Nobody wants to spend hours shopping for something that gives a benefit only after your demise. But when it comes to buying life insurance, you should.

When Consumers' Checkbook's researchers collected prices, it found huge company-to-company differences for identical term life policies sold by major providers.

Two Checkbook staffers—a 48-year-old male and a 40-year-old female—collected price quotes from independent agents, large insurance writers and online comparison sites for $500,000 term life policies for 10, 15 and 20 years.

Both qualify for companies' best rates (excellent overall health, no tobacco use, low-risk family medical histories, etc.).

The 48-year-old male would pay $709 per year for the lowest-priced policy offered by for a 20-year plan, compared to $1,896 a year with Allstate. Over 20 years, premiums with these companies would run $14,180 and $37,920, respectively—a difference of $23,740.

The younger female would pay less for coverage, but still benefited greatly from shopping around. The least expensive 20-year plan for her was also offered by for $288 per year (an independent agent offered the same coverage for $290 per year).

Her most expensive price was from an agent that sells policies for Erie, for $780 per year. Over 20 years, those cost differences add up to total payments of $5,760 vs. $15,600—a difference of $9,840.

Websites like will help you shop quickly; they work with insurers to report on—and sell—their policies. Checkbook also checked rates using, and

Among them LifeQuotes stood out because it supplied consistently low pricing and appeared to work with more insurance companies the others, all highly rated for financial security. Unlike the others, LifeQuotes didn't require Checkbook's researchers to provide contact information before revealing its best rates (and no sales calls or emails).

It's also worth asking a few local independent agents for proposals. Checkbook's shoppers found they typically gave competitive pricing and great insights on which companies waive medical-exam requirements and which ones made approval easy.

Price-comparison websites and independent agents won't supply you with pricing for some large insurers, such as State Farm and USAA, which sell coverage through their own agents. If you can spare 10 minutes, collect rates from these companies' websites, plus Mass Mutual and Nationwide, not offered by the four online brokerages we checked.

Before shopping for yourself, decide on the type and amount of coverage you want. There are two main types: Term life and permanent life; the latter in its various forms is also known as cash value life, whole life, and universal life.

With a term life plan, when you sign up you decide how long you want the coverage and how much money the policy will pay out if you die within that time. If you buy a $250,000, 20-year plan and die within those 20 years, your heirs collect $250,000; if you are still alive after 20 years, then the company gets to keep all the premiums you paid and there's no payout.

Permanent life policies don't expire after a set timeframe. You agree to pay premiums, often for the rest of your life, and the insurance company agrees to pay your heirs the death benefit whenever you die. With most plans, you can surrender your policy while you're still alive and collect a calculated cash-value payout that accumulates based on how much you've paid and for how long.

The problem with these plans is that they cost a lot more than term. For example, Checkbook's 48-year-old male shopper can buy a $500,000, 20-year term life policy for about $700 per year but he'd shell out $5,000 annually for a similar-value permanent life policy with a similar death benefit.

Permanent life plans that contain cash value options are structured more like investments than insurance policies, but they offer negative rates of return if cashed within 10 or 15 years.

When deciding how much coverage to buy, consider how much money it would take to replace your income and prevent your family from suffering hardship due to debt, loss of any employer-subsidized health insurance, and/or increased childcare expenses. Some people also add enough to cover paying off mortgages and putting their children through college.

Take into consideration other help your family might get if you die, including life insurance benefits provided by an employer and Social Security survivors benefits.

Because for obvious reasons your age is a major factor in how much you'll pay for life insurance, lock in lower rates by buying younger rather than older.

Err on the side of buying a longer-term policy. You just can't completely predict what your life will be like 20 plus years from now: You might marry, have children, get divorced, or lose your job. If 15 years into a 20-year policy you feel like it's a waste, you can cancel it.

Twin Cities Consumers' Checkbook magazine and is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. Until Jan. 3, Star Tribune readers can access Checkbook's full life insurance report, along with all of Checkbook's ratings of service providers and consumer advice via