Saving for College: Understanding 529 Plans and Benefits

Last updated on - November 25, 2023

Saving for College: Understanding 529 Plans and Benefits

Saving for college is essential if you want to stress less about how to pay for college and help your child graduate college without a lot of debt. While full-ride scholarships and tuition-free colleges are available, those are in short supply and quite competitive. Saving is a way of placing some financial control in your hands. If you can save, you should because it will also give your child more college options.

But understanding how to save can be overwhelming. That's why we're here to talk about the 529 Plan. We'll discuss its benefits and drawbacks, the requirements to be eligible, and the tax advantages it offers. Additionally, we'll explore what expenses are covered by 529 Plans and what expenses are not. Lastly, we'll provide information to help you choose the best plan for your needs while considering its impact on financial aid.

Note: This information is only provided for informative purposes and should not be perceived as professional advice. Please consult a financial advisor before making any investment.

Understanding 529 Plans

Are 529 plans right for you? These tax-advantaged investments can help you save for college. There are two options: prepaid tuition plans and savings plans. Learn more about the benefits and decide if either fits your college savings strategy.

1. Prepaid Tuition Plans: What it is

Prepaid tuition plans allow you to purchase units or credits at participating colleges and universities at current prices, locking in the cost of future education today. These plans typically cover tuition and mandatory fees. Still, they may not include room and board costs or other living expenses associated with attending college.

  • Ideal for those who have a specific in-state school in mind for their child's post-secondary education.
  • The value of the plan increases along with rising tuition rates, providing protection against inflation.
  • Limited flexibility as it only covers eligible institutions within that particular state-sponsored program.

2. 529 Savings Plans: What it is

With a 529 savings plan, funds can be used for college in the U.S. or abroad--plus more. You can pay for books, room and board, computers and more. Plus, these plans may yield higher returns based on market changes. A few key features include:

  • More versatile investment options with the potential for higher returns based on market performance.
  • Funds can be used at any eligible institution regardless of state affiliation.
  • Riskier than prepaid tuition plans due to exposure to market fluctuations that may affect future income available for your child's education.

Check the pros and cons of each 529 plan to figure out which fits your family best. Think about whether your child may go to an in-state, out-of-state, or private university when weighing prepaid tuition. If you're looking for more flexibility or don't know what school your child might attend, a 529 savings plan could be the smarter option.

Advantages of Investing in a 529 Plan

Saving money in a 529 plan cam help you achieve your college savings goal. It gives you special tax benefits that make it easier to afford your child's education. It's a good idea to learn about all the advantages that come with a 529 plan.

Tax-free earnings growth for education-related withdrawals

A 529 plan offers tax-free earnings growth, which is great for long-term savings. And if you use the account to pay for qualified educational expenses such as tuition, housing, or textbooks, withdrawals are federal tax-free.

No income restrictions on contributors

Contributors to 529 plans are not limited by income restrictions. This allows parents, grandparents, other family members, or even friends to contribute regardless of their annual salary or overall wealth status. In addition, many states offer tax deductions or credits to encourage people to save money toward their family member's future college education. Federal student aid eligibility is minimally impacted by assets held within 529 plans.

  • Less impact on need-based financial aid: When calculating federal student aid eligibility, assets held within a 529 plan are treated more favorably than those in regular bank accounts or other investment options. Your child may not be drastically affected by 529 funds when it comes to getting need-based financial aid.
  • Wide range of eligible institutions and expenses: Another advantage is the flexibility offered by 529 plans when choosing an educational institution. Students have many options for their education due to funds being accepted at any accredited college, university, vocational school, or even some international schools.

In summary, investing in a 529 plan offers several advantages that make them an attractive option for parents looking to save money for their children's college education. With tax-free earnings growth on qualified withdrawals, no income restrictions on contributors, and minimal impact on federal student aid calculations compared to other assets like regular bank accounts - these plans provide families with valuable tools needed when planning for future college costs. Investing in a 529 plan can benefit college savings, yet one should consider all the pros and cons before committing. Disadvantages of using a 529 plan may include withdrawal restrictions or higher fees than other options.

Key Takeaway: 

Saving money for college? Investing in a 529 plan can help! It offers tax-free growth advantage and no income limits. Plus, 529 assets count less when applying for federal student aid.

Disadvantages of Using a 529 Plan

While there are many benefits to using a 529 plan, there are some disadvantages too. You can face penalties if withdrawals aren't made exclusively for qualifying expenses, and you don't get to choose investments. Another thing to keep in mind, the unused funds could be taxed if the beneficiary doesn't go to college. 

Penalties for Non-Qualified Withdrawals

If you take money from your 529 plan for a non-education purpose, you'll need to pay taxes on the earnings part and an extra 10% penalty.

