Term or Whole Life? Which One Is Right For You?

Why It Matters:

  • It’s important to cover all your bases in preparing for your family’s financial future.
  • Life insurance is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
  • Knowing the difference between whole and term life is a good place to start in determining your financial needs.

Jeff Maciolek tkc.profilePicture Written by: Jeff Maciolek | Transamerica
Aug. 14, 2019

2-3 Min readClock Icon

According to a 2017 LIMRA study, more than four in 10 consumers say they haven’t purchased life insurance because they don’t know how much they need or what type to buy. Yet, 45% of households said they are likely to buy life insurance in the next 12 months.1 So, for those looking to protect themselves from the unexpected, here’s our quick guide to buying life insurance.

Term life and whole life are the two most common types of insurance.

Term Life Insurance

Term life provides coverage for a specific “term” or period of time should you pass away. It’s similar to car insurance in the sense that once the specified period is over or you stop paying premiums, you’re no longer covered. Most policies are purchased for 10, 20, or 30-year terms. Some policies allow you to renew after your term runs out, but policies tend to get more expensive because you’re older.

When compared to whole life, term life typically offers larger amounts of coverage for relatively smaller premiums. It provides a cost-effective way of meeting a temporary insurance need, which makes it appealing to families with large expenses such as child care, bills, mortgage, etc. Often, by the time the term expires, the kids will have moved out, the mortgage will be paid off, and their insurance needs may be less.

While term life pays a set death benefit, it does not accumulate any cash value, nor can you borrow against it. If, at the end of the term, you haven’t used it, you get nothing. But some companies offer “living benefits” on certain types of term life policies. Living benefits or “accelerated death benefits” allow the policyholder to access their death benefit early in the case of a qualified critical, chronic, or terminal illness. This means you don’t have to die to tap into those funds. You can use a portion of your anticipated death benefit to pay for medical bills and replace lost income.2

Whole Life Insurance

Whole life insurance provides “permanent” or lifelong protection. You might encounter other types of life insurance such as universal life, variable universal life, and indexed universal life, but don’t get confused. These are all just different forms of permanent life insurance with varying features. With all forms of permanent life insurance, as long as your premiums are paid, the policy remains in force for as long as you live. When you pass away, your named beneficiaries will receive the death benefit.

Premiums for whole life tend to be higher than term, but whole life policies include a component allowing you to accumulate cash value over time. If there’s enough cash value, it also means you may be able to use it to pay future premiums or borrow against it in an emergency. But, if you don’t repay the loan with interest, you’ll reduce your death benefit. Should you choose to cancel your policy early, the cash value or “cash surrender value” may be returned to you.

In addition, some types of whole life policies provide the opportunity to earn annual dividends. This is basically a portion of the insurer’s financial surplus. While never guaranteed, these dividends can be paid out in cash, left to accumulate interest, used to pay premiums, repay policy loans, or buy additional coverage.

Which one is best for you?

Not everyone buys insurance for the same reasons. So one size does not fit all. It depends on your individual situation and financial goals. Compare the different types of features of term and whole life insurance on the left in the following chart to see which one best suits your needs. Then talk to a financial professional to make sure you’re getting the right coverage for you.




Period of coverage

Limited to term purchased, max. usually 30 years


Guaranteed death benefit

Yes, as long as premiums are paid

Yes, as long as premiums are paid


Tend to be lower but may increase w/ age

Tend to be higher, usually remain steady

Face amounts available

Tend to be higher

Tend to be lower

Accumulates cash value



Loans against policy




Usually, depends on policy



Usually, depends on policy


Living benefits

Depends on policy

Depends on policy

Eligible for dividends


Depends on policy

Things to Consider:

  • Talk to a financial professional to make sure you have enough of the right kind of life insurance for your individual situation.
  • If you have a term policy, ask your financial professional about if or when you should convert it to a whole life policy?
  • How important it is for you to leave an inheritance for loved ones and, if so, how much?
  • Do you have major medical, disability, and/or long term care insurance? If not, could living benefits make sense for you?

1 LIMRA Life Insurance Awareness Month, September 2017
2 Benefits provided through the Living Benefits, including the critical, chronic, and terminal illness accelerated death benefits, are subject to certain limitations and exclusions. Amounts payable under the benefits vary based in part on the nature and severity of the Insured’s health condition and the Insured’s remaining life expectancy at the time of the acceleration as determined by the company. Refer to the policy contract for complete details.



Join the Discussion

Tags in this article

Insurance Beneficiary

More Security



Thanks for subscribing!

Your subscription wasn't successful. Please try again later.

Please enter a valid email address.

Please enter a valid first name.

Please enter a valid last name.