Q: How much insurance should I have? I was recently married and have been considering acquiring life insurance. We do not have any children, and I cannot really find any information on how much I should get. — Marcus Smail
A: It's a smart move to get life insurance if you have a spouse or other family members who depend on you and your income, especially if you don't have a large savings account.
Figuring out how much insurance you should buy basically boils down to answering one question: How much income do your survivors need if you're gone?
Of course, to know this you'll need to first look at your debt, monthly spending, monthly savings, and your long-term savings goals, as well as your expected funeral/estate settling costs. Steven Weisbart, senior vice president and chief economist at the Insurance Information Institute, recommends using this calculator from Life Happens, which walks you through the process by allowing you to input those details, as well as play with the estimated inflation rate and after-tax investment yield to get a recommended figure for the amount of life insurance you need.
Weisbart suggests getting coverage equal to 10 times your annual income, if you can afford the premiums. "Anything less doesn't provide much transitional time for your surviving spouse or children," he says. "You don't want to put them under time pressure while they try to adjust to life without you."
This approach, which is focused on income replacement, generally results in a large amount of insurance coverage. Another approach people use when determining life insurance needs is to focus instead on buying enough insurance to keep their financial obligations from causing a hardship to their survivors. "They'd look at the mortgage, car leases, and other commitments they've made and figure out how much their family would need to cover those bills without their income," Weisbart says.
Keep in mind that you may already have some life insurance coverage through your employer and that your spouse and children may be eligible for Social Security survivor benefits, depending on how many credits you have earned at the time of your death. Any funds stored away in retirement accounts or other savings vehicles can also be factored in to lower the total amount of insurance coverage you'll need.
Before you decide to purchase a policy and select a coverage amount, it is a good idea to meet with a fee-only certified financial adviser, who can tell you if the amount you estimated using the calculator is, in fact, correct for your situation and family. An adviser can also help you decide what kind of life insurance you should purchase and the amount you should expect to pay for it. Says Weisbart: "It's good to talk through this with someone who has done this a couple of thousand times before and who can really guide you."
Be sure to revisit your life insurance coverage amount when major life events occur, such as the birth of a child, divorce, or when you become empty-nesters, as your coverage needs will likely alter.