529 Plans: A Complete Guide to Funding Future Education

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Do you have kids? Are there children in your life? Were you once a child? If you plan on helping pay for a child’s future education, then you’ll benefit from this complete guide to 529 plans. We’ll cover every detail of 529 plans, from the what/when/why basics to the more complex tax implications and investing ideas.

This article was 100% inspired by my Patrons. Between Jack, Nathan, Remi, other kiddos in my life (and a few buns in the oven), there are a lot of young Best Interest readers out there. And one day, they’ll probably have some education expenses. That’s why their parents asked me to write about 529 plans this week.

What is a 529 Plan?

The 529 college savings plan is a tax-advantaged investment account meant specifically for education expenses. As of the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (in 2017), 529 plans can be used for college costs, K-12 public school costs, or private and/or religious school tuition. If you will ever need to pay for your children’s education, then 529 plans are for you.

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529 plans are named in a similar fashion as the famous 401(k). That is, the name comes from the specific U.S. tax code where the plan was written into law. It’s in Section 529 of Internal Revenue Code 26. Wow—that’s boring!

But it turns out that 529 plans are strange amalgam of federal rules and state rules. Let’s start breaking that down.

Tax Advantages

Taxes are important! 529 college savings plans provide tax advantages in a manner similar to Roth accounts (i.e. different than traditional 401(k) accounts). In a 529 plan, you pay all your normal taxes today. Your contributions to the 529 plan, therefore, are made with after-tax dollars.

Any investment you make within your 529 plan is then allowed to grow tax-free. Future withdrawals—used for qualified education expenses—are also tax-free. Pay now, save later.

But wait! Those are just the federal income tax benefits. Many individual states offer state tax benefits to people participating in 529 plans. As of this writing, 34 states and Washington D.C. offer these benefits. Of the 16 states not participating, nine of those don’t have any state income tax. The seven remaining states—California, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, New Jersey, and North Carolina—all have state income taxes, yet do not offer income tax benefits to their 529 plan participants. Boo!

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This makes 529 plans an oddity. There’s a Federal-level tax advantage that applies to everyone. And then there might be a state-level tax advantage depending on which state you use to setup your plan.

Two Types of 529 Plans

The most common 529 plan is the college savings program. The less common 529 is the prepaid tuition program.

The savings program can be thought of as a parallel to common retirement investing accounts. A person can put money into their 529 plan today. They can invest that money in a few different ways (details further in the article). At a later date, they can then use the full value of their account at any eligible institution—in state or out of state. The value of their 529 plan will be dependent on their investing choices and how those investments perform.

The prepaid program is a little different. This plan is only offered by certain states (currently only 10 are accepting new applicants) and even by some individual colleges/universities. The prepaid program permits citizens to buy tuition credits at today’s tuition rates. Those credits can then be used in the future at in-state universities. However, using these credits outside of the state they were bought in can result in not getting full value.

You don’t choose investments in the prepaid program. You just buy credit’s today that can be redeemed in the future.

The savings program is universal, flexible, and grows based on your investments.

The prepaid program is not offered everywhere, works best at in-state universities, and grows based on how quickly tuition is changing (i.e. the difference between today’s tuition rate and the future tuition rate when you use the credit.)

Example: a prepaid credit would have cost ~$13,000 for one year of tuition in 2000. That credit would have been worth ~$24,000 of value if used in 2018. (Source)

What are “Qualified Education Expenses?”

You can only spend your 529 plan dollars on “qualified education expenses.” Turns out, just about anything associated with education costs can be paid for using 529 plan funds. Qualified education expenses include:

  • Tuition
  • Fees
  • Books
  • Supplies
  • Room and board (as long as the beneficiary attends school at least half-time). Off-campus housing is even covered, as long as it’s less than on-campus housing.

Student loans and student loan interest were added to this list in 2019, but there’s a lifetime limit of $10,000 per person.

How Do You “Invest” Your 529 Plan Funds?

529 savings plans do more than save. Their real power is as a college investment plan. So, how can you “invest” this tax-advantaged money?

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There’s a two-part answer to how your 529 plan funds are invested. The first part is that only savings plans can be invested, not prepaid plans. The second part is that it depends on what state you’re in.

For example, let’s look at my state: New York. It offers both age-based options and individual portfolios.

The age-based option places your 529 plan on one of three tracks: aggressive, moderate, or conservative. As your child ages, the portfolio will automatically re-balance based on the track you’ve chosen.

The aggressive option will hold more stocks for longer into your child’s life—higher risk, higher rewards. The conservative option will skew towards bonds and short-term reserves. In all cases, the goal is to provide some level of growth in early years, and some level of stability in later years.

The individual portfolios are similar to the age-based option, but do not automatically re-balance. There are aggressive and conservative and middle-ground choices. Thankfully, you can move funds from one portfolio to another up to twice per year. This allowed rebalancing is how you can achieve the correct risk posture.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Using a 529 Plan

The advantages of using the 529 as a college investing plan are clear. First, there’s the tax-advantaged nature of it, likely saving you tens of thousands of dollars. Another benefit is the aforementioned ease of investing using a low-maintenance, age-based investing accounts. Most states offer them.

