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Why Dave Ramsey is wrong about permanent life insurance

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It’s absolutely, unequivocally, undeniably, inexplicably clear Dave Ramsey does NOT believe in permanent insurance. He believes there’s no need for life insurance when you have no mortgage, no debts, and have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars earning 12 percent “average” annual returns.

Dave tells his followers to be intentional with their money. Is it possible Dave is intentional with his wordings? Is it possible Dave himself would’ve been better off owning permanent insurance rather than term? Is it possible Dave is wrong about 12 percent annual returns (which is another primary reason he advises term)? Is it possible there’s a perpetual need for permanent insurance for some people, and that permanent insurance provides increased liquidity and spending capability in retirement?

The math proves yes.

Permanent vs. term: A mathematical analysis

A while back I stumbled upon an episode of Dave’s TV show in which he read an email from a listener named Tyler that posed the following question: How can you advise term insurance when it expires just when people need it the most? In response, Dave tried to insult Tyler, saying he sounded like a true life insurance salesman. Dave goes on to explain that he recommends term because when it expires his followers will have no debt, no house payment and hundreds of thousands in savings.

As the rant continues, Dave accidentally reveals one reason why permanent insurance can be better.  It’s not about the level premiums or the internal rates of return or estate taxes or income replacement as my compadres (as one reader referred to us last month) have vehemently argued in the past. It’s about security. Insurance equals security, and the security of death benefit proceeds doesn’t completely or necessarily evaporate with the elimination of debt and/or creation of wealth. 

Dave has said, and I quote: “I’m 47 years old and still carry a few million in term insurance because SWI.”  He gets this southern boy grin and explains, “SWI is because Sharon wants it.” (Sharon is Dave’s wife.) He goes on to say that it’s more important to have the coverage than it is to put something new on her finger.

Now, this is where we get to have some fun.

Let’s look at the math between permanent and term for a hypothetical 40-year-old. We need a name for our mystery man. Let’s call him Dave, shall we? We’ll compare Dave buying a 20-year term policy at ages 40 and 60 versus buying a guaranteed universal life policy (GUL) at age 40. With the term scenario, we’ll assume he invests the saved premium into the market. We’ll break down the comparison with the following gross rates of return rate: 6, 8, 10, and 12. We’ll factor 1 percent for annual expenses and front end sales charges of 5.75 percent. Lastly, we’ll review if being half wrong on the rate of return equals out to half the value. (Your guess is as good as mine, unless of course you’re guessing yes … then your guess is half as good as mine.)

I ran the rates through a life insurance quote engine and took the median price for each age bracket, assuming the best underwriting health class. Keep in mind that I’m giving a huge advantage to term here, since it’s more likely for a 40-year-old to qualify for best class underwriting and less likely for a 60-year-old, which is the attained age for the second term scenario. 

Using today’s rates, our 40-year-old Dave can get a $2M-death-benefit, 20-year term policy for around $1,345 per year. The 60-year-old Dave could purchase the same policy for $9,830. In comparison, our 40-year-old Dave could purchase a GUL for $10,170.

This means the 40-year-old term-buyer can invest $8,317 after sales charges into four different Class A “good growth” mutual funds. (Remember I’m only referring to our hypothetical Dave, not the real Dave. Use the math as illustrative and inspiration to do the math. Side note: One thing the real Dave and I agree on: Being intentional with our wordings is impactful.)

The 60-year-old Dave only has about $320 of saved premiums to invest per year.

I’ve also assumed that once every 10 years we’ll want to completely rebalance the gains in the portfolio. This would create capital gains and additional sales charges. In other words, we have a portfolio turnover rate of once every 20–30 years, since we’re only rebalancing or reallocating the gains.

Here’s how the chart looks for each at 10, 20, 30 and 40 years. 

Years / (hypothetical Dave Age)

5% Net Rate of Return

7% Net Rate of Return

9% Net Rate of Return

11% Net Rate of Return

10 / (50)





20 / (60)





30 / (70)





40 / (80)





Dave yells at financial people like myself for hurting people with our “theories” and lack of real world experience helping people.  He jokes about how we grab for our HP calculators. Well, my HP calculator proves his math wrong. Even at a gross 10 percent compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) you have nearly $600k less than the death benefit of the life insurance in 40 years.

