This is a guest post from Sanford Ellowitz, a New York State licensed insurance agent. He has over 25 years experience in the insurance and financial services industries. He’s also a Certified Financial Planner and a Certified Employee Benefit Specialist.

Penny recently wrote with the following question:

I’m interested to find out how one sets out a financial plan for life and how much insurance does a person really need because there are so many insurance plans, some are regular savings, some are a combination of investment linked insurance. How much does a person really need and what type of insurance does a person on a budget need the most?

J.D. asked me to write about this since he isn’t an insurance expert himself, so I’ll give you some ideas about how much and what type of life insurance you need, but first let’s start off by helping Penny set out a basic financial plan for life. Once you get some planning done, you’ll have a better idea of your life insurance needs.

Starting down the winding road
Think of a financial plan as a roadmap for a life-long journey. Your starting point is where you are financially right now. Begin by listing all your assets, such as the equity in your home and your savings accounts, and then subtracting what you owe, like the balance of your mortgage and credit card debt. This will give you a good idea of where you stand.

Once you’ve figured that out, think about your future obligations, such as getting your kids through college, saving for a comfortable retirement, achieving your goals, and making dreams a reality. You can find online savings calculators to help you estimate how much you’ll need to save for each of these, from a trip around the world to a little place on the beach to spend retirement.

Where does it all go?
Next, it’s time to gather all of your bills for the last few months so you can see where your money goes. This should include everything that you’ve spent money on — period. Be honest about any seemingly small expenses, and make reasonable estimates. You may be surprised to find out how much you’re spending on things you may not need, like eating out or your daily espresso habit.

Make a budget that includes enough savings to meet your obligations and goals, and — this is the really important part — stick to it.

Insurance is your contingency plan
When it comes to insurance, first you need enough to at least cover your obligations in case something happened to you tomorrow — that’s your base line. From there, it’s time to look into the future and prepare for what’s coming down the pike. Don’t underestimate how much you need. If your kids will be starting college ten years from now, you need to cover what it will cost then. (And it’ll probably cost a lot more than it does now!)

After that, you can decide what type of life insurance is best. Term life insurance is the cheapest, but it’s exactly what it says it is. If you get a term policy for 20 years and find that you need coverage after that, you’re out of luck. You’ll have to apply again, when you’re older and maybe not as healthy. Also, if you outlive the term of your policy, you don’t get anything back. Betting against your own longevity to save money may seem like a good idea now, but you might end up kicking yourself — or worse — down the line.

Permanent life insurance, which comes in different flavors (such as universal, variable, or whole life insurance) provides coverage for as long as you live, so you know there’ll always be a payout. Each has different savings features and can build up cash, which you may take or borrow against. The same coverage will cost a lot more than term life insurance, but you can count on it always being there.

Your bottom line for life insurance
Since Penny is on a budget, term life insurance sounds like the way to go — right now, anyway. She should make sure she has enough coverage for as long as you need it. Later, when her situation changes and she can loosen her belt a little, she may want to get some permanent insurance. At that point she’ll be able to take full advantage of its savings features, as well.

Remember, insurance is there for when things go wrong. It might mean the difference between putting your kids through college and putting them up to their eyes in debt, if something were to happen to you. It’ll be important for you to keep remaking your budget and comparing insurance plans as things change in your life, as they always do. Don’t worry, though; it gets easier every time. Just remember that insurance is your way of playing it safe, no matter the odds.

J.D.’s note: I’ve done more reading on life insurance since I first asked Sanford to answer Penny’s question. I actually think term life is the best choice for most people (but not everyone). There’s certainly no shame in taking out a term policy. If you think you might want permanent insurance down the road, look for a convertible term policy, which will let you switch over.

GRS is committed to helping our readers save and achieve their financial goals. Savings interest rates may be low, but that is all the more reason to shop for the best rate. Find the highest savings interest rates and CD rates from Synchrony Bank, Ally Bank, GE Capital Bank, and more.