401(k) vs. Life Insurance: Which Is Better for Retirement?


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ByMark Fitzpatrick
Edited byRae Osborn
Contributions by6+ experts
ByMark Fitzpatrick
Edited byRae Osborn
Contributions by6+ experts

Updated: June 16, 2024

Advertising & Editorial Disclosure

Both life insurance and a 401(k) can serve as investment tools. Determining which is the better choice for you will depend on your long-term goals. Because they serve different purposes, you may be interested in both.

A 401(k) plan is better for retirement planning. The returns are typically better because it’s designed for retirement and will benefit you once you end your career. On the other hand, life insurance is better for estate planning because it focuses on the death benefits that your loved ones will receive if you pass away.

Although some types of life insurance have a savings portion, that is only a bonus, and investment returns aren’t very good. In most cases, including variable life insurance, returns aren’t even guaranteed.

Table of Contents

Difference Between 401(k) and Life Insurance

Life insurance and 401(k) plans can benefit individuals concerned about their future financial situation; they have different purposes, but you could choose either as part of your retirement plan.

401(k) plans are employer-managed savings plans for retirement. A certain amount from a participating employee’s paycheck is allotted to the account.

Meanwhile, life insurance offers financial protection for the policyholder’s beneficiaries. You pay a premium to your insurance provider to maintain coverage. It’s mainly focused on the death benefit, but some types have an investment component that may help with retirement savings.

A 401(k) retirement fund is typically company-sponsored and is part of an employee benefits package — signing up means using a portion of your salary as a contribution to your retirement account.

On the other hand, life insurance mainly offers protection to beneficiaries in the event of their death to cover large expenses, such as a mortgage. It may not be an ideal retirement plan. Although the cash value from permanent life insurance can be a supplementary tool to retirement savings, it shouldn’t replace a 401(k) or another retirement plan.

401(k) vs. Life Insurance

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401(k)
  • It’s designed for retirement.
  • It’s an employer-managed retirement savings plan.
  • A portion of a participating employee’s wages automatically goes to their 401(k).
  • The plan owner decides how much their annual contribution will be.
  • Companies may offer to match contributions up to a certain limit, increasing the total contribution.
  • Making withdrawals before age 59 ½ leads to a 10% additional tax.
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Life Insurance
  • It provides financial protection to beneficiaries in the event of the policyholder’s death.
  • Coverage depends on the person.
  • It can have an investment or cash-value component, which provides an opportunity to earn money.
  • Premiums are calculated by the insurance provider based on individualized factors.
  • Returns are often not as good as 401(k) and may not be guaranteed.
  • Cash value is easily accessible via withdrawal or loan at any time.

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DO YOU STILL NEED LIFE INSURANCE IF YOU HAVE A 401(K)?

Both life insurance and 401(k) offer advantages. That’s why many find it difficult to choose one over the other. But choosing life insurance vs. 401(k) isn’t always necessary.

Buying life insurance alongside having a 401(k) can help you maximize the benefits and create a more solid wealth strategy. A permanent life insurance policy can give you access to cash value that you can use for various purposes. That can be a great addition to your retirement nest egg accumulated in your 401(k).

Understanding Life Insurance Retirement Plan (LIRP)

A life insurance retirement plan (LIRP) is a strategy that utilizes the cash value component of a permanent life insurance policy to provide retirement income. The policyholder contributes premiums that exceed the cost of insurance, allowing the excess to accumulate in a cash value account, which grows tax-deferred.

Policyholders can then take tax-free loans against the cash value of their policy during retirement, providing a stream of income. Although the death benefit decreases by the loan amount, this can be a useful tool for those looking for an additional retirement vehicle, especially if you have already maxed out other tax-advantaged accounts like 401(k)s or IRAs. LIRPs offer flexibility and tax benefits, but require careful planning to ensure that the premiums are affordable and the policy remains in force.

Comparison of Contributions for 401(k) vs. Life Insurance

Generally, permanent life insurance has two components: death benefit and cash value. Having these leads to a higher insurance rate.

The death benefit is the amount beneficiaries receive when the policyholder dies. Cash value is the savings component of a permanent life insurance policy, such as whole life and universal life. It’s invested and may earn interest. It can be accessed after a certain amount of time.

