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529 Plan vs. Roth IRA

Higher education is pricier than ever, and tuition hikes don’t show any sign of slowing down. But 529 college savings plans and Roth IRAs both include benefits to help you save for your children’s education. Investors use 529 plans specifically for the purpose of paying for college. By contrast, Roth IRAs provide the chance to save for both retirement and college in a single account. Decision which one to utilize is a complicated decision that can have long-term financial ramifications, so feel free to consult a financial advisor if you have further questions.

What Is a 529 Plan?

If you’re looking to save for your child’s future education, a 529 college savings plan is one of the best choices available. Each state, except Wyoming, offers its own 529 plan or multiple plans, as does Washington, D.C. But you can select any 529 plan in the country, no matter which state you live in. 529s include the ability to avoid federal income taxes and the majority of state income taxes on any qualified withdrawals. However, the only way to maintain this perk is to use the funds for qualified higher-education expenses or tuition for elementary and secondary schools. Should you spend the money elsewhere, though, you’ll have to pay all federal and state taxes in addition to a 10% federal tax surcharge.

There are two main forms of 529 plans: education savings plans and prepaid tuition plans. College savings plans allow account holders to save for the qualified education expenses and fees of their beneficiary through an investment portfolio. On the other hand, prepaid tuition plans are much more focused. Those who select these plans will pre-purchase credits at a university far ahead of time.

529 plans also come with many restrictions. Education savings plans are paired with specifically chosen investments, giving 529 plan account holders much less overall flexibility. Until your beneficiary attends school, a 529 plan will essentially lock your money in place. Furthermore, you must use the funds of a prepaid tuition plan at a participating school, or you run the risk of receiving a much smaller return on your account.

Government-based financial aid is one of the premier sources of funding for many college students. Unfortunately, though, if you or your beneficiary has a 529 plan of any kind, you may be eligible for much less in financial aid. This is because the government assumes that the money you’ve saved will likely cover a solid portion of the tuition and related costs.

What Is a Roth IRA?

529 Plan vs. Roth IRA

A Roth individual retirement account (IRA) is a common retirement savings vehicle that account holders must fund with post-tax money. This mean that if you choose a Roth IRA, you won’t be able to deduct your contributions on your annual return. All earnings and withdrawals are tax-free after your reach 59.5 years old. But Roth IRAs also are a versatile tool when it comes to paying tuition and other education costs: You can pull from your funds before 59.5 without incurring a penalty if you are using the money on qualified higher-education expenses.

What’s notable about Roth IRAs, though, is that they can help you save for both retirement and higher education simultaneously. This is an especially pertinent benefit for Roth IRA account holders who are 59.5 or older by the time they need to pay for their children or grandchildren’s tuition, room and board and other fees. Once you reach this age, you can withdraw the entirety of your Roth IRA’s balance (earnings and all) tax-free. Of course, Roth IRAs are tailor-made for individuals who believe their future tax rates will be higher than where they currently are.

529 Plan vs. Roth IRA: The Comparison

When it comes to taxes, 529 plans and Roth IRAs actually work in a fairly similar fashion. Each provides the chance to grow balances on a tax-free basis, though some states offer an additional 529 deduction. Anyone can get a 529 plan, regardless of income. Roth IRAs, by contrast, are not open to all. They have individual and joint maximum income stipulations, which for 2019 are $122,000 and $193,000, respectively. In turn, 529 plans have a few tax and eligibility advantages over Roth IRAs.

One area where 529 plans simply cannot match Roth IRAs is versatility. You can use Roth IRA accounts to fund both your retirement and a beneficiary’s education. You may find this especially attractive if you anticipate these educational costs to arise once you’re 59.5 or older. As soon as you reach this crucial age, you can withdraw the entirety or your account’s balance without tax implications. And for younger parents, too, Roth IRA withdrawals are penalty-free if you use the money on qualifying education expenses.

Ultimately, 529 plans exist for the sole purpose of helping families save for the expensive cost of education. The fact that consumers can take advantage of plans in any state affords them ample choice and therefore the chance to receive maximum benefits. But if you want to combine your retirement and education cost savings into a single account, a Roth IRA is your best bet.

How to Open a 529 Plan and a Roth IRA

529 Plan vs. Roth IRA

State governments are typically very flexible in the rules surrounding eligibility for their 529 plans. You can open a plan in any state, regardless of where you call home. Once you choose the 529 plan for you, stop by the state’s website to learn how to start the process.

Roth IRAs call for a bit more ground work than 529 plans, especially at the beginning. Many different financial institutions such as banks, brokerage firms and robo-advisors provide Roth IRAs. Banks will usually offer fixed interest rates that are, like certificates of deposit (CDs), tiered based on your account balance. For those who prefer a more DIY approach, online broker accounts will let you build your own investment portfolio. Lastly, a robo-advisor Roth IRA will select your investments for you based on your personal risk tolerance and other factors.

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Chris Thompson, CEPF® Chris Thompson is a retirement, savings, investing and personal finance expert at SmartAsset. He has reviewed hundreds of financial products and financial advisors in an effort to help people improve their financial lives. Chris is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® (CEPF®) and a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing. He graduated from Montclair State University where he received the Journalism Achievement Award. Chris’ articles have been featured in places like Yahoo! Finance, MSN and Bleacher Report. He lives in New Jersey and is a Mets, Jets and Nets fan.
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