go to you at all). Every year you will have to keep paying insurance premiums so you can protect your family. The premiums are affordable so you won’t have problems making the payments. But here is where some people can’t reconcile the cost and the benefit: when the 20 years go by and the insured is still alive. The insurance company does not give back anything. The truth is, this is a fair deal because the low premium you are paying only accounts for the death benefit you will get in case you die during the term of the policy.

Cost of Permanent Policies

In contrast, if you had purchased a permanent policy, you could keep it forever. And if you opted to stop in 20 years, the insurance company would likely give you back a portion of the premiums you have paid. When you account for the dividends you’ve received, there is a chance that you’ll get back all your premiums at that point. There is no guarantee that the policy will pay dividends so the insurance companies will not include them in their projections.

In the early years, permanent policies are more expensive than term policies so you would have to consider how much you are able (or are willing) to pay when you choose your life insurance.

About Baruch Silvermann

Baruch Silvermann is a personal finance expert, investor for more than 15 years, digital marketer and founder of The Smart Investor. But above all, he is passionate about teaching people how to manage their money and helping millions on their journey to a better financial future.

Umbrella Insurance Reduces Your Risk

Umbrella insurance provides broader coverage and more limits than your auto and homeowners policy for liability claims made against you. In this post, I’ll provide:

  • An explanation of what liability is.
  • A description of what is covered under an umbrella policy.
  • An illustration of how the limits work.
  • Some examples that compare the cost of an umbrella policy to the cost of buying higher limits of liability on your auto and homeowners policies.
  • A few suggestions for deciding whether an umbrella policy might be a good purchase for you.

What is Liability

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, liability is “the responsibility of a person, business, or organization to pay or give up something of value.” In the context of insurance, it is something for which you are responsible to repair, replace or pay related to a third party (i.e., not you or your immediate family). That is, if you injure someone or damage their property, you are liable for their medical costs and lost wages and the repair or replacement cost of their property.

The most commonly considered forms of personal liability relate to your car and your residence. One component of your automobile policy is liability coverage. That coverage defends you and pays the cost (up to your limit of liability) of any injuries to other people or damage to other people’s property from accidents you cause. Similarly, your homeowners (or renters or condo-owners) policy defends you and pays the cost of any injuries to other people or damage to their property related to owning your home.   For example, if someone trips over an uneven spot in your front walk and gets injured or is injured or killed in fire in your home, the costs will be covered by your Homeowners policy.

What is Covered by an Umbrella

There are two ways in which an umbrella policy provides coverage for you:

  • It provides additional liability limits above those on your Homeowners and Auto policies.
  • It provides protection from other sources of personal liability.

Home and Auto

One of the choices you have when purchasing home and auto policies is the liability limit. Most insurers offer limits as high as $500,000 and some have limits has high as $1 million. There are many types of injuries, such a brain trauma, burns and quadriplegia, which can cost well in excess of $500,000 or even $1 million. One source estimates that the average lifetime medical cost for a 25-year-old paraplegic is $2.5 million; for a quadriplegic, $3.6 million to $5 million depending on the location of the injury. In addition, the person causing the injury could be liable for lost wages.

If you injure someone in a car accident or they are injured in your home, you are liable for the total cost of their injuries. If that total is more than the limit of liability on your policy, you are responsible for the excess. That doesn’t mean everyone will make a claim against you for the excess, but they generally have the legal right to make a claim on and, if successful, take your assets.

To reduce the likelihood that your insurance won’t be enough to cover the costs in these situations, you can purchase an umbrella policy that, in essence, increases the limits on your home and auto policies by the limit on the umbrella policy. For example, if you have a $500,000 liability limit on your auto insurance policy and purchase an umbrella policy with a $2 million limit, your insurer will pay $2.5 million to people you injure in auto accidents you cause. It is much less likely that their costs will exceed $2.5 million than $500,000 or $1 million.

Other Sources of Personal Liability

There are many sources of personal liability other than your home and cars. These include injuries or damages from:

  • pets
  • boats
  • ATVs or other “toys”
  • libel
  • slander
  • volunteer activities
  • participation in sports in which you might injure someone else
  • vacant land you own, especially if you lease it out for activities such as hunting

Generally, these sources of personal liability are covered under an umbrella policy though there are exclusions that you’ll want to check.

For example, there are exclusions that limit the coverage for motorized boats and toys and large boats, such as requiring them to be listed on the declaration page and paying a higher premium, buying an underlying policy to provide insurance for liability related to them or limiting the locations at which they are insured. If you have any of these “toys,” you’ll want to make sure that the umbrella policy you purchase is going to provide the coverage you seek.

Limits of Liability

Personal umbrella policies are generally offered with limits ranging from $1 million to $10 million. I’ve read that most people who purchase umbrella policies select a $1 million limit. Our umbrella policy has a $2 million limit, though I don’t have an analytical reason why we chose $2 million.

How Limits Work

The limits on an umbrella policy apply differently for the two types of coverage, as illustrated in the graphic below for an umbrella policy with a $2 million limit and the required liability limits of $300,000 on homeowners and $500,000 on auto.

Your homeowners and auto policies will pay the first $300,000 and $500,000, respectively, of any covered claim. The $2 million of umbrella limit applies on top of these limits, for a total of $2.3 million of liability coverage for homeowners claims and $2.5 million for auto claims. For all other types of personal liability claims, the umbrella policy starts paying immediately (after any deductible on the umbrella policy) and provides $2 million of total coverage for these claims.

I note that many umbrella policies have a small deductible. For example, ours has a $250 deductible. In the graphic above, there should be a very small layer just below the orange box that represents the deductible. In our case, we will pay the first $250 of every claim before our umbrella policy starts paying.

A Clarification about Insurance

As indicated above, if you cause an injury to someone and don’t have enough liability limit on your insurance policies, they can make a claim against your assets. An important point to understand is that insurance policies don’t “protect” or shelter any of your assets. That is, if you buy an umbrella policy with a $1 million limit, it doesn’t mean that claimants won’t be able to take some or all of that $1 million in assets. Rather, it means that claimants can only take your assets if their claims are larger than the total coverage provided by your insurance (e.g., $1 million for personal liability claims and $1 million plus the liability limit on your auto and homeowners policies for those types of claims).

Cost Comparison

I asked my insurance agent, Billy Wagner, Personal Insurance Sales Executive at PayneWest Insurance in Helena, MT, for some examples of the pricing of umbrella policies. He created three different insurance buyers to use as illustrations.

Buyer 1Single male1 carRenterNo kidsNo toys or high-risk activities (e.g., dogs that might attack, bungee jumping, local politics)
Buyer 2Family3 carsA primary home, rental property and lake cabin4 teenage driversTrampoline, pit bull, fast boat, snowmobiles, etc.
Buyer 3Empty nesters with solid credit4 cars1 houseNo kids at homeTwo canoes, volunteer work, medium risk overall

Just Auto and Home

The table below shows rough estimates of what each buyer will pay for the liability portion of their auto coverage and the total cost of their homeowners coverage all with $1 million limits.