Read below to see how life insurance and 401(k) rates compare.

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    401(k)

    Minimum Contribution: There’s no minimum contribution for a 401(k) plan. In some cases, a company may offer a matching program wherein they match the employee’s contribution up to a certain percentage. If your company has this, you can use this as the basis for your minimum contribution.

    Maximum Contribution: In 2023, a participating employee can contribute up to $22,500 per year to their 401(k) account. Those 50 or older can allot up to $30,000 annually.

    If your company has a matching program, the maximum employee-employer contribution is $61,000 for most and $67,500 for those 50 years old or older.

    Contribution Frequency: A portion of a participating employee’s salary is automatically contributed to their 401(k). The agreed-upon amount is deducted from the employee’s gross wages every pay period.

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    Life Insurance

    Minimum Contribution: A percentage of life insurance premium payments goes toward the policy’s cash value. That means the amount of contribution may vary by policy type. It may also vary by the insurance provider.

    Maximum Contribution: The maximum contribution for the cash value component may vary by company. The percentage may also change throughout the years. Make sure you clarify with your insurer and read the fine print to avoid issues.

    Contribution Frequency: Depending on your premium payment plan, your contribution can be made monthly, semi-annually or annually. That’s because a portion of the insurance premium goes toward the policy’s cash value component.

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MONEYGEEK EXPERT TIP

You can’t purchase life insurance in a 401(k) plan unless your plan explicitly allows it. Make sure you check the plan description to see if it is possible. If it’s allowed, you can purchase a cheaper policy using pre-tax money. It’s also important to clarify with your employer whether you can purchase an individual life insurance policy or only buy group life insurance through them.

Benefits of 401(k) vs. Life Insurance

When planning for retirement, it’s important to consider the different financial instruments you can use. Knowing the benefits of each can help you weigh your options well. For instance, 401(k) may have better savings potential, but life insurance offers a death benefit.

The table below compares 401(k) and life insurance in terms of benefits.

Comparing 401(k) and Life Insurance: Benefits
Benefit
401(k)
Life Insurance

Savings Potential

A 401(k) plan provides better
returns. That’s because it is
designed for retirement savings.

A certain portion of the insurance
premium is put into the cash value
component of the policy.

Depending on the type of life
insurance plan, there may be a
savings potential. Term life doesn’t
offer this option. Permanent life
insurance, such as whole and
universal, does.

Death Benefit

401(k) is a retirement account and
doesn’t offer death benefits. But,
the balance of your 401(k) is left to
your chosen beneficiary.

One of the main components of life
insurance is the death benefit. That
amount is paid out to the chosen
beneficiaries when the policyholder
passes away.

Investment

401(k) plans offer various
investment options. Typically,
companies already have a
portfolio, and participating
employees can choose where to
invest.

Universal life insurance allows the
policyholder to choose how much of
their premium payments will go toward
the cash value, which may accumulate
interest. Some insurance companies
may also offer choices for where the
cash value is invested.

Indexed universal life insurance is also
a policy that offers investment
opportunities. It allows you to get
faster cash value growth.

Tax Benefits

Your 401(k) contributions are
made pre-tax. You can deduct
them in the year and potentially
reduce your total taxable income.

The earnings of a 401(k) account
are also tax-deferred.

Insurance death benefits are often
tax-free.

The cash value accrues on a
tax-deferred basis.

Potential Risks and Drawbacks of 401(k) vs. Life Insurance

While both 401(k) plans and life insurance policies help achieve a robust financial strategy, each carries inherent risks and drawbacks. Make sure you balance the advantages with potential downsides to make an informed decision that aligns with your financial objectives.

Comparing 401(k) and Life Insurance: Potential Drawbacks
Potential Risks and Drawbacks
401(k)
Life Insurance

Market Volatility

Investment options may suffer during market downturns, affecting value.

Cash value accounts, especially in variable policies, can be subject to market fluctuations.

Accessibility of Funds

Penalties for early withdrawal before age 59½.

Loans against the policy can reduce the death benefit and may have interest charges.

Contribution Limits

Annual contribution limits may restrict how much you can save.

Premiums for higher coverage can be costly, limiting the amount you can afford to contribute.

Taxation

Taxed upon withdrawal, which could be at a higher rate in retirement.