Other advantages include the high maximum contribution limit (ranging by state, from a low of $235K to a high of $529K), the reasonable financial aid treatment, and, of course, the flexibility.

If your child doesn’t end up using their 529 plan, you can transfer it to another relative. If you don’t like your state’s 529 offering, you can open an account in a different state. You can even use your 529 plan to pay for primary education at a private school or a religious school.

But the 529 plan isn’t perfect. There are disadvantages too.

For example, the prepaid 529 plan involves a considerable up-front cost—in the realm of $100,000 over four years. That’s a lot of money. Also, your proactive saving today ends up affecting your child’s financial aid package in the future. It feels a bit like a punishment for being responsible. That ain’t right!

Of course, a 529 plan is not a normal investing account. If you don’t use the money for educational purposes, you will face a penalty. And if you want to hand-pick your 529 investments? Well, you can’t do that. Similar to many 401(k) programs, your state’s 529 program probably only offers a few different fund choices.

529 Plan FAQ

Here are some of the most common questions about 529 education savings plans. And I even provide answers!

How do I open a 529 plan?

Virtually all states now have online portals that allow you to open 529 plans from the comfort of your home. A few online forms and email messages is all it takes.

Can I contribute to someone else’s 529?

You sure can! If you have a niece or nephew or grandchild or simply a friend, you can make a third-party contribution to their 529 plan. You don’t have to be their parent, their relative, or the person who opened the account.

Investing in someone else’s knowledge is a terrific gift.

Does a 529 plan affect financial aid?

Short answer: yes, but it’s better than how many other assets affect financial aid.

Longer answer: yes, having a 529 plan will likely reduce the amount of financial aid a student receives. The first $10,000 in a 529 plan is not part of the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) equation. It’s not “counted against you.” After that $10,000, remaining 529 plan funds are counted in the EFC equation, but cap at 5.46% of the parental assets (many other assets are capped higher, e.g. at 20%).

Similarly, 529 plan distributions are not included in the “base year income” calculations in the FAFSA application. This is another benefit in terms of financial aid.

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Finally, 529 plan funds owned by non-parents (e.g. grandparents) are not part of the FAFSA EFC equation. This is great! The downside occurs when the non-parent actually withdraws the funds on behalf of the student. At that time, 50% of those funds count as “student income,” thus lowering the student’s eligibility for aid.

Are there contribution limits?

Kinda sorta. It’s a little complicated.

There is no official annual contribution limit into a 529 plan. But, you should know that 529 contributions are considered “completed gifts” in federal tax law, and that those gifts are capped at $15,000 per year in 2020 and 2021.

After $15,000 of contributions in one year, the remainder must be reported to the IRS against the taxpayer’s (not the student’s) lifetime estate and gift tax exemption.

Additionally, each state has the option of limiting the total 529 plan balances for a particular beneficiary. My state (NY) caps this limit at $520,000. That’s easily high enough to pay for 4 years of college at current prices.

Another state-based limit involves how much income tax savings a contributor can claim per year. In New York, for example, only the first $5,000 (or $10,000 if a married couple) are eligible for income tax savings.

Can I use my state’s 529 plan in another state? Do I need to create 529 plans in multiple states?

Yes, you can use your state’s 529 plan in another state. And mostly likely no, you do not need to create 529 plans in multiple states.

First, I recommend scrolling up to the savings program vs. prepaid program description. Savings programs are universal and transferrable. My 529 savings plan could pay for tuition in any other state, and even some other countries.

But prepaid tuition accounts typically have limitations in how they transfer. Prepaid accounts typically apply in full to in-state, state-sponsored schools. They might not apply in full to out-of-state and/or private schools.

What if my kid is Lebron James and doesn’t go to college? Can I get my money back?

It’s a great question. And the answer is yes, there are multiple ways to recoup your money if the beneficiary doesn’t end up using it for education savings.

First, you can avoid all penalties by changing the beneficiary of the funds. You can switch to another qualifying family member. Instead of paying for Lebron’s college, you can switch those funds to his siblings, to a future grandchild, or even to yourself (if you wanted to go back to school).

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What if you just want you money back? The contributions that you initially made come back to you tax-free and penalty-free. After all, you already paid taxes on those. Any earnings you’ve made on those contributions are subject to normal income tax, and then a 10% federal penalty tax.

The 10% penalty is waived in certain situations, such as the beneficiary receiving a tax-free scholarship or attending a U.S. military academy.

And remember those state income tax breaks we discussed earlier? Those tax breaks might get recaptured (oh no!) if you end up taking non-qualified distributions from your 529 plan.

Long story short: try to the keep the funds in a 529 plan, especially is someone in your family might benefit from them someday. Otherwise, you’ll pay some taxes and penalties.

Graduation

It’s time to don my robe and give a speech. Keep on learning, you readers, for:

An investment in knowledge pays the best interest

-Ben Franklin

Oh snap! Yes, that is how the blog got its name. Giving others the gift of education is a wonderful thing, and 529 plans are one way the U.S. government allows you to do so.

