MONEY Ask the Expert

Why You Might Want More Than One College Savings Account

Robert A. Di Ieso

Q: I have college savings for my children in both education savings accounts (ESAs) and 529s. Is there a difference in the way those accounts are calculated for potential financial aid? Would there be any benefit to consolidating into one type of account? — Mike Spofford, Green Bay, Wisc.

A: The good news: There is no difference in how Coverdell ESAs and 529 savings plans factor into your child’s student aid, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com, a website that helps people plan and pay for college.

Both of these education accounts are considered qualified tuition plans. So as long as they are owned by a student or a parent, the plans are reported as an asset on financial aid forms and have a minimal impact on your aid eligibility (federal aid will be reduced by no more than 5.64% of the value of the account). What’s more, your account distributions are not considered income, Kantrowitz adds.

Education savings accounts and 529s share other appealing features: Your savings grows tax-deferred and withdrawals are tax free as long as the money goes toward qualified education expenses. If you spend it on anything else, you will be hit by income taxes on the earnings as well as a 10% penalty.

One of the biggest differences is how much you can put in. ESA contributions max out at $2,000 per child per year, while 529s have no contribution limits. However, if you put more than $14,000 a year into your child’s 529—or $28,000 as a couple—the excess counts against your lifetime gift tax exclusion and must be reported to the IRS. You can get around that by using five-year tax averaging, which treats the gift as if it were made over the next five years.

Coverdell ESAs give you more investment options—from certificates of deposit to individual stocks and bonds to mutual funds and ETFs; you’re usually limited to a small number of mutual funds in a 529 plan. But you don’t need that much investing flexibility, Kantrowitz notes, since you want to keep risks and fees to a minimum over the short time you have to save for college.

Another key difference is that ESA funds can be spent on K-12 expenses; 529s must wait until college. ESAs also come with age restrictions. You can contribute only while the beneficiary is under 18, and to avoid penalties and taxes you must spend the funds by the beneficiary’s 30th birthday (with a 30-day grace period).

You can get around this age limit by changing the beneficiary to an under-18 close relative of the beneficiary. Or you can roll it over into a 529 plan with no tax penalty. (You cannot roll your 529 into a Coverdell ESA, however.) In fact, later-in-life education is one of the only reasons to consolidate plans. Otherwise, says Kantrowitz, there is no compelling reason to combine your two savings accounts into one.

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Best Way to Give Your Grandkid Cash for College

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “My wife and I will soon be first-time grandparents and would like to make monthly investments for our grandson. What are the benefits and limitations of 529 plans? We live in N.Y., but our grandson will be born in Massachusetts.” —Joe Kostka, Fairport, N.Y.

A: If you want to help with your grandchild’s college costs, a 529 plan is the best route, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com, a website that helps people plan and pay for college.

These state college savings plans have significant tax advantages. Your contributions grow tax-deferred, and withdrawals are tax free as long as the money goes toward qualified higher education expenses such as tuition or books. (If you spend it on something else, you will be hit by both income taxes and a 10% penalty.)

Since you’re funding an education account, you can contribute even more than the annual gift tax exclusion—$14,000 in 2014, or $28,000 as a couple—without running the risk of owing gift taxes. You can gift five times the annual exclusion in a single year, or $70,000 for a single person and $140,000 for a couple (but you then can’t give that child more for the next four years).

In more than half of states, if you use your state’s 529 plan you can deduct at least a portion of your 529 contribution on your state income tax return. New York offers a deduction of up to $5,000 per year ($10,000 for married couples filing jointly). Massachusetts has no deduction. To find out which states offer tax benefits, check out Edvisors’ full list.

For you to get a tax break in New York, you need to be the account holder of the 529 plan (naming your grandchild as beneficiary). But you might want to forgo the deduction and make the parents the account holder (or the child, though custodial 529 plans have other drawbacks, including no option to later change the beneficiary).

When grandparents own 529 plans, the account is not reported as an asset on the student’s FAFSA application for financial aid, but any plan distributions count as income. This can reduce your grandchild’s aid eligibility by as much as half of the distribution amount.

If the parent or child owns the plan, the account is reported as a parental asset on the FAFSA and has a minimal impact on aid eligibility, says Kantrowitz (aid is reduced by no more than 5.64% of the value of the 529). And 529 distributions are not reported as income.

The savings from the state tax deduction are small compared to the harm it could cause to your grandchild’s financial aid, says Kantrowitz.

