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avatar You are viewing an archive of articles by Stephanie Colestock. Stephanie is the managing editor at Consumerism Commentary, as well as a contributing writer. She graduated from Baylor University with a Biology degree, but has since found a passion for personal finance. She also writes for a number of other sites -- including Dough Roller, Five Cent Nickel, and allCards -- in addition to running her small business, Pink Orchid Press. Stephanie lives in Washington, DC with her two sons and a German Shepherd.

Stephanie Colestock

Comparing cell phone plans makes going to the dentist look fun. To help, here are our ratings and comparisons of the best cell phone plans in 2017.

best cell phone plans in 2017

These days, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have a cell phone. They’ve become a staple in our lives. And, for many without a landline, they’re a necessity. But just because we have to have our cell phones, doesn’t mean that we have to pay an arm and a leg for service.

Figuring out how much a new cell phone plan will actually cost you practically requires an accounting degree. Those “$45 unlimited calls, messaging, and data” plans can quickly, somehow, turn into $100-per-line charges. Between fees and fine print, it can all be hard to decipher.

Let’s take a look at how much cell plans have changed recently, all across the board. We will cover the four major cell phone carriers (Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T). And we’ll see what prices they are actually offering.

We’ll exclude any promotional pricing, since promotions change so often. We’ll also cover the amount and quality of data included in each plan, as that’s the most common concern for subscribers these days.

So, let’s get started. Then, you can determine how much a new plan will really cost you, long before some surprise, inflated bill lands in your inbox.

Big Changes

A few notable shifts that have occurred in the cell phone world as of late. But for the most part, these shifts are in the best interests of the consumer.

Return of Unlimited Plans

You may remember that unlimited plans used to be pretty popular. Different carriers offered different services. Some only offered unlimited talk time, and others offered unlimited talk and text. But you could find some kind of unlimited plan from nearly every provider.

Well, a few years ago, carriers began to unexpectedly pull these types of plans from their lineup. The reason? The massive wave of smartphone users and their unprecedented data usage. This was an even bigger issue once streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify gained popularity.

These apps eat up a significant amount of data. To compensate, carriers began to offer expensive data plans alongside their typical “minutes and messages” offerings. Some even forced consumers to pay a fee for simply having a smartphone connected to a line. It didn’t matter if you used 1GB of data per cycle or hit your limit… the fee was the same.

Personally, these “smartphone surcharges” and data fees caused my own bill to jump from an average of $60 per month per line to just over $90 per month per line. We’re talking about another $360 a year per phone, for the luxury of checking my email or Facebook on the go.

You can understand, then, why I jumped for joy when I heard that unlimited plans were making a comeback. I stayed with my same carrier and switched to one such unlimited plan the same day it debuted. This immediately cut my bill by about 35% without any noticeable decrease in service.

All four of the major carriers now offer some form of unlimited plan. Just as before, the plans vary in what’s actually offered. Take a look at your own bill history before switching to see how much data you typically use. Considering that most of the carriers have different unlimited package levels, you may be able to save some money with a smaller plan.

Of course, keep in mind that “unlimited” doesn’t actually mean unlimited without consequences. If you’re a high-speed data hog, you’ll probably have your speeds tethered (or reduced) after you hit a certain usage limit.

No Contracts

Gone are the days of being locked into two-year agreements with a carrier. And consumers no longer have to pay pricey early termination charges if/when they want to switch. Now, all four of the big carriers operate on a no-contract basis.

This is great news as far as flexibility. You’re welcome to change plans and carriers anytime you like, without consequences. However, there is a downside.

One of the biggest perks of contract plans, at least for smartphone users, was the discounted phone price. In exchange for signing one of those one-, two-, or even three-year contracts, the carriers offered a substantial discount on the actual phone. For those who lined up to snag the newest iDevice, this discount of several hundred dollars was well worth the contract’s shackles.