BuyerAuto LiabilityPrimary HomeTotal at $1 million limits
1$800$1,450$2,250
24,0002,5006,500
31,5003,2504,750

Add Umbrella

If, instead, each buyer purchased the minimum limits required by the umbrella policy ($500,000 for auto liability and $300,000 for homeowners) and bought an umbrella policy with a $1 million limit, the rough costs would be those shown in the table below.

BuyerAuto Liability ($500,000)Home ($300,000)Umbrella ($1 million)Total
1$650$1,300$325$2,275
23,8002,2501,2507,300
31,2503,0006254,875

How Much More for the Umbrella?

The total costs of the two options are shown in the table below.

Buyer

$1 million/ No umbrella

UmbrellaAdditional Cost
1$2,250$2,275$25
26,5007,300800
34,7504,875125

If you are already buying $1 million limits on your auto and home policies and aren’t considered high risk, the additional cost of purchasing umbrella coverage is very small ($25 for Buyer 1 and $125 for Buyer 3). Not surprisingly, if you have high-risk drivers, lots of risky toys and participate in risky activities, the additional cost increases, as is the case for Buyer 2.

If you are buying somewhat lower limits, such as $500,000 on your auto and $300,000 on your home, your total insurance bill will increase by the cost of the umbrella coverage – in these examples ranging from about $325 for the single, low-risk insured to $1,250 for the riskier family for $1 million of coverage.   And, if you are buying low limits (such as $100,000 or less), your premium would increase by the cost of raising the limits on your underlying policies to $500,000 and $300,000 for auto and home, respectively, in addition to the cost of the umbrella itself.

How to Decide Whether to Buy

Umbrella policies aren’t for everyone. Generally, people who are the best candidates for purchasing umbrella policies are those who both:

  • Participate in activities that can lead to personal liability claims (such as those listed above), are high-risk drivers or have high-risk characteristics at their residences
  • Have assets that they want to protect

If there isn’t much risk in your life, either in your cars, residence or activities, you might decide to not buy an umbrella policy because you don’t think you will ever have any claims that would be covered by the policy.  Similarly, if you don’t have any assets someone you injure could take, it might not be worth purchasing an umbrella. However, as shown in the tables above, it might not cost much more to purchase an umbrella policy so it is something to consider as it may not have a large impact on your budget.

Higher Deductibles vs. High Limits

One way to offset the additional cost of increasing your liability limits and/or buying an umbrella is to increase your deductibles. I don’t have any specifics on the premium reduction from increasing your deductibles, but one source cited a difference between a $100 deductible and a $1,000 deductible ofvery roughly $200 per year per car. If you have one car and are low-to-medium risk, you could cover a significant portion of the cost of an umbrella policy if you carry the required auto and home limits or the full cost of the changing from a $1 million policy limit to an umbrella policy.

The Risk-Reward Trade-off

The choice of a higher deductible versus more coverage and a high limit is one of risk and reward. If you increase your deductible, you are increasing the maximum amount you will pay on each claim by a fixed amount – say the $900 difference between a $100 deductible and a $1,000 deductible. Using the $200 premium savings estimate above, the additional $200 saves you up to $900 in repair costs each time you have an accident. Even if you have 5 accidents of more than $1,000 each, the total repair cost savings would be less than $5,000. Using the $5,000 as the repair cost savings, the ratio of the premium savings to the repair cost savings is 4% (=$200/$5,000).

On the other hand, spending $325 on an umbrella policy provides you with an additional $1 million of protection if someone is seriously injured either physically or economically by something you own or your actions. If someone is awarded damages that includes the full $1 million coverage under your umbrella policy, the ratio of premium savings to liability savings is 0.03% ($325/$1 million). Of course, it is much less likely that you will cause a loss that goes through the full $1 million coverage of your umbrella and, if you didn’t have the coverage, the amount of damages for which you are sued might be lower.

The trade-off between the much smaller additional cost of repairs with the higher deductible and the potentially much higher cost of a large liability claim is something to consider, especially if you can afford to pay for the repairs to your car from accidents you cause from your budget or emergency savings.

Financial Decisions – Risk and Reward

Almost every financial decision is a trade-off between reward and risk.  In this post, I’ll use three examples to illustrate how financial decisions can be made in a risk-reward framework.  The examples are:

  1. Deciding what to buy with some extra money.
  2. Selecting a deductible for your homeowners insurance.
  3. Choosing to invest in a bond fund, an S&P 500 index fund or the stock of a single company. I’ll use Apple as the example for the single company.

Trade-offs in General

Almost all financial decisions involve some sort of a trade-off.  In this post, I used statistical metrics (e.g., standard deviation, probabilities and percentiles) to define risk.  Many financially savvy people use those types of metrics.  To get you more comfortable with the idea of this type of trade-off, I’ll use a subjective measure for the first example – deciding what to buy with some extra money.  I’ll then use statistical measures for the other two examples.

Trade-off – Purchase Example

Let’s assume your grandparents or parents gave you $1,000 for some special occasion, such as a graduation, birthday, or marriage.  You have decided to spend the money in one of the following ways.

  1. Spend $1,000 on a ski weekend.
  2. Buy a new Xbox and some games for $500.
  3. Spend $700 on clothes.
  4. Get the latest iPhone for $1,000.
  5. Don’t spend any of it.

You plan to put any money you don’t spend in your Roth Individual Retirement Account (IRA) or Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA).

In this example, I’ll define the trade-off as being between how much you enjoy your new purchase and its cost. You rank each option on a scale from 0 to 5 based on how much you will enjoy it.  You’ll want to consider the great feeling you’ll get from putting money in your IRA or TFSA, knowing that it will lead to an enjoyable retirement, as part of how much you will enjoy the options that include a contribution.

The table below might reflect your rankings:

OptionCostEnjoyment Ranking
Ski weekend$1,0003
Xbox5004
Clothes7002
iPhone1,0005
Nothing01

 

Your first inclination might be to select the iPhone because it will give you the most enjoyment. However, that doesn’t take into account the fact that it costs more than the Xbox and clothes.  Clearly, though, you prefer the iPhone to the ski weekend because you get more enjoyment for the same cost.

I always find it much easier to understand data in a graph than in a table.  The graph below shows the data above.

The x-axis (the horizontal one) represents the reduction in how much money you have after buying each item. That is, it is the negative of the cost of each purchase.  The y-axis (the vertical one) shows how much you like each item.   In this graph, you prefer things that are either up (higher ranking) or to the right (less cost).

