Summmerrrtttime! Every day in the summer at our office here in Charleston, we are regaled with the carriage tour drivers’ versions of this famous song from Porgy & Bess. We end up having that song stuck in our head a lot of the time! Already the ads for back to school sales are appearing and it reminds us that, while the “livin’ is easy” right now, the hustle of getting kids ready to head back to school isn’t far away. We hate to interrupt your summer fun, but it is a good idea to get ready for college tuition payments no matter what age those students are!
We wanted to highlight the particular advantages of using 529 plans for funding your education purposes, as it is the most cost-effective way to manage the expenses of higher education. Enacted in 1996, Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Service Code allows an account owner to establish a plan to pay for a beneficiary’s qualified higher education expenses using two types of plans – a pre-paid tuition program or the more popular, state-administered college savings plan. The beneficiary can be a family member or friend or an owner can set up a 529 account for their own benefit. Anyone can then donate to the account, regardless of the owner or beneficiary. Funds can be deposited and used almost immediately (need to wait 10 days) or can be invested and grown until needed. Surprisingly, according to a Wall Street Journal article recently, only 14% of Americans plan to use 529s to pay for college.
Although there is no allowable federal tax deduction for 529 contributions, the income and gain in the account are not taxable, as long as they are used for qualified education expenses. These qualified expenses include tuition, room & board, books and, in a 2015 legislative change, payments for many technological expenses like a computer, printer or internet access, even if not specifically required by the educational institution. The costs for off-campus housing can also qualify, as long as the amount used matches the average cost of resident-living at your university. Many states, like SC and IL, also allow a tax deduction for 529 contributions to in-state plans. Another recent legislative change allows for an increase from one to two annual investment selection changes per year, unless there is a rollover and then a change can be made at that time. This gives the 529 owner a little more benefit, flexibility and control over their accounts.
When funding 529 accounts, we recommend that our clients not fund more than 50% of the total cost of estimated expenses for the education of their student before the student selects and starts college. One nice feature about 529 plans is that they are transferrable to a sibling or other close family member, if a student doesn’t use or exhaust their entire 529 account. However, you don’t want to overfund an account and then have some leftover. Only the gains in the account are taxed, but there is a 10% penalty on the account if the funds are withdrawn and not used for qualified education expenses. Another reason for not overfunding is that there are many scholarships available – you may have an accomplished science whiz or an amazing athlete that earns scholarship money. Once final amounts of tuition requirements are determined, 529 account owners can make necessary additional contributions to take advantage of tax benefits.
There are many scholarship opportunities available for those who take the time to look and apply. Checking with the high school guidance counselor, local civic groups or community organizations about scholarships or awards opportunities can give your high school student some hands on involvement in paying for their own education! All high school seniors should also fill out the annual FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). There are many opportunities for earning money for college and nothing should be ruled out.
We know that using 529 accounts is the least expensive way to pay for college. Research shows that the most expensive way to pay is by taking out student loans or paying out of pocket as the student needs it. At DWM, we want to help you strategize how to save for and pay for any education expenses that you may have before you, no matter when those costs are expected. We can help you evaluate the various state plans and the investment options in the 529s and calculate an appropriate annual or lump sum amount of savings. We will be glad to help make your summertime livin’ easy and carefree! Okay, now back to summer fun…already in progress!