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Term vs Whole Life Insurance

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Term vs Whole Life Insurance

If you’re shopping for life insurance, there are two main types you’ll likely encounter: term life insurance and whole life insurance.

Depending on who you talk to, you’ll hear different arguments for and against both types, which can make it difficult to figure out which type of life insurance will provide the right protection for you and your family.

This guide breaks it all down so that you can make the best decision for your specific situation.

What Is the Purpose of Life Insurance?

Before getting into the debate over term versus whole life insurance, let’s take a step back and remind ourselves why life insurance is important to begin with.

While there are some rare exceptions, life insurance primarily serves one main purpose: to provide financial protection to people who are financially dependent upon you.

In other words, life insurance makes sure that there will always be money available for the people who depend on you financially, even if you’re no longer there to provide for them.

A good example of this is a couple with young children. A toddler obviously cannot support herself financially, and life insurance makes sure that there would be financial resources to care for her no matter what happens to the parents.

Other examples of financial dependents might include a spouse who would struggle to handle all the bills on his or her own, or parents who have co-signed for your student loans.

So before you start thinking about which type of life insurance you need, ask yourself the following two questions to better understand why you’re getting life insurance at all:

  1. Is there anyone who would struggle financially without your support? If not, you probably don’t need life insurance.
  2. If so, for how long will they be dependent upon you? Is it a fixed time period or is it relatively permanent?

Your answers to those questions will help you sort through the term versus whole life insurance debate with a clearer, more personal viewpoint.

The Basics of Term Life Insurance

Term life insurance is coverage that lasts for a set amount of time, typically 5-30 years. Once that period is up, the policy expires and your coverage ends.

That expiration may sound like a problem, but it’s actually similar to most other types of insurance. Things like auto insurance and homeowners insurance are typically annual policies that have to be renewed each year, and you would cancel your coverage if you no longer had a need. Similarly, term life insurance is meant to provide coverage only for as long as you actually need it.

Let’s look at the pros and cons.

The Benefits of Term Life Insurance

It’s Inexpensive

Term life insurance is typically the most cost-effective way to get the protection you need. In fact, it’s often 10 times less expensive than whole life insurance for the same amount of coverage, especially if you’re relatively young and healthy.

The main reason for the price difference is that term life insurance eventually expires, meaning it has a smaller chance of paying out. And again, that may look like a downside, but…

The Coverage Period Lines Up with Your Need

Most people only have a temporary need for life insurance. Your kids will eventually grow up and be self-sufficient. Your spouse can eventually rely on retirement savings and Social Security income. Your joint debt will eventually be paid off.

Term life insurance provides financial protection for the amount of time that you need it and no more. You should hope it doesn’t pay out, because that just means that you didn’t die early. Like your car insurance, it’s good to have in case of an emergency, but the best case scenario is never having to file a claim.

In addition, if for some reason your situation changes and you no longer need life insurance, you can simply cancel your term life insurance policy and be done with it. Again, it’s coverage for as long as you need it and no more.

It’s Easy to Shop Around

Term life insurance policies are fairly simple and therefore pretty generic. As long as you’re looking at insurance companies with a strong financial rating, you can largely shop on price alone.

My two favorite sites for comparison shopping for term life insurance policies are PolicyGenius and Term4Sale, both of which only list policies from reputable companies.

For example, using the Term4Sale quote engine, a 34-year-old nonsmoking male in New York City with “Preferred” health status could get a $1 million 30-year term life insurance policy for as little as $939.98 per year or as much as $1,255.30 per year. And again, because term life insurance is fairly generic, you can compare those premiums with the confidence that your policy would be just as good either way.

You Can Typically Convert to Whole Life

What happens if you end up needing life insurance coverage longer than you originally thought? Since term life insurance eventually runs out, wouldn’t that be a problem?

It is a risk, but most term life insurance policies allow you to convert your policy to whole life insurance without medical underwriting as long as you do it before the policy expires. Your premium would increase significantly upon such a conversion, reflecting the increased liability the insurance company is taking on by providing permanent coverage. And if for some reason your policy did require medical underwriting at the time of conversion, there would be the risk of an even bigger premium increase if your health has declined since you originally got the policy.