The death benefit from a life insurance policy is generally tax-free. However, if a policyholder withdraws from the cash value of the policy, the gains may be subject to income tax.

Fees and Expenses

Management fees and expenses can reduce the account balance.

Premiums can include fees and administrative costs that may reduce the cash value.

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MONEYGEEK EXPERT TIP

Having life insurance provides your loved ones financial protection after you pass away. The death benefit component is paid out to them and can be used in various ways. However, life insurance isn’t an upgrade to 401(k). If your goal is to save for retirement, it’s best to consider a 401(k) plan.

Which One Should You Get: 401(k) or Life Insurance?

Choosing life insurance vs. 401(k) requires you to consider your needs, circumstances and goals. Generally, what your priorities are in terms of retirement planning and wealth strategy will determine which is the better choice for you.

When to Choose 401(k) vs. Life Insurance
Goal
Best Option

Retirement Fund

401(k)
A 401(k) was created to help employees plan for retirement. In comparison to life insurance, 401(k) has a stronger savings potential. The investment earnings may compound over time. Additionally, some companies match employee contributions, helping you save more for retirement.

College Fund

Life Insurance
One component of permanent life insurance is the cash value. After a certain amount of time, the policyholder can access this amount. You can borrow against it or withdraw a portion to cover various needs, such as to pay for your child’s college education.

401(k) doesn’t offer this option. You can’t withdraw funds before age 59.5 without a tax penalty.

Estate Planning

Life Insurance
Life insurance can be used for estate planning. The death benefit component is given to your chosen beneficiaries. It can be used to balance asset value and equalize inheritance distribution.

Funeral Expenses

Life Insurance
Funeral and burial costs can be expensive. The death benefit of your life insurance can help your loved ones pay for these expenses.

Although it’s possible to have leftover funds from a 401(k) that you can pass on to your loved ones, it’s not a guaranteed amount.

Life insurance and 401(k) are used differently. If your primary goal is to build a nest egg for retirement, a 401(k) often stands out as the superior option due to its tax advantages, potential employer matching contributions and the power of compound growth over time. But before participating in one, make sure you know how it works and the different types. Additionally, check the plan details with your employer’s human resources department.

On the other hand, life insurance shines in estate planning, offering a tax-free death benefit to your heirs, which can cover specific financial needs such as funeral expenses or establishing a college fund for children or grandchildren. Life insurance can ensure your legacy is secured and that your family's financial needs are met without the same tax implications that retirement accounts might incur upon your passing. If buying life insurance suits your situation and goals, consider the different types available. Comparing policies and rates from different insurance providers can help you find the best life insurance based on your needs.

Types of 401(k) Plans

Understanding the various 401(k) plans is key to maximizing your retirement savings potential. Each plan type is designed to cater to specific employment and financial situations.

  • Traditional 401(k): A standard option where employees contribute pre-tax dollars, reducing their taxable income. Taxes on contributions and earnings are deferred until withdrawal in retirement.
  • Roth 401(k): Contributions are made with after-tax dollars, offering tax-free growth and withdrawals, providing a tax advantage if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket during retirement.
  • Safe Harbor 401(k): This plan is designed to satisfy non-discrimination tests automatically and requires employer contributions to be fully vested when made.
  • SIMPLE 401(k): It is aimed at small businesses with fewer than 100 employees, and this plan simplifies the administrative burden and offers easier setup and maintenance than a standard 401(k).
  • Solo 401(k): Tailored for self-employed individuals or business owners with no employees, allowing them to contribute as both employer and employee, maximizing retirement savings.
  • Tiered Profit Sharing 401(k): Allows employers to make contributions based on a tiered structure, often tied to the company's profitability. This can boost employee retirement savings when the company does well.

Types of Life Insurance

Selecting the right type of life insurance policy depends on personal financial goals and needs. Each variety offers distinct benefits tailored to different planning strategies.

