The Dummies’ Guide to Life Insurance

life insurance for dummies

Here’s what I hope to accomplish with my “The Dummies’ Guide to Life Insurance”:

  1. I want to explain what life insurance is and how it works. More importantly, I want to explain it in plain language that anyone can understand. This is supposed to be the life insurance for dummies guide I wish I’d read when I was younger.
  2. I want to explain the different kinds of life insurance policies. Blanket statements about how you should buy term and invest the difference aren’t that helpful. They don’t apply to everyone. Real life insurance experts understand that different customers have different needs.
  3. I want to give the reader an understanding of how much life insurance costs. Of course, life insurance policies vary in price from company to company. They also vary based on what kind of policy you buy and what your level of risk is.
  4. I want to introduce the reader to some of the thinking involved in deciding how much life insurance to buy. It’s beyond the scope of “The Dummies’ Guide to Life Insurance” to explain in detail how you should decide how much coverage to buy. But I can get you started thinking about some numbers.
  5. I want to answer some of the most frequent questions most people have about life insurance and the industry. The most interesting and useful pages I’m familiar with on the internet answer reader questions specifically in plain language. That’s what I hope to do with the final section of the page.

I hope you enjoy reading “The Dummies’ Guide to Life Insurance”. More importantly, I hope it’s useful to you.

What Exactly Is Life Insurance, Anyway?

Life insurance is a specific type of insurance–one that pays out in the event of your death. You buy life insurance from an insurance company (of course). The payments you make as part of your contract are called “premiums”. The “death benefit” is the amount of money the policy pays to your “beneficiaries”.

Here’s an example using made-up names and numbers:

Bob Johnson buys a life insurance policy from Old Enough to Know Better Insurance Company. He has a contract which stipulates the following:

  • His premiums (the amount he pays for the insurance) are $10/month.
  • His death benefit is $250,000. If he dies, this is how much money the policy pays.
  • His beneficiary is his wife, Sue Johnson.

Life insurance is a little more complicated than that, but those are the basics. I’ll cover some of the complications in more detail later in the post.

But here are a couple more observations:

The insurance company makes a lot of its money from “the float”. When a company has money in the bank, it earns interest. When a 20-year-old starts paying $120 a year for a life insurance policy, the insurance company gets to invest that money until the 20-year-old dies.

Insurance companies charge more money based on how high a risk you are. For example, if you have health reasons for not wanting to take a medical exam, you might pay more for your policy. If you’ve been convicted of a felony, you might be considered a higher risk than other customers.

The insurance companies employ experts called “actuaries” to analyze risks and set prices. They have enormous amounts of data about death rates among various segments of the population. These statistical averages enable insurance companies to set their prices in such a way as to ensure a profit.

term vs permanent life insurance

Term Life Insurance versus Permanent Life Insurance

Broadening your view of how life insurance means being able to distinguish between term life insurance and permanent life insurance.

Term life insurance is a policy that is only in effect for a certain specific time period. Most term policies have a term of 10, 15, 20, or 30 years. When the term is up, the insurance is no longer in effect. Term life insurance is the most affordable type of life insurance.

Permanent life insurance is a policy that stays in effect until you die. Permanent life insurance policies cost more than term policies, but they also usually include other features. The most important and common of these is a cash value that accumulates over time as you pay your premiums.

The return on an investment in permanent life insurance is often low when compared to the kinds of returns you might expect from investing in real estate or the stock market. It has the advantage of being a steady return over time, though–it doesn’t have the same kind of ups and downs as investing in higher-risk vehicles.

Universal life insurance is a flexible type of permanent life insurance that gives you the option to raise or lower your premiums based on the circumstances of your life.

Whole life insurance, on the other hand, is also permanent life insurance. But it lacks the flexibility in raising or lowering the price of your premiums based on your circumstances.

How Much Does Life Insurance Cost?

Life insurance costs vary from company to company and from plan to plan. But the biggest factor affecting the cost of your policy is your risk category.

Here are some examples of risk classifications along with what they mean:

Preferred Plus – This is the classification for people in the healthiest category. To be in the preferred plus category, your height and weight must both be normal. Your lab results all also have to be in the normal range. You can’t have any chronic illnesses. And you can’t have any immediate family who died from cancer or heart disease before they turned 60.

Preferred – You can qualify for this category if you’re a little overweight. You can also qualify even if you’re being treated for blood pressure or cholesterol. But you still need to be in excellent health.

Preferred Smoker – If you’ve used tobacco in the last year, but you qualify otherwise for “Preferred”, you fall into this category. Chewing tobacco and/or cigars might or might not count for this categorization. It depends on the insurance company.