Other Ways to Stay In Control

To keep control of the account without jeopardizing future financial aid, you have a few options. You can retain ownership of the plan until right before your grandchild takes a distribution and then switch it to your children. While New York allows this kind of account change (not all states do), you risk having to pay back the your tax savings (talk to an accountant).

Another option to minimize the hit to financial aid while still getting the tax break: Wait to take out the money until the child’s senior year of college, after the last financial aid application has been filed. The only risk is that if their expenses don’t outweigh what’s in the account, you could be stuck with leftover funds.

Best Plan Options

While you can invest in any state’s 529 college savings plan, you should opt for a direct-sold 529 plan, which usually has much lower fees than adviser-sold 529 plans do.

“The best option is to focus on a 529 plan with low fees that has an age-based asset allocation that mixes an all-stock fund, such as a S&P 500 fund, with a fund that has no risk of loss to principal,” says Kantrowitz, who prefers plans run by Vanguard, Fidelity, or TIAA-CREF. New York’s plan is run by Vanguard, while the Massachusetts direct 529 is run by Fidelity.

To help you boost what’s in the 529, Kantrowitz also suggests joining a program like Upromise. You earn rebates on everyday purchases, which are automatically put into the 529 plan you specify. Kantrowitz says a family will typically earn between $1,000 to $2,000 in rebates over the lifetime of the account.

MONEY College

Here’s How to Get Your Parents to Pay for Your Kids’ Education

Grandma opening coin purse
Getty

A 529 plan can help grandkids with their education -- and provide a tax break for Grandma and Grandpa.

Many grandparents want to help their grandchildren pay for college, but don’t know the best ways to do that. Good news: They can make those contributions while reaping financial advantages for themselves.

Nearly half of grandparents expect to contribute to their grandkids’ college savings, with more than a third expecting to give $50,000 or more, according to a 2014 Fidelity Investments study. That generosity can also be channeled toward significant tax and estate planning benefits for the grandparents.

Enter the 529 plan, a college savings investment account that provides tax-free growth as long as the money is put toward tuition and most types of college expenses such as fees and books. What’s more, grandparents can score their own financial perks, said Matt Golden, vice president of college savings for Fidelity Financial Advisor Solutions.

Grandparents can use 529 accounts to reap tax deductions or reduce the value of their taxable estates.

Furthermore, 529 plans have limits that might be comforting for grandparents who worry that their grandchildren might spend the money frivolously, or that they might end up needing it themselves. Grandchildren must use the funds only for certain college expenses, such as tuition and books. What’s more, grandparents can keep the money if they need it, subject to penalties and taxes, say advisers.

Working the Angles

For financial advisers, conversations with clients about these issues can build trust, said Charles Wareham, a Hartford-based adviser specializing in college funding strategies. Wareham’s firm holds Sunday brunches for parents and grandparents to teach them about college funding. The events have become relationship-builders, he said.

One way to showcase 529 accounts is by highlighting their advantages over other savings strategies.

“Many grandparents give EE bonds for holidays and birthdays, which can hurt more than help as far as tax purposes,” says Wareham.

For example, grandchildren who receive Series EE bonds as birthday gifts can later be socked with federal income taxes on the interest if they don’t use the funds for college, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

A 529 plan, in contrast, provides for tax-free distributions for college. It also allows grandparents to give the funds to another grandchild if the intended recipient does not go to college or need the money.

Grandparents may also be eligible for state income tax deductions when they make 529 contributions – they are available in 34 states and the District of Columbia, according to FinAid, a website about financial aid. They can also take required minimum distributions from their IRA accounts and transfer those funds to the 529 plan, where they can continue to grow tax-deferred, Fidelity’s Golden says.

Savvy advisers can compare plans from various states and help their clients find the best ones, though usually tax breaks are only available to people who invest in their own state’s plan.

A 529 plan is also a unique way for grandparents to reduce the value of their estates: they can contribute up to five years’ worth of allowable gifts in one year without triggering federal gift taxes. That means clients filing jointly can invest $140,000 in one lump sum per grandchild.

One caveat: 529 accounts could make a grandchild ineligible for financial aid, says Golden. That is because the money, once withdrawn for the beneficiary, counts as income that schools use to determine financial aid awards. But grandparents can avoid the problem by waiting until the recipient’s junior or senior year to hand over the money, when students may not need as much aid, Golden says.

MONEY Kids and Money

This is What Sting Should Have Done for His Kids

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Musician Sting performs during the 44th Annual Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony in New York June 13, 2013. Carlo Allegri—Reuters

Financial Planner Kevin McKinley argues that there are ways to give your children money without having to worry about them becoming trust-fund brats.