Not all policies have this conversion feature, but those that do remove the risk that you wouldn’t be able to get permanent coverage later on if you need it.

The Downsides of Term Life Insurance

It’s More Expensive as You Get Older

Term life insurance is typically inexpensive if you’re relatively young, but it gets more expensive as you get older, especially if you’re looking at policies with longer terms. And the reason is simply that your odds of dying increase as you age, which means the insurance company faces a bigger risk.

For example, a 54-year-old male looking for the same $1 million, 30-year term life insurance policy we mentioned above is looking at an annual premium of $5,894 to $6,780 per year.

If you’re in your 50s or above and looking for life insurance, a term policy may or may not end up being a cost-effective way to get it.

It May Not Last as Long as You Need

Life is hard to predict, and it’s certainly possible that you end up needing life insurance for longer than you originally expected. If that happens, your term life insurance policy likely won’t have a lot of flexibility that allows you to extend it, beyond converting it to whole life.

There are also some insurance needs for which permanent protection is simply better. Those are rare, but we’ll talk about them below.

The Basics of Whole Life Insurance

Whole life insurance has two primary features:

  1. It provides permanent coverage, meaning that it will never expire as long as you continue to pay the premiums.
  2. It includes a savings component that builds up over time and can eventually be used for a variety of purposes.

There are several types of whole life insurance that have slightly different features and serve different purposes, like universal life insurance, variable life insurance, and equity-indexed life insurance. For the purposes of this article we’ll focus on the basic whole life insurance that most people will come across, and for the most part, all of the following pros and cons would apply no matter which type you’re talking about.

The Benefits of Whole Life Insurance

It Can Handle a Permanent Need

If you have a permanent or indefinite need for life insurance, whole life insurance is the way to get it.

For example, if you have a child with special needs who will likely be dependent upon others for his or her entire life, whole life insurance may make sense. Or if you will have multiple millions of dollars to pass on to your heirs, whole life insurance can help with estate taxes and preserve your family’s wealth.

Most people don’t have these kinds of permanent needs, but if you do, then whole life insurance can be valuable.

It Can Be a Form of Forced Savings

For people who struggle to consistently save money, whole life insurance can be a way to force yourself to build long-term savings while also providing financial protection.

It may not be the most efficient savings account, as we’ll talk about below, but having some savings is better than having none, and the savings you do accumulate can be withdrawn for any reason. Taxes are also deferred while the money is inside the account, which can be a benefit for high-income earners who have already maxed out their other tax-advantaged savings accounts.

It’s Can Be Structured to Meet Your Goals

If you work with a life insurance professional who really knows what they’re doing, you can specially structure a whole life insurance policy to serve specific purposes.

For example, if your main goal is permanent life insurance protection, you can structure it to minimize the savings component and make that protection as cheap as possible. If your main goal is to build savings, you can structure it to minimize other costs and front-load your contributions to grow your savings as quickly as possible.

If you can find a life insurance agent who’s willing to work with you in a fiduciary capacity, meaning they put your interests ahead of their own, you can get fairly creative and structure your whole life insurance policy to meet your specific needs.

The Downsides of Whole Life Insurance

It’s Expensive

Whole life insurance is an expensive way to get the financial protection you need. For example, remember the 34-year-old male who would pay $939.98 per year for a $1 million 30-year term life insurance policy? According to LLIS, a team of independent insurance advisers, a $1 million whole life insurance policy for the same individual would be $11,240 per year. That’s 12 times more expensive for the same amount of coverage. (Though, to be fair, for a longer coverage period.)

There are also a lot of hidden fees that add to the cost, from the sizable commission paid to the agent who sells you the policy to the management fees associated with the policy’s savings account.

Unless you truly have a permanent need for coverage, whole life insurance is probably not the most cost-effective way to get it.

Most People Don’t Have a Permanent Need

The simple fact is that most people don’t have a need for permanent life insurance coverage. As your children age and your savings grow, the financial impact of your death decreases until there’s little to no risk.

