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What Are the Tax Benefits of 529 Plans?


When planning for your child’s future education, a 529 plan offers several tax advantages. Contributions to a 529 plan grow tax-free, meaning any investment earnings are not subject to federal tax as long as they are used for qualified education expenses. Additionally, many states offer tax deductions or credits for contributions to a 529 plan, providing immediate tax savings on your state return. Using a 529 plan can help you reduce your taxable income while ensuring that your savings grow efficiently.

Do you need help managing your investments and 529 plans? Speak with a financial advisor today.

What Is a 529 Plan?

Named after Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code, 529 plans are legally known as “qualified tuition plans” and are sponsored by states, state agencies or educational institutions. The primary benefit of a 529 plan is its tax advantages, which can significantly aid families in managing the high costs of education.

529 plans are available in two forms: prepaid tuition plans and education savings plans. Prepaid tuition plans allow the account holder to purchase units or credits at participating colleges and universities, usually at current prices, for future tuition and mandatory fees. Education savings plans, on the other hand, are investment accounts that can be used for a wide range of education expenses, including tuition, fees, room and board, and supplies. These plans are offered by states and educational institutions, and you can typically enroll directly through their websites.

Anyone can open and contribute to a 529 plan, regardless of income level. There are no income restrictions, making these plans accessible to all families. The account holder, often a parent or grandparent, retains control over the funds and can change the beneficiary to another qualifying family member if needed.

Contribution limits for 529 plans vary by state, but they are generally high, often exceeding $300,000 per beneficiary. There are no annual contribution limits, but contributions are subject to gift tax rules. In 2024, individuals can contribute up to $18,000 per year without incurring gift taxes. Some states offer tax deductions or credits for contributions to their 529 plans, providing additional incentives to save. Check your state’s specific rules and benefits to maximize the tax advantages of your 529 plan.

Tax Benefits for 529 Plans

The earnings in a 529 plan grow tax-deferred, meaning that you don’t pay taxes on the account’s earnings each year. This tax-deferred growth allows the investment to compound more effectively over time. When the funds are withdrawn for qualified education expenses, such as tuition, fees, books and room and board, the earnings are federally tax-free. This feature can result in substantial savings when compared with a standard taxable investment account.

Many states offer tax deductions or credits for contributions made to a 529 plan. For example, in states like New York and Michigan, residents can deduct up to $5,000 in contributions annually from their state taxable income. This incentive encourages consistent contributions, allowing the savings to grow over time. It’s important to check the specific benefits available in your state, as they can vary significantly.

Using a 529 plan for qualified education expenses maximizes its tax benefits. These expenses include not only tuition but also other necessary costs associated with college education, such as textbooks, supplies and even certain room and board costs. By covering these expenses with tax-free withdrawals, families can reduce the overall cost of higher education.

Drawbacks to Consider Before Setting Up a 529 Plan

A father researching the rules for setting up a 529 plan in his state.

While the benefits of 529 plans are considerable, there are also some drawbacks to consider. One of the main consequences is that if the funds are not used for qualified education expenses, the earnings portion of the withdrawal will be subject to federal income tax and a 10% penalty. If the beneficiary decides not to pursue higher education, or if there are excess funds in the account, those penalties can take a significant cut from the account’s earnings.

Another potential drawback is the limited range of investment options within a 529 plan. Unlike other investment accounts that offer a broad selection of stocks, bonds and mutual funds, 529 plans typically have a more restricted set of investment choices. This limitation can impact the account’s growth potential, depending on the performance of the selected investments.

It’s also important to consider the impact of a 529 plan on financial aid eligibility. While 529 plans are generally treated favorably in the financial aid formula, they are still considered the account owner’s asset. This can affect the expected family contribution (EFC) and, consequently, the amount of financial aid the student may receive.

Costs Associated With 529 Plans

One of the primary costs associated with 529 plans is the investment fees. These can include expense ratios for mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that the plan invests in. Expense ratios typically range from 0.1% to 1% of the investment annually, and these fees cover the cost of managing the investment fund.

In addition to investment fees, 529 plans often have management fees. These fees are charged by the financial institution or state agency managing the plan and can vary widely. Some plans charge a flat annual fee, while others may charge a percentage of your account balance. These fees are used to cover the administrative costs of maintaining the plan and providing customer service.

Some 529 plans charge one-time enrollment fees when you first set up the account. These fees are generally nominal, ranging from $10 to $50. Additionally, there may be annual maintenance fees, which can also vary within a similar range.

Apart from the direct fees charged by the plan, the underlying funds in which the plan invests may also have their own fees. These can include sales loads, which are commissions paid to brokers or financial advisors when they buy or sell investments on your behalf.

Alternatives to 529 Plans

When planning for future education expenses, many parents consider the popular 529 plan due to the previously mentioned tax advantages. However, other options can also provide substantial benefits depending on your financial situation and goals.

  • Roth IRAs: Roth IRAs are well-known retirement savings vehicles, but they can also be used for educational expenses. Contributions grow tax-free, and withdrawals for qualified education costs are penalty-free. This flexibility makes Roth IRAs a valuable alternative to 529 plans, especially if you are uncertain whether your child will attend college.
  • Coverdell ESAs: Coverdell ESAs allow for tax-free growth and withdrawals for qualified education expenses, similar to 529 plans. However, they offer more investment options and can be used for K-12 expenses as well. Despite lower contribution limits compared to 529 plans, Coverdell ESAs provide a versatile option for parents seeking broader educational expense coverage.
  • Series EE and I Savings Bonds: You can also save for college and educational expenses by investing in Series EE and I Savings Bonds. Using your earnings to pay for qualified educational expenses is one way to avoid paying taxes on your savings bonds.This method can be particularly appealing for risk-averse savers, as U.S. Savings Bonds are backed by the federal government.
  • UGMA and UTMA accounts: Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA) and Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) accounts allow you to transfer assets to a minor without establishing a trust. While these accounts do not offer the same tax benefits as 529 plans, they provide flexibility in how the funds can be used, which can be advantageous if your child decides not to pursue higher education.

Bottom Line

A woman calculating her college expenses.

If you’re considering using a 529 plan to save for educational expenses, understanding the tax benefits is essential. These can allow your investment to grow tax-free when used for qualified educational costs. Many states offer additional tax benefits, such as deductions or credits for contributions.

Tips for Getting 529 Plan Tax Benefits

  • Investing in a 529 plan can be an efficient way to save for educational expenses while providing additional tax benefits. If you want support figuring out how a 529 plan fits into your overall financial strategy, a financial advisor can help. Smart Asset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • Deciding to invest in a 529 is a great first step, but next, you have to choose a plan. If you’re stuck trying to decide, take a look at this list of some of the best 529 plans.

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