Who wants 10 percent when they can get 12 percent? The 12 percent Dave uses is an average rate, not a CAGR (see Stoffel vs Ramsey). Ten percent CAGR for the S&P 500 is more mathematically valid than 12 percent. Remember that stock price reflects growth, which is partly a byproduct of inflation. The currently higher CAGR includes higher inflationary periods, which, during lower inflationary periods like we’re in now, equates to lower CAGR. Hence, the long term 12 percent math is flawed. Warren Buffett expects CAGR to be closer to 7 percent due to the lower inflationary period we’re currently in.

Dave’s math is further flawed given two things:

First, the majority of the savings between term and GUL is during the first 20 years, not the second.   Thus, a lower CAGR during this period would greatly reduce the outcome.

Second, the death benefit of the life insurance is guaranteed. It’s not hypothetical. It’s a risk-free $2M benefit (oh, and tax-free,too … the numbers above don’t account for any estate taxes). Now, what would the risk adjusted return of the S&P 500 be? I’ve seen that number to be less than 5 percent. In fact, one of our readers who is an actuarial statistician wrote to me personally and showed how he got 4.91 percent. (Thank you, Anthony!)

Side note: Ever wonder why at 12 percent returns anyone would pay off a mortgage? One reader last month sent in an audio clip where a millionaire asked why he should pay off his 4 percent fixed interest rate mortgage. In summation, Dave said the 12 percent has risk and being debt free changes your mindset. (Thanks for the clip, William!) Shouldn’t this be the same argument with permanent life insurance?  The death benefit is guaranteed, whereas the discipline to save the additional premiums, the rate of growth and the number of years to grow are not guaranteed. Hence, the additional risk outweighs the possible additional benefit.

Those who practice personal finance and make plans for an individual’s specific situation are held accountable to the mathematical results. We use calculators to examine the results. In the Total Money Makeover, on TV, and on the radio, Dave often proclaims that even if he’s half wrong, he has still helped his followers. Just like term insurance isn’t better 100 percent of the time, this conclusion isn’t 100 percent correct. It’s nowhere close, in fact. If the math is half wrong, if 12 percent gross is actually 6 percent gross — which is 5 percent net after the 1 percent fee — then the person who followed this advice would’ve bought term, invested the difference, and been left with $1.4M LESS than the $2M death benefit in 40 YEARS.

Let that sink in for a minute.

The cost of security

The real Dave Ramsey owned term insurance at age 47, and showed no regrets about owning it, nor any indication his term insurance ownership years were coming to an end. If the real Dave had bought permanent insurance at age 40 right now, he would be better off at age 54. He would be better off through his early 80s, even at a 10 percent gross rate of return. He would be better off not because of the internal rates of return, but because of his family’s desire for security. See, we make the mistake of believing that at $1M of liquid savings we’ll be secure. When $1M is your new normal, then $1M is where you feel secure. Then it’s $2M, then it’s $4M, and so on. Once you have what you’ve got, you don’t feel comfortable going backwards. Losing your spouse financially means the reduction of income, whether by the elimination of wages, pensions, or Social Security. Life insurance provides security against this. 

Now some of you may argue the GUL premiums don’t cease at age 80, whereas if we see a 10 percent gross CAGR then the saved insurance premiums plus interest have matched the desired security blanket somewhere past age 80. You’re right; you pay the GUL premiums until you pass. This may be prior to reaching 80, or it may be later. But I think this was a fair comparison. If you want to squibble about it, then let’s squibble over the rate of return, as well. Anyway, to prevent future squibbling I ran a 10 pay GUL policy starting at age 40 and paid up at 50. (And don’t yell at me about “squibble” not being a word.  It’s not. I made it up. I took a page out of Mr. Ramsey’s book: see investing advisor.) 

We accounted for the cost of term insurance during the different age bands based on the rates assumed earlier. The first table below shows term insurance ending at age 60; the second shows it ending at age 80.

