Term Life vs Whole Life Insurance – Which Is Better For You?

Ever wonder what the differences are between term and whole life insurance? Wondering which is better for you?

When I met with our financial advisor, one of the first things she suggested was to get term life insurance, not whole life insurance.

She also suggested I get them from different insurance companies.

What’s funny is that it was the same advice I once received from our business accountant. It was one of our first meetings; and, as I explained what I did (what? personal finance blogging? what’s that?), we jumped around on a few topics casually until we hit on life insurance. My business accountant told me that he only ever purchased term life insurance because he liked to keep his investing and his insurance separate.

While there are benefits to mixing the two (most notably the tax benefits); I always enjoyed the clean separation.

Read on to learn the difference between both life insurance policies, and why one may be better than the other.

Table of Contents
  1. What is Term Life Insurance?
    1. Benefits of Term Life
  2. What is Whole Life Insurance?
    1. Benefits of Whole Insurance
  3. You Can Have Both Term & Whole
    1. Tax Benefits of Life Insurance
  4. Which Life Insurance Is Best on Its Own?

What is Term Life Insurance?

Term life insurance is the simplest form of life insurance. You get insurance for a set period (term) for a fixed premium. The term can be anywhere from a year to thirty or more. If the insured person dies within the term, the beneficiary is paid the amount of the policy.

Is there a maximum term contract? No, since this is a contract between you and the insurer, there is no law that governs the maximum contract for term life insurance. Various state laws govern other aspects of the contract but they do not limit its term.

Many companies have a cap (usually 30 years) but that’s for their own underwriting purposes. There are companies that offer a 40-year term life insurance policy but it’s rarer. Banner Life Insurance Company offers a 40-year contract and AIG offers a 35-year contract.

If someone buys a 30-year $500,000 policy, makes premium payments, and dies within 30 years… the beneficiary gets $500,000 tax-free.

It’s pretty simple.

Insurance policies can have a low benefit, as low as $1,000, and sometimes even a low term of just a few years.

The disadvantage of term life insurance is that there is no cash value. It’s like other insurance policies (like auto) – you pay for coverage and when you stop paying, you have nothing to show for it. This also makes them cheaper than the alternatives.

Benefits of Term Life

First, it’s simpler. You pay for coverage, your beneficiaries get paid if you die, that’s it. No extra bells and whistles. No fees to worry about.

Every other insurance policy works like this. When you get renter’s insurance, you pay for protection, and you don’t build up a cash value in the policy. If you have a claim, you get paid. If you never get a claim, you never get anything. (it makes sense to pick a really good renters insurance company for this)

It’s also easy to understand how it fits into your financial picture. If you have financial obligations, such as a home mortgage, it might make sense to get a term life policy for the value of the mortgage. If you die, the policy can be used to pay off the mortgage and leave your family in a better financial situation.

Socrates, a long-time reader that I frequently email with, was a real estate broker in California for 15 years. He offered this advice about term life insurance:

Term is good for accomplishing some milestones, paying off the mortgage, getting kids through college, etc. Once those goals have been achieved then the only necessary thing is a policy to cover final expenses (usually $10-25K) unless there’s enough of emergency funds to cover that!

The only time I recommended whole life is when someone had a hard time-saving money in an IRA or 401K. Then, this will work cuz the reason it’s more expensive is cuz after the cost of insurance is taken out the rest is invested (nowadays in just about anything). It’s a forced savings plan & if young enough the cost is low & most of the money is invested & can grow nicely. (Not as much as low-cost mutual fund / ETF but again the insurance is the primary the investment is a secondary factor!

Again, for people who aren’t good at saving on their own or they are constantly tapping into their savings, this can be a solution because you’re less inclined to tap into this because of the tied insurance element.

Right before I retired the industry came up with hybrids. A policy that is a part term (the bulk of your coverage) & a small portion in whole life (to cover the basics like the final expenses) that stays with you.

If you invested the cash portion well, at some point the cash value can even cover future payments, usually, 10-15 years down the road & it feeds itself as long as the market holds up.

There are many variables & each situation is unique! The expression of ‘buy term & invest the difference’ only works if you stick to invest the difference diligently.

Term life is also cheaper. There’s no cash value to the policy and no investment component, you’re just getting coverage. If there were an investment component, managing those investments would come with fees. Whole life gets a bad reputation because sometimes it’s hard to know exactly how much you’re paying because the fees can be obfuscated in the returns.

The downside is that there is a term. As you age, getting a new policy will get more and more expensive. As more things happen in your life, such as new medical conditions, you may find yourself uninsurable. The advantage of whole life is that you keep the policy as long as you keep paying.