It might be nice to know that whole life insurance will eventually pay out, but is that something you need? And if not, is it worth paying those big premiums over all those years instead of putting that money elsewhere?

Don’t be fooled into thinking that your insurance has to pay out for it to be valuable. If you don’t have the need for permanent coverage, you shouldn’t pay for it.

It’s Not an Efficient Savings Vehicle

The savings component of whole life insurance might sound attractive, but the truth is that it’s not an especially efficient way to save money.

It takes a long time for the cash value to build up. It’s often 7-10 years just to break even, and even over long periods of time in the best of circumstances the return is likely to be low.

Not only that, but withdrawals from your account are actually loans, meaning you’re typically charged interest for the right to use your own money. Can you imagine if your savings account at the bank charged you interest each time you took money out?

Finally, unlike other savings accounts where you can simply decide to pause or decrease your contributions for a while if you hit a rough patch, your whole life insurance premiums are due like clockwork no matter what. Your policy can lapse if you fail to pay your premiums, losing you both the protection you need and the savings you’ve built up.

The truth is that unless you’ve already maxed out all your other tax-advantaged savings accounts — like your 401(k), IRAs, health savings accounts, and 529 accounts — the tax benefits of saving within a life insurance policy likely aren’t worth it. And even then you may be better off using a taxable brokerage account, depending on your specific goals and circumstances.

Which Type of Life Insurance Is Right for You?

If you’re purely looking for the financial protection that life insurance provides, and if your need is temporary, then term life insurance is likely the best option for you. It’s the cheapest way to get the protection you need, leaving more room in your budget for your other goals and obligations.

And for most people, quite honestly, that’s the end of the discussion. Most people don’t have a need for permanent coverage and will be better off putting their savings elsewhere, like regular savings accounts for short-term needs and dedicated retirement accounts for long-term investments.

But there are a few situations in which some kind of whole life insurance can make sense.

If you have a truly permanent need for life insurance, such as a child with long-term special needs, then a whole life insurance policy specially designed to provide the protection you need at the lowest cost possible may be well worth it.

And if your income is very high and you’re already maxing out all other tax-advantaged investment accounts, a whole life insurance policy can be a way to get some additional tax-deferred savings. Again, you’d ideally want it to be specially designed to minimize fees and maximize the amount that goes toward savings.

In any case, remember to focus on the reason why you’re getting life insurance in the first place and to make decisions around that need. The right type of life insurance will likely be pretty clear as long as you keep your personal goals at the forefront.

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Life Events, Mortgage

What is Mortgage Amortization?

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The difference between your home’s value and how much you owe on your mortgage is your home equity. With each mortgage payment you make, mortgage amortization — or paying down the loan in installments — is at play, and each monthly payment brings you closer to owning your home outright.

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What is mortgage amortization?

Mortgage amortization is the process of paying off your loan balance in equal installments of principal and interest for a set time period. The interest you pay is tied to the balance of your loan (your principal) and the mortgage rate. When you first start making payments, most of the payment is applied to the interest rather than the principal.

Your principal payments catch up with interest over time until your loan is paid off. Once it reaches a zero balance, it becomes a “fully amortized loan.”

How mortgage amortization works

The easiest way to understand mortgage amortization is to look at how monthly mortgage payments are applied to the principal and interest on an amortization table. There are two calculations that occur every month.

  1. The first calculation measures how much interest is paid based on the rate you agreed to. The interest charge is recalculated each month as you pay down the balance, and you pay less interest over time.
  2. The second calculation reflects how much of the principal you pay. As the loan balance shrinks, more of your monthly payment is applied to your principal.

If you’re a math whiz, here’s the formula:

A mortgage amortization calculator does the heavy lifting for you. You can see the effects of amortization on a 30-year fixed loan amount of $200,000 at a rate of 4.375% below.

In the first year, you pay more than twice as much toward interest as you do toward the principal. However, the balance slowly drops with each additional payment. By the 15th year, principal payments outpace interest and equity starts building at a much faster pace.

