The gift of paying for a college education is something many parents want to be able to do for their children. As parents-to-be, my husband and I have been talking a lot about college savings in recent months; how and where to save, what to invest in, how much our child might need, the list goes on. The 529 plan is the most common way to save for college, but there are a few things to consider before opening an account.
Pro: Ohio’s CollegeAdvantage 529 Plan is one of the best 529 plans in the country, offering several age-based and risk-based investment options for those who want the hands off approach, as well as fifteen individual investment options for those DIYers. The fund choices available include Vanguard and DFA funds, both known for their low-cost, broadly diversified mutual funds.
Con: The investment options in this plan are phenomenal, so finding something to be nit-picky about is somewhat difficult. But let’s say you open a taxable brokerage account instead of a 529, you wouldn’t get the same tax deduction or tax-free growth, but you’d have thousands of investment options to choose from instead of fifteen. That might be a benefit worth considering if you are one of those people who prefer to DIY and want more investment options.
Pro: If you’re an Ohio resident, you’ll receive a state tax deduction of up to $4,000 per year, per child. If you contribute more than this amount, you’ll have unlimited carryforward to deduct from your income in future years.
Con: The tax deduction isn’t life-changing by any means. A couple with $250,000 in taxable income, contributing $4,000 per year can expect to save about $150 in state taxes.
Pro: Your contributions will grow tax-free, and you won’t be taxed on the money when you take it out, if you spend it on qualified expenses. There’s nothing else out there like this for college savings.
Con: You’ll need to be aware that there are a few things that fall under the non-qualified expense category. If you take a non-qualified distribution from the Ohio CollegeAdvantage Plan, you’ll pay a 10% penalty on your earnings and you’ll also be subject to the state recapture provision, meaning all of those deductions you were able to take in prior years will be added back to your Ohio taxable income.
Pro: Thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act you can now withdrawal $10,000 per year from your 529 to pay for K-12 expenses. If you plan to send your child to parochial or private school, this could be a big benefit.
Con: If you have hefty K-12 expenses and want to pay for some or all of college as well, taking money out in those early years can drastically diminish the wonderful benefit of compounding, potentially leaving you with a smaller account balance when it comes time for college.
Pro: 529s in a parent’s name are treated favorably when financial aid packages are awarded. A parent-owned 529 can only reduce a student’s financial aid package by up to 5.64%.
Con: If you’re an eager grandparent or other family member, a well-intentioned 529 in your name could potentially hurt financial aid eligibility. Distributions from your account will count as untaxed income to the student, which will be reported on the FAFSA the following year and can reduce eligibility for need-based aid by up to 20%. There are some workarounds for this, but you’ll want to act before any distributions are made.
Pro: Having a fully funded 529 may help you sleep at night, and you can’t put a price on that.
Con: If over-saving for college puts other things on hold, like let’s say saving for retirement, this may not be the best option. You can always borrow for college; you can’t borrow for retirement.
It’s natural to want a benchmark for this type of thing, to see how your savings stack up compared to what other parents are doing, but normal just doesn’t exist when it comes to college savings. Some parents want their children to have skin in the game and are adamant about making sure loans are a part of the equation, either out of principal or out of financial necessity. Others want to ensure that they can fully provide for any college experience that their children desire, no matter the cost.
A lot of times the best decisions fall somewhere in the middle of what makes pure, financial sense on paper and what algins well with your resources and your values.