Saturday, September 15, 2012

How to Save for Your Child's Education - 529 Plans vs. Coverdell ESAs

Hello everyone.
I'm sure a lot of us are acutely aware of the growing student loan debt crisis in this country. According to the Wall Street Journal, student loan debt topped $1 trillion last year. Such being the case, not only is it much more important nowadays that students make wise choices about where to attend college, but it's also more important that parents do as much they can to give their children a leg up financially by saving for the child's educational expenses when she (the child) is young.

According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees in 2011 for a private college was $28,500, and this doesn't even include room and board. At private universities like my alma mater, Duke University, the total cost of the college experience is $56,056 per year! But don't let this number scare you. When it comes to saving for college, there are a number of options that you have available to you.

529 SAVINGS PLAN - PREPAID TUITION PROGRAM

A 529 Savings Plan comes in 2 flavors - the prepaid tuition program and the college savings plan. A 529 plan is an investment vehicle, akin to a Roth or traditional IRA, which allows you to set aside funds to invest, and which are never taxed, in order to pay for a beneficiary's (student's) college expenses. Once a 529 Plan is opened, it is managed (the assets within it are invested) by a trustee. Depending on who you open the plan with, you can sometimes also choose how the money is invested. And fortunately, its existence does not affect the beneficiary's (student's) eligibility for financial aid. Moreover, contributions to a prepaid tuition program decrease a donor's state income tax liability.

The prepaid tuition program allows the people who contribute to the student's 529 plan to lock in tuition rates where they are right now, regardless of how much higher they are at a later date, at a predetermined university/college or from a list of predetermined colleges. With a prepaid tuition plan, you can prepay all of a child's tuition if you happen to come into a windfall. However, because  prepaid tuition programs vary from state to state, availability of prepaid tuition 529s might be limited to residents of the state where the college is located.

Lastly, if the beneficiary of the prepaid tuition program 529 was to die, the amount in the plan can be transferred to any of the following qualifying relatives: spouse, child (includes foster and stepchildren), father, mother, brother, sister (includes all step-siblings), and a first cousin.

529 SAVINGS PLAN - COLLEGE SAVINGS PLAN

The college savings plan version of the 529 Savings Plan is very similar to the prepaid tuition version, but it is infinitely more flexible. It has all of the perks of the prepaid tuition program such as transferability and tax deductibility, but you can use it for any university. Also, you are not locking in tuition prices with this plan. You are just saving/contributing a specific amount of money that is to be invested and will cover the beneficiary's qualified educational expenses. The lifetime contribution limits in each state tend to rise with the cost of college, so many states have current contribution limits upwards of $300,000.

It should be noted however that the government does not permit you to use the assets in the plan for anything besides educational expenses, so it is important not to overfund this type of plan. And be sure to coordinate with grandparents and relatives who may want to contribute to the plan. Doing so prevents overfunding of the plan.

Lastly, this type of plan, as I mentioned before, is the most flexible plan. You should use it if you want your child to be able to choose his own college and want the ability to allow the child to use the funds when she desires. There is no age or time limit by which the beneficiary must use the assets in the plan. Unfortunately, the prepaid tuition program does have certain age limit and time for use restrictions and these vary by state.

Here's a quick summary of the major differences between the two types of 529 Plans before we jump to Coverdell Educational Savings Accounts.


COVERDELL EDUCATIONAL SAVINGS ACCOUNTS

Coverdell ESAs are also tax free educational saving investment vehicles. However, in contrast to 529 Plans, Coverdell ESAs can be used to fund elementary and secondary school expenses if you would like to send your children to expensive private schools when they are young.

These types of plans, in my opinion, should rarely if ever be used though because even though the maximum contribution to the account was $2,000 per year per child for the past ten years, it is scheduled to be reduced to $500 per year per child at the end of this year. Moreover, Coverdell ESAs require that the balance in the plan be used for educational expenses by the beneficiary's 30th birthday, or else the plan will be hit with taxes and penalties. As you can see, a 529 Plan is way more preferable than using a Coverdell ESA. And if you want to save money for your child's K through 12 school expenses, you'd be better off investing as much as you possibly can in an individual investment account and bearing the tax burden rather than being hamstrung by a $500 maximum contribution limit per year per child.

I hope this post was informative. If you'd like to begin planning for your child's future, you can do so by clicking here or here.  Until next time...


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