How mortgage amortization can help with financial planning

A mortgage amortization table helps you assess the short- and long-term benefits of adjusting your mortgage payments. Making extra payments over the life of the loan or refinancing to a lower interest rate or term could save you thousands in interest charges over the life loan. Even better: you’ll end up with a mortgage free home sooner.

Using a mortgage calculator to configure a few scenarios, here are some financial goals you might be able to accomplish using mortgage amortization.

Calculate how much money you can save by refinancing

If mortgage rates have dropped since you bought your home, consider refinancing. If you’re in your forever home and don’t plan to move for a while, a half-percentage point drop in rates could make room in your budget to boost retirement savings, your emergency fund or put money toward other long-term financial goals.

The example below shows the monthly payment and lifetime interest savings if you replaced a 30-year, fixed-rate loan for $200,000 at 4% with a new loan with a 3.5% interest rate with the same terms.

While saving $56.74 per month on payments doesn’t seem like much, it adds up to $20,426.83 in interest savings over the loan’s lifetime.

See the effect of making extra payments

The amount of interest you pay every month is directly connected to your loan balance. Even a small amount added to the principal each month reduces interest over time. The graphic below shows how much you’d save adding an extra $50 every month to your payment on a $200,000, 30-year fixed loan with an interest rate of 4.375%.

Figure out when you can get rid of PMI

Borrowers who don’t make a 20% down payment on a conventional mortgage typically pay for private mortgage insurance (PMI). The coverage protects a lender against financial losses if you don’t repay the loan.

Once your loan-to-value ratio, or the loan balance in relation to the home’s value, reaches 78%, PMI automatically drops off. Multiply the price you paid for your home by 0.78 to determine where your loan balance would need to be for PMI to be canceled. Locate that balance on your loan payment schedule for a rough idea of the month and year PMI will end.

Decide if it’s time to refinance an adjustable-rate mortgage

Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) are a helpful tool to save money on monthly mortgage payments. However, ARMs make more sense if you plan to refinance the loan or sell your home before the initial fixed-rate period ends and the loan resets to a variable interest rate.

An adjustable-rate mortgage amortization schedule helps you pinpoint when the loan will reset and gives you an idea of the worst-case scenario on payments. If the adjustments are outside of your comfort zone, consider refinancing your ARM into a fixed-rate mortgage.

The difference between a 15-year fixed and 30-year fixed payment schedule

Refinancing to a shorter term, such as a 15-year fixed mortgage, may save you hundreds of thousands of dollars over the life of a loan — but the trade-off is a higher monthly payment.

The graphs below show the difference between a 30-year amortization schedule for a $200,000, fixed-rate loan at 4.375% and a 15-year amortization schedule for the same loan amount at 3.875%.

The lifetime interest savings for a shorter loan payment schedule is $95,447.16. As long as the $468.31 increase in your mortgage payment doesn’t prevent you from meeting other savings or investment goals, the long-term savings are worth it.

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Life Events

When Do You Need to Start Taking Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)?

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When you reach age 72, the government requires you to begin withdrawing money from your retirement savings accounts each year. This sum, known as a required minimum distribution (RMD), allows the IRS to begin collecting income tax on the dollars you’ve stashed away in tax-deferred accounts such as a 401(k) or traditional individual retirement account (IRA).

What is a required minimum distribution (RMD)?

Regulations governing most retirement accounts state that you cannot leave funds in the account indefinitely. Even if you don’t need the money, the government requires you to begin reducing the overall balance in most accounts by a set sum each year — the required minimum distribution — once you’ve turned 72.

The precise amount of each person’s required minimum distribution is determined by the IRS based on life expectancy and total savings. The RMD rule only applies to tax-deferred accounts or accounts that allow people to reduce their taxable gross income each year by the amount they set aside in the plan.

