Nobody wants to spend hours shopping for something that gives a benefit only after their demise. But when it comes to buying life insurance, you should. Consumers’ Checkbook’s researchers 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 (such as excellent overall health, no tobacco use, and low-risk family medical histories).

The 48-year-old male would pay $709 a year for the lowest priced policy offered by LifeQuotes.com for a 20-year plan, compared with $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 would still benefit greatly from shopping around. The least expensive 20-year plan for her was also offered by LifeQuotes.com for $288 a year (an independent agent offered the same coverage for $290 a year).

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

Until Nov. 5, Inquirer readers can access Checkbook’s full life insurance report, along with all of Checkbook’s ratings and advice through Checkbook.org/Inquirer/Life-Insurance.

Websites such as LifeQuotes.com will help you shop around quickly; they work with multiple insurers to report on—and sell—their policies.

Checkbook also checked rates using AccuQuote.com, eFinancial.com, and SelectQuote.com. Among them LifeQuotes stood out because it supplied consistently low pricing and appeared to work with more insurance companies than the others, all highly rated for financial security.

It’s also worth asking a few local independent agents for proposals. Checkbook’s shoppers found they typically gave quick, competitive pricing and great insights on which companies waive medical-exam requirements and lab work, and which ones made signing up and approval easy (some insurers had months-long backlogs).

Price-comparison websites and independent agents won’t supply you with pricing for some large insurers such as State Farm and USAA; they sell coverage through their own agents.

If you can stand an extra 10 minutes of sleuthing, you might as well collect rates from these companies’ websites, plus Mass Mutual and Nationwide.

Before shopping for yourself, decide on the type and amount of coverage. There are two main kinds: Term life and permanent life.

With a term life plan, you decide the length of coverage and the payout if you die within that timeframe. 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 pay premiums, often over a lifetime , and the insurer 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 whole-life 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 in early.

If you surrender a cash-value policy in its first two to five years, you’ll typically lose all or nearly all of the money you paid in.

You shouldn’t expect to do much better than break even until 15 years or so; respectable returns finally begin to emerge after 20 years. Yes, your heirs get the death benefit if you die during that period, but it’s wiser to spend far less for a term life plan and invest your savings elsewhere.

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

Consider other help that your family might get if you die, including life insurance benefits from an employer and Social Security survivors benefits.

Because for obvious reasons your age is a major factor in how much you’ll pay, lock in lower rates by buying younger rather than older. The best rates available to a 40-year-old today for a 20-year policy will be far lower than what you’ll pay by waiting 10 years to sign up for a 10-year one.

Err on the side of buying a longer-term policy. You just can’t predict what your life will be like 20-plus years from now. If at 15 years into a 20-year policy you feel it’s a waste of money, you can always cancel it.

Although your age, health, and tobacco use will greatly affect companies’ rates, some care more than others about various risk factors. Checkbook found that some companies give little or no weight to hazardous hobbies and some don’t care much about recreational marijuana use.

Be honest when answering insurer questions. You don’t want the company to deny your family a payout after an investigation uncovers you were a secret smoker or a bungee-jumping adrenaline junkie.

Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org 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.