Recently rock legend Sting made headlines when he declared that his six children would be receiving little to none of his estimated $300 million fortune.

He joked that he intended to spend all of his money before he died. But on a more serious note, he explained that he wanted his kids to develop a work ethic, and not let the wealth become “albatrosses around their necks.”

His motives are admirable, and he’s certainly within his rights to use his money however he pleases. But as a financial planner and a dad, I’d argue that there is a lot of room between over-indulgence and complete denial. And in fact, used the right way, your wealth can help motivate your child.

Here are three ways you can sensibly use a relatively small amount of your own money—during your lifetime—to encourage your kid’s productivity and self-reliance, without spoiling him rotten.

1. Save something for his college

You don’t need to put every dollar you have in to a college savings account, nor do you need to pay the full cost of some high-priced private school.

But setting a little aside sets an example of your commitment to your child’s education. It also can ensure that she doesn’t have to choose between taking on a six-figure debt load, and not going to college at all.

Let’s say the parents of a recent high school graduate started saving just $50 per month at her birth, and it returned a 6% hypothetical annual rate. By now they would have over $19,000—enough to pay tuition, room, and board for a year at a typical in-state four-year university, according to the College Board.

The remaining years can then be paid for by some combination of parent earnings, a relatively manageable amount of student loans, and the student’s part-time job.

2. Jumpstart retirement savings

Speaking of jobs, once your kid earns his first paycheck you have another chance to use a little money to teach a valuable lesson.

Open a Roth IRA on his behalf by April 15th of the year after he gets his first job. He’s eligible to deposit the lesser of his earnings, or $5,500.

Kudos to you if you can get him to contribute his own money. But if you can’t get a teenager to understand the importance of retirement—I mean, let’s be realistic—you can instead make the contribution out of your own pocket. Or offer to match an amount he puts in, which you can explain to him is the easiest way to double his money. (This is also a good way to set up his understanding of an employer retirement match down the road.)

One way or the other, saving a little now could mean a lot down the road. A $5,000 deposit today into a 16 year-old’s Roth IRA earning the aforementioned 6% annually would be worth almost $100,000 by the time he turns 66.

And if the initial gesture inspires him to deposit $5,000 of his own money into the Roth IRA every year for those fifty years, the account could be worth a cool $1.5 million by the time he hits 66.

3. Help with the house

Hopefully your child eventually becomes an adult in both age and responsibility. That might be the time she wants to buy her first home.

The National Association of Realtors says the median home price in the U.S. as of May of 2014 is about $214,000.

If your child’s (and/or her spouse’s) annual income totals around $60,000, she should be able to qualify for a 30-year 4% mortgage to purchase a home in that price range, leaving her with a monthly mortgage payment of about $1,300. But she may still need to overcome the biggest obstacle to the purchase of a first home: the down payment.

Even the savviest young adult might have a hard time saving up the $42,000 needed to make a 20% down payment on that average purchase price.

Helping her meet that down payment requirement will not only get her the satisfaction of home ownership, but it will help her build equity in something with her own money. And it might mean you have a place to stay if, like Sting, you end up spending all of your money before your time is up.

__________

Kevin McKinley is a financial planner and owner of McKinley Money LLC, a registered investment advisor in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He’s also the author of Make Your Kid a Millionaire. His column appears weekly.

Read more from Kevin McKinley

Four Reasons You Shouldn’t Be Saving for College Just Yet

Yes, You Can Skip a Faraway Wedding

MONEY College

Grandma’s Willing to Pay $50,000 of College Tuition—if Only You’d Ask

New survey finds that more than half of grandparents want to help with 529 savings, according to Fidelity. Here's hoping your folks are in that generous majority!

With college admissions season behind us, many high school seniors are eagerly anticipating heading to college in the fall—while parents, on the other hand, are likely be anxious about how they’ll pay for it. Fortunately, many of them appear to be getting help from their own parents: According to a new study by Fidelity Investments, many grandparents are contributing to 529 college savings plans to help finance the high cost of education.

The study found that 53% of grandparents are either already saving or plan to save to assist in paying for their grandchildren’s college costs. Among those who have been socking away money, the median contribution is $25,000, though 35% said they expect to contribute at least $50,000. That’s enough to cover more than two years tuition, room and board at an in-state public college, and more than a year at a private college.

