My son is about to head off to college. That’s two kids down and one to go.
With my son, Kevin, I have a lot of special concerns. He falls on the autism spectrum, so my husband and I have been meeting with college administrators to map out a plan for his success. He’s going to the University of Maryland Baltimore County. So far, the school has exceeded our expectations in responding to his needs.
The president of UMBC, Freeman Hrabowski, even asked to meet with us.
Hrabowski understood when Kevin didn’t look him in the eye at times and didn’t appear to be as focused as he actually was. Hrabowski engaged Kevin with such genuine interest and respect. He got him. The encounter made me tear up.
My son had so wanted to go to a four-year university and live on campus. Hrabowski and his staff made us feel it’s possible.
I tell you all this because sending your child off to college can come with a lot of anxiety, even if he or she is “neurotypical.” If your child has special needs, your concern can be off the charts.
But I’m grateful there is one less thing to cry about or fret over.
The funds needed for Kevin’s education — even for a special summer program that will help him get acclimated to college — are sitting in his 529 college savings plan.
My husband and I started saving for Kevin’s college expenses when he was 3. We made a few lump-sum payments into the plan at the beginning, but most of the money came from our monthly contributions of just $210. Our target had been to save at least for costs at an in-state institution.
I know for some that amount could be too much to handle, but for many it isn’t. Over the years, between our contributions and investment returns — even accounting for some heart-stopping down years — there’s enough for tuition, fees and room and board. Just enough — but still enough.
I have always been a fan of 529 plans. Earnings are not subject to federal tax or, generally, state tax if the beneficiary uses the funds for qualified educational expenses at a college, university, vocational school or other post-secondary institution.
May 29 (5/29) — 529 College Plan Day — has become a time for states and financial firms administering the plans to promote the advantages of this investment option. If only the campaign lasted the whole year.
A whopping 72 percent of Americans don’t know what a 529 plan is, according to the financial services firm Edward Jones. That’s up from 66 percent last year.
In the past two weeks, several parents have asked me about investing in a 529. I met one mother in Chicago who was worried about how to save. I directed her to Illinois’ 529 Education Savings Plan, which like many state plans offers residents a tax break. Contributions from in state are deductible up to $10,000 per parent per year ($20,000 if you’re married and filing jointly). I made her promise to sign up. And she did.
Another mother, in Maryland, had been discouraged from putting money in a 529 based on a common misconception. She believed her children could only go to schools in the state where she held an account, which is not true.
Money invested in a 529 can be used at any public or private eligible educational institution in the country — even around the world.
Don’t let misinformation stop you from saving in a 529 plan. Here are some places to get the truth:
●Your state’s 529 website. In any search engine, type in your state and “529 plan.” Stop first at the “FAQs” section. “We do a lot of myth busting,” said Mary Morris, chief executive of Virginia529.
Many states offer special promotions to get you to sign up for an account. Virginia has been randomly awarding $1,000 a day to new accounts. The contest continues through May 31. For the eighth year, the Virginia baby born closest to 5:29 p.m. on May 29 at participating hospitals will win a $529 contribution.
● Savingforcollege.com. This independent site contains a mountain of information about 529 plans. Download a free copy of “Family Guide to College Savings.”
● Morningstar.com. The independent investment research site has an annual ranking of 529 plans. Check out the latest report.
Look, you’ve got enough to be nervous about when it comes to sending your child to college. Take the time to figure out what’s fact or fiction. And then save in a 529 plan.
Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to wapo.st/michelle-singletary.