MONEY Taxes

How To Make the Most of the Single Best College Tax Break

College campus
Andersen Ross—Getty Images This scene can save you money on your taxes.

Nearly 2 million Americans pay too much in taxes because of confusion over education benefits. Here's how to avoid that mistake.

Back in January President Obama proposed consolidating many overlapping education tax benefits, a plan that appears long dead. Too bad, since millions of taxpayers make mistakes writing off education expenses on their 1040s and pay hundreds in unnecessary taxes as a result.

A 2012 Government Accountability Office report found that education tax breaks were so complicated and poorly understood that 1.5 million families who were eligible for one failed to claim it and overpaid their taxes by more than $450 a year. Another 275,000 families were so confused that they opted for the wrong benefit and overpaid by an average of $284.

Here’s how to get college tax breaks right on this year’s return and beyond.

Stick With The Winner

In any given year, you’re allowed to claim only one of these three tuition tax benefits: The tuition and fees deduction, the lifetime learning credit or the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC).

Don’t be distracted by all the options. The AOTC is the most lucrative and broadest education tax benefit available, and it should be your first choice, says Gary Carpenter, a CPA who is executive director of the National College Advocacy Group.

The AOTC, available to a student for up to four years, cuts your federal taxes dollar-for-dollar. You can take the credit for up to $2,000 in tuition or fees, and 25% of another $2,000 of qualified expenses, for a total max of $2,500. Married couples with adjusted gross incomes of up to $180,000, or $90,000 for single filers, are eligible to claim the AOTC.

Even if you owe no federal income taxes, you can get a refund check for up to $1,000 by claiming the AOTC.

Maximize Your Benefit

Now that you know that the AOTC is tops, you need to know how to get the full benefit on the maximum $4,000 in eligible expenses, which can be complicated in these four situations.

1. You have a super generous financial aid package: Did your little genius get such a big scholarship that you’ll pay less than $4,000 for tuition, fees, and books? Once you’re done celebrating, call the scholarship provider and ask if you can use some of that money to pay for room and board instead, advises Alison Flores, principal tax research analyst with The Tax Institute at H&R Block.

This may seem odd, since scholarships are tax-free only if you use the money for tuition and fees. But by shifting some of the aid so that you pay $4,000 worth of tuition, fees, or book costs out of your own pocket, you can get the maximum benefit from the AOTC. That $2,500 credit typically outweighs whatever additional taxes you’d have to pay on a re-allocated scholarship, says Flores.

2. Your tuition payments are low: One way students attending low-tuition colleges can make sure they get the full advantage of the AOTC is by paying a full academic year’s tuition by Dec. 31, instead of waiting until the start of the second semester in January to pay that semester’s bills.

3. You’ve saved in a 529 plan: You can claim the AOTC only for tuition that you paid for with taxable savings, notes the NCAG’s Carpenter. When you take money from a 529 college savings plan to pay your tuition, that withdrawal is tax-free. So there’s no double dipping. You can’t also claim the AOTC for those funds.

Assuming you don’t have enough in the 529 plan to pay the entire annual tuition, room and board bill (and who does?), earmark the 529 withdrawal for room and board, and pay at least $4,000 in tuition with taxable savings.

4. You’re taking out large loans. If you’re using loans to cover tuition, you can use the money you borrowed to claim the AOTC. If you and your spouse report a joint income of less than $160,000, you can also deduct the interest on your payments.

Parents can deduct the interest on loans they take out for their children’s education, but not on payments they voluntarily make on the student’s loans, Flores notes.

Take Care With the Paperwork

Once you’ve done everything else right, don’t lose a tax break at filing time. For that, you need to keep good records.

Colleges typically don’t report all the information you need to claim all of your education tax breaks on the 1098-T forms they send out each year. They usually provide only the amount they’ve billed you, explains Anne Gross, vice president of regulatory affairs for the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO).

To get all of the tax goodies, you’ll have to show the IRS how much you paid, and where the money came from. Some colleges will allow you to gather that information from their online accounts portal, Gross says. But as a backup, it’s smart to keep your own records.

