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The Ultimate Guide to Understanding 529 College Savings Plans

Here is everything you need to know to pick the 529 plan that’s best for you.

 

As tuition costs climb, saving early for education is one of the most important decisions parents can make. Tax-advantaged 529 savings plans, offered by states for more than two decades, are now one of the most popular options for making sure school expenses will be covered when your child reaches college age. Still, surveys show many Americans are unfamiliar with the details of how to open, fund and receive tax benefits from such plans. That’s why U.S. News has created the 529 Finder, a tool to select, compare and learn about the details of these investment savings tools.

Search for plan details, compare your state plan to out-of-state-options and research plan investments. If you’re new to 529 plans, see our guide to understanding how these plans work, and what you need to know to pick the right one for you.

What Is a 529 Plan?

A 529 plan is a college savings account that’s exempt from federal taxes. The plans were introduced in 1996 to help taxpayers salt away college expenses for a designated beneficiary.

These plans, named for Section 529 of the federal tax code, often have tax benefits at the state level for in-state residents. This only applies to states that have an income tax. In many cases, if the maximum deduction is surpassed in a calendar year, the deduction can roll over into subsequent years. However, each state enforces a specific total contribution limit. These limits are generally between $235,000 and $512,000.

Any U.S. citizen or resident alien 18 years old or older can open a 529 account. Usually, the beneficiary is a child, grandchild or younger relative. However, an adult can also open a 529 plan to save for his or her own higher education costs since there are no age limits.

Prepaid vs. Savings Plans

There are two types of 529 plans: prepaid tuition plans and college savings investment plans. Those who open a prepaid tuition plan lock in the current costs of tuition in place of future prices, which generally rise every year.

College savings investment plans have grown in popularity during the past few years, while several prepaid tuition plans have stopped accepting new enrollees or shut down entirely. The decreased popularity of prepaid plans may be due in part to some particular drawbacks. For example, money put into a state-run prepaid plan may only be applied to tuition and fees at in-state public colleges and universities. Room, board, books and other expenses aren’t included and must be covered separately.

How (and Where) Can 529 Funds Be Spent?

For college savings plans, eligible institutions include most accredited colleges and graduate schools, including professional and trade schools. Foreign schools with attending students who receive federal financial aid also qualify. Contributions apply to a variety of qualified educational expenses, including tuition, books and room and board for those attending at least half time.

Approved transactions are often referred to as qualified withdrawals and vary slightly from plan to plan. If contributions go toward unauthorized purchases, the tax deductions will be recaptured, and there may be additional monetary penalties.

Within each state, there are often multiple plans from which to choose, and dozens of state plans are sold nationally, regardless of where the account owner lives. Don’t limit yourself to only your state’s offerings, particularly if you live in a state with no income tax. Each plan comes with a host of corresponding fees (more on that below), including maintenance and investment fees.

If you choose a plan that is sold through a financial advisor as opposed to one that is directly sold through the state, advisor fees may increase your plan’s total cost. Take these fees into consideration and compare them against the benefit of any in-state tax deduction when you decide which plan you would like to use.

Understand Your 529 Investment Choices

In most cases, the money you contribute will be invested in large, widely held mutual funds managed by well-established financial companies such as Vanguard, BlackRock, TIAA-CREF and many others. Each plan option includes a different mix of mutual funds, and you can pick your plan with one of two approaches. The first, an age-based option, automatically adjusts your asset mix to become less risky as your student approaches college age. That means you’ll start with a higher allocation to stocks, which gradually tilts toward cash and bonds over time.

Because stocks tend to have both higher risk and higher returns, age-based options start out with a high percentage of stocks while the student is young, and then slowly switch to a more conservative bond and cash portfolio as the student gets closer to 18 years old. This automatic adjustment makes age-based tracks more popular among people who do not want the responsibility of personally managing the allocations in their 529 portfolio.

The second option is called the static choice. Here, you hold an investment fund or group of funds that maintains the same allocations over time.

However, even under these two umbrellas, you often are able to choose a plan best suited to your risk tolerance or specific objectives. Stocks are typically a riskier investment, but they have a higher expected return than bonds. Most bond categories are typically much less volatile but come with lower returns. (Be aware: All bonds are not the same. Certain categories, particularly high-yield bonds, deliver higher returns but can be more like stocks in their level of volatility.)

Many plans also offer cash-like options in the form of insurance-backed guaranteed or principal-protected funds, as well as money market fund options. These choices are best suited for extremely risk-averse investors. But bear in mind that cash accounts don’t keep pace with inflation over time and will deliver an expected return that’s less than that of a portfolio of stocks and bonds.

