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529 College Savings Plans in California

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California may not sponsor as many 529 college savings plans as other states, but its direct-sold ScholarShare 529 Plan definitely stands out for its low fees and high maximum contribution limits. And even though you can’t contribute past the $529,000 limit, your money can still grow tax-free in the market. You can invest in a variety of investment options, including age-based portfolios, which automatically change their asset allocation over time to become less risky as your child gets closer to the college years. You can even invest in a portfolio option that offers a guaranteed minimum rate of return. Unlike many other states, California does not offer an advisor-sold 529 plan. But if you’re looking to get some professional guidance from an expert, you can find a financial advisor to help you through the entire college saving process. 

How Do I Enroll in California’s 529 Plan?

The simplest way to enroll in California’s 529 College Savings plan is online. The process should take only a few minutes. You’d need the following information for yourself and your beneficiary:

  • Address
  • Birthdates
  • Social Security or tax identification numbers
  • Your bank account and routing numbers if making initial $25 contribution electronically

You will also need to make an investment selection at time of enrollment. 

How Much Does the California 529 Plan Cost?

Each portfolio in the ScholarShare 529 Plan, with the exception of the Principal Plus Interest Portfolio, charges a total annual asset-based fee. This charge includes a board administration fee and program management fee, as well as underlying mutual fund expenses. 

This total fee is factored out of assets in your portfolio, so you pay a pro-rata share through your account rather than out of your pocket. The total annual asset-based fee for portfolios in the plan currently ranges from 0.06% to 0.53%, making the Golden State’s direct plan among the most palatable we’ve seen across the country when it comes to fees. 

Tax Benefits of California’s 529 Plan

When you invest in the ScholarShare 529 plan, the money your contributions generate in the market is protected from taxes. This means your money can maximize the power of compound interest. The money you take out of the plan is also tax-free if you use it for 529 plan qualified expenses such as tuition and mandatory fees at eligible institutions. 

The SECURE Act expanded qualified education expenses to cover the costs of apprenticeship programs. You can also withdraw up to $10,000 tax-free in your lifetime to pay student loan debt. 

And up to $10,000 can be withdrawn from 529 plans tax free to cover tuition at public, private and religious K-12 schools. This benefit applies to federal taxes. Check with a local accountant to see how this may impact your state tax return. 

However, you may face a financial hit if you take money out of the plan for anything else. In this case, you’ve made a nonqualified withdrawal and it may be subject to federal income tax as well as a 10% penalty. 

You should seek a qualified financial advisor or tax professional in your area to discuss how a nonqualified withdrawal may impact you based on your unique circumstances. Be sure to use SmartAsset's tax calculator for additional insight. You can also discuss with your advisor additional tax benefits that may appeal to you. For example, 529 college savings plans offer distinct estate-tax benefits. And they open the door to several ways you can give money to students while avoiding gift taxes even if you’re contributing a large sum. 

What Are My Investment Options?

ScholarShare 529 allows you to invest in a range of portfolios with underlying funds that leading financial institutions like TIAA-CREF and T. Rowe Price manage. Your portfolio options span age-based, multi-fund, single-fund and guaranteed portfolios. 

Age-based portfolios may suit the investor who wants to take a hands-off approach and pass on investment decisions to professional managers. These portfolios automatically change their asset allocation over time. They switch gears from focusing on growth-oriented investments like stocks in the early years to less risky options like bonds as your child gets closer to college age.

The plan’s multi-fund portfolios may better suit the investor who wants more control of his or her portfolio’s investment mix as well as the investment strategy that’s applied. Most of these also allow you to choose whether you want your portfolio to be passively managed or actively managed. Passively managed funds try to mimic the performance of one or more indexes, a compilation of stocks or bonds that reflect a certain portion of the market. Actively managed funds are a bit more complex in the sense that the management team uses research and their own insight to select underlying funds in an attempt to beat the market. 

The plan’s single funds invest in a solitary underlying fund such as one that invests only in stocks of large U.S. companies. You can choose to invest in one or more of these options based on your risk tolerance. If you’re not sure what your investment mix should look like, you can use our asset allocation calculator tool to see how different combinations may break down for different risk levels. 

But if you’ve been saving for a while and your beneficiary is getting close to the college years, you may find it suitable to invest in a guaranteed portfolio. These options aim to preserve your investment, provide stable growth and minimize risk. Under this option, you can currently invest in a funding agreement TIAA-CREF Life has issued to the Board as the policyholder on behalf of the 529 plan. 

But keep in mind that investment options are subject to change. It’s important to review your investment options periodically. Also, give your college savings strategy a year-end check-up

How Do I Withdraw Money from the ScholarShare 529 Plan?

You can request a 529 plan withdrawal by visiting your account online or by calling 800-544-5248 on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. (PST). It's also possible to download a withdrawal request form and mail it in. The payment can be made to you, your beneficiary or the school you’re funding. However, you’re limited to a maximum withdrawal of $35,000 per day when requesting one online or through the phone. 

You can elect to issue payments via check or electronically transfer them if you’ve kept banking information on file with the plan for at least 30 days. Your child can use these savings in conjunction with financial aid and scholarships. But remember that it’s always best to use 529 plan money on qualified higher education expenses at eligible institutions. You can use your funds at a vast array of institutions, virtually any accredited school that accepts financial aid from the U.S. Department of Education. That includes vocational schools, technical schools and four-year universities as well as some foreign institutions. 

Of course, you’re not limited to California’s direct 529 plan. Any U.S. citizen can open a 529 college savings account that another state sponsors if he or she finds others more appealing. Overall, ScholarShare shines for its low fees and robust investment menu. But if you’re hesitant to invest in the plan on your own, you can use our SmartAsset Advisor matching tool. It asks you a few simple questions in order to connect you to qualified financial advisors in your area who can meet your financial needs and preferences. 

Check Out Other 529 Plans

You do not have to live in California to invest in its 529 plan. Take a look at these other states' 529 plans.

New York 529 Plans Virginia 529 Plans Maryland 529 Plans Utah 529 Plans
Massachusetts 529 Plans Oregon 529 Plans Minnesota 529 Plans Alabama 529 Plans