Now, you’ll need to buy your phone outright when you pick that new, no-contract plan… no more $199 iPhones. However, the carriers typically offer their own version of a zero-interest loan, allowing you to buy the phone for a down payment and an agreement of an increased monthly charge.

Once the phone is paid in full–usually around 24 months–that added charge falls off. If you want to switch carriers before you finish paying off the phone, you’ll simply need to fork over the balance in order to release yourself.

Now, let’s look at what each cell company is offering in terms of plans.

Sprint

Sprint has bounced up and down a bit on its unlimited plan pricing over the past year or so. It was one of the first carriers to offer new unlimited plans. Then it dropped its prices significantly earlier this year.

Sprint has raised its prices back up a bit since then. But they’re still nicely discounted from what they were last year and before. However, it’s important to note that the prices shown here are expected to revert back to their higher rates after October 2018. So, be sure to make the switch before then if Sprint is the best choice for you.

Data Quality & Quantity

With Sprint, you’ll have no problem streaming HD-quality videos with your standard unlimited data plan. You’ll also be able to take advantage of 10GB of high-speed mobile hot spot usage per line. This means you can use your cell phone service as a wifi hub for your laptop or other devices, which is a convenient feature to have available at no extra charge. Once you use up your monthly 10GB, your hot spot speed will drop to 2G.

If you use more than 23GB of high-speed data per month, Sprint may tether your speeds. Also, if you are using your data for gaming and music, your streaming speeds will be capped at 8Mbps and 1.5Mbps respectively.

Pricing

Remember rates will jump up a bit, to previous price levels, at the end of October 2018. Until then, though, Sprint has some of the most competitive rates available on unlimited plans.

For one phone line, an unlimited plan will run you $55. A second phone adds another $45, with additional phones after that costing $10 per line.

If you’re not interested in unlimited data–maybe you have a younger child who doesn’t need a smartphone–the only other option available is a $45 per month per line plan. This plan does include up to 2GB of data.

 

1 line 2 lines 3 lines 4 lines 5 lines
1GB data Not available Not available Not available Not available Not available
2GB data $45 $90 $135 $180 $225
Unlimited data $55

(after Oct 2018 this goes up to $65)

$100

(after Oct 2018 this goes up to $110)

$110

(after Oct 2018 this goes up to $145)

$120

(after Oct 2018 this goes up to $180)

$125

(after Oct 2018 this goes up to $215)

T-Mobile

Up until recently, T-Mobile offered family data-sharing options for its customers, called Simple Choice plans. These meant that you could purchase bulk shared data, along with unlimited messaging and calls, for the whole family to use. You could even allocate data to individual phone lines. That way your teenager couldn’t hog all the data midway through the month’s plan.

These Simple Choice plans were also great in that they didn’t include data usage from streaming services, like Netflix and Spotify, against your data allowances. Considering how much data those apps can use, this was a big bonus for many customers.

However, this is no longer the case. Now, T-Mobile has replaced Simple Choice plans with its T-Mobile One plan. Now you have to purchase a separate data plan for every phone on the account.

The good news is that these plans are all unlimited–data, voice calls, and text messages. Depending on how much data your family was eating through before, this could either increase or decrease your monthly bill.

Data Quality & Quantity

Basic T-Mobile plans offer customers “DVD-quality” video streaming. But it caps hotspot speeds at 3G. If you want better quality or higher speed, you’ll need to pay another $10 per month, per line. This upgrade will then snag you a 4G mobile hotspot and HD-quality video streaming.

Whether or not that’s worth the added cost, only you can decide.

As with Sprint (and all of the others, in fact), “unlimited” has its caveats. However, the cap for potential speed tethering is a bit higher with T-Mobile, at a solid 32GB. Surpass that in a given billing cycle, and T-Mobile may slow down your phone’s speed when the system is overloaded.

Pricing

One great thing about T-Mobile’s pricing structure is that it’s incredibly simple to calculate. You don’t have to worry about regulatory fees, taxes, or little monthly charges that can cause your bill to notch further and further up.