The 529 accounts specifically are an attractive option for grandparents because of the flexibility they offer, said Keith Bernhardt, vice president of college planning at Fidelity. Earnings are not taxed as long as the money is used toward education expenses. Additionally, grandparents are free to change the beneficiary of the account or take the contributions back at any point should they find themselves needing the money for their own retirement. (They will, however, owe income taxes and a 10% penalty on any earnings withdrawn.)

While 529s offer many benefits, families should understand the difference between how parent and grandparent accounts are treated in financial aid assessments. Any distribution from a grandparent-owned 529 counts as untaxed income on the following year’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Parent accounts, on the other hand, are counted as assets on the FAFSA— not as income—and factor into determining the Estimated Family Contribution.

“Income is assessed much more heavily,” said Joe Hurley, head of Savingforcollege.com.

Because grandparent accounts have a larger impact on financial aid, he added, owners of these accounts might want to wait to use the account until the final year of college, or they could shift the ownership to the parent.

While the amount and frequency of 529 contributions depends on individual financial circumstances, Mary Morris, chair of the College Savings Foundation and CEO of Virginia529, said she’s seen an overall increase in grandparents getting involved education expenses. Anecdotally, she estimated that 20% of Virginia accounts are owned by grandparents. Many contributions are made as gifts on special occasions, a pattern Morris expects to see more often going forward

Despite the trend, however, “there’s a real disconnect” between generations when it comes to communication about finances, Hurley said. According to the Fidelity survey, 90% of grandparents said they would likely make a contribution to a college savings plan—if asked.

“Parents feel it’s their responsibility to help their children if necessary,” Hurley said. So they’re “reluctant” to ask for help.

But the price tag of higher education has made that conversation one worth having.

“Parents cannot save enough, on average, to pay the full cost of college,” Bernhardt said. “Grandparents recognize that and want to chip in.”

MONEY 529s

What Penalty Will I Pay On Leftover 529 Money?

Q: I recently graduated college and have money left in my 529 plan. I would love to use the funds to help relieve some of my debt. What will the penalty be for withdrawing funds for this purpose? —Stephen, San Francisco

A: You’re right to assume a penalty. While you can withdraw money from a 529 college savings plan tax free for qualified higher-ed expenses like tuition, fees and books, you’ll be dinged if you use the funds for other purposes. You will have to report the amount distributed as taxable income next April—and will therefore owe tax on it at your ordinary rate—plus you’ll pay an additional 10% federal penalty tax on your account’s earnings. (By the way, if for some reason your debt is student loans, you’re not off the hook; the IRS doesn’t consider them a qualified higher education expense.)

There is one out: If you’re a recent graduate—as in, you’ve graduated in the same calendar year as when you plan to make the withdrawal—you can still take out funds tax free for qualified education expenses. So, if you paid out-of-pocket for books your spring semester, and haven’t already taken a 529 distribution to cover that expense, you can withdraw an equal amount from your account anytime during the rest of that year tax free even though you’re no longer a student, says Joe Hurley, founder of SavingforCollege.com and a certified public accountant. Keep in mind that, while you don’t need any evidence to make the withdrawal, “you just need to have proof available in case of an audit.”

If you still have money left in your 529 after that, look at any scholarships you received during your college career, says Hurley. The IRS doesn’t want to punish people for saving up for expected tuition that ended up being paid for with scholarships. So if you can attribute your leftover balance to those scholarships, the 10% penalty on non-qualified distributions is waived. The IRS does not state whether the distribution and scholarship have to occur in the same calendar year when applying for the waiver, but Hurley says most tax experts believe it does not need to match up. He suggests tracking the total amount of scholarship aid you received during college and using that amount to justify having the penalty waived.

Can’t use that workaround? Empty the account now while you’re still likely to be in a lower income tax bracket, says Hurley. If you wait a few more years, you could move up to a higher tax bracket and lose more of those funds to the IRS. Or, if you think you may want to go back to school at some point, your best bet will be to sit on the funds.

MONEY Kids and Money

Four Reasons You Shouldn’t Be Saving for College Just Yet

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KidStock—Blend Images/Getty Images

You should make these moves before you start funneling away money for tuition, says financial planner Kevin McKinley.

