Saving for College: 529 College Savings Plans

June 14, 2024 Chris Kawashima
The 529 savings plan provides several tax advantages when used for education expenses.

Opening a college savings account is a smart way to invest in the education of a family member, friend, or even yourself—and you could even get some tax benefits.

There are multiple ways to save for higher education, and what works best for you depends on your (or your loved one's) personal needs and life goals. In this installment of our Saving for College series, we'll explore 529 college savings plans. 

Saving for College

Read other articles in this series: Custodial Accounts, 5 Costly Mistakes to Avoid, and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts.

Read other articles in this series: Custodial Accounts, 5 Costly Mistakes to Avoid, and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts.

The basics

A 529 plan is a state-sponsored program that allows parents, relatives, and friends to invest in another person's education. Almost all states and the District of Columbia offer some type of 529 plan. However, you don't have to live in a particular state to take advantage of its plan.

Though they're often referred to as college savings plans, you can use them to pay for qualifying educational expenses from kindergarten through college and beyond. Qualifying expenses can include up to $10,000 in annual expenses for tuition at an elementary school or a secondary public, private, or religious school, depending on the state.

It's important to remember that a 529 account belongs to you. The beneficiary could be your child or someone else, but you remain in charge of the money, while a fund manager assigned by the state manages it.

Most 529s offer a variety of portfolios with allocations that range from conservative to aggressive, based on historic risk and potential return. You might also be able to choose between an age-based portfolio and a static portfolio. With an age-based portfolio, the fund manager adjusts the asset allocation from more aggressive to conservative as your child nears college age. With a static portfolio, the asset allocation stays the same until you make a change, which you can do twice per calendar year.

How to open and contribute to a 529 plan

Parents, grandparents, and other family members can open a 529 account on behalf of a child—or even an adult—at a brokerage or other financial institution or directly with a state. A person can be the beneficiary of more than one 529 plan at the same time, but you'll want to make sure the combined contributions don't exceed the state's contribution limit.

Most 529 college savings plans allow you to open an account with a small amount—say $25 or $50 a month—if you sign up for an automatic investing plan, with the 529 contributions coming directly from your bank or brokerage account. Some employers allow you to make 529 contributions automatically as a payroll deduction, so be sure to check if your company offers that benefit.

Tax advantages

Earnings in a 529 plan grow federally tax-deferred, which means your money has a chance to compound faster because you don't have to pay taxes on current investment income or capital gains. Even better, withdrawals are tax-free as long as you use the money to pay for qualified education expenses, which typically include tuition, books, school supplies and room and board.

Because contributions to a 529 are made after-tax, they're not federally tax deductible. However, you may benefit from state income tax deductions on contributions or state tax exemptions on withdrawals if you invest in your own state's 529 plan or if you live in a "tax parity state" (Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Ohio or Pennsylvania) that allows you to deduct contributions to out-of-state plans as well.

Typically, you can contribute up to $18,000 a year (or $36,000 for couples) to one or more 529 college savings plans without incurring the gift tax. But it's possible to make a contribution of up to $90,000 ($180,000 for couples) in a single year as long as you treat the gift as occurring over five consecutive years for tax purposes. That said, contributing additional funds to those plans during the five-year period could trigger the gift tax.

States can also put a cap on contributions to a 529 account based on the account value. Most states set the limit in the $300,000–$500,000 per beneficiary range, though some states have higher limits. In other words, once the account value hits the state’s account limit, no new contributions will be allowed, but the account can continue to grow beyond the limit.

Effect on financial aid

Saving for college is a wise move, even if you believe your child may qualify for financial aid. Remember, most financial aid comes in the form of loans, which must be repaid with interest.

The federal financial aid formula typically considers 20% of the assets held in a child's name to be available for education expenses. But, as previously mentioned, a 529 plan is considered your asset, not your child's. As a result, up to 5.64% of the money is generally considered available for college expenses.

For the 2024-2025 school year, if another family member (like a grandparent) or non-relative owns the 529 plan, the account assets won't factor into federal financial aid calculations for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). However, those assets may affect the College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS/PROFILE®) calculations used by about 400 schools and scholarships as part of their financial aid process. (Additional financial assets and resources can be considered in the CSS PROFILE that are not considered in the FAFSA, so contact the institution for more information.)


