Most people know that they need some insurance. Protection is part of making a comprehensive financial plan. You must buy that insurance through a licensed broker. Those brokers are trained and incentivized to sell you insurance products. Insurance is basically gambling in the casino of life. It is a game of chance – with odds, losses, and winnings. With the higher assets and liabilities of a professional, the stakes are higher. You will need to play, but should understand the rules of the insurance game before you take a seat at the table.
Rule #1: The insurance company makes the rules.
You won’t win. Don’t lose.
Just like a casino operator, insurance companies know the odds very well. Similarly, they also set the rules of the game. The premiums and fine print make sure that the odds are stacked in their favor. You won’t outsmart the professional actuaries that price and design policies. However, unlike a casino, with insurance you can also lose by not playing.
Not enough insurance is gambling that the bad event either won’t happen or that you can handle it on your own. Bad idea. Do not put off getting insurance when you need it. Don’t lose.
Too much insurance is betting against the house that you will beat the odds and win more money than you paid (by something bad happening!) You won’t really win, but at least you won’t lose.
Rule #2: Insure against calamity and to buy service.
You must insure against catastrophes that you don’t have the resources to handle on your own. Those resources are both financial and logistical. Further, it is important to consider that your mental and emotional bandwidth may be reduced during a time of crisis.
What you need vs what you qualify for.
From a financial perspective, the question to ask yourself is how much money will you need to cover the crisis. At high-income or net worth levels, that is often a lower number than how much you qualify for. You definitely do not want to under-estimate your needs and a buffer is not a bad idea. However, if you think you are going to win by grossly over-insuring, then remember Rule #1.
Insurance as a service.
Logistically, insurance companies can be helpful. A good insurance company provides service by connecting you to service providers for your disaster. They also know about the issues that arise and can give some direction to make sure that you handle things properly.
Just be aware of their motivations. The insurance company will be highly motivated to not have a claim escalate because important things were not attended to properly. You can use that to help you.
For example, some wind blew shingles off of our previous monstrous house. It had a scary steep-pitched roof. After a couple of weeks of being unable to woo a roofer into fixing it, we called the insurance company to express our concern about a potential water damage claim, if not fixed soon. They had a roofer out the next day. We had to pay since it was below our deductible, but at least it got done.
On the other hand, if something seems like a cheap band-aid, then question it and be prepared to advocate for yourself. Again, raising the specter of further costs from neglect may help.
Rule #3: Use insurance for protection & investments for investing.
Insurance is a product. When you have a product, it is natural to want to make it in different models or wrap it in different packaging to market it to a larger clientele. That doesn’t mean that it is bad. However, the further you redesign something from its original intended use, the more complex it becomes. That generally means more cost, it is harder to figure out, and more to go wrong.
Permanent Life Insurance by Many Names
A good example of this phenomenon is permanent life insurance. Permanent life insurance means that it will pay out when you die. The human mortality rate is still 100%. So, the insurance company will use those odds when designing and pricing the product. It will be much more expensive than a shorter term life insurance policy that is based upon the odds of you dying in a limited time period – usually while you are younger and unlikely to die.
Insuring to get a payout later in life when you are likely to die and less likely to have a negative net worth or dependents is not attractive. So, permanent life insurance is packaged in various ways to make it marketable. It is promoted based on the feature of insurance payments being tax-free. Bending that into an investment makes for a complex and opaque product compared to traditional investment products.
Permanent life insurance comes in different flavors with shiny labels like “infinite banking”. Whole life or universal life sounds like a universal solution to your whole life. Awesome. Does it wash dishes and sort laundry too? Participating whole life is another great name – who doesn’t want to participate and feel left out? Not me. Even if you try to look under the wrapper, it is hard to understand what you are looking at.
The Risks & Return of Permanent Life Insurance
Traditional investments have an expected return linked to the risk profile of the underlying investments (investment risk). In contrast, insurance is usually manufactured to give a defined return. The company designs it to pay that out, but also to make a reliable profit. That is done based on the odds and they set the price based on that. So, the insurance pay-out may be tax-free, but it is also going to be a relatively safe low return. Using it that way may be reasonable as a small part of a larger plan.
The actual return could be higher or lower, if the actuaries mispriced the product compared to what unfolds from a lifespan and underlying investment performance perspective. That is actuarial risk. So, it could be a way to diversify risk even though the underlying performance of investments in the policy are still subject to them.
Determining the real-life return of permanent life insurance is complex and opaque compared to what is marketed and reported on statements. The tax treatment is favorable. Unfortunately, you must also account for the excess cost of insurance compared to what you actually need, the fees charged for contributions, underlying investment management costs, and the “adjustments” made to “dividends”. Again, see Rule #1. Most of those costs are front-loaded and the positive return for whole life happens towards the end of your predicted lifespan.
