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529 Plans: The Ultimate Guide to College Savings

529 Plans: Understanding, Pros and Cons, and Alternatives

As a parent, relative, or friend of a child, saving for their future education is essential. However, selecting the best savings vehicle can be a challenge.

A possible option is the 529 plan. This article outlines what 529 plans are, how they work, the types available, the advantages and disadvantages, and alternative college savings options.

Understanding 529 Plans

What are 529 plans? A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged investment account intended to help families save for educational expenses.

These expenses include tuition, room and board, fees, textbooks, computers and technology, and other qualified higher education fees. The “529” number comes from the section of the IRS code that created these plans in 1996.

How do 529 plans work? A 529 plan has a designated beneficiary, which can be anyone, such as a child, grandchild, or even oneself.

Contributions are made to the account, which is then invested. The account owner can choose from several investment options to suit their preferences and investment appetite.

The earnings, also known as returns, are tax-deferred, meaning they are not taxed owed at the federal level and possibly also at the state level, depending on the state of residence. Withdrawals are tax-free for qualified educational expenses, which include items such as tuition, housing, and books at eligible postsecondary institutions.

The funds can also be used for K-12 tuition, though the rules vary by state. Alongside tax-free withdrawals, some states offer additional state income tax deductions for contributions made to their state’s 529 plan.

However, there are limits to 529 plans. Each plan has a contribution limit, which can go up to $500,000, depending on the state.

Non-qualified withdrawals incur a penalty and taxes.

Types of 529 Plans

There are two main types of 529 plans: education savings plans and prepaid college tuition plans.

Education Savings Plan


Education Savings Plan works like a personal investment account. The money invested is subject to market fluctuations like any other investment vehicle.

The investor can choose from several investment options such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and exchange-traded funds. The beneficiary can use the funds at most accredited colleges and universities throughout the United States and some international schools.

Prepaid Tuition Plan


Prepaid Tuition Plan guarantees to cover a portion of the beneficiarys tuition and sometimes other fees, such as room and board. This plan is ideal for those who want a fixed rate and a guaranteed payout that can cover future tuition expenses.

However, it has more restrictions, such as limiting attendance to public, in-state institutions. It is interesting to note that only a minority of states offer a

Prepaid Tuition Plan.

Pros and Cons of 529 Plans

Advantages of 529 plans

Tax advantages are the primary benefits of 529 plans. The funds earnings are tax-deferred, and withdrawals are tax-free if used for qualified educational expenses.

Flexibility is another advantage of 529 plans. Anyone can open a 529 plan account and contribute to it.

The owner retains control of the account, so they can change the designated beneficiary, and there’s no limit to the number of accounts per person. The funds saved can also go towards tuition for K-12 or private school, up to a limit of $10,000 per year.

529 plans can be a useful college savings vehicle. This type of investment account can help parents, grandparents, and others avoid the pitfalls of loans and other financing options.

The 529 plan also has a scholarship exception that allows account owners to take out up to the amount of the scholarship without paying the 10% non-qualified withdrawal penalty.

Disadvantages of 529 plans

529 plans can have costs associated with them, such as administrative fees, investment management fees, and plan maintenance fees, which can reduce the overall growth of the account balance. A non-qualified withdrawal penalty is the most significant drawback of the 529 plan.

For example, if you take out $10,000 from the account to pay for a vacation, the withdrawal incurs a 10% penalty, and the earnings are then taxed at the account owners marginal tax rate. 529 plans may have an impact on federal financial aid.

The assets held in the 529 plan could reduce the financial aid of the beneficiary. However, under the current financial aid formula, only a small portion of these assets reduces aid eligibility.

Alternatives to 529 Plans for

College Savings

Roth IRA

A Roth IRA is a tax-advantaged retirement account that can also be used to save for college expenses. Contributions to a Roth IRA are made with after-tax dollars and can be withdrawn at any time for any reason, without penalty.

The earnings on the account are tax-free if withdrawn after age 59. Distributions taken before then are subject to taxes and penalties.

High-Yield Savings Accounts

High-Yield Savings Accounts are a low-risk option for saving for college. They often earn higher interest rates than traditional savings accounts and are accessible without restrictions.

However, like most savings accounts, their interest rates are vulnerable to fluctuations in overall interest rates.

Taxable Accounts

Taxable Accounts offer maximum flexibility, with no restrictions on the amount you can contribute, withdraw, or invest. However, any returns generated in these accounts are subject to capital gains taxes.

Custodial Accounts

Custodial Accounts allow an adult to set up an account and manage it for a minor who is the account’s beneficiary. The money belongs to the minor and can be used for any purpose, including college expenses.

However, when the minor reaches legal age, they can withdraw the funds and use them however they please, no longer under the account holders control.


529 plans can be a valuable tool for saving for college, especially given their tax-advantaged status and flexibility. However, they have disadvantages such as fees and the potential impact on federal financial aid.

Alternative college savings options, such as Roth IRAs, high-yield savings accounts, taxable accounts, and custodial accounts, can offer different advantages and disadvantages. Choosing the right investment vehicle ultimately depends on the investor’s situation and investment goals.