Shift Gears as a Super Senior or Grad Student

Once you’ve used up a student’s four years of eligibility for the AOTC, try for some of the smaller, more limited education tax breaks. If you earn less than $128,000 as a married couple, switch to claiming the lifetime learning credit starting in year five of your dependent student’s higher education. There is no limit to the number of years you can receive this credit of up to $2,000.

If you make between $128,000 and $160,000, you can write off up to $4,000 from your income using the tuition and fees deduction.

Keep Cutting Your Taxes Post-Graduation

When school is finally over, the tax breaks don’t end. Singles earning less than $80,000 and couples earning less than $160,000 can deduct up to $2,500 a year in student loan interest. Parents with federal PLUS loans can claim their interest payments on this deduction. But parents who are voluntarily making payments on their children’s student loans cannot claim that interest.

Catch a Break When You Save Too

Finally, President Obama’s plan to eliminate tax-free withdrawals from 529 college savings plan has been squashed as well, preserving the tax benefits on the money you’ve set aside for your, your children’s, or your grandchildren’s college costs. Although contributions to a 529 are not deductible on your federal income tax return, the earnings grow tax-free. And as long as you spend the money on qualified college expenses, withdrawals are tax-free as well.

What’s more, 32 states give you a break on your state taxes for your 529 contributions (or, in New Jersey’s case, a scholarship). These benefits are worth exploiting: A Morningstar report found that, on average, they equate to a first-year boost on your investment returns of 6%. Check this map to see if you live in a state that rewards college savers.

MONEY College

Don’t Be Too Generous With College Money: One Financial Adviser’s Story

When torn between paying for a child's education or saving for retirement, parents should save for themselves. Here's why.

Saving money isn’t as easy — or as straightforward — as it used to be. Often, people find they have to delay retirement and work longer to reach their financial goals. In fact, one of the most common issues parents face these days is how to save for both retirement and a child’s college fund.

Last month, for example, I met with a couple who wanted to open college savings funds for each of their three children. They were already contributing the maximums to their 401(k)s with employer matches. I applauded their financial foresight; it’s great to see people thinking ahead.

Then I gave them my honest, professional opinion: Putting a lot of money into college funds isn’t going to help if their retirement savings suffer as a result. Sure, they’ll have an easier time paying tuition in the short term, but down the road their kids may end up having to support them — right when they should be saving for their own retirement.

The tug-of-war between clients’ retirement and their children’s education can lead to difficult conversations with clients, and difficult conversations between clients and their children. Who wants to deprive their children of their dreams and of their top-choice school?

I try to be matter-of-fact with my clients about this sensitive subject. I start with data: If you have x amount of money and you need to put y amount away for your own retirement, you only have z amount left over for your children’s college.

I also talk a little about my own experience — how my parents were able to write a check for my college tuition. But college was less expensive then, and costs were a much smaller percentage of their salary than they would be today. Times have changed.

As much as we all want to be friends with our children, we have to put that aside. I tell people that if they don’t know whether they should put their money in a 529 account or their retirement account, they should put it in their retirement account. Financial planners commonly point out that you can get a loan for college but you can’t get one for retirement.

I don’t think people realize that. I think that they just want to do right by their children.

After I talk about my own experience, I move on to my recommendation. I tell clients that one way to approach this issue with their children is to make them partners in this venture. Tell them that you’re going to pay a portion of the cost of education. Set a budget for what you can afford, then work with them to find a way to fill in the gaps. Make a commitment, then stick to it.

I explain to my clients that choosing their retirement doesn’t mean that they can’t help your children financially and it doesn’t mean they are being a bad parent or are being selfish. It does mean that they should prioritize saving for retirement.

When clients tell me that they feel guilty for putting their retirement first, I ask them this: “Where is the benefit in saving for your children’s college but not for your own retirement?” Without a substantial nest egg, I tell them, you could end up being a burden on your children when you’re older.

And there’s an added bonus, I tell them: If your kids see you putting your retirement first, it might teach them about the importance of saving for their own retirement. That could end up being the best payoff of all.

Read Next: Don’t Save for College If It Means Wrecking Your Retirement

———-

Sally Brandon is vice president of client services for Rebalance IRA, a retirement-focused investment advisory firm with almost $250 million of assets under management. In this role, she manages a wide range of retirement investing needs for over 350 clients. Sally earned her BA from UCLA and an MBA from USC.