As graduation ceremony season nears its peak, I’m seeing a steady drumbeat of stories warning of ever-rising tuition costs and education debt loads. It’s no wonder many parents of smaller children are panicked into thinking they have to drop everything and start saving all their money for their kids’ college expenses RIGHT NOW. Hang on just a second there, moms and dads. Although I’m certainly in favor of getting parents to save, there are four things I’d suggest you should do—and one you shouldn’t—before making “saving for college” the top priority. (Already completed all of these steps? Check out the MONEY 101 section on college for help getting started on your college savings journey.) DO save for retirement Since it’s possible to borrow money to pay for college but not to fund retirement, working parents have to put their own needs first. You should start by putting money in any pre-tax retirement savings plans at work (such as a 401k or 403b), at least up to any available matching contributions from employers. If no employer-sponsored plan is available, those with earned income should fully fund an IRA. You may be able to make a deposit for a stay-at-home spouse, as well. You can save up to $5,500 in 2014, or $6,500 if you’re 55 or older. The tax savings on the contributions to a pre-tax retirement plan will likely exceed what the deposits to a college savings account are likely to earn, especially in the first year. Then if you end up with a well-funded retirement, you can tap their overstuffed accounts once you hit 59 1/2—and have passed the penalty zone—to pay for college expenses as needed or pay off student debt incurred by your children. DO open a Roth IRA For eligible depositors, Roth IRAs can serve as a hybrid college/retirement savings account. These accounts—which allow for tax-free withdrawals—are typically thought of as a retirement savings vehicle. But if parents want or need the money before retirement for college (or other) costs, they can withdraw the Roth IRA contributions at any time for any reason with no taxes or penalties whatsoever. As an added bonus, money held in parents’ retirement accounts is less likely to be counted in a school’s need-based financial aid calculation than funds in the child’s name. DO pay off credit cards Double-digit interest rates charged on outstanding balances—the average APR is now around 16%—usually greatly exceed what you’d earn on your money elsewhere. So you’re better off erasing your debt before putting a lot of attention toward college. Plus, an improved credit score will make it easier for you to obtain higher education loans for your kids should the need arises in the future. DO prepare for the worst The majority of parents of younger children haven’t established wills, guardians, and other necessary legal steps—much less purchased enough life insurance to ensure that the tragic death of a parent will only be an emotional nightmare, and not a financial disaster as well. Moms and dads should see lawyer as soon as possible, and plan on spending a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the complexity of the situation. You should then purchase enough term life insurance to cover all future expenses—including college—that the survivors might endure. DON’T pre-pay the mortgage Well-meaning parents often try to pay down their housing debt as quickly as possible, thereby saving interest expenses and freeing up money that would otherwise go toward the monthly mortgage payment. But that step should only be considered if the parents are ahead of their retirement savings schedule, have no other debt outstanding, no future major expenses on the horizon, and have at least a year’s worth of living expenses saved up. Those parents who don’t meet these criteria should stop paying anything extra on their mortgage until they have fulfilled the other aforementioned financial obligations. Otherwise, parents could end up house-rich and cash-poor—just when it’s time to pay for their kids’ college expenses and their own retirement. _____________________________________________________ Kevin McKinley is a financial planner and owner of McKinley Money LLC, a registered investment advisor in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He’s also the author of Make Your Kid a Millionaire. His column appears weekly.

MONEY

What is the best 529 savings plan for you?

529s are just like other investments; research has shown that low-cost index funds generally end up providing higher returns to investors than funds that spend money on managers who try to pick and choose among stocks.

Opting for passive fund 529s can save as much as 0.85% in expenses, says Savingforcollege.com founder Joe Hurley.

But which of the many low-cost funds should you choose?

It depends on your state. If you live in one of the three states — Indiana, Utah, or Vermont — that offers tax credits, it pays to stay in state. You can get significant rebates on your 529 investments.

For instance, an Indiana couple who earns $100,000 and invests $5,000 in one of their state’s 529 plans, would save $1,040 on their state taxes, according to Morningstar.

Another 27 states allow residents who invest in their home state’s 529 to deduct at least some of their contributions.

Check this Morningstar report to see whether sticking with one of your state’s plans offers significant tax benefits. For instance, an Iowa couple earning $100,000 who contributes $5,000 a year to their state’s 529 would get a reduction in their state tax bill of $449. But South Dakota residents would do well to shop for an out-of-state 529; the same couple would only get $40 back on their taxes.

Also check to see if your state’s plan has gotten poor ratings, like some of South Dakota’s 529 investment options have from Morningstar.

An additional five states — Arizona, Kansas, Maine, Missouri, and Pennsylvania — offer tax parity, which means residents get tax breaks for investing in any college savings plan in the nation.

See what kind of college savings tax breaks your state offers its residents:

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