What you see is what you get. Their pricing already includes all taxes and fees, so when they say you’ll pay $75 a month, they mean that’s what you’ll actually pay. So, keep that in mind when you’re comparison shopping.

Their price structure is as easy as it gets. There is only one option: unlimited everything. The first line is $75 a month (remember, this is what your actual bill will be… no fees or taxes). Each line after that is another $35. Easy peasy.

1 line 2 lines 3 lines 4 lines 5 lines
1GB data Not available Not available Not available Not available Not available
2GB data Not available Not available Not available Not available Not available
Unlimited data $75 $110 $145 $180 $215

Verizon

Unable to stick with one pricing structure, Verizon has had a lot of back-and-forth with their plans in the last year or so. What they’ve settled on now has a lot of people irked.

Their prices have dropped, and you now have a choice between two unlimited data plans. However, you’ll be getting a little less bang for your buck in the end.

Data Quality & Quantity

Verizon’s plans used to be, like many other carriers, of the limited variety. You could choose until very recently to purchase a set amount of data for a set price. Now, your options are between two unlimited plans, which offer varying qualities of data.

The first plan is called Go Unlimited, and it is the less expensive of the two. You will still receive unlimited data, but Verizon reserves the right to tether you speeds any time the network is busy. This is in stark contrast to most tethering rules, where the carrier will only begin to tether your peak time speeds after you’ve used a certain amount of data.

With this plan, you’ll also get DVD-quality video streaming along with a mobile hotspot, capped at a 600 Kbps speed.

If you need more, well, everything, there is also the Beyond Unlimited plan. It’s an extra $10 a month but offers better quality data and more flexible rules.

With this higher-priced option, you’ll get HD-quality streaming on your videos and a 4G LTE mobile hotspot with up to 15GB per month, per line. You’ll also avoid being tethered during peak network times until you’ve used more than 22GB of data in that billing cycle.

1 line 2 lines 3 lines 4 lines 5 lines
Go Unlimited $80 $140 $165 $180 $225
Beyond Unlimited $90 $170 $195 $220 $275

AT&T

Last but not least, we have AT&T. The carrier started offering unlimited plans again in February 2017, and, like Verizon, it offers two different qualities to choose from.

The company does still offer Mobile Share Advantage (finite data) plans, if that suits your needs better. Grandma probably doesn’t need unlimited data, so these plans are still the cheaper option for low-data users.

Data Quality & Quantity

If you opt for the cheaper of the two unlimited plans through AT&T, the Unlimited Choice, you might be a little disappointed in the quality. It really depends on what you’re used to getting.

Unlimited Choice will give you standard-definition quality (don’t ask me how big of a difference there is between this and “DVD-quality,” though) video streaming with a speed cap of 1.5Mbps. For non-streaming data usage AT&T caps speeds at 3Mbps. The Unlimited Choice plan also does not include a mobile hotspot.

If you need better quality and faster speeds, you can opt for the pricier version, the Unlimited Plus plan. This includes a mobile hotspot with 10GB of usage per line. Go over that limit, and you can still use your hot spot; it just gets limited to a speed of 128Kbps.

This plan includes HBO at no additional cost (which may be a great plus if you’re trying to cut the cord or just decrease that cable bill!) and HD-quality video streaming.

Pricing

The difference in price between the two unlimited plans is larger than with other carriers (most of whom offer an upgrade to the “better” plan for only ~$10 a month per line).

Unlimited Choice plans start at $65 for the first line. The second line is another $60, and each line after that, up to 10 lines, is another $20 per line.

Unlimited Plus plans start at $95 for the first line. The second line is again $60, with each subsequent line adding another $20 per line.

1 line 2 lines 3 lines 4 lines 5 lines
Unlimited Choice $65 $125 $145 $165 $185
Unlimited Plus $95 $155 $175 $195 $215

As cell users’ needs and data demands change, carriers are likely to further alter their unlimited plans. So be on the lookout for changes to these prices and the perks that each plan offers.

