If you’re looking to save money for college, one option to consider is a 529 college savings plan. Created over 20 years ago and named after the section of the tax code that governs them, 529 plans offer a unique combination of features that have made them the 401(k)s of the college savings world.
How do 529 plans work?
529 college savings plans are individual investment-type accounts specifically made for college savings. People at all income levels are eligible. Plans are offered by individual states (you can join any state’s plan) but managed by financial institutions designated by each state.
To open an account, you select a plan and fill out an application, where you will name an account owner and beneficiary (there can be only one of each), choose your investment options, and set up any automatic contributions. You are then ready to go. It’s common to open an account with your own state’s 529 plan, but there may be reasons to consider another state’s plan; for example, the reputation of the financial institution managing the plan, the plan’s investment options, historical investment performance, fees, customer service, website usability, and so on.
A plan’s investment options typically consist of portfolios of various mutual funds that vary from conservative to aggressive in their level of risk. Depending on the market performance of the options you’ve chosen, your account will either gain or lose money, and there is the risk that the investments will not perform well enough to cover college costs as anticipated.
So why bother going to the trouble of opening a 529 account when you could choose your own mutual funds (or other investments) in a non-529 account?
Federal tax benefits: Contributions to a 529 plan accumulate tax deferred, which means no income tax is due on any capital gains or dividends earned along the way. Later, earnings are completely tax-free when a withdrawal is used to pay the beneficiary’s college expenses — a benefit that could be significant depending on how your investment options perform. States generally follow this federal tax treatment and may offer an income tax deduction for contributions. That’s why it’s important to know what 529 tax benefits your state offers and whether those benefits are contingent on joining the in-state 529 plan.
Contributions: You can contribute a lot to a 529 plan — lifetime contribution limits are typically $300,000 and up. Compare this to the small $2,000 annual limit allowed by Coverdell Education Savings Accounts. In addition, 529 plans offer a unique lump-sum gifting feature that some may find particularly compelling: Individuals can contribute a lump-sum amount of up to five years’ worth of the $14,000 annual gift tax exclusion — a total of $70,000 in 2017 — and avoid gift tax if they make a special election on their tax return and avoid making any other gifts to that beneficiary during the five-year period. Married couples, such as grandparents who want to contribute to their grandchild’s college fund, can make a joint lump-sum gift up to $140,000 that is tax-free.
College account on autopilot: For college savers who are too busy or inexperienced to choose their own investments or change their asset allocation over time, a 529 college savings plan offers professional money management. And by having a designated account for college savings, you segregate those funds and possibly lessen the temptation to dip into them for a non-college purpose — a scenario that may be more likely if you are using a general savings account to save for college. Finally, by setting up automatic monthly contributions to your 529 account, you can put your savings effort on autopilot.
Non-college use of funds: The federal tax benefits of 529 plans can be great if you use the funds for college. If you don’t, then the earnings portion of any withdrawal is subject to federal income tax at your rate and a 10% federal penalty.
Changing investment options: With a 529 plan, you’re limited to the investment options offered by the plan. Plans generally offer a range of static and age-based portfolios with different levels of risk, fees, and investment goals. (Age-based portfolios generally have a “glide path” where the underlying investments automatically become more conservative as the beneficiary approaches college age.) If you’re unhappy with the performance of the options you’ve chosen, under federal law you can change the investment options for your future contributions at any time, but you can change the options for your existing contributions only twice per calendar year. This rule can make it difficult to respond to changing market conditions. However, also under federal law, once every 12 months you can roll over your existing 529 plan account to a new 529 plan without having to change the beneficiary, which gives you another option if you’re unhappy with your current plan’s investment options or returns.