When you open a 529 account, your account will be under the direction of the program manager. Most of the time, the program manager is a fund company or other financial institution, although occasionally it’s the state itself. Your money is invested in your name in custodial accounts, so even if the state or the manager has financial problems down the road, your money is protected.

Most program managers tilt their investment strategy toward U.S. stocks and bonds, while diversifying through international investments. It is less common for a plan to invest in one stand-alone mutual fund or to offer exposure to exotic corners of the market, although some plans include investment options in emerging markets, commodities and other sectors.

If you invest in a direct-sold plan, consider calling the program manager to ask about specific allocations and risk levels. If you work with an advisor, ask him or her to thoroughly explain the program’s options. All the plans have documents and websites that will also give you plenty of information about the investments, fees and expenses.

Pay Attention to Fees

Every 529 plan carries various fees. These can be complicated to sort through, but essentially, they break down into advisor fees, program management and maintenance charges and underlying investment fees.

Remember that an in-state tax deduction, if available, can offset a number of plan fees. Fees can vary significantly between plans, and actively managed funds will generally carry higher underlying expenses than index funds. States and program managers also waive fees for various reasons, including if you fund your account via direct deposit. When choosing a plan, be sure to look into any fee waivers that may apply.

You’ll see the breakdown of fees addressed in more detail below.

What Federal Policies on 529s Should I Be Aware of?

While each state enforces its own set of 529 regulations, the federal government enforces certain policies on all 529 plans whether they are national, state, direct-sold or advisor-sold.

Only one person can own a 529 account, and there can only be one beneficiary to that account. One person can own multiple 529 accounts, however, and a beneficiary can receive contributions from multiple accounts as long as the collective amount of money in all the accounts does not exceed the state maximum limit on contributions.

In addition, people other than the account owner can contribute to the plan. The account owner can also change the beneficiary to one of the beneficiary’s relatives, and in case of the account owner’s death, a new account owner can be named without tax penalties.

There are no income restrictions on who can own or contribute to a 529 plan.

Sometimes people wonder about the federal gift tax exclusion and how it applies to a 529 plan. The short answer is that unless you are one of the few Americans whose lifetime giving will total $5.49 million, you will pay no gift taxes for 529 contributions.

However, there are some guidelines about reporting gifts to the IRS, regardless of your estate size or planned lifetime giving. The gift tax exclusion amount is $14,000 per beneficiary or $70,000 per beneficiary as one lump sum, once every five years. It’s best to consult a certified public accountant with specific questions about your situation.

Although there is no federal income tax benefit for contributing to a 529 plan, the money you invest in a 529 account grows tax-deferred. That means you are getting more bang from your buck than if you invested in a taxable brokerage account. In addition, you won’t pay state or federal taxes when the money is withdrawn and used for qualified, college-related expenses.

For more information on qualified tuition programs, see the Internal Revenue Code.

What Unique Policies Apply to My State’s 529 Plan?

College 529 policies vary from state to state, but for the most part, they follow the same basic guidelines. When surveying 529 plans, however, compare tax deductions, fees and expenses to find out if your state plans are fairly priced.

State tax deductions are the best incentive for residents to use one of their state’s 529 plans.

Most states offer tax-deductible plans to their residents. California, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota and North Carolina have state income taxes but do not offer an income tax deduction or credit for 529 contributions.

Alaska, Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Tennessee, Washington and Wyoming have no state income tax, so no deduction would be applicable.

Montana, Arizona, Kansas, Missouri and Pennsylvania offer their residents tax deductions for contributions to any 529 plan.

Each state enforces a unique contribution maximum, which limits the total amount of money you can contribute to one beneficiary. This maximum applies even if multiple people open an account for one beneficiary. Once you reach this limit, the 529 accounts will no longer receive your deposits. So if you plan to invest a large sum of money, take this into account.

Most contribution limits are typically between $235,000 and $512,000 per beneficiary, but check the rules in your state.

In addition, most 529 savings plans do not require you to withdraw your contributions within a certain period of time or have a significant age requirement. That’s a key difference between savings plans and prepaid tuition plans; the latter often have time limits for withdrawals.

If you would like to switch your account to another plan, every state allows you a once-per-year rollover to another 529 plan with no tax consequences. However, many states will charge you for transferring your account or recapture your state tax deductions if you move from an in-state plan to an out-of-state plan.

With so many options from which to choose, it’s worth spending some time upfront to be sure you find a plan that meets your objectives and risk tolerance. You don’t need to spend hours sifting through the fine print on every plan, but if you start by getting a good handle on what you are looking for, you’ll soon identify programs that fit the bill.

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