Key takeaways

  • Using the ladder strategy, a healthy person can save quite a bit of money on life insurance over their lifetime.
  • Someone with the same financial needs over time, like caring for a special needs child, may not be the best fit for the ladder strategy.
  • If you expect your life insurance needs to decrease as you age, consider the life insurance ladder strategy.

Life insurance is a useful tool that can help provide financial security for you and your family. It can, however, be expensive, especially as you get older. The ladder strategy aims to address this issue by giving you the maximum amount of life insurance coverage at the best rates. Laddering typically involves purchasing several term life policies with staggered expiration dates. This can be cheaper than buying whole life insurance, and having multiple policies allows changes over time. Bankrate’s insurance editorial team dives a bit deeper and explains how the laddering strategy works so you can decide if it’s right for you.

What is the ladder strategy?

With ladder life insurance strategies, you purchase several term life insurance policies with varying term dates rather than one policy for all your needs. Why is this a good idea? The strategy takes advantage of the fact that your life insurance needs when you’re younger are typically more significant than they will be when you reach your senior years.

Varied term policies means that you can alter your coverage needs as your life circumstances — number of dependents living at home or outstanding loans or mortgages to account for — change over time.

How to ladder your life insurance

As an example, a 31-year-old married person with three children determines that now and for the next ten years at least, they need $1.5 million in coverage to provide for the family. After that, the mortgage will be paid off, so only $1 million is necessary for financial protection of dependents. In twenty years, the kids are out on their own, so needs are further reduced to around $500,000.

Your ladder might look like this:

  • A 30 year policy for $500,000
  • A 20 year policy for $500,000
  • A 10 year policy for $500,000

If you should die in the first ten years, your death benefit will be a total of $1.5 million — covering all your family’s needs. If you die between 10 to 20 years, your death benefit from the remaining two policies will be $1 million. And if you die in the 20 to 30 year period, you’ll have a death benefit of $500,000 from your single remaining policy.

Consider how much life insurance coverage you need

Being able to ladder your policies requires you to have a good understanding of your current and future financial needs. If you are just starting your career, you may not need life insurance. But that changes for many people once they settle in with a spouse and children.

“After they get married, have kids and/or get a mortgage, suddenly there is somebody who would be in financial trouble if they died. So they need life insurance,” says Mike Piper, a certified public accountant in Manitou Springs, Colorado who is the author of several personal finance books and blogs at

To determine how much life insurance you need, you should write down all your debts owed, including future education costs for children and funeral costs. Consider things like how many years you want your income to be covered if you were to pass, especially if your spouse stays home to raise the kids. You can also use a calculator to help you decide how much life insurance to buy.

How you can save money with the ladder strategy

Laddering shorter-term policies not only is a good way to bulk up coverage during key times of your life, but it also saves on premiums, says Greg Sanders, founder of Peachtree Insurance Advisors in Marietta, Georgia.

The annual premiums on 20-year and 10-year policies would be lower than for a 30-year policy in the same dollar amount because coverage on the 10- and 20-year policies ends while the policyholder is younger and presumably in better health, he explains.

Using our example from before, a single $1.5 million policy might have an annual premium of $2,050 a year, while three staggered policies — each for $500,000 — might have the following premiums:

  • 30 year policy: annual premium of $730
  • 20 year policy: annual premium of $475
  • 10 year policy: annual premium of $310

Those staggered policy premiums add up to $1,515, saving you $535 a year during the first ten years of coverage with a $1.5 million death benefit. (Actual rates for policies will vary from the examples provided here).

As your shorter policies expire, you would save even more because you would no longer be paying those premiums. You would also have less coverage, but in this case, you’re not paying for an excess of coverage either.

Who should use the life insurance strategy?

Although laddering your policies may be a good way to save money while ensuring that those you love are cared for, it’s not the best fit for everyone, especially if you are younger. “If you’re 27 years old and need $1 million worth of insurance, just buy a 30-year term policy,” says Sanders. “Don’t try to split it up. You might save a little bit of money, but the savings won’t be worth it.”

Laddering may also not be the best idea if you can’t forecast your financial needs in the decades ahead, which is true of many people. No one can be absolutely certain what their financial needs will be 10, 20 or 30 years down the road, and so there is an element of risk in laddering your policies that you may not be comfortable with.

If your financial needs will continue at their current rate, laddering may not be advantageous. If you have a child with special needs, for example, who will be unable to become financially independent, you’ll want to keep a robust insurance policy in force for future years.

Review how much life insurance coverage you need

It’s a good idea to go over your life insurance strategies regularly with a financial advisor. They may offer a perspective on your financial future that hasn’t occurred to you, and can save you from making expensive mistakes.

A laddering plan presumes that life insurance needs will shrink, but unexpected issues often arise — such as boomerang children returning to the nest, says Dylan Huang, New York Life’s Head of Product Solutions. “What they initially thought they would need ends up changing over time,” he says. “If you’re going to execute a strategy like this, it’s really important that you buy term insurance from a carrier that allows conversions to permanent insurance to give you the option to keep the policy in place if your needs have changed.”

Frequently asked questions

    • To determine the best life insurance company, you should consider your financial needs, age, income and other factors that will impact the type of policy you need and how much it might cost. Consider what’s most important for you in a life insurance provider, such as the company’s customer satisfaction ratings or the availability of riders for optional coverage. Once you determine your financial needs and what features are important to you, compare quotes from a few different companies to find which ones could be the right fit.
    • Whole life insurance is a type of permanent life insurance. This means it offers coverage for the rest of your life as long as you pay your premiums on time. Term life insurance is a policy that lasts for a specific time, typically 10 to 40 years. While whole life insurance policies usually offer more generous coverage as well as cash value, they are more expensive. Term life insurance is typically a more affordable alternative. Consider speaking with a certified financial planner or licensed life insurance agent to discuss your goals and they can help you determine what type of policy and how much coverage is right for you.
    • Like most financial products, the best strategy when shopping for life insurance is different for everyone, but the key thing that will most likely ensure success is preparation. Take your time and do a little research on companies and policy types; consider using a life insurance calculator to give you a rough estimate of how much life insurance you need. Then talk with a professional, such as a certified financial planner or licensed life insurance agent to see if there is anything you are forgetting before you start requesting quotes.