MONEY First-Time Dad

How to Avoid Spoiling Your Child

Luke Tepper
One-year-old Luke, having his cake and eating it too

First-time dad Taylor Tepper learns how not to be the kind of parent he fears becoming.

Our son, Luke, recently celebrated his first birthday. Family and friends generously gave the tyke rubber soccer balls, race cars, pegs, hammers, marbles, and chic winter gear. Luke now has more toggle coats than I do.

Luke’s things, like a rebel army, have begun to outnumber my own. He now has nearly a dozen bins filled with plastic and wooden products crafted by large companies and bought by suckers like me. His clothes occupy a spacious three-drawer dresser, while mine are packed tightly in a small closet. He has twice as many pairs of socks as I do. This all feels silly. Give Luke the option to play with an empty milk carton or a fluffy stuffed animal, and he’ll be shaking the carton between his hands like a boy possessed before you can blink. The box carries more value than the toy inside.

As I cleaned up after Luke’s party, I started thinking about the nature of toddlers and their stuff, and I’ve been mulling over a few issues ever since. The first has to do with spoiling. I know that you can’t really spoil a baby—infants’ needs must be met. But am I developing habits of indulgence now that will ossify over time and lead me to spoil Luke when he’s older? Am I setting myself up to be a bad parent? The second issue has to do with the presents themselves, the catalyst of my spoiling concern: there must be a better use for all that money.

The truth about spoiling

On the first question, the experts are clear. “You’re not going to spoil a baby,” says Tovah P. Klein, assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College and author of How Toddlers Thrive. “They need to be comforted and cared for.”

That Mrs. Tepper and I do. We also warm Luke’s baby wipes, pull him around in a red wagon for hours on end, and turn on “Sesame Street” whenever he’s systematically broken us down. My fear is that our good-natured, responsive parenting will morph into something more unseemly as he ages. It’s not a big leap to image a world where I’m cooking a second dinner because 2-year-old Luke is dissatisfied with the first. I shudder when scenes like that unfold in my mind’s eye.

The key thing for me to recognize, says Klein, is that I don’t need to protect my son from unhappiness.

“If you think, my role is to make him happy all the time, or to entertain him, the child doesn’t learn how to handle hard times, like when he’s angry or frustrated or sad,” Klein says. “Your goal as parents is, how do you help him deal with anger when limits are imposed.”

That’s an intuitive point, but one slightly difficult to reconcile with experience. Luke is our first child, so everything is new to us. Call it the Unbearable Lightness of Parenting. So in the next five to 12 months, as he develops a sense of self and forms his own ideas of what he wants, it will be challenging to hold a firm line. How do I know this tantrum isn’t just a test of limits but a true expression of real pain? Will I have the stomach to stay the course?

“He’ll be happy if you love him and let him know you’re there,” Klein told me. “Put up some reasonable limits and help him through those frustrating moments. That is what counters spoiling.”

Children, especially really young ones, crave structure. It’s the lack of it that results in insecurity. So if he doesn’t want to eat what I’ve cooked for dinner, fine. But I’m not frying up another meal.

Getting presents—and other stuff—under control

Limits are certainly in order for all of his toys. Between Christmas and his birthday and well-meaning friends doting on the little guy, we have enough Elmos and plastic cell phones and wooden school buses to open up our own boutique. This overflow of generosity leads to a short-term concern as well as a longer-term one.

In the here and now, the problem is sheer volume. “Children need less material goods,” says Klein. “More stuff tends to overstimulate them.” We already try to highlight only a few options for him to play with, but we’ll resolve to be even more selective going forward. We’ll offer him one bin to tear apart rather than two.

Later on, though, I worry about relying on toys (and ice cream and other objects that cost money) as a means of reinforcement. I don’t want to get into the habit of giving him things all the time so that he’ll do X or Y. Plus, I don’t think I’ll be able to afford it.

“Not every reward has to be a material reward,” says psychologist and parenting expert Lawrence Balter. “Sometimes rewards can be privileges as they get older.”

