401K or Life Insurance

401K or Life Insurance

November 15, 2023

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

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. Because it’s designed for retirement, the returns are typically better and will benefit you once you end your working career. Life insurance, on the other hand, is better for estate planning because it’s focused 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.

What Is the Difference Between 401(k) & 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.

Life insurance, on the other hand, mainly offers protection to beneficiaries in the event of your 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 serve as a supplementary tool to retirement savings, it shouldn’t replace a 401(k) or another retirement plan.


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  • 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 the age of 59 ½ lead 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.

    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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      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 aged 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.

      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 shows a comparison between 401(k) and life insurance in terms of benefits.

      Life Insurance


      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 chosen
      beneficiaries when the policyholder
      passes away.


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

      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

      The cash value accrues on a
      tax-deferred basis.

      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.

      Best Option

      Retirement Fund

      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 the age of 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 main concern is retirement planning, a 401(k) is the better option for you. 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.

      If you think that buying life insurance is appropriate for your situation and goals, consider the different types of life insurance available. Comparing policies and rates from different insurance providers can help you find the best life insurance based on your needs.

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

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?

Many investors may make this comparison because similar tax advantages are available within a life insurance policy as within a 401(K) plan. Additionally, both can be used for long-term investing and retirement planning. The most accurate comparison should be between a Roth IRA and/or a Roth 401(K).

Recently, some social media accounts have touted the value of insurance as a way to save for and fund retirement. Is this just marketing?

While there are tax advantages to using life insurance for investment purposes and for retirement planning and allotment of individuals that are generally not securities licensed to tout this strategy on social media, investors need to truly understand how it works, how the policies function, the costs associated with it and they need to truly make sure the policies are built correctly for what they want to accomplish. So, in some way, yes, this is just marketing; however, in other ways, if an investor is doing all the other things they should be doing to alleviate taxes and save more for retirement, then technically, life insurance can be an adequate vehicle to facilitate this.

How do the contributions and contribution limits for a 401(k) compare to premium payments for life insurance?

Technically, there are no contribution limits for life insurance other than the constraints one may have related to the amount of death benefit. Whereas there are limits to IRAs and 401(K)s, our stance, however, mainly due to the added costs and fees associated with this type of strategy, is that you generally should only consider this type of strategy after you have already maxed out your 401(K)/Roth 401(K) and your IRA, or if you are in a very cash-intensive small business and don’t qualify for large retirement plan contributions.

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