May 29 is National 529 College Savings Plan Day, named for an Internal Revenue Code section (yes, it’s Section 529) that was adopted in 1996. 529s are intended to help families save for college with the help of tax advantages.
I suggest thinking of 529s as having two phases: the saving phase and the spending phase.
The saving part is relatively easy. There are limits on how much money can be put into a 529 plan, which you can read about here: tinyurl.com/y9jhrsp3.
Most 529 plans are organized by states. You can look up your state’s plan here: tinyurl.com/yb4lsr7u. This list is provided by the College Savings Plan Network, which was formed in 1991 as an affiliate to the National Association of State Treasurers.
For example, South Carolina’s plan is called FutureScholar.com. South Carolina residents can claim a tax deduction on their state tax returns for contributions to a South Carolina 529. In fact, the majority of states have similar provisions. For a list, go to tinyurl.com/y8wwrdxg.
However, there are limits on who can claim the tax deduction. Check your state: Is it the owner of the 529 account who can claim the deduction or the person who funded the account?
Earnings are income-tax-free on the state and federal level, but only as long as withdrawals are used for qualified education expenses, or QEEs.
That brings me to the more difficult aspect of 529 plans: What happens when the student you have been saving for needs the money to pay bills? That’s the QEE part of the equation.
If you use the money for purposes other than QEE expenses, you not only lose tax advantages, but also might need to pay a 10% penalty. There are gift- and estate-tax issues to be considered as well. The bottom line? Study QEEs.
Since Jan. 1, 2018, 529s are not limited to post-secondary costs. QEEs now include up to $10,000 of K-12 tuition.
When it comes to spending 529 funds, there are specific rules and regulations related to it. You can find information here: tinyurl.com/y9rgtcfk.
The upshot is that 529s can be very valuable in the right circumstances, but they take some effort to understand before leaping forward. My recommendation: Set aside some time to do your research.
Here is a list of resources: An independent firm called savingforcollege.com has an easy-to-use website. Begin with “What is a 529 plan?” which you will find under “College Savings 101.”
You’ll want to visit the regulators’ websites as well:
Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) website — tinyurl.com/ydye9wm5
Internal Revenue Service’s Publication 970 (Tax Benefits for Higher Education) — tinyurl.com/lnmb4q4
The Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board’s education center website — tinyurl.com/ydxugjvj
The Securities and Exchange Commission — tinyurl.com/yd8zqejy
It helps to have a “529 Day” place an emphasis on saving for education. A related topic is student loans; send me an email at email@example.com if you have any interest in that topic.
Finally, there should be a “How to Go to College for Free” Day. This happens to be the title of another resource that is worth reading at savingforcollege.com/article/how-to-go-to-college-for-free.