7 Top 529 Plan Alternatives To Consider

Facebook icon Twitter icon Print icon Email icon
Katie Dyal

By Katie Dyal

June 3, 2024

529 plans offer a tax-efficient way to save for college expenses and minimize student loan debt. These plans are designed to offer flexibility and various investment options without income restrictions or thresholds.

Family members or other 529 contributors should consider the costs and benefits of these tax-advantaged vehicles. Such information can be used to determine which plan best suits their child’s anticipated college costs and savings needs or goals. 

Why Consider an Alternative to a 529 College Savings Plan? 

529 plans require that the funds be used specifically for qualified educational expenses in most cases. They are also limited in investment options and can trigger gift tax consequences if they exceed certain limits.

However, alternative savings vehicles offer different incentives and opportunities that might better suit individual needs. This includes access to a greater investment pool, reduced fund usage restrictions, and a low impact on estate or gift tax concerns. Additional reasons why a family might consider alternatives to a 529 college savings plan include: 

  • Diversification of Assets: Different savings vehicles offer varying risk and return potential. This allows families to spread their investments across multiple assets to mitigate risk.
  • Financial Considerations and Needs: Families may find that their unique financial situations require alternative savings options tailored to their needs. For example, a child with special educational needs might need resources not fully covered by a traditional 529 plan. In such cases, exploring options like special needs trusts or UTMA accounts can offer greater flexibility and support beyond what a 529 plan provides.
  • Time Horizon: Depending on when the funds will be needed for educational expenses, alternative savings vehicles may offer more withdrawal flexibility. 

Families aren’t limited to choosing just one savings tool. Depending on your situation, including multiple tools in your saving-for-college kit could be beneficial. A diversified approach could significantly enhance your ability to meet educational funding goals.

Alternatives to 529 Plans 

When exploring alternatives to 529 plans, consider ones that align with your financial goals and circumstances. Each alternative offers unique advantages and disadvantages compared to the benefits of 529 plans.

1. Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (ESA) 

A Coverdell ESA provides access to a broad range of investment securities. It also allows for tax-free distributions for qualified educational expenses covering K-12 and college education. However, annual contribution limits for Coverdell ESAs are capped at $2,000 per beneficiary, with some exceptions.

Compared to 529 plans, which are generally limited only by federal gift tax considerations (currently $18,000 per year per donor), state deductible amounts, and potentially higher lifetime contribution limits, Coverdell ESAs have lower annual contribution limits. Additionally, income restrictions apply to Coverdell ESA contributors, whereas 529 plans typically do not have such income limitations.

2. Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA) and Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) Accounts 

Guardians commonly use UGMA and UTMA accounts to make irrevocable gifts to minors, including money, securities, or real estate. These accounts offer flexibility in gifting without the need for a formal trust. However, their control is relinquished once assets are transferred to the minor. Additionally, UGMA and UTMA accounts lack specific tax benefits. 

Compared to 529 plans, which provide tax advantages for education savings, UGMA and UTMA accounts do not offer similar tax benefits. While minors may benefit from lower tax rates on unearned income, the accounts do not provide tax advantages like those seen with education savings plans.

Furthermore, assets held in UGMA and UTMA accounts can significantly impact the minor’s eligibility for financial aid, as they are considered the student’s assets, which can reduce the amount of aid awarded.

3. Prepaid Tuition Plans 

Prepaid tuition plans hedge against tuition inflation by allowing prepayment at current rates and guaranteeing a set number of tuition credits. They offer simplicity in budgeting and protection against market volatility, which can appeal to risk-averse investors. 

Compared to 529 plans, which offer flexibility for various educational expenses, including room and board, prepaid tuition plans are restricted to covering tuition costs only. Additionally, they may involve geographical constraints and potential opportunity costs from missing out on higher investment returns. 

4. Traditional and Roth IRA Savings Accounts 

The greatest benefit of using a traditional individual retirement account (IRA) or Roth IRA as a vessel for educational savings is the flexibility in fund usage. If the beneficiary or child decides not to pursue higher education in the future, the funds can be used for other financial needs or intents. 

