Friday, May 9, 2008

Safety Margin Beats Insurance

In many aspects of personal finance, you have a choice of whether to protect yourself with a safety margin or with some form of insurance. This won’t make much sense until we look at some examples.


Many homeowners worry that interest rates will rise and make their payments unaffordable. This can make long mortgage terms with fixed interest rates seem more attractive. However, long-term fixed rates are higher than variable interest rates. As Jim Somerville explains in this post, the extra interest is a form of insurance against future interest rate increases.

Suppose that your bank says that you can get a mortgage for up to $300,000. If you get a mortgage this big, then you may need to lock it in for a long term because a spike in interest rates might ruin you. But, if you get a smaller house with a $200,000 mortgage, you’ll have a margin of safety that makes it possible to save interest costs by taking a variable-rate mortgage.

If mortgage rates remain steady, then the interest savings go into your pocket making your financial life better. The safety margin makes you essentially self-insured.

Retirement Investing

When you retire, you’ll have to live off your savings (plus any pension income you might have). It can be tempting to go for high returns when investing your money during retirement, but the variability of returns can be scary.

There are two basic ways of dealing with this problem. One is to reduce the risk by investing in short-term government bonds or by using stock options to lower downside risk. This approach is essentially a form of insurance. You expect to get lower returns, but they will be more predictable.

The second solution is to use a safety margin. You may be expecting stock returns of 6% above inflation, but you choose a lifestyle that requires returns of only 4% above inflation. If you actually get the higher returns, then you can increase your spending later on.

What Insurance is for

Insurance is a way to reduce risk. But, costs can be high. It always makes sense to see whether you can get the financial protection you need with a safety margin rather than insurance.

Almost all of us need insurance to protect ourselves against the possibility of a million-dollar settlement over a car accident. You would have to be wealthy to be able to handle this with a safety margin.

But, choosing the deductible on your car insurance is a different story. With some modest cash savings as a safety margin, you could afford to take a small chance with a $500 deductible rather than a $50 deductible. Over time the savings on your car insurance premiums would add up.


  1. Big Cajun Man:

    You can count on me to give a serious answer to a funny comment. By using a safety margin, you do get your money back if the bad outcome doesn't happen. Or, at least you get to keep the money that wasn't spent dealing with the bad outcome. With insurance, the money is gone whether the bad outcome happens or not. So, I would say that I'm on Chris Rock's side on this one.

    1. The comment above is a response to Big Cajun Man's comment:

      No you have it wrong, Chris Rock got it right when he said in "Bigger and Blacker":

      "... You got to have some insurance.They shouldn't even call it insurance. They just should call it in case sh*t.I give a company some money in case sh*t happens. Now, if sh*t don't happen,
      shouldn't I get my money back?
      That's right, man, you better have
      some medical insurance, or you gonna die..."

      That's what insurance is for Charlie Brown

  2. chris and mj have solid points. There is much to be said about just saving the money that you woudl have put toward insurance, and magically you now have insurance...