How much car insurance do you need? The answer depends on a number of factors, including where you live, how much your car is worth, and what other assets you need to protect. Here's what you need to know.
- Most states require you to have at least a minimum amount of insurance coverage for any injuries or property damage you cause in an accident.
- Collision coverage, which is optional, covers damage to your own car in an accident.
- Comprehensive coverage, also optional, protects against other risks, such as theft or fire.
- Uninsured motorist coverage, mandatory in some states, protects you if you're hit by a driver who doesn't have insurance.
How Car Insurance Works
An automobile insurance policy is actually a package of several different types of insurance. The most common ones are:
- Bodily injury liability
- Property damage liability
- Medical payments or personal injury protection
- Collision coverage
- Comprehensive coverage
- Uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage
Depending on the state you live in, some of these coverages may be mandatory, others optional. If you have an auto loan or lease, your lender may also have certain requirements. But beyond what your state or lender requires, you may want to purchase additional insurance to protect yourself. Here's a closer look at each type of coverage and how to decide how much you really need.
Bodily Injury Liability
What it covers: Bodily injury liability is the part of a car insurance policy that will pay for injuries you or family members who are listed on your policy cause to someone else in an auto accident.
How much you need: Virtually every state requires drivers to purchase bodily injury liability coverage, although the amount varies from state to state. On an auto insurance policy, your liability coverage is typically expressed as a series of three numbers, such as 25/50/20. The first number represents the maximum your insurer will pay per person if you injure someone in an accident—$25,000 in this example. The second number is the maximum it will pay per accident, in case more than one person is injured—$50,000 in this case. The third number refers to property damage liability.
You will need to purchase at least the minimum amount of bodily injury coverage that your state requires. For many states, that's $25,000 per person and $50,000 per accident, although some states are lower or higher.
Your state's minimum requirements might not be enough, however, especially if you are involved in a serious accident. You'll need to consider your assets and whether they'd be adequately protected in the event of a lawsuit. For example, if you own your home or have a substantial amount of money in savings, a costly accident could put them at risk. In that case, you'll want to buy more coverage. The nonprofit Consumers' Checkbook, among others, recommends buying coverage of at least 100/300/50, just in case. The difference in cost between that coverage and your state's minimum will probably not be very much.
You can buy even more coverage than that—250/500/100, say—if you have more assets to protect. You can also purchase an umbrella policy, which will raise both your auto and home insurance liability coverage to $1 million or more.
Property Damage Liability
What it covers: Property damage liability covers the cost when you or members of your family damage another person's car or other property (such as a tree or fence) in an accident.
How much you need: As with bodily injury liability, virtually every state requires you to have some amount of property damage coverage. It's represented on your policy as the third number in that sequence, so a 25/50/20 policy would provide $20,000 in coverage. Some states require you to have as little as $10,000 or even $5,000 in property damage liability coverage, but $20,000 or $25,000 minimums are most common.
Again, you may want to buy more coverage than your state's minimum. But unless you find yourself in a collision with a Lamborghini or Rolls-Royce, you probably don't face as much financial risk as you would in an accident in which people are seriously injured. A commonly recommended level of property damage coverage is $50,000—or more if you have substantial assets to protect.
Medical Payments (MedPay) or Personal Injury Protection (PIP)
What it covers: Unlike bodily injury liability coverage, medical payments (MedPay) or personal injury protection (PIP) covers the cost of injuries to the driver and any passengers in your car. In some cases, it will also cover any lost wages resulting from injuries sustained in an accident.
How much you need: Whether medical payments or PIP coverage is mandatory, optional, or even available will depend on your state. In states with no-fault insurance laws, such as Florida and New York, PIP coverage is mandatory. In Florida, for example, drivers must carry at least $10,000. In New York, the minimum is $50,000.
If you and your family members already have good health insurance, you may not need to buy more than the required minimum of PIP coverage. If you don't have health insurance, however, you might want to purchase more. That's especially true in a state like Florida, where $10,000 in coverage could be inadequate if you're in a serious accident.
What it covers: Collision coverage will pay to repair or replace your car if you're involved in an accident with another car or hit some other object.
How much you need: States don't require drivers to have collision coverage. However, if you have an auto loan or are leasing the car, your lender may require it. When you've paid off your loan or returned your leased car, you can drop the coverage.
Even if it's not required, you may want to buy collision coverage. For example, if you'd have trouble paying a big repair bill out of pocket after an accident, collision coverage could be good to have.
You'll also want to consider what your car is worth. The price of collision coverage is based on the value of your car, and it typically comes with a deductible of $250 to $1,000. So if your car would cost $20,000 to replace, you'd pay the first $250 to $1,000, depending on the deductible you chose when you bought your policy, and the insurer would be responsible for as much as $19,000 to $19,750 after that.
As your car's value depreciates over time, however, you may want to consider dropping collision coverage. Between the cost of your annual premiums and the deductible you'd have to pay out of pocket after an accident, you could be paying a lot for very little coverage. Even insurance companies will tell you that dropping collision coverage makes sense when your car is worth less than a few thousand dollars.
What it covers: Comprehensive covers damage to your car from something other than a collision. That might be, for example, a fire, a flood, or a falling tree. It also covers car theft.
How much you need: As with comprehensive coverage, states don't require you to have collision coverage, but if you have an auto loan or lease, your lender may require it. And again, when you've paid off your loan or returned your leased car, you can drop the coverage.
In deciding whether to buy comprehensive coverage if it isn't required, you'll want to weigh your ability to pay out of pocket if your car is stolen and you have to buy a new one or damaged and you're stuck with the repair bills. You'll also want to consider how much your car is worth compared with the cost of covering it year after year.
Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist Coverage
What it covers: Just because state laws require drivers to have liability coverage, that doesn't mean every driver does. As of 2019, an estimated 12.6% of drivers—or about one in eight—were uninsured. Many other drivers have some insurance but not enough to cover the costs of a serious accident. That is where this type of coverage comes in. It can cover you and family members if you're injured or your car is damaged by an uninsured, underinsured, or hit-and-run driver.
How much you need: Some states require drivers to carry uninsured motorist coverage (UM). Some also require underinsured motorist coverage (UIM).
Maryland, for example, requires drivers to carry uninsured/underinsured motorist bodily injury liability insurance of at least $30,000 per person and $60,000 per accident. It also requires at least $15,000 in uninsured motorist property damage coverage.
If your state requires uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage, you can buy more than the required amount if you wish to. You can also buy this coverage in some states that don't require it.
If you aren't required to buy uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage, you might want to consider it if the coverage you already have would be insufficient to pay the bills if you're involved in a serious accident. For example, if you lack adequate health insurance or medical coverage through your car insurance policy, adding it could be worth it.
Other Types of Coverage
When you're shopping for auto insurance, you may see some other, totally optional types of coverage. Those can include:
- Roadside assistance, such as towing
- Rental reimbursement, if you have to rent a car while yours is being repaired
- Gap insurance, which covers any difference between your car's cash value and what you still owe on a lease or loan if your car is a total loss
Whether you need any of those will depend on what other resources you have (such as membership in an auto club) and how much you could afford to pay out of pocket if you must.
The Bottom Line
An auto insurance policy is made up of multiple types of coverage, some of which your state or auto lender may require, while others are optional. Whether to buy more than the minimum required coverage and which optional types of coverage to consider will depend on the assets you need to protect as well as how much you can afford to pay. Your state's motor vehicle department website should explain its requirements and may offer other advice specific to your state. An independent insurance agent who is familiar with the laws in your state and can provide policy options from a number of different insurance companies could also be of help.