8/20/2013 3:30 PM ET|
What to know about 529 plans
These college savings plans are easy to maintain and are out of the reach of the IRS. But they can be complex, so make sure you know what you're getting into.
One of the most popular college savings vehicles -- with good reason -- is the 529 plan.
Offering federal and, in some cases, state tax advantages, 529 plans are low-maintenance, provide tax-deferred growth and make less of an impact on a student's financial aid package than assets stored in checking and savings accounts.
These plans are also complex, and choosing the one that fits your family can be difficult. Know these seven things before opening a 529.
Some are pricier than others
According to the SEC, 529 plans come in two flavors. First, there are prepaid plans that allow families to buy "units" of tuition at a rate close to today's prices. They are cashed in when the student attends school. Second, there are 529 college savings plans that allow families to invest in preselected investment portfolios that grow (or shrink) in accordance with the markets. Many states and the District of Columbia offer 529 college savings plans, according to Morningstar. But only a handful of states offer a prepaid option.
Both types of plans come with annual fees. For college savings accounts, these range from about 0.24% to 1.88% of invested assets, according to a 2011 Morningstar survey.
When comparison shopping 529s, Richard Norman, the former interim executive director of the Ohio Tuition Trust Authority, which oversees that state's 529 plan, advises families to be aware of the price difference between direct-sold plans that families manage themselves and broker-sold plans that are overseen by a financial professional.
"In almost every single instance, (direct plans) will be cheaper and will give you more return than that through a broker," says Norman.
Broker-sold investment options cost 1.47% on average versus 0.54% for those investors can buy themselves, according to Morningstar.
There's risk involved
Many 529 college savings plans contain mutual funds that are tied to the stock and bond markets, meaning families can potentially lose money if their investments take a hit.
"The question you have to ask yourself is: 'How diversified is the 529 itself?'" says Sam Mikhail, the president of College Planning Advisors, a college planning firm in Burbank, Calif.
When deciding on the right college savings plan, Mikhail advises families to first consult with a financial professional on whether a 529 plan is the best bet, then examine the underlying funds in a particular plan and investigate each fund's historical performance. There are generally several investment options for you to choose from in 529 plans.
Families may also want to check out the growing number of no-risk 529 plan options. Several states, including Virginia, Arizona and Ohio, have FDIC-insured CDs and savings options that provide families with 529 tax benefits without the risk (or growth) associated with market fluctuations.
They might not keep up with your kid
Among the most popular 529 college savings options are age-based target-date funds that automatically shift from aggressive to conservative investments as the child approaches college age. Stuart Ritter, a vice president and certified financial planner with T. Rowe Price Investment Services, advises families eyeing age-based portfolios to examine how they change over time.
"It's important to understand what the investments are, and make sure that how your money is allocated between stocks, bonds and short-term investments is appropriate for the time horizon you're looking at," Ritter says.
How fast investments shift varies among 529 plans. To ensure your age-based portfolio is keeping up with your savings needs, Ritter advises families to evaluate several age-based portfolios before choosing one and to periodically re-evaluate how their 529 plan is evolving. If a plan isn't changing according to your needs, the Internal Revenue Service allows families to change portfolios once per year.
Your state's plan might not offer the best deal
While all 529 plans come with federal tax advantages, certain states also offer state income tax deductions or credits, too. These can be substantial.
Indiana, for example, offers a tax credit of up to $1,000 per year. Meanwhile, New York and Oklahoma offer annual tax deductions of up to $5,000 and $10,000, respectively, for single filers.
A few states, such as North Dakota and Rhode Island, sweeten the deal even more by offering matching grant programs that match a certain amount of a family's contributions. Eligibility requirements for tax advantages and matching grants vary by state.
While these incentives can provide an extra push to invest close to home, families should still compare different plans and evaluate whether tax incentives are enough to make a home state's plan the best financial bet, says Deborah Goodkin, a managing director of college savings plans at First National Bank of Omaha, the entity that oversees Nebraska's 529s.
"If (a 529 plan offers) tax advantages, it may or may not be the best reason to invest in your home state's plan," she says. "That's up to the investor and their financial adviser."
Independent investors may want to take a close look at fees, which can make a big dent on investment returns.
Most prepaid plans aren't guaranteed
Prepaid 529 plans aren't subject to market ups and downs, but they're not always a sure thing either.
"There (are) only a handful now still guaranteed," says Norman. "Most of them are not."
Of the prepaid 529s that are still accepting new enrollees, only a scant few, such as Washington's Guaranteed Education Tuition program, come with a legally binding promise the state will pick up the tab if the plan folds between the time parents open the account and Junior goes off to school. Families eyeing prepaid plans are encouraged to inquire about a state-backed guarantee before opening an account, to research the plan's historic performance and stability and to ask what happens if tuition prices sharply increase.
529s impact financial aid
It's true 529 plans will factor into how much financial aid a student may qualify for, but it shouldn't be a deal breaker.