Also, keep in mind that cell phone carriers offer promotional pricing and discounts frequently. A number of these carriers offer discounts for autopay and paperless billing, so your bill might actually be less than what you’re seeing here. You should check online and even call the carrier to ask about potential discounts before signing up to ensure that you get the lowest possible price.

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Universal life insurance has both advantages and disadvantages. We cover both the pros and cons to help you decide whether universal life is best for you.

universal life insurance pros and cons

Every once in awhile, I will receive financial questions from readers. Now, I am not a financial adviser. I usually suggest those needing significant assistance with their financial decisions to seek the advice of a professional. However, I don’t mind answering general questions that might be helpful for a wider audience. I also solicit help from the site’s other writers who may have more knowledge than I on a particular subject.

Today’s question focuses on a topic that I don’t usually cover: life insurance. Specifically, they wanted to talk about universal life insurance, which is a bit of a controversial topic in personal finance circles.

Here’s the question a reader sent in:

I recently read a book called Tax-Free Retirement by Patrick Kelly. In it, the author was selling the idea of buying Universal Life Insurance as a way to build your retirement fund. I’ve been doing research on Universal Life Insurance (pros and cons). What are your thoughts on Universal Life Insurance, and is it something you recommend people buy?

What is Life Insurance?

Let’s take a moment to talk about the many aspects of life insurance in general. Then, I will circle back to address the specific question about universal policies and retirement funds.

So, there are three primary parties when it comes to insurance: the insured, the beneficiaries, and the insurer. Life insurance policies are offered by the insurer to protect the income and earning potential of the insured.

If the insured passes away, the beneficiaries — who relied on the income of the insured to some degree — can continue with a comparable quality of life. This may be in the form of receiving regular income (through a trust) or even getting a lump sum payment.

For example, the head of a household (or all income earners in a family) may buy life insurance in order to protect the needs of their children. This coverage could ensure that the children have their everyday needs met, as well as provide for future education expenses, healthcare, and the like.

Life insurance benefits could also help pay for funeral costs, medical bills, and any outstanding debts (such as a mortgage or joint credit card debts) that the insured may leave behind.

Types of Life Insurance

Term Life Insurance

Life insurance comes in several flavors. The most common, and the most basic, is term life insurance.

This is a typical insurance policy, where coverage is based on a set number of years. During that period, the insured will pay premiums and be protected. However, at the end of the term, the protection ends.

While term life insurance gives you the most bang for your buck, the nature of it means that someone could essentially pay into a policy for several decades without a return. If that insured individual continues to live and stay healthy, he or she will never receive any benefit from their term policy, other than peace of mind.

At the end of a policy term, insurers typically offer an option to renew the policy. However, depending on your age and any health changes, your premiums are likely to go up with renewal. This is why term life insurance is more ideal for younger, healthier adults, when their risk of death is lower.

Related: How Much Life Insurance Do You Need?

Of course, the idea of paying into a policy for years without receiving any benefit didn’t sit well with many. So, insurers eventually came up with different types of policies.

Permanent Life Insurance

These alternatives are often called permanent life insurance policies, and there are several different plans designed to suit a customer’s needs. Universal life insurance is one form of permanent life insurance. Whole life insurance is another.

These non-term policies usually include a savings or investment component in order to help insurers mitigate some risk. That’s because, in these permanent policy scenarios, the chance of paying out benefits is closer to 100 percent. This component can make them a very tempting choice when shopping for life insurance, but let’s take a deeper look before you make any decisions.

What Is Universal Life Insurance?

Universal life insurance is a type of permanent policy that can provide coverage for the remainder of your life. You won’t have to worry about renewing the policy every five, 10, or 20 years, as with term insurance. However, if you want to cancel at any time, you’ll actually have the opportunity to cash out on some of the money that you paid into the policy.

These policies often cost considerably more than term policies of the same coverage amount, but provide some flexibility in the premium payments over time.