I was discussing the issue of presents at Luke’s party with a friend from college, and she asked me if we had starting saving for his college fund. (We started a 529, but it’s tragically underfunded.) Instead of toys, she asked, why don’t you ask people to donate to the fund instead?

Which is what we’re going to do from now on. Rather than stuff our bins full of perfectly fine but ultimately useless things, we’ll ask friends and family to chip in to help pay for his insanely expensive education. While that might make the act of gift-giving a little less fun for them, it will help us afford an essential good that will dramatically improve his life.

Plus, it’s one less spaceship for me to trip on in the middle of the night.

More From the First-Time Dad:

MONEY College

My Son Isn’t Going to College. Now What?

College savings seemed to go according to plan, but now the beneficiary has strayed from the script, and the parent is worried he'll get the funds.

Q. My son is turning 18 and I’ve saved more than $200,000 for him for college. He doesn’t want to go. Some of the money is in UTMAs, some in a 529 Plan and some in savings bonds. I don’t want him to live off the money and not get a job. Help!

A. Bet that threw you for a loop.

Each of the kinds of assets you saved for your son is treated a bit differently, so let’s take stock of what you have.

Custodial Accounts

The assets you saved in a custodial account — Uniform Transfer to Minor Act accounts, or UTMAs — will be his when he reaches the age of majority, said Bryan Smalley, a certified financial planner with RegentAtlantic Capital in Morristown.

In New Jersey, the age of majority is 21. That means that there are three more years before the assets officially become your son’s.

“A lot can happen in the next three years: your son could start a career and be self-sufficient — therefore not needing the money to support his lifestyle — he could start his own company and use the UTMA funds to help grow the business, or he could end up deciding to go the college,” Smalley said. “Who knows, a few years of earning minimum wage and seeing all of his friends move on with their lives may be all the motivation he needs to hit the books once again.”

The 529 Plan

The 529 account is different. As long as you’re the owner of the account, you retain control of the funds and there is no time limit on when you need to use them,” Smalley said.

If your son decides to go to college in a year or two, the funds will be there.

“If your son does not go to college, you can always use the funds for another of your children’s college education — if your son is not an only child — or hold onto the account and use it for a future grandchild’s college education,” Smalley said.

Savings Bonds Earmarked for College

If either of those options are not of interest to you, you can always withdraw the funds from the 529 account and use them elsewhere, Smalley said. But that move comes with a price. You’ll have to pay a 10% penalty plus taxes on the earnings in the account if you use the funds for anything other than qualified higher education expenses.

On your savings bonds — assuming they are either EE or I bonds — if they are owned in your name, your son does not have a right to them even though they were purchased with the intent to pay for his college education, Smalley said. You may continue to hold onto them or cash them in.

“Please note that if they are not used to pay for higher education expenses the interest on the bonds is not deductible on your tax return,” Smalley said.

If you purchased bonds in the name of your son, you can have them reissued in your name. The caveat here is that you cannot have them reissued if they were purchased with your son’s own money, such as with money from an UTMA.

“As you can see, not all is lost. While it must be disappointing that your son does not want to go to college now, it is not an irrevocable decision,” Smalley said. “He could always change his mind and go later or perhaps he finds his success on a path that does not travel through a college education.”

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY Ask the Expert

This Formula Can Help You Figure Out How Much to Save for College

Ask the Expert - Family Finance illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “My husband and I have been saving for our kids’ college since they were born. They are now 4 and 6. Our initial plan was to just throw what we could into a savings account, then we moved that money to a 529. We make small monthly contributions, and also contribute some money whenever we get a bonus or they get a birthday gift from grandparents. However, we still don’t have a number in mind for what we actually need by the time they start school. How much should we be saving for them each month?” —Ryan Phelan

A: Congratulations for starting the saving process early and taking full advantage of compounding in that 529 account. That’s less money you’ll have to borrow later.

Now for the bad news: By the time your eldest child enters college, four years at an in-state public school will cost an average $130,000 and a private-school education will run $235,000 if prices continue rising at the rate they have for the last five years.

Footing the full freight will be unrealistic for most folks, especially those like you who have more than one child to put through school. Besides, you should also be saving for your own retirement—since you can’t fund that stage of life with loans as you can your kid’s education.

