Average 529 plan balance: How do you compare?

Kathryn FlynnBy Kathryn FlynnBy Savingforcollege.com

The average 529 plan balance hit a record $24,153 as of June 30, 2018, according to the College Savings Plans Network. This amount is high relative to previous years but may not be enough to cover future college expenses. The amount you should have saved for college depends on your child’s age and where they want to go to college. Once you determine the appropriate benchmark you can find out if your college savings are on track.

Average college savings by age

Knowing the average 529 plan balance can be helpful, but a better comparison is to look at average savings by age. For example, if your child is heading to college soon, your 529 plan account balance should be much higher than a parent with a child in preschool.

Sallie Mae’s How America Saves for College 2018 reported average amount parents had saved for college by the age of their oldest child. Not surprising, parents with older children had more in savings.

AVERAGE AMOUNT SAVED FOR COLLEGE

Age 0 - 6

$7,929

Age 7 - 12

$15,359

Age 13 - 17

$27,559

Age 18+

$27,778


Keep in mind that 529 plans are investment accounts where earnings grow tax-free and are tax-free when distributions are used to pay for college. That means when stock prices rise, so does the value of a 529 plan. 529 plan account balances also increase due to contributions. The number of new accounts opened in a given year can also affect average 529 plan balances. Newer accounts tend to have smaller balances, and therefore will bring down the average.

Savings benchmarks by type of college

College costs will vary greatly by college. The cost of attending a 4-year private college in 2018 was more than double the cost of attending a 4-year public in-state college, according to the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing.

Regardless of which college you are saving for, you don’t have to save 100% of the sticker price. A good rule of thumb is to save 1/3 of projected college costs, and cover the remaining 2/3 with current income, financial aid, scholarships and student loans. The more you save, the less your child will have to borrow to pay for college.

If your child takes out student loans, be sure to keep the total amount below what they expect to earn their first year out of college. For example, a college student studying to be an elementary school teacher, with a starting salary of $30,000, should borrow no more than $30,000 to pay for college. A college student who graduates with a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing, with a starting salary of $60,000 or more, can afford to borrow more.

To find out if your college savings are on track, use the following benchmarks:

COLLEGE SAVINGS BENCHMARKS

4-year public in-state college

Multiply age by:

$3,000

4-year public out-of-state college

Multiply age by:

$5,000

4-year private college

Multiply age by:

$7,000

For example, if you live in New York and your 12-year-old child wants to attend the University of Michigan, you should have already saved about $60,000 saved in a 529 plan.

How to get your college savings back on track

If you’ve fallen behind, the most obvious way to grow your college savings quickly is to contribute more to your 529 plan.

  • If your college savings are below the benchmark, make a lump sum contribution to bring the balance up to the benchmark.
  • If you can't afford to make a lump sum contribution, use a college savings calculator to see how much more you need to contribute each month to meet your goal. A good rule of thumb is to divide the shortfall by the number of months remaining, and to increase your monthly contribution by this amount.

If you don't have the means to save more, consider investing more aggressively to boost your return. 529 plans allow two investment changes per calendar year.

Review your 529 plan’s fees, expenses and performance rankings, and any income tax benefits offered by your state to make sure you’re getting the maximum value. If you’re not happy with your current 529 plan, you can rollover to another 529 plan once in a 12-month period.

Contributions to a 529 plan also make great graduation, birthday and holiday gifts. If friends and family ask for gift ideas, suggest that they give the gift of college. The Upromise rewards program is another way to boost savings. Members can earn cash back for college on qualified purchases and dining out.


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