Standard Plus – You’re still in better health than most people.

Standard – This is where most people fall, category-wise. Being overweight is usually a factor. You still have a normal life expectancy, but you probably also have several minor health conditions. If you had a parent who died from cancer or heart disease before age 60, you’re probably in this category, too.

Standard Smoker – You’d qualify for standard if you didn’t use tobacco.

Substandard – This is the category for people who are high risk. If you’re obese and/or have major health issues, you probably fall into this category. This category includes several subcategories based on your specific issues.

Your age is the other major factor affecting your life insurance rates. Here are some average term rates for various ages:

  • 35 years old or younger – Less than $30 per month.
  • 40 years old – Between $30 and $40 per month.
  • 45 years old – Around $50 per month.
  • 50 years old – Around $75 per month.
  • 55 years old – Around $120 per month.
  • 60 years old – Around $200 per month.
  • 65 years old – Around $350 per month.

Several factors affect these prices, too. Your categorization is the main one. The length of the term is also a factor affecting the price. The longer the term, the more expensive the policy.

Of course, permanent life insurance policies have higher monthly premiums, too. Most people overestimate what it will cost to get coverage. If you have no policy now, you should talk with someone (preferably us) about what’s available and at what prices.

How Much Life Insurance Should You Buy?

Almost everyone needs at least minimal coverage–in other words, you need enough life insurance to pay for your funeral. Most people have other financial goals in their lives. For example, many parents want to pay their kids’ way through college.

If you’re the primary breadwinner for the family, you want to replace your income at least temporarily. After a certain period of time, families adjust. Stay-at-home moms go back to work and advance in their careers, for example.

If you’re a stay-at-home mom, the role you play running the household has a value attached to it, too. If you cook, clean, and do laundry, your survivors will probably have to hire someone to handle at least some of those chores.

The amount of money you have in savings and investments also affects how much insurance you need. Since there are so many things to consider, deciding how much life insurance you need is a highly personalized undertaking.

I can offer some general guidelines to get you started, though:

Nerdwallet suggests starting with coverage equal to your annual income multiplied by 10. If you make $50,00 a year, you would buy $500,000 in life insurance.

Another suggestion from that same post is to add $100,000 for each child who hasn’t gone to college yet.

You can find more complicated formulas than this, but this is a “dummies'” guide, not a detailed guide.

Where Should You Buy Your Life Insurance?

You can probably find a friend who works for a life insurance company and buy directly through him.

But how do you know if you’re getting the best rate?

You might even try shopping 3-4 different insurance companies. The problem you’ll run into is subtle differences from one policy to another. Some companies use slightly different jargon when describing their products, too.

My suggestion is to find an independent broker who’s able to work with multiple companies getting you a policy. You can use our service for this purpose, actually. We’re able to shop over 100 different companies to find you the best rates.

Please get in touch with us if you’d like quotes. Even if you think you can’t afford insurance, or if you think you don’t qualify, you’ll be surprised at what’s available.

What If I Have Health Issues and Still Want or Need Life Insurance?

It’s easy to get discouraged if you have health issues that might seem to make life insurance impossible. Maybe you suffer from pancreatitis. Maybe you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol. You might even be morbidly or super-morbidly obese.

None of these health issues prevent you from buying life insurance, necessarily. The kind of coverage that’s available might be limited. You might also be paying a higher premium.

But you can probably still get coverage of some kind, no matter what your specific health situation looks like.

Contact us about rates if you have health problems. We can look at your specific needs and provide you with all the guidance you need.

Frequently Asked Questions about Life Insurance

Do you need life insurance? The answer is “probably”. Some rare souls might not need coverage. You’re probably not one of them.

Should you replace your existing life insurance policy? Probably not. Switching policies is often expensive because of the associated costs. For example, you’re probably older now than you were when you bought your existing policy. Premiums go up as you age.

Can I change my mind about the life insurance policy I just bought? Yes, most life insurance policies have a period of 10 to 30 days where you can cancel your policy for no charge.


Life insurance is an important part of any adult’s financial plan. It’s a way to pay for your funeral expenses and replace your income if you die early. Life insurance is also an investment vehicle for many people.

Some people think life insurance is a complicated subject, but as you can see from this post, it’s really not that complicated at all. Much of what you need to know involves some definitions of some terms and some categorizations.

The most important message to take away from this post is that life insurance is an affordable policy for almost everyone. You might pay more if you’re in poor health, but that doesn’t automatically rule you out as a life insurance customer.

I hope you enjoyed “The Dummies’ Guide to Life Insurance”.