  • Term Life Insurance: Provides coverage for a specific period, offering a death benefit if the policyholder passes away during the term. It's the most straightforward and affordable option, ideal for temporary coverage needs without a savings component.
  • Whole Life Insurance: This is a form of permanent life insurance that offers a death benefit and a savings account. Premiums remain consistent, and the policy's cash value accumulates over time, serving as a potential source of funds.
  • Universal Life Insurance: Offers flexible premiums and death benefits, with a savings component that earns interest. It allows policyholders to adjust their coverage as their financial situation changes.
  • Variable Life Insurance: This features investment options that can grow the policy's cash value. The value can increase significantly with investment gains but also risks decline with market downturns.
  • Indexed Universal Life Insurance: This ties cash value accumulation to a market index, balancing growth potential and protection against market loss. It's a middle ground for those seeking growth with some safeguards.
  • Variable Universal Life Insurance: Combines the investment options of variable life with the flexibility of universal life. Policyholders can adjust premiums and death benefits while choosing how to invest the cash value.
  • Final Expense Insurance: This insurance is designed to cover burial costs and final bills; this policy ensures that end-of-life expenses are not a burden to loved ones. It typically has lower coverage amounts and is easier to qualify for.
  • Guaranteed Issue Life Insurance: Requires no medical exam and offers guaranteed coverage, typically for those with serious health issues. It's more expensive and offers lower benefits, addressing specific coverage needs where other policies may not be available.
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Other Options for Retirement Planning

Exploring various retirement planning options can help build a secure and comfortable financial future. Beyond 401(k) plans and life insurance, several alternatives can help secure your retirement years.

1
Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs)

IRAs come in two main varieties: Traditional and Roth. Both offer tax-advantaged savings with different implications for tax deductions and withdrawals. Traditional IRAs allow for tax-deductible contributions and tax-deferred growth, with taxes paid upon withdrawal in retirement. Roth IRAs are funded with after-tax dollars, offering tax-free growth and withdrawals, provided certain conditions are met. Both are subject to annual contribution limits set by the IRS.

2
Health Savings Accounts (HSAs)

For those with high-deductible health plans, HSAs provide a tax-advantaged way to save for medical expenses in retirement. Policyholders make contributions, which are pre-tax or tax-deductible. Growth and withdrawals for qualified medical expenses are tax-free.

3
Real Estate Investments

Investing in property can generate passive income and capital appreciation, serving as a valuable retirement asset.

4
Annuities

Annuities are financial products sold by insurance companies that allow an individual to pay a single premium or multiple premiums in exchange for receiving periodic payments starting immediately or at a later date. Policyholders can have them structured to provide income for life, making them a popular choice for retirement income.

5
Investment Portfolios

Building a diversified investment portfolio with a mix of stocks, bonds and other securities is a common strategy for retirement savings. This approach balances risk and can lead to long-term wealth accumulation through market participation.

6
Pensions

Employer-sponsored pensions offer defined benefits upon retirement, though they are less common today. These provide retirees with a fixed monthly benefit based on salary and years of service. Public sector employees and some unionized workers may still have access to these defined benefit plans.

7
Social Security Benefits

While not a complete retirement plan, Social Security is a government program that provides retirement, disability and survivor benefits. While it's not meant to be the sole source of income in retirement, it provides a base level of financial security for many retirees.

Frequently Asked Questions

Understanding the different products available can help you make an informed decision. MoneyGeek answered some common questions to help you better understand life insurance vs. 401(k).

What is the difference between 401(k) and life insurance?
Do I need life insurance if I have a 401(k)?

Experts' Advice About Choosing Between 401(k) and Life Insurance

  1. Our research indicates some consumers are considering whether to fund a 401(k) or permanent life insurance as a means of retirement planning. Why might they be making this comparison?
  2. How do the contributions and contribution limits for a 401(k) compare to premium payments for life insurance?
  3. Recently, some social media accounts have touted the value of insurance as a way to save for and fund retirement. Is this just marketing?
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About Mark Fitzpatrick


Mark Fitzpatrick headshot

Mark Fitzpatrick has analyzed the property and casualty insurance market for over five years, conducting original research and creating personalized content for every kind of buyer. Currently, he leads P&C insurance content production at MoneyGeek. Fitzpatrick has been quoted in several insurance-related publications, including CNBC, NBC News and Mashable.

Fitzpatrick earned a master’s degree in economics and international relations from Johns Hopkins University and a bachelor’s degree from Boston College. He is passionate about using his knowledge of economics and insurance to bring transparency around financial topics and help others feel confident in their money moves.