Premiums, in case you don’t know, are the amount of money that the insured pays to the insurer for the coverage, usually on a monthly basis. The unique thing about permanent life coverage, though, is that a portion of these monthly payments also goes toward funding each policy’s savings component.

The savings component is the cash value portion of the insurance policy. It’s basically a savings account from which the insured can withdraw or borrow money over time. They can even use it to reduce or skip their policy premiums when needed. The younger and healthier you are, the more money is placed in this account; as you age or as your health deteriorates, a smaller percentage of your monthly premium will go toward building this cash value.

Because of this benefit, the premiums are much higher. Sometimes, the difference in premium is a factor of ten. So, is the savings portion worth ten times more than a basic insurance policy on its own?

The Pros of Universal Policies

There are a number of reasons that universal life insurance policies are so appealing.

First off is that whole savings component. At its foundation, it’s much more ideal to buy life insurance that actually holds some value. If you decide you don’t want the policy 15 years from now, you’ll simply* be able to cash out.

*I say simply, but the ease of this policy cancellation varies. We’ll discuss this in the cons section, next.

You also have a potential nest egg built up after all of those years, which could be seen as a forced retirement savings vehicle (if you’re the type of person who needs that sort of thing).

You’ve been paying premiums and your money has been earning interest for years. If you live to a ripe old age, you have a nice chunk of change saved up, which you can either leave alone or borrow from when needed. If you don’t, your beneficiaries receive their payout, without you having to worry about renewing term policies over the years.

Another interesting benefit of universal life insurance is that the insured can use interest earned on the savings component to help pay the monthly premiums. If you get in a financial bind or want to allocate your money elsewhere for a few months, you usually can (depending on the cash value and interest earned on your policy).

One of the biggest perks of a permanent policy, though, is simply avoiding the issue of renewing term policies or shopping around for rates every few years. You can stick with one policy throughout the decades, and have one less thing to worry about. This is particularly great if you already know that you’ll need lifelong coverage in order to provide for a dependent, such as if you have a special needs child or a disabled spouse.

There are quite a few downsides, though.

The Cons of Universal Life Insurance

High Fees

While the savings component of a universal policy sounds great in theory, it may not be so wonderful.

Compared to the returns earned by your universal policy premiums, you may be shortchanging yourself. You may easily be able to generate your own returns in savings or investments that are significantly better than the returns you’d receive through your policy. You’ll also have much more flexibility with your own investments and can make your own decisions. You don’t have any say where your policy’s cash value savings are invested.

To further that note, you’ll also likely pay much higher fees for managing the investments of your universal life insurance policy. With other retirement accounts, such as 401Ks, you can find investment fees as low as half a percent or lower. Universal life policies, however, often have fees as high as 3%. This can make a significant difference in the overall growth of the savings.

Cancellation Fees

Another downside is that when you withdraw or borrow money from a universal life insurance policy,  it reduces the amount that your beneficiaries would receive if you died before repaying the loan. This alone is often enough to steer people away from this type of coverage.

If you buy into a policy and then change your mind later, you can cancel. However, cancellation isn’t easy, and can wind up costing you a pretty penny depending on how long you’ve held the policy. Be sure to read the fine print to see how much of your cash value you will forfeit if you cancel the policy in the first 3 years, 5 years, 10 years, and so on.

Mediocre Returns

Now, to what I consider to be the biggest downside of them all. Remember how we talked about universal policies being for life, versus a shorter “term” length? Well, there’s a very important caveat that could land you in some serious hot water, if you’re not careful.

Yes, universal life insurance policies can last you the rest of your life. However, this depends on the returns of those invested savings and the actual cost of your death benefits, according to your health changes over time.

As mentioned, a portion of your premiums each month goes toward your actual “life insurance coverage.” Let’s say that you’re a 25 year-old in great health paying $100 a month. Twenty dollars of that might be going toward the insurance company’s actual cost for providing life insurance for you. The remaining $80 is going into your cash value savings.

