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Give the Gift of Education: College 529 Plans

The holidays are upon us. I’ve always thought Christmas was mostly about the kids. There is nothing better than seeing a little face light up at the decorations or the absolute glee in your child when she receives that one thing she wanted most of all. But all the gifts can get out of hand.

With grandparents and aunts and uncles all giving to your children, your kids could be on overload before breakfast Christmas morning. If your kids’ eyes are glazed over before they’re done opening all their presents, consider a different tactic that can cut down on the volume of gifts and help with your children’s future. Ask your relatives to make a contribution to a College 529 plan instead of buying the usual gifts that may be forgotten in a corner before long.

A College 529 plan is a tax advantaged savings program for post high school educational expenses. Investment earnings grow tax free and withdrawals for educational purposes are tax exempt.

An AARP survey found that 36 percent of grandparents believe it is their job to spoil their grandchildren by buying them lots of stuff, mostly at the holidays. Of grandparents surveyed, 25 percent will spend more than $1,000 in a year on their grandchildren, and 40 percent will spend more than $500.

Those amounts can add up to substantial college savings by the time your children are ready for school. If your children were to receive a total of $500 in gifts each holiday season from their relatives beginning when they are babies, a 529 plan could grow to well over $14,000 by the time they are 18, assuming a 5.0 percent annual return. Smaller amounts also help. Some 529 plans accept deposits on existing accounts as low as $15.

The gift giver benefits as well. Contributions to a 529 plan in 34 states are state tax deductible, and in two thirds of those states, you don’t need to be the owner of the account to get the deduction. In Oregon, for example, a single person can deduct up to $2,300 of their contribution, and a married couple can deduct up to $4,600. If a larger gift is made, the extra over the deductible limit can be deducted in future years.

For the states where you do need to be the owner to get a deduction, the gifter would open their own account and simply name the child as the beneficiary. There is no limit to the number of accounts that can be opened for a single beneficiary.

For the 16 states that don’t offer a 529 plan, an account can be opened in any other state’s plan. While contributions are not deductible, the investment earnings will still grow tax free. There is no obligation to attend school in the state where the account is opened. Savings in 529 plans can be used for educational expenses at a wide variety of schools nationwide.

There are no limits to annual contributions for 529 plans. Gifts greater than $14,000, which is the gift tax exclusion amount, require the filing of a gift tax return. However that does not mean the gift will be taxable. It can remain tax exempt under the lifetime exclusion for estate taxes, currently at $5.49 million per individual for federal tax purposes. The maximum lifetime 529 plan contribution limit is $300,000

If your child doesn’t attend school, the money can continue to grow tax free in case they change their mind later. The money can remain in the plan as long as there is a living beneficiary, and you can change the beneficiary if school isn’t in the cards for the first one.

If the money is not used for educational purposes, you will pay income tax and a 10 percent penalty on the earnings. While that sounds terrible, if you’ve had the money invested for a while, chances are your earnings will have grown, and you will still come out ahead.

Instead of your parents buying gifts that won’t last or will be set aside to gather dust, have them invest in your child’s future. Toys wear out. Clothes are outgrown. Electronics become obsolete in no time. Most kids can only take so much unwrapping on Christmas. A College 529 plan contribution is a gift that will have a lasting impact, and have your child remembering Grandma and Grandpa’s gift all their life.

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529 Plans – A Great Way to Save for Education

There seems to be a lot of confusion regarding 529 plans, the program for college savings. As a result many families don’t take advantage of them. Yet 529 plans are a great way to save for college. They are widely available, provide tax advantages and are more flexible than you may think.

There are 108 unique 529 plans available across the country. At the end of 2016, there was more than $275 billion invested in them. Yet many families aren’t taking advantage of the benefits this savings option offers. Only about 2.5 percent of families owned 529 accounts at the end of 2013, according to the Federal Reserve.

A 529 plan is a tax advantaged way to save for college. Regardless of whether your state offers one, you can save for college in a 529 plan, and all the earnings on your investments accumulate tax free. Qualified distributions are also tax free. The tax savings on the earnings alone are worth a lot.

Suppose you save $100 per month starting when your child is born until she goes off to college. If your account earns 6.0 percent per year and your combined state and federal income tax rate is 35.0 percent, saving in a 529 plan will allow it to grow by an extra $7,400 relative to a regular taxable savings account earning the same. If your state does offer a plan, they also may offer tax incentives to contribute to it. Contributions may qualify to be deducted from your income for state tax purposes, making saving for college a little easier.

Anyone can invest in any state’s 529 college savings plan. You can find an annual ranking of 529 plans online from Morningstar. SavingforCollege.com also offers a ranking, though they use different criteria. If your state offers a plan, the tax benefits on the contributions may make it worthwhile to invest in your own state’s plan, even if it isn’t top rated.

Worried that the money saved in a 529 plan is only eligible to be used at the public universities in your state? While there are plans that allow you to save specifically for your state’s schools, called prepaid tuition plans, there are only 20 of them across the country.

The vast majority of plans will allow you to withdraw the money tax free to pay for expenses at virtually all accredited public, nonprofit, and for profit post secondary institutions any where in the country. It doesn’t matter if the school is a college, university or vocational school. Here in Oregon, 529 plan savings from any plan can be used for everything from the University of Oregon and Oregon State to Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts and a wide variety of programs in between.

What if your child doesn’t wind up going beyond their high school education? First you never know what your child will do in the future. There are no limits to how long money can stay in a 529 plan, as long as the beneficiary is living. If your child doesn’t go to school right away, they may down the line. If that doesn’t happen, the beneficiary of the account can be changed to anyone in your family out to first cousins of the original beneficiary. That means the money could be used for your own education, your siblings or their children’s education. Even your parent’s can use it if they have a desire to go back to school.

If there is absolutely no one in the family that can take advantage of the money, it is still yours. It can be withdrawn at any time. Withdrawals that are not made for qualified educational expenses will be taxed with an additional ten percent penalty. This is what get’s people concerned about saving in a 529 plan. But it’s not as bad as it sounds.

In the example above, total earnings on the account are $15,500. This is the amount on which the taxes owed will be calculated. Assuming the same 35.0 percent combined tax rate, the taxes due would be $5,425 plus an additional penalty of $1,550, or total taxes of $6,975. You would also have to repay any state tax benefits you received on the contributions.

This is not the end of the world. You get all of your contributions back, and the taxes you wind up paying are still less than the additional benefit you gained by growing your savings tax free ($7,400). Paying back the state tax deductions on the contributions will cost a bit more, but you will still have more money than you contributed to the plan in the end.

529 plans are a great way to save for college. If you have doubts, make sure you get the facts before you give up on this tax advantaged savings option. For more information regarding 529 plans, check out the SavingforCollege.com web site, or visit the site for your own state’s plan. 529 college savings plans can help you make more out of your college savings dollars, and they are more flexible than you may think.

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