Permanent Life Insurance For Mitigating Risks
One use of permanent life insurance is to cover the risk of business partners dying. An insurance pay-out could be used to give cash to help keep the business afloat while seeking another partner or smooth the buy-out process. Again, that is mitigating a risk. Not investing. There are also other ways that you could plan for this inevitable event. Further, if you plan to get out of the business before your late 60s or have built up some financial cushion before then – a term policy would be more cost effective.
Similarly, permanent life insurance may also be useful to protect against your heirs being forced to sell something to pay the taxes. That could be an asset with high transaction costs, cyclical valuation, or that you want kept in the family. For example, a family business as eluded to above, or real estate. There are other ways to plan for this that are more transparent, liquid, and cost-effective. However, it could be used to insure against a poor-planning-calamity for someone happy to pay for that. Of course, it would give me pause if an advisor is advising to insure against poor planning. Just sayin’.
Rule #4: Re-evaluate your insurance needs when they change.
Insurance brokers love this rule, but they may have a different perspective on what that means. Their perspective may be to maximally insure whatever is insurable. Your perspective should start with your needs as the anchor. Your insurance needs may be different from what you can qualify and pay for – see rules #1 & 2. Further, those needs also change as you move through life.
Their perspective: what you can buy.
“Yes, we should meet! I am sure that your income has risen and you can qualify for more disability insurance. You also have more assets. We should make sure to protect them all!” That is a direct quote from a broker that I have dealt with. I requested a meeting to review my insurance and they were really excited before our meeting. Not so much afterwards. I will tell you why at the end of this section.
Your perspective: what you need.
Come to the table with the perspective of buying the insurance that you need. You may need more life insurance, if you develop more liabilities. For example, kids. You may need more disability insurance if your costs of living have risen with your income and you aren’t financially independent enough to absorb income-loss. That is very common, if you fall into the earning-spending trap.
You may have needed critical illness insurance when you did not have an emergency fund or liquid assets to draw upon in a pinch. Fortunately, now you have lots of financial reserve to bridge you to either disability or death insurance. Similarly, if you are financially independent by a wide margin, then you may no longer require disability or life insurance.
An example from my perspective.
After about fifteen years in practice, my income had risen dramatically. However, I am also fully fattily financially independent.
I have enough liquid assets that if I became disabled, I could pay for my costs of living, increased care costs, and retirement for my wife and I. I don’t need any disability insurance.
So, I cancelled it when I had my insurance review meeting. This elicited a vigorous response aimed at rule #5.
Rule #5: Know your emotions. Beware of anecdotes.
The prospect of bad stuff happening is scary. That makes fear one of the strongest tools used to sell insurance. That is not a bad thing, if it is insurance that you need. Fear can help us to avoid trouble. However, it can also be used to overcome rational thinking. There are some classic moves that get used.
Fear for your family.
If your family is dependent upon you for income or other tasks that would be expensive to replace, then insuring against loss of that is vital. You would need enough insurance to see your liabilities taken care of (for raising small children, that is a long time). However, what strikes the most fear into most parents is something happening to our kids. Fortunately, the risk of that is low and we are not dependent on them. However, that fear makes insuring kids a great target, even though there are many logical reasons not to.
Fear of missing out.
Remember rules number 2 & 4. Insure against calamity for things that you otherwise may not be able to handle and revisit that when it changes. When I cancelled my disability insurance for logical reasons. The counter-argument was why wouldn’t I insure all of my income? I could miss out on it if I stopped working. That would be a valid argument if I needed the income, but otherwise it is a wager on the premiums being less than the pay-out. Remember Rule #1.
Rolling out the big guns: anecdotes & testimonials.
If you are weighing things logically despite the emotions, that is usually when anecdotes are trotted out. Insurance brokers have plenty of people that can tell you their story of “winning” at the insurance game. How they used their critical illness insurance for their bucket list or to pay for off-label treatments at foreign clinics. How they became disabled and were glad for the disability insurance. Some will tell you how they borrowed against their life insurance policy and felt like sophisticated geniuses (not realizing the alternatives they would have otherwise have had). Etcetera. Etcetera.
Anecdotes and stories are powerful because we can personally identify with them. If you needed insurance for the above situations, then you would be grateful that you had bought it too. However, anecdotes do not change your insurance needs. That said, some people really do want the comfort of excess insurance even if it is not logical. Paying for comfort and security can be a good use of money. Just be aware enough to make an educated choice.
Know the Rules. Play like a pro.
Now that you know the basic rules of the game, let’s focus on how to play like a professional. We must all play the game and there will be an insurance professional sitting across the table from us. Most are not bad people. They have just been trained by the insurance industry and approach insurance from that perspective. To lead your financial team for the best results, you must also be trained and know your perspective. To help, next week I will turn to Kenny Rogers, as The Gambler, to share his insurance wisdom.