Efficient Frontier Chart

The graph above is called a scatter plot.  In theory, there are dozens of things that you could buy, such as is shown in the graph below.

The blue dots in this graph represent the cost and your level of enjoyment of all of the options. The green line is called the “efficient frontier.”  It connects all of the points the meet the following criteria:

  • There are no other purchases with the same cost that you enjoy more.
  • There are no other purchases with the same level of enjoyment that cost less.

Making Your Choice

The “best” choices are those that fall along the efficient frontier.  You can reject any choices that aren’t on the efficient frontier as being less than optimal.

Going back to the first example, I added an approximation of the location of the efficient frontier based on the five points on the graph.

From this graph, we can see that any of buying the iPhone, buying the Xbox and some games or buying nothing are “optimal” decisions because they are on the efficient frontier.  That is, while the ski weekend has the same cost as the iPhone, you rated it as providing less enjoyment so the ski weekend is not optimal.  The clothes option is both more expensive and provides less enjoyment than the Xbox option, so it is also not optimal.

In this example, I have used the change in your financial position as the measure of “risk” and your level of enjoyment as the measure of “reward.”  Your own evaluation of the trade-off between risk and reward will determine which of the options you choose from the ones on the efficient frontier.

This example was intentionally simplistic to introduce the concepts.  I will now apply these concepts to two more traditional financial decisions – the choice of deductible on your homeowners (or condo-owners or renters) insurance policy and your first investment choice. My post about whether Chris should pay off his mortgage provides an even more complicated example.

Financial Risk & Reward Trade-Offs – Insurance Deductible Example

In this example, you are deciding which insurer and what deductible to select on your homeowners insurance.  For this illustration, I have assumed that your house is insured for $250,000 and you have a $500,000 limit of liability.  You have gotten quotes from two insurers for deductibles of $500, $1,000 and $5,000.  As discussed in my post on Homeowners insurance, the deductible applies to only the property damage coverage and not liability.

For reward, I will use the average net cost of your coverage.  That is, I will take the average amount of losses paid by the insurer and subtract the premium.  Because the insurer has expenses and a profit margin, this quantity will be a negative number.  Larger values (i.e., those that are less negative) are better (less cost to you).

For risk, I will use the total cost to you if your home has a loss of more than $5,000.  Your total cost is zero minus the sum of your deductible and your premium.  This number is negative (because outflows reduce your financial position) and larger (less negative) values are better.

The table below summarizes the six options and shows the premium, reward (average net cost) and risk (total cost if you have a large claim) metrics for each one.

InsurerDeductiblePremiumAverage Net CostTotal Cost if You have a Large Claim
1$500$1,475$-590$-1,975
11,0001,325-530-2,325
15,000850-340-5,850
25001,500-615-2,000
21,0001,200-455-2,250
25,000900-390-5,900

 

For each insurer, the premium and absolute value of your net cost decrease as the deductible increases.  The total cost if you have a large claim, though, increases as the deductible increases. When converted to financial outflows, the total cost values get larger (less negative) as the deductible goes up.

Efficient Frontier Chart

For the $500 and $5,000 deductibles, Insurer 1 has a better price.  For the $1,000 deductible, Insurer 2 has a better price.  These relationships can also be seen in the scatter plot below.

As with the scatter plot for the first example, points that are up and to the right are better than those that are down and to the left.  In this case, the efficient frontier connects the $500 and $5,000 deductible options for Insurer 1 and the $1,000 deductible option for Insurer 2.

Making Your Choice

Your choice among the three points on the efficient frontier is one of personal risk preference and your financial situation.  The $5,000 deductible option is clearly the least expensive on average, but you would need to be willing and able to spend an extra $4,000 if you had a large claim, as compared to the $1,000 deductible policy.  If you don’t have $5,000 in savings available to cover your deductible, that choice is not an option for you.

When I look at this chart, I notice that there is a fairly large reduction in the net cost from Insurer 1’s $500 deductible quote to Insurer 2’s $1,000 deductible quote.  If I have the extra $500 in savings to cover a loss if I have a claim, that looks like a good choice.  But, again, it is up to you to consider your finances and risk tolerance.

Financial Risk & Reward Trade-Offs – Investment Example

The same type of analysis can be used to evaluate different investment options.  As long as you are looking at publicly traded stocks, ETFs, mutual funds or one of several other financial instruments, you can get lots of data about historical returns from Yahoo Finance.  It is important to remember to let the historical data INFORM your decision, as the past is not always a good predictor of the future when looking at financial returns.

How to Get Data

Here is how I use Yahoo Finance to get data.

  • Go to finance.yahoo.com.
  • Find the Quote Lookup box. When I go to that site, it is usually on the right side of the screen below the scroller with the returns on various indices.
  • Type the symbol for the financial instrument for which I’m seeking data. Every publicly traded financial instrument has a symbol. For example, Apple is AAPL and the S&P 500 is ^GSPC.  I can also enter the name of the company or instrument, though it isn’t always the best at finding the one I want.  If the lookup doesn’t work very well, I use Google for the symbol of the company or financial instrument.
  • Click on the Historical Data button just above the graph with the stock price.
  • Select the time period over which you want the data in the pull-down box on the left. I usually want the full time series, so select Max.
  • Select the frequency on the right. I tend to be a long-term investor, so I always select Monthly.
  • Hit the Apply button just to the right of the frequency selection.
  • Hit Download Data just below the Apply button. It will ask you the format in which you want the data.  I always select Excel.  You’ll get a spreadsheet with one tab with your data on it.

There will be several columns in the spreadsheet that downloads from Yahoo Finance.  I usually use the Date and Adjusted Close columns.  Stocks can split (meaning you get more shares but they are worth less) and companies can issues dividends (which mean you get cash).  If I just look at the closing price at the end of each month, it won’t reflect splits. Since I’m interested in total return, I want my data to reflect the benefit of dividends.  The Adjusted Close column adjusts the closing stock price for both splits and dividends.

Investment Choices

In this example, we will assume that you have $10,000 you want to invest.  To keep the analysis somewhat simple, we will also assume that you are going to buy only one financial instrument.  Here are links to more information about diversification and the benefits of buying more than one financial instrument.  The choices you consider are:

  • An S&P 500 index fund – an exchange-traded fund or mutual fund that is intended to produce returns similar to the S&P 500. Symbol on Yahoo Finance is ^GSPC
  • A Nasdaq composite index fund – an exchange-traded fund or mutual fund that is intended to produce returns similar to the Nasdaq composite. Symbol on Yahoo Finance is ^IXIC.
  • Fidelity investment grade bond fund – a Fidelity-managed mutual fund that invests in a basket of high-quality corporate bonds. Symbol on Yahoo Finance is FBNDX.
  • Tweedy Browne Global Value Fund – a mutual fund that focuses on international stocks.Symbol is TBGVX.
  • Boeing – A manufacturer of commercial and military aircraft. Boeing’s stock symbol is BA.  For more information about stocks, check out this post.
  • Apple – No need to explain this one! Its stock symbol is AAPL.
  • Neogen – A small company that develops and sells tests of food for pathogens. Stock symbol is NEOG.

