Saving for College: The Advantage of Using a 529 Plan

The Advantages of Using a 529 Plan

Saving for college is one of the most common goals parents have for their children. College is expensive – and getting more so each day – and families with decent incomes have less favorable financial aid options, but are in the fortunate position of being able to save to help cover those costs.

Since 1996, the primary college savings vehicle has been the 529 plan – which comes from Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code. These plans offer a lot of flexibility and tax benefits which make them very attractive, but there are so many options for 529 plans now, that it can feel confusing.

So let’s try and clear up a couple key misunderstandings. First, 529 plans are sponsored by individual states and several states offer more than one variety. However, you are NOT required to use the plan from the state you live in. Some states offer tax incentives to their own residents, but the market is competitive and you may find another state’s plan you like more for one reason or another.

Also, no matter which state’s 529 plan you use, in most cases the proceeds can be used at any college, university, vocational school, eligible to participate in a student aid program administered by the Department of Education. So for example, if you live in Texas, it’s perfectly fine to use Virginia’s 529 program to save for your child even if they end up attending college in Florida. Make sense?

RELATED: 3 Things You Need to Know About the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program

The Main Advantage of Using a 529 Plan for College Savings

The main advantage is that contributions can be invested in a variety of options within the plan – based on your goals, time frame and comfort with market volatility. And any growth is not subject to federal tax and generally not subject to state tax when used for the qualified education expenses, such as tuition, fees, books, as well as room and board.

Unlike most other types of accounts which provide tax free withdrawals, there is no income restriction on who can set up 529s or contribute to them, so they’re a great option for high income families like physicians and dentists.

RELATED: Paying Off Medical School Debt

3 Ways to Use Your 529 Plans if Your Child Earns a Scholarships

One of the other main questions people have is- what if my child ends up getting a scholarship?

Well, if your child ends up getting a scholarship, you might not need all the money you’ve saved up in your 529 plan for college expenses. You generally have three options at that point.

(Option 1) The first is to leave the money there for some future use by that child, perhaps for graduate school.

(Option 2) The second is to direct it to another family member, such as a sibling or a future grandchild.

(Option 3) The third option is to withdraw the extra funds. The earnings in your account will be subject to income tax either on your return or your child’s. Normally, there would also be a 10% additional federal tax on the earnings portion as well, which is penalty for taking a nonqualified withdrawal, but the penalty is waived when scholarships are the reason for it.

In effect, the scholarships have turned your tax-free 529 investment into a tax-deferred 529 investment. Of course, most scholarship don’t cover ALL the expenses of college and so you’ll still be able to use the 529 on other expenses such as room and board, books, and supplies.

Obviously there are a lot of details around 529 accounts. If you have more questions, feel free to give us a call or you can check out the IRS website, and search for Publication 970, Tax Benefits for Education.

Paying for College Video Series

Watch our 4 part College Planning Video series to learn More about planning for your children’ education. The series will help you know when to start planning for college, the FASFA, Expected Family Contribution, Assessable vs. Non-assessable Assets & Income. Click or tap the button below:

College Planning Videos

NEXT UP: Why Doctors Should Consider a Backdoor Roth IRA

There is no guaranteed rate of return. The risk with a 529 Plan is that the investments may not perform well enough to cover the rising cost of college as anticipated. Past performance does not guarantee future results.



Shane Tenny is a registered representative of and offers securities, investment advisory services and financial planning through MML Investors Services, LLC. Member SIPC. 4350 Congress Street, Suite 300, Charlotte NC 28209. 704-557-9600. Spaugh Dameron Tenny, LLC is not a subsidiary or affiliate of MML Investors Services, LLC.

Shane Tenny, CFP®

Shane Tenny, CFP® and Partner at Spaugh Dameron Tenny, LLC