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Retirement Savings vs. Life Insurance

Question: I'm 56 and my wife and I together make around $80k and both contribute to our company matched 401Ks. I plan to retire at age 70. My insurance agent is suggesting I stop contributing to my 401K and instead buy a "Permanent Life" policy of $250k which he says will pay out better than if I stayed in the 401K (the company matches 50 cents on the dollar up to 6%)by spending down what I already have and spending down the dividends in the insurance policy. Is this possible? Is buying Permanent Life Insurance considered a good investment? Dennis, Silverthorne, CO.

Answer: I have a very simple point of view toward questions like this: When a company matches half of your contribution into a retirement savings plan you are outperforming over the long-haul Warren Buffett, George Soros, William Gross, and any other legendary investor of the past half-century. Why would you give up such a superior investment track record?

Financial planners disagree on many things, such as the cost and benefits of actively managed investment funds versus passively managed index funds. But most if not all would agree with me that everyone should take full advantage of their retirement savings plan at work--as well as IRA, Roth-IRA, SEP-IRA, or comparable products if you qualify--before even considering putting money into a cash-value life insurance product. Cash value life insurance, such as whole life, universal life, and variable life is not a retirement plan.

I'd stick with your 401(k).

That said, you should evaluate your need for permanent life insurance as a distinct financial planning question. For instance, at your age do you still need life insurance? If so, how much? Does your company offer a group policy? Is it enough, and if it isn't, how much more insurance do you need? Compared to permament life insurance, would it be better for you to invest the potential life insurance premiums in a low-cost tax-efficient taxable account, such as in the S&P 500--or not? These are the kinds of questions I'd pursue before buying a policy.

About the author

Chris Farrell is the economics editor of Marketplace Money.

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