10 Ways to Save on Life Insurance

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THE PRICE YOU pay for life insurance will depend on your age, your health and your habits. That is to say, forget about a really cheap policy if you smoke, have existing health problems or enjoy skydiving. Still, there's plenty you can do to save on your premium and avoid some common pitfalls. Here are 10 suggestions:

1. Forget Corporate Loyalty
If you get some life insurance as a job benefit, that's fine. But that should never be all you have. You can't count on keeping it if you lose your job or become disabled and can no longer work. There's no federal law that says your old employer must allow you to keep the coverage, even if you foot the bill. So it's a good idea to use any life insurance you get from work as a supplement to what you buy on your own. If your company allows you to buy additional insurance, be sure to compare rates on coverage you can buy from your employer; more often than not, you can find a better deal on your own, although you'll have to qualify medically to get a policy on the open market.

2. Be Sure to Negotiate
Kevin Campbell thought he was just being honest a couple of years ago when he told a medical examiner for John Alden that he smokes a cigar about once a year. The Ohio physician, who plays racquetball once a week and jogs regularly, had no history of medical problems.

He figured the insurer would understand that cigars were simply a way to mark special occasions. No such luck. As far as John Alden was concerned, there was no difference between Campbell and a two-pack-a-day man. The company quoted him a $2,150 annual premium for a $1.3 million, 10-year term policy, $1,150 more than the nonsmoker's rate.

But Campbell wasn't having it. He wrote a letter to John Alden demanding a nonsmoker's rate. After three weeks of negotiating, the company caved in and cut his initial quote by 50%. Says adviser Michael Chasnoff, who helped Campbell set up the policy: "When I started in this business, I would have never thought to question what an insurance company told a client. Now I can't see a reason not to." (If you do smoke, 'fess up. If you die of a smoking-related illness, your insurer can choose not to pay your death benefit, opting instead to return to your beneficiaries only paid-up premiums plus interest.)

3. Buy in Bulk
If you're going to buy $240,000 of coverage, you might as well buy $250,000. If you buy $240,000 worth, you'll pay $274.80 per year. If you buy $250,000, it will cost $260. How's that?

Sometimes more insurance costs less, especially as you approach multiples of $250,000. So, for example, a 35-year-old male nonsmoker buying $100,000 to $249,999 of renewable term insurance from USAA Life would pay $1.02 per $1,000 of coverage. For $250,000 to $499,999 of coverage, the rate drops to 92 cents per $1,000.

4. Health Problems? Seek Out a Specialist
Forrest Luu, 37, has diabetes. When he set out to buy life insurance, he asked his insurance agent, Murray Halbfish, to shop for a diabetics-friendly company. The best deal Halbfish came up with: Manhattan Life Insurance, which quoted him an annual premium of $891 for $100,000 of whole life. Other companies wanted as much as $1,500. As Luu found out, some companies specialize in particular diseases or lifestyles. For heart disease, cancer or other "impaired risks," companies such as Connecticut National and U.S. Financial offer competitive rates. These companies employ underwriters who are trained to analyze the extent of a given problem. Instead of lumping all diabetics into one group, they rate differences between diabetics who take their medication regularly and diabetics whose disease is out of control. A person whose disease is under control could save as much as 50% on a premium.

5. Don't Get Churned
That agent who talked you into turning in your old whole life policy for a new one (More coverage! No extra premiums!) didn't do you a favor. In fact, you've been scammed. More often than not, victims of this practice, known as "churning," receive a bill for new premiums within a year or two -- after the value in their old policy has been exhausted. But you can get help if you've been ripped off by your agent. Contact your state insurance commissioner to find out how to proceed. Dozens of companies have agreed to compensate victims of these and other illegal practices. Don't forget to complain to the main office of your insurance company directly. Many insurers are now fairly quick to make whole life customers who have been hoodwinked by their agents.

6. Clean Up Your Act
You may know that you can cut your insurance premium if you stop smoking and lose weight, but you may not know just how much you can save. Well, how does 50% sound? That's right, most insurance companies charge twice as much to insure a smoker. The rewards for getting back down to the right weight for your height can be just as great.

That's what Quotesmith President Robert Bland learned. When Bland, who's five feet, 11 inches and 245 pounds, went shopping for $3 million of term, he got premium quotes ranging from $4,000 to $7,000 a year. When he balked at those prices, he was told that his premium would be more like $3,000 if he were 35 pounds lighter. For the moment, Bland has decided to go with a $4,000 policy from Investors Life of Nebraska. All the same, he's considering losing weight and reapplying.

7. Don't Get Taken for a Rider
Insurance companies have come up with a host of extras to pad your life insurance bill, most of them not worth the paper they're printed on. Consider the accidental-death rider, more commonly called double indemnity. For about $1 or $2 per $1,000 of coverage, an insurance company promises to pay your survivors double the face amount of a policy if you die in an accident.

But it's foolish to speculate on the manner of your demise, especially since accidental death is relatively rare. If you really want to gamble, buy lottery tickets. Buy enough coverage to support your dependents regardless of the manner in which you shuffle off this mortal coil.

The "waiver of premium" rider is another to skip. Under this rider, which can cost as much as 10% of your annual premium, your insurer will continue your coverage in case you're disabled. But you should already have enough disability insurance to cover living expenses. If you do, you don't need a waiver of premium. Finally, some companies offer spousal or dependent riders that add a term-insurance element to your whole life policy that will cover your spouse or your children. Chances are, if your spouse needs term insurance, you can find a cheaper policy. And unless your child is supporting the family, he or she doesn't need insurance.

8. Know What You're Buying
Agents call it the "L" word. Life insurance, that is. Some companies teach their agents never to utter the word to prospective clients. Thus you are more likely to hear a host of euphemisms such as mortgage-protection policy, retirement plan and tax-free savings plan.

Don't be taken in. What agents are selling is whole life insurance, pure and simple. In their sales pitches, agents like to emphasize the tax-free accumulation of cash value in a whole life policy but what they don't tell you is the down side: High commissions, seemingly endless payments before any sizable cash value is accumulated and murderous penalties if you want to get out early.

9. Try a Low-Load Company
It's a dirty little secret that insurance agents don't want you to know. But some companies sell life insurance at little or no commission. That can mean big savings for you, if you're the type who doesn't need much handholding to make a decision.

A few of them even sell whole life policies this way. Ameritas (800-552-3553) is a leader in the low-load business with hard-to-beat rates on all types of policies. For example, a female, age 30, can buy $250,000 worth of coverage for just $162 a year. Northwestern Mutual (414-271-1444) is a traditional insurer that sells some low-load policies through its agents. It has some of the best prices around, particularly on whole life policies.

10. Avoid Hidden Fees
Convenient monthly payments, automatically deducted from your checking account. What an easy way to pay your life insurance premium. But before you sign up, ask a simple question: What's this going to cost me? At many insurers, the answer is plenty. Metropolitan Life, for example, charges some life policyholders fees equal to 15% to 20% of the annual premium simply for the privilege of making monthly payments. Charges like these are often built into the payments, so you may not even know they put the bite on you.