Term or whole life? What you need to know

Dear Liz: My mother and her insurance agent swear by whole-life insurance policies. I am 45 and have heard from everyone else to only have term life, which is what my husband and I both have. We have a 15-year-old daughter. Can you please put in layman’s terms what a whole-life policy is and what the benefits are?

Answer: Term insurance provides a death benefit if you die during the “term” of the policy. Term insurance provides coverage for a limited time, such as 10, 20 or 30 years. It has no cash value otherwise and you can’t borrow money against it.

Whole-life policies combine a death benefit with an investment component. The investment component is designed to accumulate value over time that the insured person can withdraw or borrow against. Whole-life policies are often called a type of “permanent” life insurance, since they’re designed to cover you for life rather than just a designated period.

If you need life insurance — and with a daughter who is still a minor, you certainly do — the most important thing is to make sure you buy a big enough policy to cover the financial needs of your dependents. This is where whole-life policies can be problematic, since the same amount of coverage can cost up to 10 times what a term policy would cost. Many people find they can’t afford sufficient coverage if they buy permanent insurance. Also, many people don’t have a need for lifetime insurance coverage. Once your kids are grown and the mortgage is paid off, your survivors may not need the coverage a permanent policy would provide.

If you are interested in a whole-life policy, make sure to run it by a fee-only financial planner who can objectively evaluate the coverage to make sure it’s a good fit for your circumstances.


  1. The situations in which whole life is appropriate as so few and far between that they can probably be summed up in one rule of thumb: If you have to ask, you don’t need it (stick with Term)

  2. Cinder Puckett says

    Buy term and invest the difference that you would pay for a whole life policy. In the end, you will actually self-insure and be saving your own money vs. just having the ability to “borrow” from your own funds!! Whole life is only good for the insurance companies, not the consumer. Please feel free to contact me if you are interested in a term policy. I can help. By the way, the winner in a whole life policy is also the agent, they make more money by selling them to you!!