If your child receives a scholarship and you decide to withdraw the money from a 529 account instead of changing beneficiaries, you'll have to pay ordinary income taxes on any earnings above the amount you contributed. If the withdrawal is more than the amount of the scholarship, you'll have to pay an additional 10% penalty on earnings for the amount in excess of the scholarship. If you withdraw less, the 10% penalty does not apply. (Note that scholarships or grants are tax-free if the individual is a candidate for a degree at an eligible institution and the amounts are used for specific expenses. See IRS Publication 970 for more details.)

If you simply withdraw the money from your account for any non-qualified purpose, you'll have to pay federal income taxes as well as a 10% penalty on the earnings (not on your contribution). Non-qualified 529 withdrawals may also be subject to recapture of state tax credits or deductions that you received when making contributions. Consult with a qualified tax advisor for specifics.

529 prepaid tuition plans

If you know your child will attend a public school in your state, you may be able to take advantage of an alternate 529 plan that allows you to prepay tomorrow's college tuition at today's prices.

A 529 prepaid tuition plan provides certain guarantees for tuition and certain expenses at any in-state public school. Some prepaid plans cover tuition, fees, and food and housing (up to a limit based on the cost of attendance), while others only cover tuition and fees.

If your child ends up attending an out-of-state or private school, state prepaid tuition plans can be transferred toward these more expensive options; however, they usually only pay the average in-state tuition cost.

There is also a prepaid 529 plan for a consortium of specific private schools.

Alternate options for 529s

If your child decides not to attend college, the funds can be used at any eligible educational institution offering higher education beyond high school, including some overseas, trade or vocational schools eligible to participate in a student aid program run by the U.S. Department of Education. You can see a list of eligible schools on the U.S. Federal Student Aid Code List. Funds can also be used to pay for books, supplies and equipment for apprenticeship programs registered and certified with the Secretary of Labor under the National Apprenticeship Act.

If there's money left in your account after your child graduates, you have a number of options for putting it to use. You can change the beneficiary to another qualified family member—including yourself. The IRS broadly defines the term family member to include everyone from the original beneficiary's siblings and parents to step-siblings and in-laws. You can also withdraw up to $10,000 to pay for qualified student loans on behalf of the beneficiary or their siblings. (Note that student loan interest paid by any portion of the $10,000 as a tax-free withdrawal cannot also be deducted for federal taxes.)

Finally, thanks to the SECURE 2.0 Act, you may be able to roll over up to $35,000 from a 529 account into a beneficiary's Roth IRA. To do so, the beneficiary must have earned income up to the amount converted to the Roth IRA, the account must have been open for at least 15 years, and rollovers are subject to Roth IRA annual contribution limits. 

Consider your options

There are a number of resources for financial aid information, including the U.S. Department of Education and College Board. However, it's always a good idea to check with your financial planner and a qualified tax advisor to determine which education savings route is best for you and your family.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness, or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.

The information and content provided herein is general in nature and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended, and should not be construed, as a specific recommendation, individualized tax, legal, or investment advice. Tax laws are subject to change, either prospectively or retroactively. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, individuals should contact their own professional tax and investment advisors or other professionals (CPA, Financial Planner, Investment Manager) to help answer questions about specific situations or needs prior to taking any action based upon this information.

To qualify for the special gift-tax exclusion, you need to file a United States Gift-Tax Return form to treat the gift as if it were made in equal payments over five years. To avoid gift tax, you should make no additional gifts to the beneficiary during those five years. To qualify for gift-tax exclusion, contribution must be received by December 31. If you are a Kansas taxpayer and wish to take a deduction for your contribution, it must be postmarked by December 31.

Qualified education expenses can include tuition, fees, books, supplies, equipment, and room and board. Certain costs associated with K–12 tuition, participation in a registered apprenticeship program, or payment of a qualified education loan up to $10,000 may also be considered qualified educational expenses. The availability of tax or other benefits may be conditioned on meeting certain requirements, such as residency, purpose for or timing of distribution, or other factors. Clients should consult a qualified tax advisor to discuss their individual situation.

The earnings portion of a non-qualified withdrawal is subject to federal and state income tax and a 10% penalty. State tax treatment may vary. Check with your tax advisor for rules on your state tax treatment.

Investing involves risk, including loss of principal.

There is no assurance that the static portfolios or the age-based tracks will either maximize returns or minimize risk or be the appropriate allocation in all circumstances for every investor with a particular time horizon or risk tolerance.

Investors should consider, before investing, whether the investor's or designated beneficiary's home state offers any state tax or other state benefits such as financial aid, scholarship funds, and protection from creditors that are only available in such state's qualified tuition program.

Diversification and asset allocation strategies do not ensure a profit and cannot protect against losses in a declining market.