Term ending at age 60

Years / (hypothetical Dave Age)

5% Net Rate of Return

7% Net Rate of Return

9% Net Rate of Return

11% Net Rate of Return

10 / (50)





20 / (60)





30 / (70)





40 / (80)





Term ending at age 80

Years / (hypothetical Dave Age)

5% Net Rate of Return

7% Net Rate of Return

9% Net Rate of Return

11% Net Rate of Return

10 / (50)





20 / (60)





30 / (70)





40 / (80)





Again, the glaring point here is that being half wrong on the rate of return doesn’t equate to the outcome being half as much! This is why we use calculators and not blank statements or simplistic math that isn’t valid. (Thanks, HP calculator.) Furthermore, if you argue the first chart is more accurate since if you save the money you’ll no longer “need” the insurance, remember the mathematical need is not the same as the behavioral reality to maintain the additional security. Lastly, the ending amounts do not account for estate taxes, which certainly do change from time to time and would make the tax-free benefit of life insurance more attractive. 

Building an estate with life insurance

I noted earlier that life insurance can be used to create an estate. It doesn’t sound like a radical assertion, I know, but it goes against what Dave says. 

On July 14th, 2014 a reader asked Dave if his 71-year-old mother should continue a universal life insurance policy she purchased to leave an estate, or if there was a better investment alternative.  Dave answered this: “…You don’t use life insurance to leave an estate. It’s a bad idea. You leave an estate by saving and investing. The only people who will tell you to use a life insurance policy to leave an estate are life insurance salesmen.”

Wrong! Just plain wrong. Many individuals benefit from using life insurance in an estate. Let’s call our 71-year-old woman Betty. Like many of her generation, Betty has plenty of income from Social Security and pensions, but has relatively lower invested assets. At this point she’d like to make sure she leaves an estate. How would this be a bad thing? Earlier I mentioned the show where a caller asked why he should pay off his mortgage, since earning 12 percent growth is much better than 4 percent paid in interest.  Dave replied that if your house was paid off and you were told to take out a mortgage and invest the proceeds, you’d think that was nuts. What he meant was that the security of having one’s house paid is greater than the potential additional interest made through leveraging. As our examples illustrated, the security of a known amount is better than the potential interest made through leveraging one’s need or desire for death benefit proceeds with volatile 100 percent stock investments made over the course of many years.

Here’s a shortened version of Dave’s response to Betty’s investment dilemma: “It would probably take about 13 years for the money to turn into $250,000. Assuming she’s healthy, I’d rather do that and bet on her living. That way, she can leave an estate and avoid the expense and rip-off part of the universal life policy.” 

Interestingly enough, my HP calculator found that Dave’s right: It would only take 13.75 years to accumulate $250,000 if I input a 12 percent CAGR. But Dave has stated he understands the difference between compounded and average. He has also stated that he uses the 12 percent “average” rate to inspire and illustrate the power of compounding interest (once again see Stofell vs Ramsey). Yet when we do the math here, he’s using his standard go-to number of 12 percent, but in CAGR function not averaging. (There are plenty of examples online which will show how the math differs. Just use Google.)

Here’s the problem. First, when you use different growth methods at different times and don’t differentiate, it becomes very hard for people to know what you mean. Second, the average life expectancy for a 71-year-old female is 15 years (15.6 years, to be precise). So, what if Dave is half wrong? What if she earns only 6 percent before fees? Then it takes a bit over 20 years. If we account for the same tax and rebalancing as earlier, then it’s nearly 24 years. Furthermore, this assumption puts a portfolio which exceeds the average risk tolerance for most 71-year-old individuals. Therefore, even if the math is correct, it’s improbable that our Betty will maintain this course during adverse periods. 

Think of it this way: When Betty first starts putting money away, she can be riskier with these funds. As the balance accumulates and her life expectancy decreases, it’s reasonable to conclude she’d want to scale back on risk. It is one thing to experience a downturn after year three or four, when there’s only twenty to thirty thousand dollars at stake, but when the number is bigger — say a hundred thousand or so — then a sizable downturn has a greater impact, especially when you consider her life expectancy has decreased. Will she live long enough for the benefit to come back? Will she continue to save and invest during this period? 

The importance of income replacement 

Lastly, let’s look at income replacement. Let’s talk Social Security for a moment. A few years ago we started to notice a trend. I noticed that married spouses rarely pass away in the same year. Mind-blowing information there, I know! When the first spouse passes, the surviving spouse (assuming they don’t remarry) is taxed as a single individual the following calendar year. The surviving spouse also loses the smaller of the two Social Security benefits and possibly some pension income, but let’s ignore that.