However, as you age, that number will change. When you turn 60, that split might be closer to $70 for benefits and $30 going into savings. When you hit 75, you may be in deteriorating health and those investments might not have panned out as well as the insurance company had hoped; in turn, the company may require more than $100 a month for your coverage, even though that’s your premium amount.

To make up for the deficit, the insurance company can (and will) dip into those cash value savings. If it goes unnoticed, you could realistically check on your account one day — you know, the one you counted on to be your big nest egg and provide life insurance benefits for your family upon your death — only to find it dwindled away to nothing. Decades of savings and “guaranteed” benefits, gone.

Unnecessary for Most

One final note. Most individuals do not need permanent life insurance. A retiree who has little or no earned income, for example, often has no need of life insurance. One exception, however, are families caring for disabled adult children. But again, for most families, life insurance is unnecessary after the kids have left home and retirement is at hand.

Should a Universal Life Policy Build Your Retirement Fund?

This is a tricky decision and has a lot of drawbacks. But the savings component can still make this a tempting option for many.

There are three major drawbacks to this approach that you should keep in mind before buying into a policy. Because of these reasons, I would not use a life insurance policy of any type to increase my planned income during retirement.

  1. Any retirement income you need and withdraw reduces the value of the benefits your heirs will receive, as mentioned above.
  2. You can get better investment options by opening an IRA at a discount brokerage.
  3. You’ll be paying much more for less potential performance than other retirement options. Even a 401(k) could cost much less.

If you’re a savvy saver and investor, you may want to leave your investments separate from your life insurance policy and opt for term life insurance. If you appreciate consolidating your savings with your insurance policy and are not concerned with a significantly higher cost, it might make sense to opt for this type of coverage.

For readers: Do you have a universal life insurance policy and are you happy with the insurer so far? Have you had any experiences collecting benefits from a policy?

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Deciding how much life insurance to buy is a tricky decision. Your needs and those of your family have so many variables that it’s hard to establish a set guideline.

Life Insurance

There are a few guidelines, however, to use when calculating your own coverage amount. These guidelines can help you come to a good number that will protect your family while limiting your costs.

Here are six questions to ask in order to calculate how much life insurance you really need.

Question 1: How Much Do I Make?

The most basic rule of thumb with life insurance is that you should purchase a policy for 10 times your annual salary. And this is a good starting point.

Take into account your base pay, as well as any annual bonuses or commissions that you may bring in. If you have a side hustle that regularly makes extra money, you may want to add that into your number.

Also, keep in mind that this number accounts for replacing your salary for 10 years. You may want to replace it for longer, though.

Maybe you have small children and you want your spouse to be taken care of until the kids are on their own. In that case, multiplying your salary by 12, 15, or even 20 might be a better choice for your family.

Question 2: How Much Do I Owe?

If you were to pass today, how much debt would you leave behind? Take this into account when calculating your life insurance coverage.

Will someone inherit your home, or do you own it jointly? Either way, you may want to include the balance owed on the mortgage in your life insurance calculation.

When you die, a joint home owner must continue to pay the mortgage. If you are the sole owner, the mortgage stays with the property as it passes to the beneficiary. Including the mortgage balance in your life insurance coverage is a good idea. Even without a mortgage, you may want to account for property taxes, homeowner’s insurance, and other expenses so that your heirs don’t bear those financial burdens.

If you have credit card debt or other debt, you may want to also include that in the calculation. If those balances are cosigned, the other person will be responsible for the debts upon your death.

Credit cards are unsecured debts. This means that if you die and your estate doesn’t have money left over to pay them off, the credit card company is out of luck. However, if your spouse is a joint account holder, they will now be responsible for the remaining balance. You should also include any high interest personal your significant other will be forced to take on.

Lastly, you’ll also want to account for your final expenses here. Funerals are not cheap, and they’re often an unexpected expense that could easily eat up your family’s emergency fund (and then some).