Because tax-deferred accounts provide upfront tax savings, the IRS waits to collect taxes on contributions to the accounts and any subsequent investment gains until the money is withdrawn. Here’s a full list of retirement accounts subject to the RMD rule:

  • 403(b)
  • 457(b)
  • Profit-sharing plans
  • Other defined contribution plans

RMDs are not required for Roth IRAs or Roth 401(k)s, since contributions to Roth accounts are made using money on which you’ve already paid income tax. Note, however, that beneficiaries who inherit Roth IRAs must take RMDs.

When do I have to start taking RMDs?

You need to start taking required minimum distributions by April 1 of the year after you turn 72. In subsequent years, you need to take RMDs by December 31st.

If you are still working at age 72 and have a traditional 401(k) or 403(b) account with your current employer, you may not have to take an RMD from that account unless you own 5% or more of the company. Review your plan’s exact terms to see if it allows you to wait until you actually retire to begin taking RMDs or if it follows the same 72 rule regardless of retirement status.

Employment, however, won’t help you delay taking RMDs from any individual retirement accounts outside of your employer retirement account, such as a traditional IRA.

You do not have to take your RMD as one lump-sum payment. The IRS allows you to take out the funds in chunks throughout the year too. As long as the total meets the RMD for the year, you’re in the clear.

You’re also not limited to taking only the RMD amount from your account each year — you can withdraw more than that threshold, if you want.

How do I calculate my required minimum distribution?

Just like filing your taxes, it falls on your shoulders to remember to take the RMD once you reach 72. You can do the math yourself (we’ll explain below) to figure out what your required minimum distribution will be, or you can ask for help from a tax professional or financial adviser.

To calculate your RMD, you need to know exactly how much you have saved in your retirement account as of Dec. 31 of the previous year. Next, use the table below (the IRS’s Uniform Lifetime Table) to find your “distribution period” score, which is based on your life expectancy.

To calculate the RMD, divide your retirement account balance by the distribution period that corresponds with your age. Repeat this step for each of your accounts to come up with the total amount you must withdrawal for the year. Remember, your account balances change over time and the IRS can update its distribution period figures, so redoing this math each year is crucial to ensure you take out the correct sum.

Let’s say you turned 72 in December 2020 and had a balance of $1 million in your retirement account as of Dec. 31. You would then find the distribution period that corresponds to your age in the Uniform Lifetime Table.

According to the table, your distribution period number is 27.4. When you divide $1 million by 27.4, you get an RMD of $36,496.35. That is the minimum withdrawal you must make from that account by April 1, 2021.

However, if you’re married and your spouse is 10 years or more younger than you and is the sole beneficiary of the retirement account, you will need to find your “distribution period” score on this alternate table by locating the spot where your age and your spouse’s age intersects.

For instance, if you turned 72 in 2020 and had that same $1 million balance in your retirement account on Dec. 31, but were married to a spouse who’d just celebrated their 59 birthday, your distribution period number wouldn’t be 27.4, but rather 28.1 to accommodate the longer expected lifeline of your spouse.

And this would mean you’d need to take an RMD of $35,587.19 from your account in 2021, or about $909.16 less than you would if you were single or married to a spouse closer to your own age.

What is the required minimum distribution penalty?

If you don’t take your first RMD by April 1 of the year after you turn 72 or your subsequent annual RMDs by Dec. 31 each year, you’ll be slapped with a 50% excise tax on the amount that was not distributed when you file taxes.

That’s a steep fine when you consider that the top tax rate is 37%, which is why it is so important to accurately calculate your RMDs each year, as the tax applies whether you fail to take any money from the account or simply don’t take enough.

For example, if your RMD was $10,000, but you only took out $5,000, you will be assessed that 50% tax on the $5,000 that you did not withdraw.

Remember, if you delay taking your first RMD until April of the year following your 72nd birthday, you’ll be required to take two withdrawals in the same year, one for your 71st year and one for your 72nd year, which could raise your gross income and move you into a higher tax bracket. To avoid this, you can opt to make your first withdrawal by Dec. 31 of the year you turn 71, instead of waiting till the following April.

Alternatively, you could reduce your taxable income by making a qualified charitable distribution paid directly from the IRA to a qualified public charity, not a private foundation or donor-advised fund. The charitable distribution can satisfy all or part of the amount you are required to take from you IRA and won’t count as part of your income.