Riskiness of Choices

Here is a box and whisker plot of the risk of these seven options.  See my previous post for a discussion of risk and box and whisker plots.

In addition to showing the 5th, 25th, 75thand 95thpercentiles, I added a blue horizontal line showing the average return over the 15-year time period for each investment.

Risk Metric – Standard Deviation

For most financial decisions, I look at the average result (e.g., average cost, average return, etc.) as my measure of reward.  As illustrated in the first example, you can use any measure you want, including a subjective one like how much you will enjoy something.  There are many, many risk metrics from which to choose.  If you are interested in overall volatility (deviations both up and down from the average), standard deviation is a good metric.

The chart below show the scatter plot of these investments using the average return as the reward metric and standard deviation as the risk metric.

In this plot, points to the right are better because they represent higher reward.  Points that are LOWER are also better, because they correspond to less risk.  I’ve drawn the efficient frontier for these points as being the ones that are furthest to the right and lowest on the chart.  Using these two metrics, the bond fund, Tweedy Browne (the international mutual fund), Boeing and Apple are on the efficient frontier.  If these metrics are right for you, the other investments are less than optimal.  The choice among the investments on the efficient frontier will be based on your willingness to tolerate extra volatility to achieve a higher average return.

Metrics – Probability of Negative Return

If your investment objective is capital preservation and you have a very short time horizon (one month in this example), you might want to look at the probability that the return will be less than zero in any one month as your risk metric.  (If the return is less than zero, your investment will be worth less at the end of the month than the beginning of the month.)

The scatter plot below shows how the location of the points changes if we replace standard deviation in the chart above with the probability that the return will be less than zero in any one month.

Using the probability the return is less than zero causes the S&P 500 to be even worse relative to the efficient frontier than it was when we used standard deviation.  The change in metric also causes Neogen to move down onto the efficient frontier and Boeing to move just slightly above it. These two charts show how our evaluation of the various options can change if we select different metrics.

On a side note, I want to alert you to the importance of looking at the scale of a graph.  The scatter plot below is identical to the one above except I have changed the scale on the y-axis.  Instead of starting at 30%, it starts at 0%

By changing the scale, I have made the differences in risk look much smaller in the second chart than in the first chart.  In my mind, the 31% probability that the monthly return will fall below 0% of the Bond Fund is significantly less than the 42% probability for Apple.  The second chart makes it look almost trivial. As you are looking at graphs in any context, you’ll want to be alert for that type of nuance.

Closing Thoughts

The goal of this post was to help improve financial decision-making process by providing insights into a helpful framework.  While you may not create graphs such as the ones in this post, you will be better able to think about risk, what features of risk are important to you and how to balance it with reward.  These new tools will help you make better financial decisions.

 

6 Tips About Homeowners and Renters Insurance

Homeowners, condo-owners and renters insurance policies cover you for loss or damage to your property and liability that emanates from your residence.  All three policies cover your belongings regardless of where they are as well as injuries to others that happen at your residence. In addition, a condo-owners policy protects you against damage to the part of your condo that you own (generally the walls in).  A homeowners policy protects you against damage to your home and any other structures. While that seems quite straightforward, there are some nuances that make the coverage more complicated. In this post, I’ll provide you six tips that will help you better understand your coverage.  In the rest of the post, I will use the term “homeowers” to include both condo-owners and renters.

1 – Read your homeowners policy

If you’ve read some of my previous posts (such as this one), tip #1 isn’t a surprise!  An insurance policy is a contract and, like any other contract, I recommend you read and understand it.  To be clear, I’m referring to the 30-or-so-page document with the details of your coverage, not your declaration page which is the 2-3-page summary of what you bought.  I get a paper copy of each of my insurance policies every year. If you don’t get one in the mail, you may need to ask for one or visit your insurer’s website to get a copy.

With insurance, it is a little less critical to read the policy before you buy it, as there isn’t anything you can do to change the policy wording itself.  The wording of personal insurance policies is approved by the state or provincial insurance regulators.  Nonetheless, you’ll want to read your policy to make sure you understand what is and isn’t covered. An insurance policy is actually fairly easy to read.  My recollection from when I took actuarial exams a gazillion years ago is that the policy must be readable at the sixth grade level. So, while it has a lot of pages, it shouldn’t take you more than a half hour to read the policy (maybe a little longer the first time).

2 – Carefully check your declaration page

Your declaration page lists all of the coverages you purchased, the dollar amount of limit you bought for each coverage, the locations that are insured and any endorsements you purchased.  You’ll want to check this document before you buy.   Here are several things to check:

Is the location right?

It probably is. However, I reviewed a relative’s policy one time and saw that his rental property was missing from the declaration page.  If there had been damage to the rental property, my relative would have had to first prove that the insurer or agent made a mistake by not including the rental property and then could have made a claim.  Fortunately, by reviewing the declaration page for him, I found that the rental property had been omitted before he had a claim.

Do the limits make sense?

  • If you own a home or condo, does the structure limit seem reasonable?  Remember it is the cost to re-build your house or condo. For many years, that amount was much higher than I paid for my house, as existing homes were much less expensive than building a new home.  In “hot” markets, the re-build cost could be lower. So, be sure to think about the re-build cost, not the market value.
  • Do you have any other structures, such as detached garages or workshops?  If not, you don’t need much limit for other structures. If so, make sure the limit is high enough to re-build those structures.
  • How much would it cost to replace all your “stuff,” known as personal property?  In most jurisdictions, the personal property limit on a homeowners policy is automatically set to 50% of the limit for the house.  That amount may be right on average, but isn’t necessarily right for each individual. When I lived in California, housing prices were very high.  As a young homeowner, my personal property was not worth anywhere near 50% of the replacement cost of my home. For places with a very low cost of housing, the opposite can be true.  You can’t change the personal property limit in some jurisdictions, but it doesn’t hurt to ask if this limit doesn’t look reasonable. If you have a condo-owners or renters policy, you get to select the limit.  (In Tip 5, I talk about creating an inventory with photos. It will be helpful for estimating your limit, too.)
  • Do the limits on specific items, such as jewelry, musical instruments and collector coins, need to be raised?  Not all policies have the same items with these types of limits, so be sure to check your declarations page if you own any individual items or collections that are particularly valuable.  Most insurers can add an endorsement (essentially a few extra paragraphs that change the terms of your policy) to increase these limits.

Are there coverages you don’t need?