The average funeral costs around $10,000. Depending on your last wishes — such as hiring Celine Dion to sing at your funeral or having your ashes spread ceremoniously on each of the seven continents — this may need to be adjusted. It seems morbid, but planning to pay these costs out of your life insurance is important.

Question 3: How Will My Family’s Life Be Impacted?

Think about how your passing would impact your family. This includes your value outside of the money you may bring in.

This is particularly true for stay-at-home parents. While they don’t usually have an income (aside from a side hustle or part-time gig), their value to the home is significant. If you are the full-time childcare for your children and take care of most of the household management, you’ll need to account for your partner having to replace those services.

What if you’re a working parent in a two-income household? You still may want to add additional money to allow your spouse to pay for extra childcare and help with household chores if they become a single parent.

Whatever cost you come up with for these additional, unpaid services, be sure to multiply that by the number of years you want to cover.

Question 4: Will My Loved Ones Need Health Insurance?

If your family is currently covered by a health insurance plan provided by your employer, that will disappear upon your death. Depending on what your spouse’s employer offers, your family may not have an affordable health insurance alternative.

What if your spouse’s employer offers a comparable health insurance plan to what you already have? If they would likely keep working if you pass away, you may not need to add the cost of health insurance to your coverage number.

However, if your family will need to purchase private health insurance, shop around a bit to get an idea of cost. The monthly premiums are not insignificant! Figure out how much a policy will run, and add this expense — times the appropriate number of years — to your life insurance coverage.

Keep in mind that your spouse and dependent children will be eligible for COBRA coverage upon your death if you were already receiving health benefits through your employer. This coverage can last up to 36 months. It is still a pricey option, however. And private insurance (if your spouse will not qualify for a new plan under an employer) will still be in their future.

Related: All About COBRA Coverage

Question 5: How Much Do I Need to Consider for College Expenses?

If you have children, you may already be planning for their college expenses by contributing to a 529 plan or other savings vehicle. You may want to account for the remaining funds needed in your life insurance coverage, though, as a way to remove that burden from your loved ones.

Setting aside $80,000-100,000 per child for education expenses is a general, but solid, number. This covers four years of tuition, room & board, and books at the average public college. Depending on how much you already have saved, your children’s ages, and their existing plans for the future, you may want to adjust this up or down.

Question 6: What Are My Existing Assets?

When calculating all of the numbers above, be sure to factor in everything that you’ve saved already. This may include savings accounts, funded college accounts, investments, and even other life insurance policies.

If your family will be able to draw on these assets, subtract them from your overall coverage needs. However, one should account for when these assets can be accessed.

For instance, if your spouse will be able to collect Social Security survivor’s benefits, you can account for that when calculating how much of your income to replace with insurance. However, keep in mind that your spouse won’t be able to receive benefits until they reach at least age 60, unless you have children under 16 years of age or have a child with a disability.

As With Most Things, It All Depends

It’s easy to throw in all of the things that could be covered by your life insurance policy. And when you’re talking about $500,000 or $1,000,000 policies (or more!), the zeros can make your head spin.

Of course, you don’t want to waste money each month by overpaying for coverage that is far beyond what your family needs. However, you also don’t want to pinch pennies and leave them with a policy that falls short.

In the end, you’re really just making an educated guess as to how much life insurance you really need. The questions above are great for determining your family’s baseline needs, though your own unique situations may impact this number. As with most personal finance situations, the ideal amount of coverage really depends on many factors. And, in the end, you would still rather err on the side of caution and purchase a too large policy, rather than a too small one.

Play around with the numbers and solicit your spouse’s opinion, too. Figure out how long you want, or need, to care for your family’s finances after your death. This is particularly important for families with a child with lifelong needs.  Then, once you have your magic number, you can shop around for the best policy price.

There are several resources you can use to get free quotes online. One of our favorites is Haven Life.

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Car costs got you down? Between maintenance, gas, and insurance coverage, having a personal vehicle is no small expense.