Mark Kantrowitz, author of Filing the FAFSA and senior vice president of the Edvisors Network, offers a more reasonable goal: Try to save a third of your kids’ expected college costs by the time they’re on campus. The next third can come from income (plus grants and scholarships) at the time tuition needs to be paid, and the final third you or your kid can borrow.

The idea is to spread the cost out over time to make that staggering price tag more manageable, says Kantrowitz. You’re putting together past income (what you’ve saved), current income (while the child is in school), and future income (yours or your child’s to pay back the loans).

So in your situation, a good goal would be to put away at least $43,000 or $78,000 for your eldest child, depending on whether you’re aiming to pay for public or private school.

You can estimate a savings number for your younger child—and anyone else can figure it out for their own kid—by figuring out the full cost of an average college education the year the child was born, since college costs increase by about a factor of three over any 17-year period, says Kantrowitz.

For help translating the big number into what you need to save each month—based on your state, income, children’s ages, and current 529 savings—use this 529 college savings planner tool from Savingforcollege.com.

More from Money 101:

Where should I save for college?

How much should I save for college vs. retirement?

What’s the best 529 plan for me?

MONEY College

How College Costs Will Change in 2015

Although college costs are still increasing, they're increasing at a much lower rate than they have in recent years. Interest rates and repayment for federal loans have eased as well.

MONEY College

How to Give the Gift of College This Holiday Season

stacks of money wrapped with a gold bow
Deborah Albers—Getty Images

The kids in your family could probably use cash towards school more than a new toy (or at least parents might prefer that). Here's how to make it happen.

Saving for college can be tough, but many families do not tap a potentially generous resource: relatives and friends.

Various companies are trying to change that by making it easier for parents to ask for, and receive, contributions to college savings plans. As the holidays approach, these providers are stepping up their efforts to publicize these options and convince families to try them.

“I think people can feel comfortable going out and saying they prefer gifts that are more meaningful,” says Erin Condon, vice president of Upromise, a college savings and cash rewards program, run by Sallie Mae.

“They can say, ‘Instead of giving our son a truck, how about helping us save for college? Or giving him a smaller truck and putting $20 into his college savings plan?'”

Named after Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code, 529 college savings plans allow contributors to invest money that can grow tax-free to pay for qualified higher education costs.

Although typically sponsored by states, the plans are run by investment companies and account balances can be spent at any accredited college or vocational school nationwide.

Upromise released a survey last week that found seven out of 10 parents would prefer their children received money for college rather than physical gifts. Upromise offers a way to let others do just that: it is called Ugift, a free online service that families can use to solicit their social networks for college contributions.

Friends and family are emailed bar-coded coupons they can print out and send in with a paper check. The service is available to customers of the 29 Upromise-affiliated 529 plans, which include two of the country’s largest: New York’s 529 College Savings Program and Vanguard 529 College Savings Plan in Nevada.

Upromise has found that customers who enlist others to help them save via the site’s rewards program and shopping portal typically accumulate three times as much as customers who do not, Condon says.

The 529 plans run by Fidelity Investments also offer a free service that allows parents to set up a personalized contribution page and share links via email or social media that allow direct contributions to a child’s college savings account via electronic check.

Fidelity released its own poll recently, which found 9 out of 10 grandparents surveyed said they would be likely—if asked—to contribute to a college savings fund in lieu of other gifts for a holiday, birthday or special occasion. Fidelity manages 529 plans for Arizona, Delaware, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.

These programs tap into the crowd-funding zeitgeist that has seen people appealing to their social networks to help pay for creative projects, charitable causes as well as personal costs such as medical expenses, travel and weddings.

As college costs rise, more people see the need for such help, according to Joe Hurley, founder of the 529 information site SavingForCollege.com.

“It’s a reaction to material gifts, and also the rising cost of college that’s creating so much anxiety for parents,” says Hurley.

Create a College Registry

A few sites facilitate contributions to any 529 plan. GradSave, for example, lets parents set up a free college savings registry that accepts contributions from friends and family. The money is held in an FDIC-insured account until the parents transfer it to their 529 accounts.