What is Whole Life Insurance?

Whole life insurance is the biggest option in a category of insurance known as permanent life insurance.

It includes:

  • Traditional whole life,
  • Universal life,
  • Variable life, and
  • Variable-universal life.

Traditional Whole Life Insurance adds an investing component and removes the term. It’s called “whole life” because it covers your whole life. The policy builds a cash value based on an underlying investment strategy. This cash value is something you can use. You can borrow against it and you can cash it out.

Universal Life Insurance has a flexible premium with a minimum payment to keep the policy active. Any amount you pay above that premium is then invested in the policy. Every month, the “cost of insurance” amount is deducted from the policy. The rest is considered the savings component. If the savings component is indexed to the market, such as the S&P 500, then it’s known as Indexed Universal Life Insurance.

Variable Life Insurance is like the others except you have several separate accounts for the savings component. You get to choose those investments so you can pick stocks, bonds, mutual funds, etc. With variable life insurance, the premiums are typically not fixed. (Premiums can be adjusted within limits)

Variable-Universal Life Insurance is a variable life insurance policy with a flexible premium.

When you stop paying the premiums (“surrender the policy”), you get the cash value minus any outstanding loans. I won’t go into the nitty-gritty details of each type of whole insurance, but they are all set up in similar ways. The big differences are in how much you pay and what the underlying investment strategies may be.

While these are the four major types, there are also sub-categories for specific scenarios. Have you ever heard of Gerber Life Insurance? It’s whole life insurance for children, but it’s basically whole life insurance.

Benefits of Whole Insurance

The argument is similar to renting vs. buying a home.

With term life insurance, you pay premiums, but build up no cash value in the policy. If the term expires, your policy ends and you have nothing to show for it. If you die, your family gets the death benefit payout. Death benefit payouts are not taxed. You don’t even have to report them.

With whole life insurance, you pay premiums, but you also build up a cash value. There is no term, so it never expires (hence your “whole” life); but if you stop paying, or let the policy lapse, you can get back the cash value of the policy.

If whole life is more expensive, why do people get it? Nothing in life is one size fits all. Whole life insurance makes sense for some people and today I want to share with you the experience of Bill K., a Wallet Hacks reader, who emailed this after reading this article:

I was born in 1957. My parents wisely bought a New York Life whole life policy for $20k that allowed me to pick up an additional $10k policies at various points as I aged (i.e., 21, 25, etc.). Those options correlated with my growing family, mortgage, etc. However, at 20 I was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, and at that point began insulin therapy. Also at that point, ALL traditional life insurance doors, both term, whole and universal, slammed shut in my face. All I had were these small $10k policies (8 in all) so for most of the past 25 years I have maxed out my insurance at $100k. Not much for a guy with my earnings (MBA); but it was something.

Now at 62, semi-retired and living in Palm Springs, I no longer need insurance. Kids are grown and in good jobs, the mortgage on our small house in the SoCal desert is paid off, spouse of 35 works part-time also, we are doing okay and enjoying life.

However, all of these small policies that have been maintained over the years now have a cash value of close to $100k. Several annual premiums are paid through dividends. The “gift” my parents gave me as a toddler has an unexpected benefit. I can borrow against the value at a ridiculous 1960’s interest rate of 4%. This cash is being used for us to defer drawing SS until age 70, the best annuity around. And we continue to let the bulk of our assets grown in tax-sheltered IRAs. If I eventually pay back the loans, great. If I should die without doing so, the benefits to my heirs are reduced, but that is not a huge concern for me, especially since our two kids graduated with zero college debt.

So I happily pay the small annual interest charge on these cash value whole life insurance loans. Preserve the nest egg residing in our IRAs, delay social security, and have some additional cash NOT in an IRA to enjoy the first 8 years of our semi-retirement when we are both healthy and active.

It won’t work for many, but it worked for us, due to my medical condition (which I’ve managed for 40 years with no complications with insulin, diet, and exercise) and due to my parents’ foresight.

You Can Have Both Term & Whole

Nothing prevents you from having, both, a whole life policy and a term life policy. It could be that you have a whole life policy and you want to add a term life policy to cover a need for a set period. For example, maybe you have 10 years left on your student loans, so you may decide you want to protect the next years with a term policy.

As my business accountant explained to me, you can always get a term life insurance policy and then open a brokerage account for your investing. It’s unlikely the policy issuer is going to invest you into funds that are cheaper than Vanguard or Fidelity (this is not even counting their fees!). It’s unlikely they will be as simple as a three-fund portfolio, and it’s unlikely you will have a strong understanding of how it will fit in your portfolio.

