Life Insurance

Is Whole Life Insurance a Good Investment? When it's Worth it to Invest in Life Insurance

Is Whole Life Insurance a Good Investment? When it's Worth it to Invest in Life Insurance

Whole life insurance is generally a bad investment unless you need permanent life insurance coverage. If you want lifelong coverage, whole life insurance might be a worthwhile investment if you’ve already maxed out your retirement accounts and have a diversified portfolio. Just keep in mind that whole life insurance is quite expensive and often takes over a decade to begin demonstrating reasonable investment returns. Therefore, it’s typically only a good consideration if you’re relatively young, have a high income and want to pass on money to your family.

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Should You Invest in Whole Life Insurance or Term Life Insurance?

Permanent cash value life insurance policies, such as whole life insurance, have an investment component as well as life insurance coverage. However, the primary purpose of these policies is still to pay out a death benefit to your beneficiaries when you pass away, and this benefit makes up a significant portion of the cost of buying a policy. That’s why whole life insurance policies and other cash value life insurance policies don’t make sense as an investment unless one of your objectives is to have lifelong coverage.

Assuming you do need life insurance, there are four broad groups of insurance to choose from based upon your financial situation:

Type of PolicyLengthReason for CoverageHow to Invest
Term life insurance5-35 yearsYou have debts or upcoming expenses that are fairly significant (such as a mortgage or sending your kid to college). Or, you want income replacement if you die.Term life insurance is solely for risk management, not investment. Contribute to your 401(k), IRA and brokerage accounts.
Guaranteed universal life insuranceLifetimeYou want to pass on an inheritance, help your family with estate taxes, or pay some other costs after your death.Guaranteed universal policies have little to no cash value. Instead, invest through your 401(k), IRA and brokerage accounts.
Final expense insuranceLifetimeYour family would have trouble covering less than $50,000 of costs that you expect at the time of your death (such as the cost of a funeral).You shouldn’t be considering life insurance as an investment option. Put together an emergency fund and get money in your retirement accounts. If possible, buy a term policy and save faster.
Whole and universal life insurance (cash value policies)LifetimeYou’re considering guaranteed universal life insurance for the permanent coverage, but have a broad portfolio of investments already and are looking to diversify.Through a cash value life insurance policy you can get guaranteed returns or take greater risk, such as investing the cash value in an index or actively managed portfolio.

Since guaranteed universal life insurance policies offer permanent coverage, they’re still much more expensive than term life insurance (easily 3 to 4 times the cost), but you save money as there’s little to no investment component. Whole life insurance policies are regularly ten times the cost of term life insurance as you’re paying for permanent coverage, additional administrative costs plus funding the investment account.

Is the Cost of Whole Life Insurance Worth It?

If you know you want permanent coverage but are on the fence about the high cost of investing in whole life insurance, you may want to get quotes for a guaranteed universal policy. You can compare this to a quote for whole life insurance to determine the difference in cost. Then you should also evaluate the guaranteed returns of the whole life insurance policy against an estimate of your returns if you invested the difference in cost between the two policies. Just make sure that you:

  • Compare the difference in price between a whole life insurance policy and guaranteed universal life insurance policy, not a term life insurance policy. If you don’t need permanent life insurance, don’t buy it. If you do need permanent life insurance, it will cost more than term coverage and a guaranteed universal policy is the closest way to approximate your cost of coverage.
  • Use conservative estimates for your investment returns through a brokerage account. Some critics of whole life insurance make a comparison using 8% to 10% annual expected returns which are likely not realistic. In addition, these returns are not guaranteed and you can lose the money you invest. Whole life insurance guaranteed returns are quite moderate, but they are guaranteed.
  • Take capital gains taxes into account. Investment gains in a brokerage account can be taxes at up to a 20% rate.

If you think you’d do better financially to get permanent coverage and simply invest the difference in cost, then you should do so. But you need to actually do it. Many people purchase a less expensive term or guaranteed universal policy and simply spend the money they saved by not purchasing whole life insurance.

On the other hand, if you decide it’s worth it to invest in whole life insurance, you should make sure to choose an insurer that has a high financial strength rating. You can lose your coverage and investment if your insurer becomes insolvent. In addition, you should check that the policy allows you to receive a portion of the death benefit early if you develop a severe illness. This option is called an accelerated death benefit and is a common feature for life insurance policies.

How Whole Life Insurance Works as an Investment

When you pay whole life insurance premiums, a portion goes towards paying the cost of insurance, some is put towards sales and administrative fees, and the rest of the money goes towards the policy’s cash value. In the early years of coverage, fees and the cost of insurance use up the majority of your premium but, over time, an increasing amount is contributed towards the cash value.

The cash value is basically an investment account inside your whole life insurance policy that grows at a guaranteed rate over time. The guaranteed rate of return is typically great enough that your cash value should equal the policy’s death benefit when you turn 100, assuming you don’t make withdrawals. A simple way to think of your policy’s cash value is that it’s the amount of money you would get in return for giving up the policy to the insurer.

During the first 10 to 20 years of coverage, a whole life insurance policy’s cash value is quite small due to fees and the cost of coverage. Therefore, we wouldn’t recommend whole life insurance as an investment if you’re older, as you may not live long enough to see good returns and would save money with a guaranteed universal policy.

If you purchase whole life insurance from a mutual insurance company, you may receive dividends as your cash value grows. Mutual insurers are owned by their policyholders, so profits are redistributed as dividends annually. While dividends aren’t guaranteed, the largest mutual insurers have consistently distributed them for decades. You can choose to take dividends as cash, use them to pay premiums or use them to purchase paid-up insurance additions. Paid-up insurance additions are a way to “reinvest” as they act like a small addition to your existing whole life insurance policy, increasing the death benefit and cash value.