If you enjoyed this article and want to read more, I’d suggest checking out my Archive or Subscribing to get future articles emailed to your inbox.

This article—just like every other—is supported by readers like you.

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Source: bestinterest.blog

Mint Money Audit: Making the Most of a Side Hustle

This week’s Mint audit introduces us to Selena, 48, a mom of two living in San Antonio, Texas. She is a community college director and her husband, 51, is a full-time graphic designer who also manages a booming side hustle in the same industry.

Selena and her husband have already achieved some impressive financial accomplishments, thanks to tracking their finances on Mint, leveraging coupons and shopping at thrift stores. They’ve paid off $52,000 in student loans and invested in a piece of land next door for $26,000, which they believe has appreciated by nearly 40% since purchasing it a few years ago.

But with retirement looming and two children (currently ages 9 and 12) to possibly put through college, Selena wants to learn about additional money moves that could better prepare them for future expenses. She would also love to pay off the family’s 30-year mortgage before she retires in the next 10 to 12 years. Currently they’re on track to pay it down by 2030.

First, a breakdown of their finances:

NET INCOME

  • Hers: $56,000
  • His: $40,000 plus an additional $40,000 in freelance work
  • Total: $136,000 per year

DEBT

  • Just paid off student loans and a property loan (for the lot next door)
  • Credit Card Debt: $0
  • Mortgage: $163,000 (Monthly payment, including real estate tax, is $1,985)
  • Car note: $5,300 (should be paid off within the year)

RETIREMENT SAVINGS

  • Selena’s teacher pension: Roughly $5,000 per month at retirement if she retires in 12 years ($3,800 if she retires in 6 years).
  • Various IRAs between the two of them: $65,000
  • Estimated social security payments: $2,500 to $3,000 (combined)
  • Husband does not have a 401(k)

RAINY DAY SAVINGS

In an emergency, the family has at least six months of expenses saved up or roughly $35,000.

COLLEGE SAVINGS

Selena and her husband haven’t specifically saved for their children’s college education. They’re concerned that a 529-college savings plan might limit their children’s options, if they didn’t choose to attend a traditional college program.

Recommendations

Leverage the Side Hustle

All in all, I think the family’s finances are in solid shape. But if they’re interested in further securing their future, I would suggest investing the annual side hustle income (which currently sits in a bank account earning no interest) to advance retirement savings and carve out an account for their two children.

Starting that side hustle was a very smart money move because it effectively boosted the family’s net income by 40%. And according to Selena, the business, which they operate out of their living room, is only growing, with profits expected to grow another 30% in the future.

Income from side hustles is how I managed to pay off debt in my 20’s and boost savings. Today, it’s more prevalent among working Americans. More than 44 million Americans have a side revenue stream, according to a recent survey by Bankrate. “Having a side hustle is fiscally responsible,” says Susie Moore, founder of the program Side Hustle Made Simple and the new book, “What If It Does Work Out: How a Side Hustle Can Change Your Life.” “It’s an economic hedge that mitigates disruption to wealth building and future planning. There is no such thing as a fixed income,” she says.

So, let’s do some math and see how far this $40,000 per year side revenue stream can go using a compound interest calculator.

Retirement

The couple’s retirement nest egg is not too shabby. Not including their existing IRAs, the couple has about $8,000 a month coming to them in retirement between social security and Selena’s pension. That amount, alone, basically replaces their current full-time income. (And I do recommend Selena wait 12 years before retiring so that she can take advantage of the maximum pension payment.)

But with all the uncertainty around social security and future health care costs, it can’t hurt to save a little more, right? By placing $6,500 in a Roth IRA each year for the next, say, 15 years (Selena’s husband can qualify for the catch-up contribution since he is 5- years old), they’ll have an additional $142,000 for retirement that won’t be subject to taxes. This assumes an average annual return of 4%. They can open a Roth IRA at any bank.

Future Savings for Children

While a 529 plan may not be the best fit for this family, Selena still would like to carve out savings for her kids’ future endeavors, be it to start a business or attend an alternative school. For this, I’d recommend opening a 5-year certificate of deposit or CD and placing $25,000 in it this year. The going yield right now for a 5-year CD at that deposit level is averaging a little more than 2%.

Then, every year, as income rolls in from the side hustle, create a new 5-year CD and deposit $25,000 in it. Do this for the next four or five years. All CDs will have matured by the time her youngest is starting college (or pursuing something else). And they’ll have at least $100,000 plus interest reserved for their kids. If they do choose to go to college, the family’s prepared to help pay for in-state tuition at one of the fine Texas universities.

Mortgage Payoff

After funding the Roth IRA each year ($6,500) and the annual CD contribution ($25,000), the family’s left with $8,500. They could choose to put this toward the mortgage principal to knock a few years off their payoff schedule. Or, they may want to just hold onto it for that annual family vacation. And if I’m being honest, I’d say, go for the vacation! They deserve it!

The post Mint Money Audit: Making the Most of a Side Hustle appeared first on MintLife Blog.

Source: mint.intuit.com