If you don’t want to do it yourself, the worst case is that you can stick it with a robo-advisor and pay their extra fees (only around 0.25%).

Tax Benefits of Life Insurance

As for the tax benefits, the death benefit on any life insurance policy is tax-free. That’s true for all policies, term or whole.

That leaves the investment portion. Is it better to invest through a whole life policy or do it yourself?

All things being equal, long term capital gains rates on your investments are just 20% (or less). Is 20% at the back end better or worse than a little siphoning off some amount for fees along the way? That’s hard to know… but I do want to throw in a curveball that may make it a moot point.

There are special tax rules when it comes to inheritance. If you are passing assets to heirs, there is a step-up in basis. If you have significant gains in your investments, your heirs will get a higher basis and thus lower their taxes because the gains will have “disappeared.” (estate taxes may apply though)

Example: A long time ago, you bought $10,000 worth of Vanguard’s S&P 500 fund. It’s now worth $100,000, a gain of $90,000. If you sell it now, you owe $9,000 in long term capital gains. But instead, you die and pass $100,000 of VTSAX to your kid and he sells it. The step-up in basis means he only pays taxes on any gains above $100,000 because that’s his cost basis. It stepped up from $10,000 to $100,000 when you died.

Lastly, since you’ll be saving on fees by investing the funds yourself, and your money will grow faster without the drag of fees; it could even overcome the tax benefits of the death benefit from a whole life policy.

Which Life Insurance Is Best on Its Own?

Like any product, it really depends on your financial situation but for most people the answer is term life insurance. Going with term keeps everything cleaner and easier to understand… and I like that. It also fits nicely with how I think about insurance.

The whole life cash value proposition sounds very enticing but the fees and the returns are not as easy to understand and track like you would with a regular investment portfolio. The tax benefits sure are nice too but again, much harder to value in the long run.

There are specific situations where a whole life policy makes more sense, those situations are rarer.

For me, term life is superior but the answer lies with your situation.

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a thirty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Personal Capital, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in a few commercial properties and a farm in Illinois via AcreTrader.

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  1. Caroline at Costa Rica FIRE says

    Agree that term is better than permanent, and that’s what we went with. You just want to make sure you get a long enough term b/c to convert it at the end can be expensive if your health situation has changed and you need to requalify.

    • Tom says

      Look into life settlements — When your health is bad you can sell your term policy for a cash settlement that will be a percentage of the face amount of the policy; its higher the worse your health is.

  2. Michael says

    Interesting write-up, but in my personal opinion there is more research needed on the value of whole life insurance. It is a financial vehicle that a lot of people do not understand, and the power of being able to borrow against it is phenomenal. It’s not for everyone, but when used appropriately these types of policies have more value than any of the other retirement accounts out there and they have some major advantages when thinking about long term generational wealth. To really understand the power, look up the Infinite Banking Concept by Nelson Nash. There are several groups out there today that will advise and help you setup a well designed Whole Life policy that has major flexibility in the use of the policy. And.. as you said above.. you can have both..

  3. Craig says

    I purchased a 15 yr term policy about 14 years ago. My kids are nearly out of college, but my mortgage isn’t yet paid so I’m faced with renewing at a lower face value for a much higher monthly premium. The lower premiums during the last 15 years helped allow us to max out 401k contributions and to cover tuition/living expenses 100%, so I’m satisfied even though I need to renew at lower benefits (my obligations are lower) and higher premiums (I can better afford it), etc.

  4. Bruce says

    Term life insurance is great and I own several policies. But I am now at retirement age and I recently bought a whole life policy. I did it for two reasons. First, the whole life policy offered a long term care rider that allows the policy to start paying out if I end up needing long term care. Long term care policies are “expenses” with no residual benefit if I don’t use it, but with the life insurance policy there will always be a payout. Second, I did an analysis of the rate of return that my beneficiaries would get when I die. if I die in 20 years, my investment (annual premiums) would have generated a rate of return, after tax, of about 12%. If I die in 30 years it would have generated a rate of return of about 6%. So with the whole life policy I have a long term care coverage, my beneficiaries are guaranteed to inherit some money which would not happen with a long term care policy and the rate of return is 6% over 30 years which I think, although not great, is certainly respectable considering given the other benefits . Two minor factors that also influenced my decision were that I now know I can spend all of my money and my kids will end up with something and second, insurance payouts are not considered communal property so should their marriages fail they will not have to split the money.

  5. Javier T says

    Interesting article there’s also a stair-step or also sometimes called a overlap term life insurance where you can get a 20-year policy when you’re young and then as your policies about to expire you get another one that overlaps maybe three years and then another one so that you’re always covered it’d be great if you can do a article on that.

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