Leaf College Savings, meanwhile, offers an education gift card that anyone can use to make a 529 contribution for someone else. The giver loads an amount between $25 and $1,000 onto the card and gives it to the parent, who can then redeem it at the Leaf site and transfer the funds to his or her 529 plan. If the parents do not have a plan, the site helps them set one up.

The gift card, however, comes with an “activation fee” of at least $2.95 plus another $2.95 to get a physical card rather than one sent by email or Facebook or printed out on your computer.

But givers do not need an intermediary to contribute to a college savings plan, says Hurley, since virtually every 529 plan accepts third-party gifts. Those who want to contribute directly to a child’s account typically will need to include the account number and perhaps the child’s Social Security number, but Hurley notes there is a way to bypass that requirement.

“Just make the check out to the 529 plan, hand it to the parents and say, ‘Here, put it into the plan,'” he says. “That’s pretty easy.”

One thing that may not be easy is figuring out who gets the tax break for the gift. Most states offer tax deductions for 529 contributions when the contributor is a parent. Some offer the break to any contributor. And some do not offer any tax break at all.

The solution? Talk to your tax professional.

Related: More on college savings plans

MONEY college savings

One Foolproof Way to Earn More on Your College Savings

handing money over
PM Images—Getty Images

Tax breaks, matching grants, and scholarships can effectively boost your investment by an average of 6%.

Savers in many states don’t have to rely solely on the markets to build up a college fund. Grants or tax benefits can effectively boost the value of your investment in a 529 college savings plan by 10%, 20% or even 30%, according to a newly released analysis by Morningstar.

In the 32 states (plus the District of Columbia) that offer subsidies to college savers who contribute to their home state’s 529 plan, the average benefit is a one-time boost worth about 6%.

In New Jersey, parents who seed a NJ BEST 529 account with $1,200 when their kid is about six and kick in at least $300 a year after that will qualify the student for a one-time $1,500 freshman scholarship to an in-state public university. That’s a return of 31.5% on a total investment of $4,800.

Most states simply give parents a tax credit or deduction for a 529 contribution, which translate into a lower state tax bill and thus more money in your checking account. That’s money you can use for anything—including adding to your 529 or offseting the cost of saving for any college.

Residents of Indiana, for example, qualify for a state tax credit worth up to 20% of what they invest in the state’s 529 plan, which can reduce a typical family’s state tax bill by $480. Vermonters get tax breaks typically worth 10% of their investments in their local 529 plan.

Five states offer tax breaks for an investment in any 529, allowing residents to shop for the best plan anywhere. Two of those five states reward both choices: Maine offers a 1.7% tax benefit for any 529 investment, but also provides matching grants for saving in the state’s 529. Pennsylvania’s has tax breaks worth about 3% for any college savings, but it also offers scholarships to hundreds of mostly private colleges across the country for those who invest in-state.

Fifteen states either have no income tax or don’t offer any subsidy to college savers. Check out this 50-state map to see whether to invest in your state, or out of state.

Beware of the Gotchas

The author of the Morningstar report, Kathryn Spica, says you should watch for two big potholes when trying to maximize these freebies.

1. High fees: Some states charge such high fees in their 529 plans that any parent with a child younger than, say, 13 should probably forgo the tax benefit and choose a low-cost, highly-rated direct-sold plan. But for parents of teens close to college, the immediate tax benefits can outweigh only a few years of higher fees.

For example, D.C. offers tax breaks that amount to a one-time 8.5% effective boost to your college savings. But D.C.’s plan charges a high annual fee of 1.35% of assets. Utah’s plan, which gets the highest rating by Morningstar, charges only 0.2%. Within eight years, D.C.’s higher fees would likely eat up your tax benefit.

2. Changing rules: North Carolina cancelled its tax break for 529 savings last year. And Rhode Island has stopped enrolling new parents in its savings match program, Spica says. Parents in states that end or slash tax benefits should take a few minutes to run the numbers and see which investment option best meets their needs.

The Value of the Tax Breaks

The chart below lists the states that offer benefits for investing in the home state 529 as of fall 2014. Morningstar’s estimated value of the subsidy is based on a family earning $50,000 a year and saving $2,400 a year for college. The fees are those charged for an age-based fund for a 7- to 12-year-old that employs a moderate (as opposed to conservative or aggressive) investment strategy.