There are a large number of other types of endorsements that either restrict or add coverage.  The names of the endorsements on your policy are listed on your declaration page and the wording should be attached to your policy form.  If not, ask for it! Take a look at these coverages to make sure that there aren’t any that you shouldn’t be buying. I had one relative who reviewed his declaration page and found that he was paying for sump pump failure coverage.  That endorsement covers repairs due to water seepage when a sump pump fails. His house didn’t have a sump pump, so the coverage was unnecessary. It is harder to figure out if there are endorsements you should have that you don’t. If you are insuring your first home or condo, you might want to talk to your agent or insurer to review the types of endorsements available to figure out which ones you might want to purchase.

3 – Make sure you understand what isn’t covered

A homeowners policy does not provide coverage against everything that can happen.  In fact, the policy includes a long list of causes of loss or perils that are not covered.  Many of them are not covered because they are under the control of the insured. That is, if the insured does something to cause a loss or neglects to do something that could have prevented a loss, it is considered intentional.  Intentional acts can’t be insured.

Other perils, floods in particular, are not covered because the potential losses are considered (at least by the government) to be so widespread as to be too big for the insurance industry.  If you live in a flood zone, you can buy flood insurance from the National Flood Insurance Program.

Some perils, such as earthquakes, are not covered because they are so expensive that insurers require you to purchase them separate from the rest of the policy.  By separating the very expensive coverage, the rest of the coverage becomes more affordable. When I lived in California, the cost of earthquake coverage was more than the cost of the rest of my homeowners policy.  In addition, the earthquake coverage had a 10% deductible. I chose to not buy the earthquake coverage because it didn’t fit in my budget. Fortunately, we didn’t have any earthquake damage.

There are several sections of a homeowners policy that identify exactly what is and isn’t covered, so be sure to look for all of them.

4 – Be aware of little extras that are covered

You may be surprised by some of the costs that are insured under a homeowners policy.  You’ll want to make sure you are aware of them so you can recover the full amount you are due from your insurer.   One example is additional living expense coverage.

Additional living expense coverage pays for the increase in your living expenses so you can maintain your normal standard of living if your residence is uninhabitable due to an insured peril.  It also provides coverage if you are required to evacuate due to an emergency. That is, if you need to rent an apartment for several months or stay in a motel for a while, it will be reimbursed by your insurer.  Any reimbursement will be reduced by the portion of your deductible that wasn’t used by the damage itself.

As an example, there was a fire in a transformer in my mother’s condo building.  The building was declared uninhabitable for a little over a week. In addition, the smoke was bad enough that her walls, ceilings and all of her belongings had to be cleaned.  It turned out the ceiling had asbestos that had to be removed. The building insurance covered the asbestos abatement and cleaning, but she was responsible for the rest of her costs so submitted them to her insurer.  Her insurer not only paid to replace her belongings that were damaged by the smoke (such as her TV and computer), but also the cost of her plane ticket to my house for her initial evacuation period and the cost of a residential hotel for a month while her condo was cleaned and abated.

There are several other such extras, including financial loss if someone forges your signature and worldwide coverage for loss or damage to your personal property (not just when it is in your home).  You can find out more about these coverages when you read your policy. (Hint, hint.)

5 – Be ready if you have a claim

A homeowners insurance policy has a list of duties for the insured in the event of a claim.  These duties include promptly notifying your insurer or agent, notifying the police if there is a crime and protecting the property from further damage.  When you have a loss, the insurer may send someone fairly quickly to help you prevent further damage, such as drying carpet and furniture to try to avoid having to replace it or tarping or boarding up windows or roof damage.

Keeping an inventory of your belongings is one of the most important things you can do (and one that I have been remiss in doing).  If part or all of your residence is destroyed, such as in a fire, you’ll need to provide the insurer with a list of what was lost, including the quantity, replacement cost and age.  Obviously, it is impossible to keep a list of every item you own! The most important things to put on the list are those that are valuable – electronics, cameras, furniture, jewelry and watches, collectibles and the like.  It is particularly helpful, especially for unique items, if you take pictures of the items and the receipts and store them outside your residence (e.g., on the Cloud). If you have a loss, you will be able to access that information as documentation for the insurer.

6 – As always, buy the highest deductible and highest liability limits you can afford

A deductible is the amount that you pay on each claim before the insurer starts reimbursing you for your loss.  On a homeowners policy, the deductible applies only to the property coverages, not liability. When an insurer sets the premium for a policy, it has certain expenses and often a profit margin that are essentially percentages of the losses it pays to or on behalf of insureds.  So, if you buy a lower deductible, the losses paid by the insurer will go up. Your premium, though, will go up by the insurer’s estimate of the average amount of insured losses it will cover under the deductible plus the insurer’s additional expenses and profit margin. The additional premium could be 125% to 150% or more of the additional losses.  If you can afford to pay more on each claim through a higher deductible, you won’t have to pay the additional expenses and profit.

If someone gets injured or dies due to a condition that exists at your residence, you may be legally responsible for their medical expenses, lost wages and other costs.  If those costs are more than your liability limit (including the limit on any umbrella insurance you buy), you will become legally responsible for those costs. A higher liability limit can reduce your chance of becoming liable for these types of costs.  Of course, a higher limit also increases your premium, so you’ll need to evaluate both your deductible and the premium for a higher limit in the context of your budget.

 

Car Insurance Coverage

If you own a car, you buy car insurance coverage.  In the process, you have to make lots of decisions.  Do you want to buy Comprehensive? Collision? What limit for Bodily Injury?  For Medical Payments? For Uninsured Motorist? What deductible? As with other insurance products, auto insurance is full of its own unique terminology.  In this post, I’ll explain all these terms and provide some insights on how to make some of the decisions that determine your car insurance coverage.

As I told my kids (see Advice I Gave My Kids post), I recommend that you read every contract before you sign it.  Auto insurance policies don’t change all that much from year to year. If you use the same insurer and live in the same state, you can probably read the policy every few years to refresh your memory.  In the meantime, this post will help you understanding the basics.

Before going into the coverages, though, I need to provide some background about liability and different types of laws governing the liability for car accidents.

No-Fault vs. Tort Jurisdictions

When you cause an accident in which someone else is hurt or their property is damaged, you have created a liability for yourself to reimburse them for their economic loss.  That is, you are liable for paying their medical costs and lost wages, among other things, and repairing or replacing their property. In some 12 states (see the chart at the end of this article for a list) and most or all of Canada, though, the laws make the driver of each car involved responsible for their own and their passengers’ costs in certain accidents.

In the 1970s, car insurance costs escalated very rapidly.  No-fault coverage was introduced in some jurisdictions to slow auto insurance inflation.  In theory, under a no-fault system, every driver is responsible for the costs of themselves and their passengers regardless of who was at fault for the accident.  In practice, no-fault is applied to only “small” accidents. The definition of “small” varies widely across jurisdictions, with some defining it based on the total cost of injuries and damage and others based on the nature of the injury.  Jurisdictions that don’t have a no-fault system are often called tort jurisdictions.