Here’s an example: Let’s say that Bob and Mary get $3,000 per month from Social Security combined. Bob gets $1,800 and Mary gets $1,200.They take out $1500 per month from their IRAs to supplement their income. They have no debts. They just like to live life, travel some, and help out the kids or grandkids where they can. In short, they’re a normal couple. Approximately $500 of their Social Security benefits are taxed. No big deal. Their adjusted gross income is $18,500 and standard deductions should wipe out all of their federal income tax liability. 

Bob dies. And here’s the trend we’ve noticed. Spending doesn’t drastically change. Mary still wants to do the things she did while they were together.  She still wants to give or help out the kids, do a little traveling, and live life. There are a few bills that are eliminated from Bob’s death, say a Medicare Part B premium, a car insurance, a supplemental insurance, and a cell phone bill. But overall, two do not spend much more than one. After Bob’s death, bottom line expenses change by less than $500 per month.  Mary’s new Social Security benefit is only $1,800, and her monthly income need has gone from $4,500 down to $4,000.

What to do? We’ve noticed many who were taking $2,200 from the IRAs continue to do what they were doing before. The $2,200 per month distribution was $700 per month more than before, or $9,400 more annually. At the end of the year, Mary would owe a little more than $4,500 of tax she didn’t owe before.  This wasn’t to increase her lifestyle; it was just to maintain it. If we deducted this as a monthly amount, she’d be short about $400 per month. If she wanted to make that up, she’d have to increase her withdrawals by another $5,500 per year. So, while as a married couple Mary and Bob were fine, as a surviving spouse, Mary must increase her distributions by about $14,000 per year. Not to mention, without any life insurance, their estate saw a negative cash flow of about $30k for burial and income for the 12 months +/- depending on funeral costs and depending on the month Bob passed. In this example, $20k-50k of permanent insurance would be beneficial to some and unnecessary for others depending on the other details regarding their personal situation.

How life insurance can increase spending capacity

I noted earlier that permanent life insurance can increase the spending capacity for retirees. I’ll give you a simple scenario. I met a woman whose husband had passed. He left her with $400,000. Together they had a goal of leaving $50,000 to each of their five children. To accomplish this goal without life insurance, she would need to purchase standalone LTCI insurance to protect against future healthcare costs, and could only base spending on the $150,000 of net assets. She would need to continue to work to make sure this would happen. The solution offered by life insurance is much more attractive: All she needed to do was purchase permanent life insurance. Make it a single pay and then make an irrevocable life insurance trust the owner. This eliminates the need for LTCI insurance, frees up more cash flow and leaves her with over $300,000 to spend as she sees fit, while still accomplishing their goal of leaving $50,000 to each child. The freed-up premiums would have increased her cash flow and therefore freed income to spend by nearly $400 per month, and now she had two times the amount of assets to draw an income from. Permanent insurance can increase one’s spending capacity if used in the correct form for the correct situation.

Dave Ramsey is an intelligent person. He understands the difference between compounded annualized growth rates and annual averages, but chooses to ignore the mathematical impact since the wonder of compounding interest will “inspire” people to invest. He asserts that we math nerds fight over a few percentage points which are irrelevant as long as he gets people to invest. He says there’s no need for permanent insurance, that it’s garbage and a rip-off. He uses the example of a 32-year-old buying a 20-year term policy who follows the Ramsey system to illustrate why permanent life insurance is not needed. Yet poor unknowing Dave proves his very own point wrong by sharing with us that, at 47 years old, with no personal or corporate debt, no mortgage, ample savings, and ample income, he still maintains coverage past the point where his plan says it’s needed. 

I’m not making this up. I’m just stating the facts. The fact is term insurance exists for a reason. It’s good and appropriate for people given particular objectives, needs and desires. The fact is permanent insurance exists for a reason. It’s good and appropriate for people given particular objectives, needs and desires.  

See the earlier articles in this series:

Two great Dave Ramsey myths, debunked

These are the 7 steps Dave Ramsey followers really need

As always thanks for walking down this path with me. If you see something you’d like us to address from American’s “Favorite” finance coach, please email my editor at [email protected]