"People think, 'If I have $100 saved in a 529 plan, that means I'm getting $100 less in financial aid.' That is wrong," says Ritter. "About 5.6% of a parent's assets are expected to be used for college. That means for every $100 that the parent has saved, their financial aid would be reduced $5.60."
Money stored in a 529 plan will impact your federal financial aid package, but not as much as funds stored in some other types of accounts. The Department of Education reports that every dollar stored in a 529 account in a parent's name will subtract up to 5.6 cents from your family's federal need-based financial aid package. By contrast, funds stored in checking and savings accounts in a child's name will subtract up to 20 cents per dollar from federal financial aid, whereas funds kept in an individual retirement account in either the parent or child's name won't be considered at all until the family begins taking withdrawals.
Relatives can help (and also hurt)
One way to get around the federal financial aid assessment is to store 529 cash in an account held in a relative's name. Accounts held by family, friends and relatives for 529 plans will be sheltered from the federal financial aid needs analysis, reports Finaid.org. The needs analysis is the primary formula used to determine financial aid at public colleges and universities. However, those funds will still be factored in for students attending private colleges that use the CSS Profile needs analysis formula.
Even if the money is sheltered, it's only temporary, reports the Department of Education. Once students begin taking withdrawals from 529 accounts held in relatives' names, the funds count as income and can subtract up to 50 cents in federal aid for every dollar withdrawn. To get maximum federal aid and minimal 529 impact, families can hold off on taking 529 withdrawals from relatives until after the student has received financial aid for their last year of school.
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MORE ON MSN MONEY
VIDEO ON MSN MONEY
Saving is difficult whether for college, a home payment, full outright home or car
purchase, vacation, etc. Saving is hard to do for those earning less than $80,000
in a family of four with adolescent children. Before we will save, we must want to
save. Your associates/friends and even your family will seem to be the enemy once
you begin a serious savings journey. You must REALLY WANT to save for something.
Really wanting and really doing are different. Vaguely wanting and doing nothing is
guaranteed to produce no savings.
Where do savings originate? From income, investments, gifts or grants and that is that.
SAVINGS DO NOT ORIGINATE FROM SPENDING. Until you stop kidding yourself you
will not save. Where do spending originate? To merchants, financiers, medical/legal
professionals, utility and leisure/entertainment providers. Life is so strange that we in
many lands (i.e. the USA) are able to spend though we've not earned! Usually to save,
we must stop purchasing completely or reduce spending sharply. That implies not
painting the home interior, not buying the paint, perhaps moving out of the home into
something smaller and less costly. To save, we don't buy or severely reduce amounts
spent for: clothing, medical services, food, utilities, fuel, leisure, transportation,
insurance and even cleanliness.
Savings rarely appear from large immediate changes, but they can, say when we
sell the car and use rapid transit (all payments end, insurance is terminated, repairs
ended), or rent out the home, move to less costly housing or shift the tax burden
to the state via a contribution. However, most savings originate in small or petty
sacrifices such as NO restaurant meals, no subscriptions to cable/movie rentals,
down-grading to minimal telephone servicing, using auto only for work and grocery
travel, etc. Petty items include paring one's carrots, washing one's salad greens,
shopping seasonal specials mostly, stopping purchase of 'food add-ons' like mustard/mayo/catsup/bottled water, etc. We never again own anything requiring
$25 in dry cleaning fees. We clean carpets ourselves, we stop eating decay
producing sweets and brush/floss vigorously. The DEVIL is in the smallest of
economies and those must be actually banked to be called saved. Savings
aren't theoretical: single-ply rough toilet tissue, generic medicines/cosmetics
(and minimal at that). Saving and dieting are almost twins in similarity and hard
to do. We must save for DECADES often to produce even $10,000 in a passbook.
Some can and do save and achieve their goals. Most do not. Many of those that
saved will spend those savings foolishly on higher education which produces no
visible income increase. Most savers surrender and GIVE UP before ever
reaching even half of their targets. To save we must say 'no' 99 times and 'yes'
perhaps once. Got that? Pleading 'innocent' to using saved funds for emergencies
is no excuse for zero savings either. We must plan for emergencies before we
save even a dollar. Many seniors operate only from FIXED benefit receipts. It is
they who can help you understand that cash is king and no spending implies no
spending, not now, tomorrow or next month.
If at all possible have the plan send the money directly to the school. The IRS will be after you if you have the checks sent to yourself.
Always make sure you are spending the money in the year you are taking the money or you could face large penalties. Be very careful with Spring semester tuition. If possible pay the tuition after the first of the year with money on hand and then take a withdrawal unless the plan is paying directly.
This article isn't 'the truth about financial aid' it's just an ad for 529 plans. 529 plans in the student's name just wash out the finaid the student was going to get from the college so they are a total waste of money unless you know for a fact your family is too rich to get finaid.
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