Well, the inimitable Suze Orman offers up ten tips for keeping car insurance costs down. These are especially helpful in a world where gas prices and maintenance expenses continue to climb.

Here’s the short version:

Boost your deductible

Keep cash on hand for emergencies, or call it partially self-insuring. Either way, raise that deductible as high as you’re comfortable and as high as your funds will allow.

This will keep your monthly payments down — and you can earn interest on that money instead.

Get less mileage out of your policy

Driving less than 10,000 – 12,000 miles yearly can often qualify you for an insurance discount. The less you’re on the road, the less likely you are to be a risk for the insurance companies.

This translates to lower premiums each month. You can also drive for “pleasure” — instead of “commuting” or driving for “business” — and often snag a discount. This is another benefit of working from home.

“Home in” on a discount

Yeah, yeah, that’s a bad pun. But the point remains: if you include your home insurance with the same company that provides your auto insurance, you might qualify for a discount.

Toss in a number of other policies, if needed, and you’ll save even more. For instance, I carry USAA coverage for two vehicles, two homes (my residence and a rental property), life insurance, and personal property.

Bundling these products together through the same company saves me a ton. It’s also easy keeping everything straight when I need to file a claim or get help.

Couple up on your policy

Two heads in one policy are better than one… policy for each head. You could get a 30% discount by joining forces to combat evil.

If you and your significant other are still on your own policies, get a quote for combining the cars into one. Chances are, you’ll save a few bucks.

Get defensive

Sometimes, taking a defensive driving course will lower your premium. Sometimes, it’s also incredibly boring.

Call and ask your insurance company if they’ll offer a discount for the successful completion of this course. If so, those few hours of your time may be well worth the savings. This can be particularly helpful if you have a teenager on your policy.

Put your degree to work

I told you an advanced degree was worth it, and here’s the proof.

Give your insurance provider a list of your lettered qualifications. Depending on the company and your accomplishments, this may very well translate to a monthly discount.

Play group

Suze suggests you look to your affiliated organizations, like alumni groups or teachers’ associations. They may provide special rates.

Of course, being a member of an organization like AAA is almost always a surefire way to snag another discount.

Slow down

Think “slowpoke”, not “Speedy Gonzalez.” Take your foot off the gas and avoid those speeding tickets in order to reduce your auto insurance rates. Companies only look at the last three years, so it won’t take too long to clean off your record from an insurance rate perspective.

Here you can also consider Snapshot from Progressive and similar technologies. Your insurance company sends you a device that you plug into your car. It tracks several factors, such as hard braking, miles driven, idle time, and night driving. Based on the results, you could save on your car insurance.

GEICO doesn’t use this technology. But it does have a reputation for competitive rates for safe drivers.

Give yourself credit

Insurance companies look at a number that is similar to your credit score when configuring your policy. So, make sure that you don’t declare bankruptcy or default on loans. Either of those could negatively impact approval for coverage and the cost of premiums.

Note that some states have outlawed the practice. California, Hawaii, Massachusetts do not allow insurance companies to consider credit scores, according to Consumer Reports.

Make the grade

If you’re a younger driver, keep your nose to the books. A 3.0 GPA in high school or college often reduces premiums.

Suze also suggests being vigilant about how kids are assigned to cars. My father solved this problem very simply, but in a way that I found disappointing: when I reached driving age, he sold his Porsche.

It may have been older and purchased used, but the combination of “16-year-old” and “Porsche” on the same policy had our insurance company seeing dollar signs. So, my dad nipped that in the bud by selling his weekend fun car.

Instead, he picked up a Nissan Maxima to add to our family Subaru station wagon. The practical (much less fun) car was both safe and less valuable — and less likely to be a tempting speed machine for a new driver. This meant lower premiums for the family.

Dad was ahead of the ball game. Darn.

Related: How to Intelligently and Responsibly Buy a Car

Do you have other tips for saving money on auto insurance? Share them below, in the comments!

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