A whole life insurance policy’s cash value grows tax-deferred, which is why it’s often compared to a retirement account, such as a 401(k) or IRA. However, contributions to the whole life insurance policy are not tax deductible, as they are with retirement accounts.

Accessing Your Whole Life Insurance Policy’s Investment Gains

A whole life insurance policy’s cash value is not added to the death benefit if you pass away; it is kept by the insurer so you need to either “use it or lose it”. You can access and utilize the cash value by:

  • Taking out a policy loan - The insurer continues to hold your money but gives you a loan using the cash value as collateral. The cash value in your policy continues to grow according to the interest rates set in the policy and you don’t actually need to pay back the loan. However, you do have to pay a small amount of interest on the policy loan or it will be added to your outstanding balance. If your outstanding balance exceeds your cash value in size, your policy lapses and you have to pay taxes on the money. While you don’t have to pay back a policy loan, the outstanding balance will be deducted from the death benefit your beneficiaries receive if you pass away.
  • Taking dividends as cash - If you have a participating whole life insurance policy from a mutual insurer, you can take any dividends paid as cash. There’s no income tax so long as the amount you receive doesn’t exceed what you’ve paid in premiums.
  • Making a partial withdrawal - You can withdraw from the policy’s cash value up to a certain level determined by the insurer. The insurer may charge a withdrawal fee or limit when you’re able to take money out and the value of the withdrawal will be taken out of your death benefit. However, you can withdraw cash value up to the amount you’ve paid in premiums without paying income tax.
  • Selling the policy - If your spouse passes away or your children do well financially, you may no longer want coverage. In this case, you may be able to sell your policy for an amount greater than its cash value but less than the death benefit through a life insurance settlement. The buyer takes over premium payments and becomes the beneficiary. Any gain you make on the settlement is taxed as either income or as capital gains, depending on the terms.
  • Surrendering the policy - If you no longer want your and can’t get a life insurance settlement, your cash value is the amount of money you would receive by surrendering coverage to the insurer. Just note that during the first 10 to 15 years of coverage, insurers typically impose high surrender fees. This is one of the reasons why whole life insurance shouldn’t be considered as a short term investment.

As you can see, when you withdraw or borrow money from the policy’s cash value, the insurer will reduce the death benefit accordingly. Because of this, you might think of whole life insurance as assisted self insurance. You pay the insurer for the benefits of tax-deferred growth, guaranteed returns and the ability to use the money through a policy loan as it continues to grow. The insurer, in turn, is able to keep premiums level as the difference between the cash value and death benefit decreases over time, reducing their liability. But, while your beneficiaries receive the death benefit, they don’t get the policy’s cash value as well.

Another key thing to note is that, while whole life insurance policies have surrender fees during the first several years of coverage, there’s no restriction for making a withdrawal or taking out a loan based upon your age. This is actually a key benefit over a traditional 401(k) or IRA, which carry penalties for withdrawals before age 59.5, as you can access the funds at any time so long as you have a large enough cash value.

In addition, policy loans can be a great option if you need funds during a market downturn or other situation in which it would be difficult or unwise to pull money from other investments. For example, if you have equity in a private company it could take months to divest your shares and you may not want to give up the position. Whole life insurance policy loans tend to have low interest rates and, since there’s no credit check or eligibility requirement, you can get the money almost immediately.

Investing in Universal Life Insurance vs Whole Life Insurance

If you’re considering whole life insurance but want greater flexibility with regards to investment options and premiums, universal life insurance might be a better fit. Universal life insurance is very similar to whole life insurance with a few key differences:

  • You can use the policy’s cash value to a portion (or the entirety) of premiums.
  • There’s a minimum and maximum premium, but you can generally pay any amount that falls within these limits.
  • Premiums are not level, which means they can increase later on.
  • You can choose from a variety of options how you want the cash value invested.

Depending on how you want to invest the cash value, you can choose between traditional universal life insurance (rates determined by insurer), indexed universal life insurance (tracks an index), and variable universal life insurance (you pick from a set of mutual funds). Every universal life insurance policy also has a fixed interest rate investment option, but these tend to have low returns.

Universal life insurance policies are essentially a higher risk, higher potential return option as compared to investing in whole life insurance. For traditional and indexed universal polcies, your cash value will typically have a guaranteed annual rate of return, but this can be quite low or 0%. (Not that 0% is a bad annual minimum, it actually ensures that gains from previous years aren’t impacted by poor results.) Similarly, in good years, the insurer will put a cap on the maximum annual gains.

Variable universal life insurance is even more risky as your cash value can actually decrease and there are higher administrative fees. In addition, your investment options come with expense ratios that are often higher than those found in comparable mutual funds elsewhere.

However, a key benefit of universal life insurance policies is that you can pay a greater amount into the cash value in years when you have the money on-hand. By doing so, you reduce the amount of time it takes to build up enough cash value that the majority of premiums can be paid using it. You can get a similar effect by purchasing a whole life insurance policy that’s paid for over a shortened period of time, such as 20 years. But this strategy is more flexible if you’ve invested in a universal life insurance policy as you’re not required to pay the higher amount in years when it would be difficult.

Maxime Croll

Maxime is a Director at ValuePenguin focusing on the insurance industry. Previously she was the Director of Product Marketing at CoverWallet, a commercial insurance startup, and helped launch NerdWallet's personal insurance business. Maxime has contributed insurance insights and analysis to Forbes, USA Today, The Hill, and many other publications.

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.