How to Open a 529 Plan

One of the essential considerations when opening a 529 plan is determining which state’s plan to use. Each state has a different set of investment options, contribution limits, and fee structures.

The comparison of these plans is a critical step in selecting the best 529 plan for your needs.

Comparison of Plans Across States

Several websites compare 529 plans across the United States, such as, Morningstar, and

College Savings Plan Network.

Some plans are sold directly by states, and others are available through brokers.

The Wealthfront online platform is one broker that offers 529 plans, and the selection is sorted by their rating system for each state’s plans by investment options, expenses, transparency, investment performance, tax benefits, and state.

Required Information for Opening a 529 Plan

When opening a 529 plan, the following information will be necessary:

1. Identifying information such as name, address, and social security number of the owner and beneficiary.

2. Bank information for funding the account, such as the account number and routing number; some plans require a minimum balance to open.

3. Investment choices, which vary by plan and can include age-based portfolios or investment options, such as index funds, mutual funds, and exchange-traded funds.

4. The designation of a beneficiary, who can be changed if necessary.

FAQs about 529 Plans

What can a 529 plan be used for? A 529 plan can be used for qualified educational expenses at eligible colleges, universities, and post-secondary vocational schools.

These expenses include tuition, fees, books, required equipment, supplies, and room and board in some cases. K-12 tuition is also an option, but the limit varies by state.

What is considered a non-qualified expense? Non-qualified expenses are expenses that do not meet the criteria for tax-free distributions from a 529 plan.

They include transportation, technology that is not explicitly required by the school, student loan repayments, health insurance, and entertainment and travel expenses. Is it worth opening a 529 plan?

Opening a 529 plan is worth considering. It is a useful option for families looking to save for education-related expenses.

Contributions grow tax-free, which adds up over time, providing the account remains invested, which can help ease the burden of educational expenses down the line. While every investment has risks, many 529 plans offer low-cost options and transparency into their management.

Are 529 plan contributions tax-deductible? 529 plans are not tax-deductible at the federal level, but some states may offer state income tax deductions for contributions made to state-sponsored plans.

The type and amount of the tax deduction will depend on the state of residency and on each states tax laws.

Final Thoughts

Opening a 529 plan has many benefits for families looking to save for educational expenses. It is essential to consider the state of residency, investment options, fees, and tax benefits when selecting the best plan to meet your needs.

The ease of opening and maintaining a 529 plan can help you in achieving your educational savings goals. Benefits of

Understanding 529 Plans

Understanding 529 plans can offer a multitude of benefits, including college savings, investment growth, and reducing student loan debt.

Additionally, it can provide peace of mind when it comes to education expenses and the financial security of beneficiaries.

College Savings

One of the primary benefits of 529 plans is that they offer a way to save for educational expenses. College expenses can be overwhelming, with the average cost of tuition, fees, room, and board ranging from $22,180 at public, in-state schools to $50,770 at private colleges in the 2020-2021 academic year, according to the College Board.

529 plans can help alleviate the financial burden of college costs by allowing families to save in preparation for these expenses. Certain investment options within 529 plans can also provide growth opportunities for those invested, which can help cover expenses and prevent the accrual of significant student loan debt.

Investment Growth

529 plans are an investment account, meaning they offer the chance for growth and capital appreciation. As mentioned before, the earnings or returns generated by investments grow tax-free and can be withdrawn tax-free, as long as they are used for qualified education expenses.

This tax-free growth offers more significant returns over a longer period than other savings accounts taxed annually on the interest earned.

Reducing Student Loan Debt

College graduates enter the workforce with considerable student loan debt. According to Student Loan Hero, the average student loan debt per borrower is $32,731, and the total student loan debt in the United States is more than $1.7 trillion.

A 529 plan can help reduce student loan debt by providing an avenue for families to save for educational expenses, which can decrease reliance on loans. By investing in a 529 plan over time, families can reduce the amount of student loan debt accrued by beneficiaries.


One of the central aspects of 529 plans is the designation of a beneficiary. This designated person will receive the funds saved in the account and use them for qualified education expenses to relieve the financial burden associated with paying for college.

The choice of a beneficiary can also change with minimal restrictions, offering flexibility for the account owner. Additionally, gifting contributions to a 529 plan can be an option for grandparents, relatives, or friends looking to support education expenses.

It is also possible to utilize 529 plans for estate planning, by ensuring the transfer of wealth and meaningful contributions to educational pursuits.


Understanding 529 plans is essential in planning for future educational expenses. The benefits of these plans, including college savings, investment growth, reduced student loan debt, and providing for beneficiaries, cannot be overstated.

With these advantages in mind, it is vital to research and compare the different state plans available to select the best option aligned with individual goals. In conclusion, 529 plans offer significant advantages for families looking to save for educational expenses.

Understanding the types of 529 plans available across different states, required information for opening an account, and how to fund one is essential. Additionally, knowing the benefits of choosing a 529 plan, including college savings, investment growth, reducing student loan debt, and providing for beneficiaries, will help you make informed decisions about your financial future.

The main takeaway is to start saving today to alleviate the financial burden of education expenses and create a plan that will provide for the educational needs of your beneficiaries in the years ahead.

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