If you are like most people, you have a combination of too much insurance and too little.
Too much auto, theft and fire insurance against small losses; too little against large losses. Too much protection against small medical bills. Too little life insurance.
You are paying top dollar for this inefficient mix of coverage--mostly because the insurance industry makes it attractive for you to buy this way. If you thought through your insurance program right from the beginning, you could improve your own security, and that of your family, at no extra cost. For example:
Why not raise the deductible on your auto and homeowners policies to $500 or even $1,000? Small losses occur more often than large ones, so they are the most expensive to insure.
No one likes to face an unexpected cost. But the plain fact is that most middle-class Americans could handle a $500 casualty loss (especially when you consider that everything over the first $100 can be deducted from your income taxes).
It is not unusual to find people saving $50 by buying lower liability limits on their auto policies (thus exposing themselves to big risks if they cause a serious accident), then spending $50 to insure losses from small theft.
In the normal course of life, "homes need new roofs, new paint; transmissions drop out of new cars," writes Andrew Tobias in "The Invisible Bankers" (a book subtitled "Everything the Insurance Industry Never Wanted You to Know"). "Even TV sets must occasionally be replaced," he says. "Yet we manage to face these risks without paying someone else--handsomely--to take them."
The Insurance Services Office tallied more than 700,000 auto insurance claims paid under full-coverage policies in 1978, Tobias reports. Nearly four claims out of five were for $200 or less. On $100-deductible homeowners insurance policies, 60 percent of the claims were for less than $400.
Insurance policies are priced to encourage you to insure small claims. There is an army of agents, underwriters, adjusters, paper-pushers and vice presidents out there to feed, and small claims are their bread and butter. The money you save by raising the deductible often doesn't seem worth the risk.
But if $500 deductibles became the rule, and small claims were done away with, insurance would be cheaper and you could more readily afford protection against huge losses--things like a major auto accident that is your fault, or having your house burn to the ground.
Why not confine your medical insurance to "major medical," if you have to buy coverage yourself? Major medical charges you with the first $1,000 or so of bills every year, then takes over to cover catastrophic costs. Private health insurers developed major medical as a way of lowering health insurance costs for people not covered by group or company plans.
Why buy any form of whole-life insurance, including the new product called "universal life"? For the same price you can often buy four times the insurance protection, in low-cost term insurance. Life insurance agents send me many variations on the following letter (I am starting to think it's a form letter): "When I hand a poor widow her insurance check," they write, "she never asks whether the policy was term or whole life."
I wish I could trap one of those agents between two widows getting insurance checks at the same time--one from a whole-life policy and one from a term policy. The "poor" widow with the smaller whole-life check would have the agent's hide.
Americans have been gradually shifting to term insurance from whole life. Term policies are the cheapest form of life insurance, and the easiest to price-compare. But many of the families who can least afford the expensive brand are persuaded to buy it, leaving themselves with poor protection for the dollar.
More competition in life insurance might light a fire under the industry. Tobias suggests that you be allowed to buy life insurance over-the-counter at the bank (as people now do, in limited amounts, in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut). And why not? The sooner state legislators quit protecting the insurance industry from competition, the faster it will restructure itself to sell better insurance products at a lower price.