Now, after a fair bit of research and a few interviews with experts on infinite banking, I feel I know enough to pass on the basics—plus what you should think about before signing up.
What is infinite banking?
According to a useful primer from independent insurance firm PolicyAdvisor, “Infinite banking is a concept that suggests you can use your whole life insurance policy to ‘be your own bank.’” It was created in the 1980s by American economist R. Nelson Nash, who introduced the idea in his book Becoming Your Own Banker. He launched the “Infinite Banking Concept” (IBC) in the U.S. in 2000, and eventually it migrated to Canada.
An article on infinite banking that appeared both on Money.ca and in the Financial Post early in 2022 bore a simplistic headline that said, in part, “how to keep your money and spend it too.” The writer—Clayton Jarvis, then a MoneyWise mortgage reporter—framed the concept by declaring that the problem with the average Canadian’s capital is that it’s usually doing just one job at a time: it’s spent, lent or invested.
“But what if you were able to put your money to a specific purpose and continue using it to generate income? That’s the idea behind infinite banking (IB),” Jarvis wrote. He compared IB to a reverse mortgage: “In both cases, you still possess the appreciating asset being borrowed against—your policy or your home—and you have the freedom to pay back the loan at your leisure[.]” But Jarvis also evinced some skepticism when he added: “those who have sipped rather than chugged the IB Kool-Aid say it’s a strategy that may be too complex to be marketed on a mass scale.”
Borrowing from your life insurance policy
If you’re not familiar with the finer details of insurance, infinite banking does seem a bit arcane. Rather than put your money in a traditional bank—which until the last year or so paid next to nothing in interest on accounts—you would invest in a whole life or universal life insurance product, both of which provide some “cash value” from the investment portion of their policies. Then, if you want to borrow money, instead of making hefty interest payments to a bank, you would borrow against your life insurance policy.
As PolicyAdvisor explains, “Because you’re only borrowing from your policy, the insurance company is still investing your entire cash value component. So, your cash value still grows even though you’ve borrowed a portion of it.”
Those new to infinite banking should watch a YouTube primer made by Philip Setter, CEO of Calgary-based insurance broker Affinity Life. In it, he readily concedes that much of the marketing hype portrays infinite banking as some kind of “massive secret of the wealthy,” which essentially amounts to buying a whole life insurance policy and borrowing against it. Setter has sold many leveraged insurance products himself, but to his credit, in the video he calls out some of the conspiracy-mongering that seems to be attached to infinite banking, including the primary message from some promoters that traditional banks and governments are out to rip off the average consumer.
Infinite banking seems to be geared to wealthy people who are prepared to commit to the long term with the leveraged strategy, and who can also benefit from the resulting tax breaks (more on this below). It’s not for the average person who is squeamish about leverage (borrowing to invest) and/or is not prepared to wait for years or decades for the strategy to bear fruit. As Setter warns in his video: “Once you commit to this, there’s no going back.” If you collapse a policy too soon, it’s 100% taxable: “It only is tax-free if you wait until you die … you commit to it until the very end.”
How are insurance advisors paid for selling infinite banking products?
Asked how advisors are paid, Setter said they receive a lump-sum commission based on the premium amount of the policy. I also asked this of Asher Tward, financial head of estate planning at TriDelta Private Wealth. In an email, Tward said it’s “the same as with any insurance policy—mostly upfront commission based on premiums paid (higher if there is more initial funding). Fundamentally, this is a life insurance sale. If one undertakes an external or collateralized loan versus a policy loan, they may be compensated on the loan as well.”