The final column is Money’s recommendation on whether parents of kids younger than 13 should stick with their state’s best 529 option, or risk giving up the state’s benefit and shop for the best plan nationally.

If your state is not listed here, you won’t be giving up anything if you simply pick the best plan available. Here are Money’s recommendations for the best 529s nationally, based on a combination of the fund’s fees, the state’s tax benefits, and the ratings given the plans by Morningstar and Savingforcollege.com.

State Est. value of state tax benefit on savings of $2,400 a year Effective yield on $2,400 investment Average fee for moderate equity plan for 7- to 12-year-old Should parents of kids under the age of 13 invest in-state or shop?
Indiana $480 20% 0.57% In-state
Vermont $240 10% 0.45% In-state
Oregon $216 9.0% 0.38% In-state
District of Columbia $204 8.5% 1.35% Shop
Idaho $178 7.4% 0.75% In-state
Arkansas $168 7.0% 0.60% In-state
South Carolina $168 7.0% 0.12% In-state
Montana $166 6.9% 0.88% Shop
Iowa $156 6.5% 0.26% In-state
New York $155 6.5% 0.17% In-state
Wisconsin $150 6.3% 0.23% In-state
Georgia $144 6.0% 0.33% In-state
West Virginia $144 6.0% 0.32% In-state
Maine $140 5.8% 0.30% In-state
Virginia $138 5.8% 0.61% In-state
Oklahoma $126 5.3% 0.51% In-state
Alabama $120 5.0% 0.32% In-state
Connecticut $120 5.0% 0.40% In-state
Illinois $120 5.0% 0.19% In-state
Mississippi $120 5.0% 0.65% Shop
Nebraska $120 5.0% 0.48% In-state
Utah $120 5.0% 0.22% In-state
New Mexico $118 4.9% 0.36% In-state
Maryland $114 4.8% 0.88% In-state
Colorado $111 4.6% 0.39% In-state
Michigan $102 4.3% 0.28% In-state
Louisiana $96 4.0% NA In-state
Ohio $90 3.8% 0.23% In-state
North Dakota $68 2.8% 0.85% Shop
Rhode Island $38 1.6% 0.20% In-state
Pennsylvania Variable N.A. 0.38% In-state
New Jersey Up to $1,500 N.A. 0.77% In-state can pay if student definitely will attend a participating college
MONEY 529 plans

Why the Best College Savings Plans Are Getting Better

stack of money under 5-2-9 number blocks
Jan Cobb Photography Ltd—Getty Images

Low-cost 529 college savings plans continue to rise to the top in Morningstar's latest ratings.

Competition is creating ever-better investment options for parents who want to save for their kids’ college costs through tax-preferred 529 college savings plans, according to Morningstar’s annual ratings of the 64 largest college savings plans.

In a report released today, the firm gave gold stars to 529 plans featuring funds managed by T. Rowe Price and Vanguard. The Nevada 529 plan, for example, which offers Vanguard’s low-cost index funds, has long been one of Morningstar’s top-rated college savings options. The plan became even more attractive this year when it cut the fees it charges investors from 0.21% of assets to 0.19%, says Morningstar senior analyst Kathryn Spica.

“In general, the industry is improving” its offerings to investors, Spica adds.

You can invest in any state’s 529. In many states, however, you qualify for special tax breaks by investing in your home-state 529 plan. If you don’t, you should shop nationally, paying attention to fees and investment choices.

Morningstar raised Virginia’s inVEST plan, which offers investment options from Vanguard, American Funds and Aberdeen, from bronze to silver ratings, in part because Virginia cut its fees from 0.20% to 0.15% early this year.

Virginia’s CollegeAmerica plan continued as Morningstar’s top-rated option for those who pay a commission to buy a 529 plan through an adviser. American Funds, which manages the plan, announced in June it would waive some fees, such as set-up charges.

But there are exceptions. Morningstar downgraded two plans—South Dakota’s CollegeAccess 529 and Arizona’s Ivy Funds InvestEd 529 Plan—to “negative” because of South Dakota’s high fees and problems with Arizona’s fund managers.

