Putting away money for your child’s education is a no-brainer in the era of five-figure student debt, but it can be a little tricky figuring out the best ways to save. While 529 plans are a go-to option for many families, Roth IRAs are emerging as a popular alternative investment vehicle to save for college.
Both accounts come with tax advantages and could grow your money, so which one is right for you? (Although investing is one of the best ways to increase your savings, be mindful of market volatility. You can lose as much as you gain.)
Named for a section of the U.S. tax code, 529 plans are designed specifically to save for college. The most popular plans function much like a 401k retirement account because the money you put in is invested in stocks, bonds or money market funds. Earnings on the plans are not subjected to federal taxes so long as you use the money for “qualified education” expenses — tuition, books, fees, room and board — at any accredited school. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and anyone else can contribute to these accounts. The plans can transfer to other members of a family, but the money must be used for education or withdrawals will come with tax consequences.
Though Roth IRAs are meant for retirement savings, you can withdraw money from the accounts to pay for qualified education expenses and first-time home purchases without getting hit with a 10-percent tax penalty, even if you take the money out before age 59 1/2. Keep in mind that the account has to be at least five years old. And if you haven’t yet reached retirement age, you will have to pay income taxes on distributions.
Now that we have the basics out of the way, let’s take a look at some things to consider when using either account to save and pay for college:
Tax Deductions: One of the best features of 529 plans is the state tax deduction on contributions. People can qualify for the deduction by opening a plan sponsored by their home state. Thirty-four states and the District provide partial or full income tax deductions to residents. There are even states, including Maine, Kansas and Pennsylvania, where residents can still get the state income tax deduction for contributions to plans anywhere in the country. Contributions made to a Roth, however, are not tax deductible.
Contribution Limits: Just about every state-sponsored 529 plan lets families sock away at least $200,000 per child. Maximum contributions can even exceed $400,000 in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin. Grandparents can contribute up to $14,000 a year without any gift tax penalty or provide a one-time lump sum of $70,000, said Steven Podnos, a certified financial planner at Wealth Care in Cocoa Beach, Fla.
On the other hand, Roth IRAs have low contribution limits. You can only put away up to $5,500 a year, or $6,500 for people over age 50. What’s more, to even stash that much money, you must earn less than $117,000 as a single person or $184,000 as a married couple.
“The amount you can contribute to a Roth is fairly modest,” said A. Scott Ward, a certified financial planner at Johnson Sterling Financial Advisor in Birmingham, Ala. “And there is a question of whether you can even contribute based on your earnings, so that’s a barrier of entry.”
Financial Aid: A key benefit of Roth IRAs is that investments held in the accounts will not affect your child’s eligibility for financial aid, Ward said. The government does not count the value of retirement savings in FAFSA (short for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) calculations. Any withdrawals from your Roth, however, must be reported as income on the FAFSA. And that extra income could impact what’s known as the Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
In the case of 529 plans, investments held by parents are assessed at a maximum 5.64 percent rate in determining EFC. That means if you have a plan worth $50,000, it will likely increase your EFC by $2,820. Tax-free distributions from a 529 plan are not counted in the income calculation. You don’t have to report plans owned by grandparents or aunts and uncles, but you do have to report any money your child receives from a relative’s account.
Flexibility: Let’s say junior decides to skip college, start a commune and live off the land. Or let’s say your brilliant spawn lands scholarships that cover everything. If you don’t use the money in a 529 plan for your child’s college education, you must either transfer the account to another child or pay taxes on any withdrawals that are not used for qualifying education expenses. But you can leave all of the money you saved in the Roth to grow until you retire to somewhere sunny.
Nevertheless, Ward said it might be best to use a 529 plan as your primary college savings vehicle and keep money in a Roth as a backup. But Podnos cautions families against using much, if any, retirement savings to pay for college.
“If you don’t have much money saved for college, you could tap your Roth, but that should be you very last option,” he said. “You don’t want to be 80 and going to your grown children saying “Remember I paid for college and now I’m out of money.”
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