Tort Liability

In a tort jurisdiction, you are required to buy Bodily Injury liability coverage.  In these jurisdictions, this coverage protects you against the cost of all injuries to others.  You will also be offered Medical Payments coverage which reimburses you for your and your passengers’ medical costs in accidents you cause.

No-Fault

Under a no-fault system, you are also required to buy Bodily Injury liability coverage to protect yourself against the cost of injuries to others, but only for accidents that aren’t “small.”  In addition, you will be offered Personal Injury Protection which covers injuries to you and your passengers in accidents you cause and in all “small” accidents caused by others.

Coverage Overview

The table below shows which of your coverages will protect you against costs from the people injured and property damaged or destroyed in an accident you cause.  I’ll describe these insurance coverages in a bit more detail below.

Affected Party in an Accident You CauseInjuries – TortInjuries – No FaultDamaged Property (cars, etc.)
You and your familyMedical PaymentsPersonal Injury Protection (PIP)Collision
Other passengersMedical PaymentsMedical PaymentsCollision
People and things in other carsBodily Injury (BI)Their PIP if small, your BI otherwiseProperty Damage Liability
PedestriansBodily InjuryMedical PaymentsProperty Damage Liability

 

Your insurance coverage is available to you regardless of whether you are driving your car or someone else’s car, including rental cars.  If you purchase Collision coverage, it will be cover the full amount of damage for any other vehicle you drive even if the other vehicle is worth more than any of your cars.

Your coverage is also available to anyone else who is driving your car with your permission.  That is, unless someone steals your car, all of the coverages that you buy are available to another driver.  Loss or damage to your car due to theft is covered under Comprehensive.

Bodily Injury Liability (BI)

Bodily Injury liability coverage pays costs related to injury or death for which you become legally responsible because of a car accident.  Interestingly, passengers are not insured under Bodily Injury liability coverage but rather are covered under your Personal Injury Protection, Medical Payments or Uninsured Motorist coverage.  In no-fault states, the insurer pays only when the accident is severe enough to not be considered small.

Property Damage Liability

Property damage liability coverage pays the cost of damage to other people’s cars and property for which you become legally liable.  Most of the time, the damage is to other people’s cars and their contents. I know one person, though, who fell asleep while driving in a rural area.  She crossed the median, the lanes in the other direction and ran into the front of a store. Fortunately, no one was injured, but the store and its contents were damaged.  In this accident, her car insurer repaired the store and replaced its contents under her Property Damage liability coverage.

Liability Limits

You will have the option to select the limit of liability for your Bodily Injury and Property Damage liability coverages.  Coverage can be offered with split limits or a combined single limit (CSL).

Split Limits

When there are split limits, you will see three numbers, e.g., $100K/$300K/$50K.  The first number ($100,000 in the example) refers to the amount the insurer will pay for each injured person. The second number ($300,000 in this example) is the total amount the insurer will pay for Bodily Injury coverage for each accident.  The third number ($50,000) is the total amount it will pay per accident for Property Damage liability. When there is a combined single limit, the limit will be described using a single number. That number is the maximum amount the insurer will pay for each accident for all injuries and Property Damage liability combined.

Combined Single Limit

I usually buy a combined single limit, but recommend looking at different options to compare the pricing.  For example, if you can find $100K/$300K/$50K coverage for significantly less than a $300,000 combined single limit, you might want to buy the split limits.  I buy the combined single limit because there is more coverage if a single person is severely injured. For example, if only one person is injured in an accident I cause but that person has $250,000 of medical costs and lost wages, a $100K/$300K/$50K limit would cover only $100,000 of the $250,000.  A $300,000 combined single limit policy would cover all of it. Another reason I buy a combined single limit is that I buy an umbrella policy (which I’ll cover in a future post). My umbrella policy requires a combined single limit on my underlying auto policy.

What Limit

I always buy as much limit as I can afford (and, as I indicated above, started buying umbrella insurance when I could afford it).  If you injure someone severely in an accident, you are liable for the full amount of their medical costs and lost wages regardless of whether they are covered by insurance.  If someone has $250,000 of medical expenses and lost wages and the applicable limit on your policy is $100,000, they can demand that you pay the remaining $150,000 from your personal assets.

Personal Injury Protection (PIP)

Personal Injury Protection coverage (PIP) pays benefits to you and members of your immediate family when involved in an auto accident, regardless of who is at fault, in a no-fault jurisdiction.  You can be reimbursed for medical expenses, loss of income and funeral expenses.

When I lived in a no-fault state, I bought a much lower limit for Personal Injury Protection than for Bodily Injury liability.  Most importantly, my family and I have always had health insurance and I had disability coverage. If you are severely injured in a car accident, your auto insurer pays first.  My health and disability insurance also provided coverage after my auto insurance coverage was exhausted. I suggest confirming with your human resources contact or health and disability insurers that you would be covered if injured in a car accident before making the same choice I did.  If not, you might want to consider buying as high a limit as you can afford.

Medical Payments

Medical Payments coverage reimburses medical expenses in an accident.  In all states, coverage is provided for passengers who are not family members and pedestrians.  In tort states, you and your family members are also covered.

I probably don’t buy a high enough Medical Payments limit.  Until I wrote this post, I always focused primarily on my situation and selected my limit in the same way I did my Personal Injury Protection limit.  Now that I’ve thought about it more, I realize that I should also be considering my passengers and any pedestrians I might injure. They might not have as much health and disability insurance as I do, so I wouldn’t have a back-up if my Medical Payments limit was less than the cost of their medical care and lost wages.  If you have a lot of non-family-member passengers and especially if you drive other people’s children to school or activities, you might want to consider buying as much Medical Payments limit as you can afford.

Uninsured and Underinsured Motorist (UM/UIM) Coverage

If you, your family members or your passengers are injured in an accident caused by someone else, that person is liable for your medical costs and lost wages.  Unfortunately, there are many accidents in which the other driver’s Bodily Injury limit is less than your medical costs and lost wages or sometimes the other driver has no insurance at all (which is illegal in all US states and Canadian provinces, but still happens).  In those situations, your insurer will reimburse you for any costs you can’t recover from the other driver or its insurance under your Uninsured and Underinsured Motorist (UM/UIM) coverage. The maximum amount you can receive from your insurer is your UM/UIM limit.  Your insurer then has the right to try to recover any amounts it pays to you from the other driver directly.

The selection of a UM/UIM limit is very similar to that of a Medical Payments limit in that you are buying protection for not only you and your family members, but also your passengers.