Rhode Island’s two college savings plans moved off the negative list this year after the state started offering a new investment option based on Morningstar’s recommended portfolio of low-cost index funds. Given the potential conflict of interest, Morningstar did not rate the plans in 2014.

Joseph Hurley, founder of Savingforcollege.com, which also rates 529 plans, says he hasn’t analyzed the Morningstar-modeled funds because they are new and don’t have enough of a track record. But, he adds, the Rhode Island direct-sold 529 plan offers several low-cost index fund options.

Here are Morningstar’s top-rated 529 plans for 2014:

State Fund company Investment method Expenses (% of assets) for moderate age-based portfolio (ages 7 to 12) Five-year annualized return for moderate age-based portfolio (ages 7 to 12)
Alaska T. Rowe Price Active 0.88% 11.25%
Maryland T. Rowe Price Active 0.88% 11.42%
Nevada Vanguard Passive 0.19% 8.65%
Utah Vanguard Passive 0.22% 8.01%

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MONEY bonds

Why Does Grandma Still Buy EE Savings Bonds?

granddaughter hugging grandma after graduating from college
Alamy

This popular investment pays much lower interest than people think and probably won't return much in time for college.

Last month I made a presentation to a bunch of high school students on the importance of basic financial planning skills. I had hopes of starting a conversation about saving for large purchases such a college education or a car. But the students were surprisingly interested in learning about EE savings bonds — those gifts that grandparents and other relatives give children to commemorate life events such as a birthday, first communion, or a Bar Mitzvah.

One student said he had savings bonds that were worth over $2,000. On special occasions, he said, his grandparents would give him a $50 EE savings bond. They told him that in eight years it would be worth $100 and then it would continue to double in value every eight years thereafter.

The Truth About Savings Bonds

Savings bonds that double in value every seven or eight years, however, have gone the way of encyclopedia salesmen, eight-track tapes, and rotary telephones. EE bonds sold from May 1, 2014 to October 31, 2014 will earn an interest rate of 0.50%, according to the US Treasury website. It’s not surprising that these interest rates are so low; what is surprising is that people are still buying these securities based on very old information.

You can buy EE savings bonds through banks and other financial institutions, or through the US Treasury’s TreasuryDirect website. The bonds, which are now issued in electronic form, are sold at half the face value; for instance, you pay $50 for a $100 bond. The interest rate at the time of purchase dictates when a bond will reach its face value.

This rate is detemined by discounting it against the 10 year Treasury Note rate, currently about 2.2%.

Years ago, you could calculate when your bond would reach face value by using a simple mathematical formula called the Rule of 72. If you simply divide an interest rate by 72 you can determine the number of years it will take for something to double in value. So, let’s try it. 72 divided by 0.5% = 144 years. Ouch!!

Fortunately, the Treasury has made a promise to double your investment in a EE savings bond in no less than 20 years. Actually it’s a balloon payment. So if you happen to cash out your EE bond in it’s 19th year, 350th day, you’ll only get the interest earned on the initial investment. You need to wait the full 20 years to get the face value. At that point, you’ve effectively gotten an annualized return of 3.5% on your initial investment.

So let’s recap. If Grandma wants to buy a EE savings bond for a grandchild to cash in to cover some college costs, she ought to buy that bond at the same time she’s pressuring her kids to start working on grandchildren. I joke, but, I think it’s very important to recognize the world has changed, and savings bonds don’t deliver the same solutions that many people remember from years past.

But back to the boy who stood up in class to talk about the savings bonds. What about the bonds his grandparents had purchased over the past several decades? Well many of those bonds may in fact be earning interest rates of 5% to 8%. It just depends on when they were purchased. The Treasury has a savings bond wizard that will calculate the value of your old paper bonds. Give it a shot. You may be pleasantly (or unpleasantly) surprised at the value of the bonds you have sitting around.

———-

Marc S. Freedman, CFP, is president and CEO of Freedman Financial in Peabody, Mass. He has been delivering financial planning advice to mass affluent Baby Boomers for more than two decades. He is the author of Retiring for the GENIUS, and he is host of “Dollars & Sense,” a weekly radio show on North Shore 104.9 in Beverly, Mass.

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