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Saving for College, Part I: 529 Plans

March 5, 2009

by Emily

Paying for college can be a struggle.  Nobody wants to repay student loans forever, not everybody is going to land a full-tuition scholarship, and federal student financial aid seldom takes care of all college costs.  If you're a parent or relative looking ahead to cover college costs for a child, finding scholarships is a great step now, but you may also want to consider college savings plans.

Read below for information on 529 savings plans, which are one of the most popular and diverse options for college savings.  If this is not for you, check back tomorrow for more information on other savings options.

529 Savings Plans While 529 plans have sustained average losses of 21 percent in the last year, they can still be a good idea, especially if you choose your plan carefully and have plenty of time to save.  Many 529 plans allow you to move your savings into a much more conservative portfolio when the student nears college, an option they're sure to publicize based on the recent behavior of the stock market.  While there are limits on how many changes can be made to a 529 plan per year, the plans are otherwise quite flexible and varied, so it's easy to find one that works for your situation. Plus, 529 plans can be taken out in the parent's name, rather than the student's, so they will only minimally affect a student's financial aid eligibility.

Additionally, contribution limits are high, income limits are nonexistent, minimum contribution requirements tend to be low, and many states offer a variety of incentives for residents who contribute to their plans.  As an added bonus, many 529 plans can accept contributions from anybody anywhere, not just the people named on the account, and several programs have been created to take advantage of this.  For example, some plans allow a portion of credit card purchases or purchases at certain stores to go towards a particular student's 529 plan.

Prepaid Tuition Savings Plans If you're hesitant about sticking money for college in the stock market with uncertain returns, another type of 529 plan is also gaining popularity.  Prepaid tuition plans allow families to contribute a fixed amount now in exchange for a certain portion of tuition being covered in the future.  Many states do this for their state colleges and universities, and the Independent 529 plan, which is accepted by over 200 private colleges, also fixes contributions to portions of future tuition.  Both of these varieties eliminate worries about tuition inflation, though if tuition actually goes down between now and when the student starts college, a prepaid plan might not be the most lucrative option.

The Down Side 529 plans do have drawbacks and limitations.  Money must be spent on education, and the expenses that qualify are limited to undergraduate tuition, fees, educational expenses like books, and now computers. However, if the student is enrolled at least half-time, money from a 529 plan can also go towards room and board, so even if your student earns a full-tuition scholarship, it's possible to still take advantage of 529 savings.  Money must stay in a plan for at least 3 years, so if you're saving for a college sophomore, you're out of luck with these.  However, you can transfer the unused portion of a 529 plan to another family member without incurring the heavy withdrawal penalties, and it may also be possible to use the funds towards graduate or professional school.

Plans also vary from state to state, so your state's plan might not have the best benefits for you, or might not offer as sweet a deal in terms of tax breaks or low fees as the next state over offers its residents.  Luckily, you can shop around among a variety of plans, including ones offered by several other states.

529 plans are not the only college saving option, though they remain the most popular and perhaps the most well-known.  Check back tomorrow for information on the rest of the pack.


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