Let's talk about life insurance. It's one of those industries people don't like to think about, and that means sometimes casual investors aren't keeping a close eye on them for potential bargains.

That's good news for us, because today we're going to be digging into the financials of three of these companies, unappreciated value plays that might fit in nicely if your portfolio is looking for nice dividends and growth on the cheap. We'll be looking at Netherlands-based AEGON N.V. (NYSE:AEG), Reinsurance Group of America (NYSE:RGA), and American Equity Investment Life Holding (NYSE:AEL).

Dividends and stock buybacks
AEGON N.V. is a life insurance and pension company whose business is well diversified across the European Union as well as North America.

The company pays a very healthy 3.4% dividend, which has the unusual feature of allowing investors to choose it either in cash or common stock.

It sounds dilutive, but the company routinely announces stock repurchase programs which allow them to buy back a number of common shares equal to the new issues that come from the dividend.

AEGON had some troubles in previous years, and in 2008 the Dutch government bailed them out to the tune of $3.7 billion. Things went very well, and by mid-2011 they had repaid the entire debt, with interest.

They are trading at only 0.57 times book, with a healthy balance sheet. AEGON is at a reasonable 14.46 times trailing earnings, and only 10.88 times forward earnings, with a surprisingly cheap 0.31 PEG ratio. That's tough to beat, in any industry.

Reinsurance is the process of an insurance company paying to have some of its payout risk transfered to another company. This is an important, but often under-appreciated part of the insurance game, as companies look to insure as many people are possible while mitigating risk.

A big player in this regard is Reinsurance Group of America, a US company which has been growing its overseas exposure as well, and which back in 2009 bought ING Reinsurance for $149.2 million.

Mass reinsurance is a numbers game, and as you might imagine Reinsurance Group of America's profit margin isn't spectacular, only 3.57%. Still, they are growing at an impressive clip, and trading at only 9.28 times FY2015 earnings.

Just like AEGON they're also cheap on a book value basis, trading at only 0.88 times, and have a PEG ratio of only 0.46. The dividend is a bit lower than AEGON however, at only 1.5%.

If there is one downside, it is that Reinsurance Group of America has more debt than cash on hand, and while they are a nice free cash flow company, that debt could hamper any future acquisitions they may look to make on their way to market leadership.

Stunning growth, but can it last?
Finally we come up to American Equity Investment Life Holding(NYSE:AEL), a company which has been growing by leaps and bounds over the past couple of years, and which is trading at a paltry 8.14 times trailing earnings.

The company was starting to fall out of favor in May, after some downward revisions of forward earnings had many believing the growth was over. Those revisions seem to have leveled off since, however, and the company's stock has rebounded.

In addition to that extremely low PE, American Equity Investment Life Holding is pretty straightforward, with a 10.04 forward PE, a 1.17 PEG ratio, and trading almost exactly at book value.

They're the lowest dividend yield of the bunch, at only 0.7%, but that has a lot of room to grow, and as their ability to grow market share slows, I would expect that dividend payout rate to rise as well.

AEGON is my favorite of the bunch here because it has the strongest balance sheet and the highest dividends, while still being a really cheap price-growth proposition. They were in rough shape back in 2008, but have righted the ship flawlessly and are in great condition now.

Reinsurance Group of America is another great company that's growing very well, and the only reason I'm hesitant to put it in the same class as AEGON is its comparatively weak balance sheet.

American Equity Investment Life Holding might also be worth strong consideration as a smaller company that is growing at an impressive clip and seems to have the most room to the upside. That low dividend may scare some people off, but they have talked about their commitment to steadily increase it in recent conference calls, and that's always an encouraging sign.