Buy college plan through bank or broker?



Dear Joe, Could you please tell me if it is better to take out an educational savings fund for college for my twin granddaughters through a bank or an educational savings company? I'm confused. -- Laura


Dear Laura,

When you walk into your local bank branch, you are likely to see posters and brochures touting 529 plans and other educational savings products. And then, when you open your mail, watch television or read magazines you may see advertisements from mutual fund firms like Fidelity, TIAA-CREF, T. Rowe Price and others for what appear to be the same types of savings plans.

No wonder you are confused.

It's important for you to understand that in addition to savings accounts, certificates of deposit and other banking products, banks can sell investment products, including 529 plans, through their brokerage subsidiaries. Purchasing an investment through a bank broker is similar in many respects to using a financial adviser at an investment brokerage firm like Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch or Raymond James. When you purchase a 529 plan through a broker, the broker receives commissions, paid for by you directly through sales charges and/or indirectly through additional expenses attached to the investment.

You will avoid these costs by going to a 529 plan and opening your account directly. Each 529 plan has a Web site containing an official program description and other enrollment materials, and most of the "direct-sold" plans allow you to easily enroll online and make contributions via electronic transfer from your bank account. You might also locate 529 plans through the Web sites of the mutual fund firms, including the firms mentioned above, that are hired by the states to manage their 529 plans.

Should you go the direct route or the broker route? The answer depends on your ability to understand and select 529 plans and other investment vehicles, as well as the amount of time you are willing to spend investigating your options. Many parents, and especially grandparents, decide to involve a financial professional and don't mind paying the extra costs associated with broker-sold 529 plans. You may also wish to consider that broker-sold 529 plans tend to use actively managed mutual funds in their investment options while many of the direct-sold 529 plans use index funds.

Another source of help for those who seek professional advice is a fee-based financial planner. Because they do not take sales commissions, these financial planners will usually recommend the lower-cost, direct-sold 529 plans. However, you will be paying the financial planner an hourly fee or a percentage of the value of your investments.

If you decide to use a broker or financial planner, do your best to select someone who is very knowledgeable about 529 plans and other ways to save and pay for college. Ask questions about their experience in selling 529 plans, how many different 529 plans will be considered and why a particular 529 plan is being recommended. If the recommended 529 plan is not your own state's plan, be sure you are aware of any special benefits you may be giving up, such as a state income tax deduction.

For more discussion, read the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA, guide "Selecting Your Broker."

Popular Questions


Two kids, two 529 plans?

Dear Big Bill,
While it's possible to maintain a 529 plan in just one child's name, even when you intend to send more than one child to college, I generally recommend that families open a separate 529 account for each child.

That's assuming there is no additional cost to maintaining multiple accounts. If your 529 plan charges an annual or quarterly account maintenance fee, check to see if you can avoid the fee by signing up for automatic contributions through payroll deduction or electronic funds transfer)

With a separate 529 plan for each child, it becomes easier for you to tailor the mix of stocks, bonds and stable-principal investments (e.g., stable value, guaranteed principal and money market funds) to the particular ages of your children. When your older child is nearing high school graduation, you may want to ratchet down the level of market risk in her 529 plan. At the same time, you could keep a more-aggressive asset allocation in your younger child's 529 plan, accepting more risk for a potentially higher return. Many 529 plans offer "age-based" investment options that automatically make these adjustments as the beneficiary ages.

Separate accounts for your children also offer more gift-tax leeway. Since your 529 contributions are treated as gifts from you to the account beneficiary, your $15,000 (in 2018) annual gift exclusion will go twice as far with two accounts -- one for each child -- than with just one account.

Financial aid is another reason to recommend maintaining separate accounts. You wouldn't want the investments reserved for your younger child's future college expenses to count against your older child's financial aid eligibility. Be warned: The rules here are rather murky, and the impact of a sibling's 529 account may depend on the college's own policies as well on as the type of aid -- federal or institutional -- being sought.

Finally, I believe that separate 529 accounts allow for better family bookkeeping. There will never be any doubt as to your intention to help send all of your children to college. You'll avoid the uncomfortable position of being asked to explain to a curious 8th-grader why account statements are showing up in the mail with only a brother or sister's name on them. And in the event of your death or divorce, no matter how unlikely, your legal representatives and other family members will have less reason to question your actions in setting up and funding the 529 plans.

Even with separate accounts, you'll continue to have the flexibility to shift the money around in the future. You simply need to make sure that whenever funds are withdrawn from the 529 plan to pay for college they are coming from an account in the name of the child incurring the costs. It's a simple matter to change the beneficiary designation among family members at any time, transfer 529 funds between different family members' accounts or split one 529 account into two. The ability to move assets around the family is a key advantage of 529 plans when comparing other college-savings alternatives, such as Uniform Transfers to Minors Act, or UTMA, accounts.

Original Post: 2005-10-13
Read full answer

Coverdell ESA vs. 529 Plan: Which to choose? (Script)

The Coverdell ESA and the 529 plan are both excellent college savings vehicles because they are both tax-free when used for college. But many families face a choice: do they use a 529 plan for all of their child's college savings, or do they use a Coverdell for the maximum amount of $2,000 each year and put any any extra savings above $2,000 into a 529 plan? In spite of its low annual contribution cap, Coverdell's are now attracting quite a few families. There are two major reasons for that. One is that only the Coverdell allows you to self-direct your investments, just like you might self-direct the investments in your IRA. The other is that in addition to college expenses, Coverdells can be withdrawn tax-free to pay for a broad range of K-12 expenses, while 529 plans are limited to K-12 tuition. This feature is appreciated most in families planning to send their children to private grade schools, which may include additional costs such as room and board or uniforms. A 529 plan, on the other hand, does not impose age limits or income limits like the Coverdell does and so overall we see a lot more money going into 529 plans than into Coverdells. Plus many savers are happy with the investment choices offered by the 529 plans and don't necessarily want to self-direct their investments. And don’t forget this: your state may be giving you a state tax deduction for using a 529 plan, but there are no states offering a state tax deduction for investing with a Coverdell ESA.

Learn more about Coverdell ESAs.

Original post date 2013-07-15
Read full answer

Top 529 Plan Withdrawal Tips. (Script)

Read full answer

Top 529 Plan Withdrawal Tips. (Video)

Read full answer

Get personalized information to help you start saving for college

I am a
saving for a
I reside in
and I
have a 529 plan.