Why Aren’t 529 Educational Savings Plans More Popular?

Why aren't 529 educational savings plans more popular?
How do you plan to fund your children’s education? You’re probably counting on scholarships and grants, right?

Reliance on scholarships and grants is the highest in a decade, while college savings is on the decline, according to a new report from Sallie Mae.

Savings covers less than one quarter of collegiate funding for the typical family. As a result, one of the strongest educational savings programs – 529 plans – is being underutilized.

Low Utilization

Only 13 percent of families used a 529 plan during the 2016-17 school year.

That’s the lowest number in the past five years and down significantly from the 17 percent peak in the 2013-2014 school year.

Parents may be having difficulty saving enough to use these programs – but it’s possible that parents don’t see the overall advantages of a 529 program or don’t fully understand how it works.

Like Educational Roth IRAs

Most 529 programs are run by states and act as a sort of educational Roth IRA. You may open an account in any state.

Withdrawals from state-run 529 programs do not have to be used within that state – you can live in one state, have a 529 program in another state, and fund a college education in a third. (One 529 variation is college-specific – used to prepay tuition at a particular university.)

And 529 plans are funded with post-tax dollars. Earnings grow free of federal taxes, and withdrawals are tax-free as long as they are used to pay for qualified educational expenses, including at many vocational and technical schools.

Unique Flexibility

You can start a 529 plan regardless of your income, and anyone is welcome to contribute to the plan.

And 529s offer unique flexibility. You can transfer the account to a different sibling if the intended recipient earns a full ride or chooses not to attend college at all.

You can transfer it to a different relative, a friend, or even use it yourself if you decide to further your education.

Help with Financial Aid

If you’re planning on seeking financial aid, 529 plans might actually help. When you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you disclose both parental and student assets.

The assets in custodial savings accounts reduce a student’s aid package by 20 percent of the account’s value.

As a parental asset, 529s reduce aid packages by 5.64 percent at most — which nonetheless might be a factor in the low usage of these types of accounts.

If the 529 owner is a grandparent or other relative, the account is not reported on the FAFSA at all.

Emergency Withdrawals

In case of emergency, you can withdraw funds for non-educational purposes – but you’ll pay tax on any earnings and a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty.

Thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, 529 funds may be used for qualified K-12 educational expenses as well.

The best way to enjoy the tax benefits on a 529 plan is to start it as early as possible, since it appreciates in value tax free.

Time Your Withdrawals

The earlier you withdraw, the lower your tax-free earnings. However, you may be able to save on state taxes by drawing school tuition from a 529 program instead of paying tuition directly.

Sold on the idea? Don’t automatically stick with your state program, as terms, limits, and investment options vary by state. Compare 529 programs to find the best terms for your situation.

Don’t Overlook 529 Plans

A 529 savings plan can play a valuable role in your educational savings strategy, offering you an excellent combination of tax advantages and flexibility.

Consider a 529 as you map out your children’s educational funding options. Don’t let a lack of funds limit your children’s college choices – or keep them from attending college at all.

This article was provided by our partners at moneytips.com. Photo ©iStockphoto.com/designer491

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