Physical Damage Coverages

Damage to your car from accidents you cause can be insured under Collision and Comprehensive coverages.

Collision and Comprehensive

Collision reimburses you for damage to your car when it impacts another vehicle or object or rolls over.  Comprehensive reimburses you for damage to or loss of your car from perils than a collision. Perils explicitly covered by Comprehensive are:

  • Missiles or falling objects
  • Fire
  • Theft
  • Explosion or earthquake
  • Windstorm
  • Hail, water or flood
  • Malicious mischief or vandalism
  • Riot or civil commotion
  • Contact with bird or animal
  • Breakage of glass (also covered under Collision if from an accident)

In addition, many policies will also reimburse you for a temporary replacement for your vehicle until it is repaired.  My policy provides only $20 a day up to a maximum of $600, so the coverage would help cover the cost of renting a car but is not likely to be enough.

A quick tip – Property Damage liability coverage is easily confused with physical damage coverage.  Property damage liability covers other people’s cars.  Physical damage coverage includes Collision and Comprehensive so protects your car.  I don’t recall all the details, but have an example to illustrate the difference.  One of my daughter’s friends was driving back to college late at night after Thanksgiving on an interstate.  She hit a deer and totaled her car. She had not purchased Comprehensive, so was afraid she was going to have to figure out how to replace her car on a very limited budget.  It turns out the deer had a hunter’s tag on it and had fallen off the roof of the hunter’s car. Because the hunter was responsible for the deer being in the road, she was fully reimbursed for the value of her car under his Property Damage liability coverage.

Physical Damage – What to Buy

Collision and Comprehensive coverages can be quite expensive.  On one of my recent policies, my Comprehensive coverage cost more than my liability coverages, while my Collision coverage cost is 2/3 of the cost of my liability coverages.  I note that I have selected a high deductible and drive moderately old cars. These coverages would be even more expensive if I drove newer cars or selected a lower deductible.  As such, it is very important to balance the benefits of these coverages with their cost.

Physical Damage – Rules of Thumb

I have a few rules of thumb I use in making my decision about whether to buy Comprehensive and Collision coverage and at what deductibles.  They are:

  • Never buy insurance on something you can afford to lose or replace.  For example, you might have an old beater car you drive only in the winter.  If you can afford to replace the car or have another car you can drive in the winter, you might not buy Collision or Comprehensive on that car at all.
  • Select the highest deductible you can afford.  If you can’t afford to replace your car, especially if it is new or your only vehicle, you’ll want to buy Comprehensive and Collision if it fits in your budget.  You can reduce the cost of these coverages by selecting a higher deductible. You can review your budget and your savings to see how much you can afford to repair or replace a vehicle if it is damaged or stolen.  This review can inform your selection of a deductible.
  • Always put Comprehensive and Collision on at least one car if you rent cars for personal use with any frequency.  As mentioned below, your car insurance will cover you when you rent a car up to the maximum coverage you have on any one vehicle.  If you rent cars for only a few days a year, the cost of the rental car company’s insurance will be less than the cost to cover one of your cars for physical damage.  My experience, though, is that rental-car companies’ insurance is very expensive and I can afford to put Comprehensive and Collision coverage on one of my cars for my annual cost of buying coverage on rental cars.

Towing and Labor

Some insurers offer to insure you against the costs of towing and labor if your car breaks down.  Examples of the labor costs that are insured under this coverage include unlocking your car, changing a tire, gas, oil or water delivery, and jump-starting your car.  To be clear, your car insurer will not pay for any repairs to your car once it has been towed. It just covers costs to get you off the side of the road.

This coverage is very similar to what is available from such entities as the American Automobile Association (AAA) or the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA).  If you are interested in this coverage, you’ll want to compare the coverage and cost from your insurer with that from other entities. For example, depending on what level of service you buy, AAA will tow your car for either five or 100 miles.  By comparison, towing coverage under a personal auto policy is capped at the dollar amount of the limit you purchase. As you make the cost comparison, you’ll want to consider whether you use any “free” services from the other entities.  Also, if you buy this coverage, remember to use it if you find yourself stranded. I was so rattled by being forced off the road and onto the median by a truck in a couple feet of snow that I forgot I had this coverage. I ended up paying the tow bill myself.  Oops!

Exclusions

There are lots of exclusions in an auto policy.  Some important exclusions I have seen include:

  • You are not covered for intentional acts.  For example, if you are mad at another driver and intentionally run your car into the other driver’s car, your insurance company won’t pay for any damage or injuries.
  • You are generally not covered if you are using your car in a business related to cars.  Driving your car for Uber or Lyft or similar is almost always excluded. Also, if you park, sell or repair cars, any damage to or caused by those vehicles will not be covered.
  • You are usually not covered if you are driving a vehicle other than a car, pickup or van for any type of work.
  • You are not covered for injury to anyone who is your employee, unless it is a domestic employee.  We always added our nannies on our insurance policies as drivers to make sure there was no question that they were covered.

Tips about Renting Cars

Your auto policy will cover you and a rental car in the same way as it covers the vehicle on your policy that has the greatest coverage.  For example, let’s say you own two cars – a new one with $500-deductible Comprehensive and Collision coverage and an old one with no physical damage coverage.  Your insurer will provide $500-deductible Comprehensive and Collision on any cars you rent.

The one exception is that many insurers won’t cover the charges from the rental company for the loss of use of its vehicle.   That is, the rental company charges the renter for the costs it incurs and the profits it loses because the car is being repaired and not available for rent.  These charges are known as loss-of-use charges. These charges can be very expensive, even more than the costs to repair the car. In all our years of renting cars, we have only had one claim.  One of our nannies left her purse in plain sight in a locked rental car when she took the kids to the beach. Someone broke the back passenger window to grab her purse. In that case, our insurer paid for the damage to the car under our Comprehensive coverage after we paid the deductible.  It also argued with the rental car company about the loss-of-use charges. In the end, we did not have to pay anything other than our deductible.

When renting cars, I decline all of the insurance coverage offered, taking my risk that I might have to pay for loss of use.  But, I also make sure I always have Comprehensive and Collision on at least one car so that coverage and, even more importantly, the insurer’s leverage in negotiating with the car rental company are available when I rent cars.

Accidental Death & Dismemberment Insurance 

Accidental Death & Dismemberment Insurance

Accidental Death & Dismemberment Insurance (AD&D) provides additional life insurance if you die in an accident. It also pays you a percentage of the face amount of the policy if you lose or lose use of a body part, such as an arm, a leg or an eye.  Many employers offer this coverage. Some charge for it while others do not.

Business travel accident insurance is a form of AD&D, but only provides coverage if you are traveling for business when the accident occurs.  Some policies also provide coverage if the accident occurs on the employer’s premises. Most employers do not charge for this coverage, but some may.  

