529 plan advertisements are usually geared toward families with new babies. But, the reality is that many families get a late start on saving for college. Parents who open a 529 plan when their child is a high school freshman can still take advantage of the federal (and sometimes state) tax benefits, even if college is just a few years away. Any amount saved for college will reduce the child’s future student loan debt.
How 529 plans work
529 plans work similar to a Roth IRA. An individual makes contributions with after-tax dollars, which are invested in mutual funds, ETFs or other diversified investments. The investments grow on a tax-deferred basis and distributions are completely tax-free when used to pay for qualified higher education expenses.
The sooner parents start to save in a 529 plan, the more time they have to take advantage of tax-free compounding. However, there are still benefits to investing in a 529 plan even if the beneficiary is in middle school or high school. Saving $300 per month in a 529 plan over the next 4 years would add up to over $15,000 in college savings, assuming the funds were invested in a conservative portfolio with a 2% annual investment return.
Selecting appropriate 529 plan investments
When selecting a 529 plan investment portfolio, parents of older children should keep their equity allocation at around 20% to 30%. The equity allocation is the percentage invested in stocks and stock mutual funds. The rest of the portfolio should be invested in conservative investments, which have a lower risk of loss. These include fixed income options, such as bonds, CDs, money market funds and FDIC-insured investments.
With only a few years until college, families might not have enough time to recoup their losses if the stock market drops.
State income tax benefits function like a discount on tuition
Many states offer a state income tax deduction or tax credit for 529 plan contributions. For parents with a shorter time horizon, a state income tax benefit can operate like a discount on college tuition. In most states, taxpayers can make a contribution, immediately withdraw funds to pay for college, and still claim the state income tax benefit.
However, there are four states that block this loophole. Michigan and Minnesota base their state income tax benefits on annual contributions net of distributions. Taxpayers in these states must hold the funds in their 529 plan account for at least one year before taking a distribution to pay for college. Montana recaptures the state income tax deduction when distributions are made within 3 years of opening the 529 plan account, and in Wisconsin tax benefits are subject to recapture if funds are distributed within 365 days of the contribution.
Sometimes, there is a tradeoff between state tax breaks for an in-state 529 plan and lower fees for an out-of-state 529 plan. However, when the child enrolls in high school, the balance shifts to a preference that favors the state income tax benefit.
Boost college savings in the short-term
Families should consider saving one-third of total projected future college costs and covering the remaining two-thirds with current income and student loans. But, it can be difficult to save that much when a child is already 12 or 13 years old. Families who use a college savings calculator might get sticker shock when they realize how much they need to save in such a short time.
Instead, just save what you can. Every dollar you save is a dollar less you’ll have to borrow. Don’t let the high cost of college overwhelm you.
Families who have trouble saving at least one-third of total college costs may consider one of the following ways to boost their 529 plan savings:
- Apply for scholarships – Scholarships for middle school or high school students are sometimes awarded as 529 plan contributions, allowing students the added benefits of tax savings and compounding. Read our Complete Guide to Scholarships.
- Earn cash back for college with Upromise – Upromise is a free loyalty program that allows parents and grandparents to earn rewards by shopping online, booking travel, dining out and using the Upromise Mastercard. Rewards can be automatically swept into a linked 529 plan account. Plus, members are automatically enrolled in a monthly sweepstakes to win a $529 scholarship.
- Enlist the help of friends and family – Anyone can contribute to a child’s college savings plan. Many 529 plans have gifting platforms that make it easy for grandparents and other loved ones to make a one-time or recurring electronic contribution. CollegeBacker is an app that allows you to link your 529 plan and easily receive gifts for college from family and friends.
- Make sure the child has skin in the game – Students can put a portion of their income from part-time and summer jobs into their 529 plan.
- Be realistic about financial fit. If you haven’t saved enough, your child might need to go to a less expensive college, such as an in-state public college. Public colleges provide a great quality education, often at a quarter to a third the cost of a private college.
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