529 Plans: Who, What, and In Between

By Julie Ford

You may have seen some of the recent headlines about student debt. Many of my clients’ financial questions center around this topic: how much to save for college tuition, how to maximize and plan for financial aid, how to manage and pay off student loans. These are great questions and I’m going to focus several blog posts on these topics.

To get us started, let’s look at a popular college saving vehicle which could be a good option for you: 529 plans.

Basics of a 529 plan

A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged way to save for college. As long as the money is eventually used for qualified educational expenses, your contributions will grow tax-free. Each state has its own plan (you can research them here). Some states offer a state tax deduction - $5,000 for individuals or $10,000 per couple, per year.


Who Should Have a 529 Plan?

Most people think 529 plans only make sense for parents, but this isn’t always the case. To open an account there needs to be an account owner (typically a parent) and a beneficiary (typically the child). It is very easy to change the beneficiary, so as an expectant parent, you can open up an account and make yourself the beneficiary (then change the beneficiary to the child once he or she is born). A grandparent or other family member, even a generous friend, can also start a 529 account for the child.


Things to Consider

Each state runs its own 529 plan, but you don’t have to choose your state’s plan. If your state allows a deduction for contributions, you must be in your state’s plan to take advantage of this tax break. Each state has different investment options, fees and custodian so the plans can vary quite a bit. Therefore, even if your state allows a deduction, you might choose to forego this benefit and use another state’s 529 plan for reasons like investment returns or fees.

Keep in mind that there are penalties if you use the money in a 529 account for things other than qualified education expenses. This article provides a rundown on what expenses qualify.

Another important caveat is gift taxes. When you are making contributions to a 529, be aware that the IRS will start taxing you if you give any one person more than $14,000 in 2015, and a contribution to a 529 plan is considered a gift for gift tax purposes (more info on that found here).


Helpful Resources

If you would like to know more about 529 accounts, here’s a great resource for you. Also, you don’t need to be intimated by the IRS’s website. They do a good job of explaining 529 plans as well. Here’s the IRS FAQ on 529 accounts.