How to Decide Whether to Buy AD&D

I generally did not buy AD&D, though obviously didn’t opt out of them if my employer covered the cost. I had a desk job for my whole career, so could have gone back to work with at least some amount of disability.  

If you have a career that is more physical, you’ll want to think about what injuries would make you permanently unable to pursue your current profession. You’ll want evaluate the amount of benefit that would be provided in case of loss or loss of use of a body part.  If your employer’s policy covers accidents in the workplace, you’ll also want to consider whether your workplace is dangerous, such as a manufacturing facility or an oil well, and, in the US, any recoveries you might receive from workers’ compensation insurance. As always, you’ll want to evaluate the potential benefits of this coverage in your specific situation relative to the cost of the insurance and whether it fits in your budget.

Group Life Insurance

Group Life Insurance

Many employers offer group life insurance on one or all of the employee, spouse and children.

Coverage

The type of life insurance offered by employers is called term life insurance. It will pay the stated benefit if the covered person dies during the policy period.

My employers generally provided life insurance on the employee with a benefit amount equal to one year’s salary at no charge.  I was able to purchase more insurance on my life and smaller amounts on my spouse and children.

Exclusions

Group life insurance won’t provide the stated benefit if the cause of death is excluded from coverage. The most common exclusions with which I’m familiar are suicide and murder by the beneficiary.

If these nuances are important to your decision, you’ll want to ask your human resources representative what exclusions exist under your employer’s coverage. Much more importantly, if you are concerned about your mental health or your physical safety, please seek help! There are free crisis lines that will help with either issue or contact your local hospital for mental health concerns or police for safety issues.

How to Decide About Yourself

Whether to buy life insurance is often a tough decision, as we all like to think we will still be alive at the end of the year. We especially don’t want to think about what will happen if we or a loved one dies.  

With respect to your coverage level, you’ll want to think about whether you have any dependents and, if so, whether they’ll be able to sustain their current lifestyle without your income and personal expenses. If you have no dependents and very little debt, you might not need more life insurance than one times your salary.  On the other hand, if you have children, have some or a lot of debt or are barely covering your expenses, you might want to buy more life insurance to make sure there is money to pay down your debts or support your children if you die.

You’ll also want to consider the cost of the life insurance and whether it fits in your budget. For more information on budgeting, see my introductory post and nine-part series with step-by-step details to create a budget, starting with this post.  If buying life insurance means that you don’t have enough money to cover the basics, you might need to take the riskier approach and not purchase life insurance or not purchase as much.

How to Decide About Your Spouse

The considerations for insuring your spouse are similar to buying insurance for yourself.  You’ll also want to consider whether your spouse’s employer provides any life insurance and compare the face amounts offered and premiums between the two plans.

How to Decide About Your Children

The amounts of insurance available for the death of children are usually relatively low, in the range of $5,000 to $20,000.  I view the primary purpose of buying life insurance on children as covering funeral and related expenses. If you are able to afford a funeral and everyone who “should” attend can afford to do so, you are less likely to need life insurance on your children.  However, funerals and travel can be quite expensive, so life insurance on your children could cover some or all of those expenses. As always, you’ll want to evaluate whether the cost of life insurance on your children fits in your budget.

Disability Insurance

Disability insurance replaces a portion of your wages if you are sick or injured.  In the US, where workers’ compensation insurance covers workplace illnesses and injuries, disability usually covers only non-occupational illnesses and injuries.

Types of Disability Insurance

Many employers offer wage replacement in a number of components.

Sick Time or Paid Time-Off

Many employers provide sick time or paid time off benefits that pay you 100% of your wages when you are sick. There is often a limit on how many days of sick time you can take. More recently, vacation dates are included in the limit and the total is called “Paid Time-Off.”

Short-Term Disability Insurance

After a stated waiting period called an elimination period, short-term disability insurance will replace some or all of your wages.  I have seen short-term disability plans that pay between two-thirds and 100% of wages (excluding bonus) for between 13 and 26 weeks. I have never had an employer charge me for short-term disability insurance, but imagine some employers might do so.  Some governments outside the US, including Canada, offer programs similar to short-term disability. If your employer requires that you pay some or all of the premium for a short-term disability program, I suggest you research the benefits provided under any government program in your decision-making process.

Basic Long-Term Disability Insurance

After you have exhausted your short-term disability benefits, you may be eligible for long-term disability benefits if offered by your employer.  The basic long-term disability plans I have seen have paid between 50% of salary to two-thirds of the sum of salary and target bonus. Some long-term disability plans provide benefits for only a limited number of years while others will provide benefits until your normal retirement age.  In all cases, benefits stop, of course, if you recover and are able to return to work. I’ve had employers fully fund basic long-term disability and others that required that I share a portion of its cost. If you pay some or all of the premium for long-term disability insurance, the corresponding portion of any benefits you receive are not subject to income taxes.

Supplemental Long-Term Disability Insurance

Some employers give you the option to increase the percentage of your income that is replaced by long-term disability at your expense.

How to Decide

The decision whether to purchase any optional coverage depends on two key aspects of your financial situation. Are you able to support yourself and your family if you are ill or injured for a long time? Does the cost of the disability insurance fits in your budget?

At one (pretty unlikely) extreme, you don’t need to buy additional coverage because you have enough savings for retirement, any children’s education and even more or you could maintain your current lifestyle on your savings or your spouse’s income.  At the other extreme, you might find it difficult to afford disability insurance. In that case, you probably are also in the greatest need of it as one missed paycheck could be devastating financially. As such, the decision to purchase disability insurance is a balance between your need for the coverage in case you can’t work, your likelihood of having an accident or becoming serious ill and your ability to pay the premium.

Dependent Care FSAs

Dependent-Care-Flexible-Spending-Accounts

Dependent care flexible spending account (FSAs) allow you to set aside a portion of your paycheck without paying any taxes on the money. You must use the money to cover out-of-pocket expenses related to care of dependent children or parents that allow you to go to work.  You do not pay Social Security or Federal income taxes on money put into or withdrawn from a dependent care FSA. In many states, you also do not have to pay state income taxes.

There are restrictions on the types of expenses you can pay from your account. You can generally pay for child daycare (both traditional daycare and nannies), elder care, before-and-after school programs and sick childcare services, among others.  If you plan to use the money for other services, you’ll want to confirm that they are acceptable. This publication from the IRS web site provides lots of details about who can qualify and the types of expenses that are acceptable.

You lose any money money you contribute to a dependent care FSA if you don’t spend it in the same year.  For most people, the 2018 maximum contribution was $2,500 if you were single and $5,000 if you are married. If your dependent care expenses are highly likely to exceed that limit, the tax savings make it reasonable to contribute the maximum.  If your expenses are likely to be less, you’ll need to take care in selecting the amount of your contributions.