Compared to 529 plans, IRAs offer this flexibility, whereas withdrawals for non-education purposes from 529 plans may incur taxes and penalties. However, IRAs’ annual contribution limits are lower than those of 529 plans. For 2024, the contribution limit for traditional and Roth IRAs is $7,000 per year (or $8,000 if you are 50 or older).

5. High-Yield Savings Accounts

High-yield savings accounts (HYSAs) accelerate savings growth by offering higher interest rates than traditional savings accounts. They also offer flexibility in deposits and withdrawals without penalties. 

Compared to 529 plans, HYSAs lack specific tax benefits for education savings. Also, assets in HYSAs are considered parental assets for financial aid purposes, potentially reducing aid eligibility, whereas 529 plans provide tax advantages and are assessed differently for financial aid purposes.

6. Brokerage Accounts

Brokerage accounts provide fund usage and investment options flexibility with no contribution limitations or distribution requirements.

Compared to 529 plans, brokerage accounts offer complete flexibility in investment options. You can diversify your investments across Roth IRAs, HYSAs, mutual funds, stocks, bonds, and more through a single account. However, investments in brokerage accounts are subject to market volatility, and any capital gains realized upon withdrawal may be taxable. 

7. Life Insurance 

Life insurance can be a financial vehicle when determining a plan to cover educational expenses. However, these policies are complex, may have associated fees, and their limitations may reduce their value as an educational savings vehicle compared to investment-based options.

Compared to 529 plans, life insurance policies provide different benefits and considerations. They often focus more broadly on financial planning rather than specific education savings advantages like those offered by 529 plans.

Key Takeaway of Each Alternative Option to 529 Plans

  • Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (ESA): Offer broader investment options and tax-free distributions for education expenses.
  • Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA) and Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) Accounts: Allow gifts to minors without a trust but lose control once transferred.
  • Prepaid Tuition Plans: Hedge against tuition inflation by prepaying at current rates.
  • Traditional and Roth IRA Savings Accounts: Offer flexible fund usage but can have withdrawal penalties and contribution limits.
  • High-Yield Savings Accounts (HYSAs): Offer higher interest rates with flexible deposits but limited long-term growth.
  • Brokerage Accounts: Provide flexible investments without contribution limits but are subject to market volatility and taxes.
  • Life Insurance: Can cover education costs but may have fees and limitations compared to investments.

Choosing the Right Alternatives to 529 Plans 

Several factors must be considered when deciding on an alternative financial planning option. Reviewing financial goals, investment preferences, estate planning strategies, and tax considerations will help determine the most suitable plan for your family. 

Assessing Personal Financial Situations 

One key consideration when choosing alternative 529 plans is assessing your current financial situation. Depending on certain thresholds or qualifications, each investment vehicle may have a different overall impact on financial aid eligibility. 

It is also important to consider time horizons, potential fees, and risk appetite that may impact decision-making. Assessing your income level, debt obligations, eligibility for tax deductions or credits, and estate planning strategies are all significant elements to consider when choosing between plan types. 

Balancing Your Portfolio with 529 Alternatives

Diversifying your overall savings portfolio will help reduce risk—essentially, it’s deciding not to put all your eggs in one basket. You can spread risk and potentially maximize returns by allocating investments across various asset types under different market conditions. Balancing your portfolio by understanding the risk and reward opportunities between aggressive and stable income-producing investments will help with overall monetary growth. It will also help maintain protection in a down market or during extreme volatility.

Anticipating Future Education Costs 

To anticipate the cost of future educational expenses, start by researching the type of education that your child may be interested in pursuing. Then, consider the length or cost of the program of interest. After familiarizing yourself with the various plan options and examining the flexibility of how and when you can use the funds in each alternative, determine how best to plan for change. Because educational plans and life goals inevitably change as time passes.

Bottom Line

Whether you’re considering a 529 plan or exploring alternative options for your child’s college, your decision should be informed by a comprehensive understanding of your financial situation, investment preferences, and long-term goals. Understand where you are today, and allow room to move and grow as plans change.

Contributors should consider speaking with a financial advisor to analyze further which savings plan, or set of savings plans, will most efficiently benefit your current situation and future needs. And continue to re-assess as time passes. Saving for college is a long game, but you have many options to find the perfect fit for your family today and opportunities to adjust your game plan. 

A good place to start:

See the best 529 plans, personalized for you