Limited Control Over Investment Options

For most 529 plans, investors have minimal control over their investment selections. This means some investors might struggle to align their personal risk tolerance with available choices. To find a good fit, look into different state-sponsored plans.

Taxes and Penalties If Beneficiary Doesn't Attend College

  • Taxes: If your child chooses not to pursue higher education, the earnings portion of your 529 plan will be subject to federal income tax when withdrawn for non-qualified expenses.
  • Penalties: In addition to taxes, you may also face a 10% penalty on the earnings portion if funds are not used for qualified educational expenses. However, some exceptions include scholarships or attending a U.S. military academy.

Weigh the pros and cons of a 529 plan against other options like Roth IRAs, custodial accounts, or even savings accounts. That way, you can make an informed decision about using your money to save for college.

Choosing the Right College Savings Strategy

Before setting up an account or plan, deciding how much money you need to save for college tuition and living expenses is important. Look into different state-sponsored plans and compare the fees, investments, performance records, and tax benefits to determine which works best for you.

Determining Your Final College Savings Goal

You must establish a clear financial target to start saving for college effectively. Consider the average cost of attending college, including tuition, room and board, books and supplies, transportation costs, and other miscellaneous expenses. Remember that these costs may vary depending on whether your child attends an in-state or out-of-state institution.

  • In-State School: Attending a public university within your home state can be more affordable than going out-of-state. 
  • Out-of-State School: If considering schools outside of your home state or private institutions with higher price tags  - make sure you factor this into calculations when determining how much money you need to save.

Comparing Different State-Sponsored Options

Figuring out the best 529 plan takes work, but it's worth it! Compare the plans different states offer. Think about the management fees, age-based investments, past returns, and taxes. That'll make sure you pick the one that's right for you. 

  1. Management Fees: When you look at different plans, you want to make sure you check the fees. That includes any yearly charges for keeping your account open or paying for someone to manage your investments. If you watch out for hidden fees, you can save some money in the long run.
  2. Investment Options: Think about what your risk tolerance and financial goals are for college savings and then check out the investment options each plan offers. Make sure you pick the right one for you.
  3. Historical Performance Data: Looking at history can be a helpful way to look ahead. Check out what has happened with different plans in the past to get an idea of what might happen next - but keep in mind that it's not a sure thing. Past performance isn't a guarantee that things will turn out the same way in the future.
  4. Tax Advantages: Check out any tax advantages for different plans depending on what state you live in (see 529 tax deduction by state). You could get deductions or credits when you put money in a 529 account - which is a really good way to get more value out of your savings for college. 

>>RELATED: Financial Aid Guide It's vital to save for both your child's college and your retirement. Don't let saving for one come at the expense of the other. Both goals are important, so find a plan that fits your family best. It may be tricky, but vital to get both taken care of.

Key Takeaway: 

Figure out how much you need to save for college. Research state-sponsored plans like 529 plans. When choosing one, check out management fees, different investments, performance history, and any tax advantages. Don't forget to save for retirement and find out about need-based and federal aid.

Starting Early & Consistent Contributions

It's not too late to begin saving, even now. Financial experts recommend saving for college as early as possible, ideally from birth. This allows the savings to grow over time and can significantly reduce the burden of student loans.  Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert, says that if you save early, one-third of the money for college could come just from interest.

  • Set up automatic contributions: To ensure consistent contributions towards your child's education fund, consider setting up an automatic monthly transfer from your bank account or paycheck into their 529 plan.
  • Increase contributions over time: As your income grows or other expenses decrease (e.g., paying off debt), try increasing your monthly contribution. Even small increases can make a significant difference in reaching your college savings goal.
  • Involve family members: Encourage grandparents and relatives who want to help with future college costs by making gifts directly into the student's 529 plan instead of giving cash or material items during holidays or birthdays.

Beyond regular monthly contributions, there are additional ways parents can boost their children's college funds. Some strategies include using tax refunds, bonuses from work, or proceeds from the sale of a home to make lump-sum contributions. Saving for your kids' college from the get-go is really beneficial. Small contributions can add up, so you and your child don't end up taking out student loans. It'll help pay for college without affecting your retirement savings. Starting early and making consistent contributions to a college savings account is important in ensuring your child's future educational success. Exploring alternative college savings options, such as scholarships, grants, part-time job opportunities during high school, and custodial accounts, can help you maximize the money available for tuition.

Exploring Alternative Options to Pay for College

In addition to 529 plans, other strategies for saving for college can help you achieve your college savings goal. These options may provide additional flexibility and opportunities to grow your funds while preparing for the inevitable college expenses.