If you withdrawal the RMD first, then donate it, this trick won’t work as the money will count toward your gross income.

What if I have multiple retirement accounts?

If you have more than one retirement account, things can get a little more complicated. You still need to take an RMD, but you don’t have to take one out of each IRA account. Instead, you can total the RMD amounts for all your IRAs and withdraw the whole amount from a single IRA or a portion from two or more.

However, you can’t do the same with most defined contribution plans, like 401(k)s. With these accounts, you must take an RMD from each plan separately. One exception to this rule, though, is 403(b) tax-sheltered annuity accounts. If you have multiple of these accounts, you can total the RMDs and withdrawal from a single account.

If you own several different kinds of retirement accounts with RMDs, it’s probably a good idea to seek advice from a tax or financial adviser professional who can help you make the wisest decision for your finances.

I inherited a traditional IRA — what should I do?

While it’s great to be left the generous gift of a retirement account by a loved one, inheriting an IRA comes with its own set of tricky RMD rules that can vary greatly depending on your relationship with the original owner and how you chose to use the account.

I inherited a traditional IRA from my spouse

If you’re a spouse and sole beneficiary, you have the most flexibility in how to handle your new IRA. You can choose to treat the IRA as your own by designating yourself the account owner and making contributions or by rolling it over into an existing IRA account that you own. If you choose this option, you can follow the standard RMD rules — meaning you can wait until you turn 70½ to begin taking money from the account.

Alternatively, you can roll the assets into what’s known as an inherited IRA. With this kind of account you can start taking distributions immediately and not face the typical 10% early-withdrawal penalty the IRS applies if you’re under age 59½.

To calculate the RMD you’ll need to take with this kind of IRA, use the IRS’s Single Life Expectancy Table, which has different distribution period figures than the standard table you would use if you were the original account owner. You can opt to use your own age for these calculations or your partner’s age as of their birthday in the year they died, reducing life expectancy by 1 each subsequent year.

But you may not need to take RMDs right away depending on how old your spouse was when they died. If they were older than 70½ then you’ll need to start withdrawing funds by Dec. 31 of the year following their death. But if they were younger, the IRS lets you leave the money in the account until your spouse would have reached 70½.

I inherited a traditional IRA — but I’m not a spouse

Beneficiaries who are not a spouse are required to move the assets into an inherited IRA and begin taking RMDs regardless of the original owner’s age. If the person passed before age 70½ you can opt to withdraw the full balance within the five years following the year of their death. Or you can prolong the payouts by taking RMDs annually based on your age, reducing beginning life expectancy by 1 for each subsequent year, using the Single Life Expectancy Table.

If the original owner was 70½ or older, how you calculate your RMDs depends on whether you or the deceased was younger. The lowest age is what you’ll base your life expectancy figure found in the Single Life Expectancy Table on, though you will need to reduce beginning life expectancy by 1 every subsequent year.

I inherited a Roth IRA — what should I do?

The original owner of a Roth IRA never has to take RMDs but that can change when the account passes to a beneficiary. A surviving spouse who inherits a Roth IRA can opt to treat the account as their own, meaning they won’t ever need to take an RMD, if they contribute to the account or roll into an existing Roth IRA.

Non-spouse beneficiaries, however, do have to take RMDs from an inherited Roth IRA, following the same rules as those who inherit traditional IRAs where the owner passed before reaching age 70½.

That means these beneficiaries can either withdraw the entire balance from the Roth IRA within the five years following the year of the original owner’s death or begin taking RMDs based on your life expectancy, as outlined in the Single Life Expectancy Table, by the end of the year following the owner’s death.

The final word on required minimum distributions

Whether the retirement account was yours to begin with or you’ve inherited it, calculating the correct RMD amount to withdraw from it every year can be tricky, but spending the extra time to make sure you understand the rules and check your math can pay off big time when you’re not losing 50% of your savings to Uncle Sam in the form of a tax penalty.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.