Scholarships and Grants

Applying for scholarships and grants is an excellent way to reduce the burden of college costs. Many organizations provide financial aid based on academic achievement, after-school activities or involvement in the local community. Some scholarships even target specific demographics or fields of study - e.g., education or the STEM field. Visit our scholarship search page to find scholarship opportunities. >>RELATED: 7 of the Biggest Scholarships You Can Win

Part-time Job Opportunities during High School

Earning money through part-time jobs during high school years can be a great way to start saving early. If you think your child can manage both school and work, encourage them to find a part-time job. Part-time jobs can provide students with valuable work experience plus help them save for college.

Tips on Finding Part-Time Jobs:

  • Create a resume highlighting related skills and work experience.
  • Ask people in their personal network such as family members, friends, or teachers who might know about job openings in the area.
  • Browse online job boards like Indeed or Snagajob that advertise many part-time opportunities for teens.

Opening a Custodial Account (UGMA/UTMA)

A custodial account allows parents or guardians to save money on behalf of minors without setting up trust funds. These accounts can be opened at banks or brokerage firms, and the funds can be used for any purpose that benefits the child, including post-secondary education. It is essential to remember that these resources may have a greater effect on need-based financial aid eligibility than 529 plans. 

Considering Alternative Investment Options: Roth IRAs

Roth IRAs are great for retirement and college savings. They give tax-free growth and let parents save for retirement while also putting aside cash for their kids' college. Contributions to a Roth IRA grow tax-free and can be withdrawn without penalty for qualified higher education expenses if conditions are met. This flexibility allows parents to save for their children's college education and their retirement simultaneously. Exploring other college savings options is a great way to ensure you have enough money for your child's education. Next, we'll look at some frequently asked questions about 529s.

Key Takeaway: 

Check out options to save for college. Look into scholarships, part-time jobs in high school, custodial accounts, and Roth IRAs. This'll help your child reach college goals without racking up loan debt.

FAQs About Saving For College

When it comes to saving for college, there are many questions that parents and students may have. This section will address some common concerns related to 529 plans and other aspects of college savings.

How Important Is Saving for College?

Saving for college is crucial as it helps reduce the financial burden of tuition, fees, and other expenses. By starting early and consistently contributing to a savings plan like a 529 Plan, you can take advantage of compound interest and potentially lower student loan debt.

What Is the 1/3 Rule for Saving for College?

Experts say when it comes to college costs, saving 1/3 of anticipated costs ahead of time is key. Income, scholarships and/or loans should carry the rest - 1/3 by current income during enrollment years and 1/3 by scholarships/loans.

How Much Money Should I Have Saved Before Going to College?

The amount you should save depends on factors like tuition, living expenses, and financial aid eligibility. Use a college savings calculator to estimate your target savings based on the specific colleges you're considering.

Is a 529 Plan the Best Way to Save for College?

529 Plan is often considered an excellent option due to its tax advantages and flexibility in covering qualified education expenses. However, other options such as Coverdell Education Savings Accounts or Roth IRAs may also be suitable based on your personal financial situation.

How do 529 plans impact financial aid eligibility?

A key concern for many families is how a 529 plan affects financial aid eligibility. The good news is that these accounts generally have minimal impact on need-based financial aid calculations. If the account is owned by the custodial parent or dependent student, it is considered parental assets on FAFSA. Most student aid is based on your expected family contribution (EFC). But the good news is, only a tiny fraction (up to 5.64%) of your bank account counts towards it.

What are the consequences if the beneficiary doesn't attend college?

If your kid opts out of college or gets a full ride, don't worry! You still have other ways to use your 529 plan funds. You can give the money to another family member for their school expenses without getting taxed. Any non-qualified withdrawals from the account may incur taxes and a 10% penalty on earnings.

What are qualified education expenses?

  • Tuition: One of the primary uses of 529 plan funds is paying tuition at eligible colleges and universities.
  • Room and board: If the student is enrolled at least half-time, 529 plan funds can be used to cover room and board expenses. This includes on-campus housing or off-campus rent, as long as it doesn't exceed the school's estimated cost of living.
  • Books and supplies: Items needed for college courses, like textbooks, course materials, computers, software, etc., are all qualified education expenses.
  • Fees: You can use 529 funds to pay college fees.

Your 529 plan may cover expenses related to specific apprenticeship programs and up to $10k yearly for tuition at private or religious K-12 schools. Check your plan guidelines to make sure you use the funds for qualified education expenses.



In the end, a 529 plan can be a great option for college savings. Different plans are available, each with its own advantages and disadvantages to consider when choosing the one that is best for you. To open a 529 plan, you have to meet certain eligibility requirements. A 529 plan covers education expenses for college and K-12. When selecting a plan, compare fees, investments, and performance in your state.  

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