Key takeaways

  • 529 plans and permanent life insurance are two options available for saving money for a child’s education.
  • 529 plans offer tax benefits and allow account holders to invest in mutual funds, and can be used for tuition payments and student loans.
  • Using a 529 plan is likely the better option for most people, as it offers more flexibility and is typically less expensive than permanent life insurance.

The cost of higher education continues to climb year after year, making the prospect of finding a way to cover the costs more important than ever. You may think that if you have a life insurance plan, it will help your child cover the cost of their education should something happen to you — whether from a death benefit or from taking out a loan against the policy. But there are options available to help you save money for your child’s education without worrying about end of life decisions. A 529 plan offers a tax-free account that can be used toward the cost of your child’s education, whether it is for tuition payments or student loans. We’ll compare 529 vs. life insurance to help you determine which option is best for your situation.

What is a 529 plan?

A 529 plan is an account that is tax-advantaged, earns returns or interest, and allows account holders to spend the funds on approved educational expenses. There are two different types of 529 plans: savings plans and prepaid tuition plans. Both plans are exempt from state and federal income taxes.

Savings plans are more common than prepaid tuition plans. With a savings plan, the account holder invests in certain mutual funds that they choose. Once they withdraw their savings, they can spend them on approved college and K-12 expenses such as tuition and room and board.

Prepaid tuition plans aren’t available in every state and differ in their offerings. Typically, these plans allow an account holder to purchase credits from participating in-state public universities that agree to lock in the current tuition rate for future use.

Who has control over a 529 account?

A 529 plan has two parties involved: an account owner and a beneficiary. An account owner is the adult individual who has control over the 529 account. The account owner is responsible for making the investment decisions regarding the investment and can change the beneficiary to a family member of the original beneficiary. Withdrawals can be made from the account by the account owner to cover the beneficiary’s qualified higher education expenses.

What is permanent life insurance?

Permanent life insurance is a type of life insurance that does not expire, meaning that as long as a policyholder pays the premium, the policy is active and the death benefit will be paid out to their beneficiaries regardless of when they die.

These policies include a savings or investment component that builds cash value. The policyholder can borrow money against these savings or withdraw money from the account during their life, although outstanding loans at the time of death and withdrawals will lower the death benefit amount to your beneficiaries.

Whole life insurance

Whole life insurance is one of the most basic types of permanent life insurance. Policies are designed to last your entire life, assuming you continue to pay the premiums. Whole life policies can be a great option for many, but they aren’t as flexible as some other types of coverage.

Universal life insurance

Universal life insurance, or IUL, is another type of permanent life insurance. This type of coverage offers more flexibility than a whole life policy. Although the policies can be complicated, they also allow you to adjust your death benefit and premium if you need to.

Variable life insurance

Variable life insurance is a third type of permanent policy that grows cash value. However, with a variable policy, your cash value is invested, usually in mutual funds. The growth of the cash value depends on the performance of the funds you invest in.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of using permanent life insurance for college?

Using permanent life insurance to pay for college has a number of advantages, including:

  • Flexibility: Permanent life insurance offers flexibility in how you pay for college. You can typically use the policy’s cash value to pay for college expenses, take out a loan or make withdrawals without incurring any taxes.
  • May not affect financial aid: Using a cash value life insurance policy to fund college shouldn’t be considered when applying for financial aid. If you borrow against it, the amount borrowed is not counted against the financial aid calculations.
  • Easy access to funds: With permanent life insurance, you can access funds at any time for a tax-free distribution for qualified educational expenses or any other purpose.

There are also drawbacks, however, including:

  • Expensive fees: Using permanent life insurance is costly. There are typically upfront fees, recurring fees and a cost of insurance charge, as well as other fees that can make stock and bond fund fees look like a steal. It can take 10 years or more for the cash value to surpass what you have paid in premiums.
  • Must qualify for coverage: To acquire the policy, you need to be insurable. It’s highly unlikely that you can find a child or teenager to be insurable. Not to mention that you would be locking up money for their benefit for years without them being able to access it.
  • Interest payments: If you take out a loan, you will pay interest on it. Loan payments reduce the coverage payable under the ultimate death claim, and additional life insurance premiums have to be paid.
  • Not typically a good replacement for a 529: When it comes to whole life insurance vs. 529 plan, a permanent life insurance policy with cash value is typically not a good replacement due to its complexity and higher cost.

Which is a better investment to pay for college?

When comparing IUL vs. 529, remember that 529 plans offer more flexibility, and investing in a 529 plan is likely the better option for most people. Borrowing to pay for college should not be the main plan, as it can lead to more debt than necessary.

529 plans are designed to help families save for college expenses. While they are administered by each state (meaning different regulations and fees may apply), 529 plans can be a good choice to save for a college education. These plans are also an easy way for extended family or other relatives to help their loved ones manage college expenses. Contributions can be made periodically, although that is not required, making 529 plans a good choice if someone wishes to contribute occasionally and not on a specific schedule. Just keep in mind that money from 529 plans can have an impact on the financial aid you or your child is eligible to receive.

Life insurance can be an important part of your overall financial planning, but it isn’t designed to help you save for your or your child’s education. Taking a loan from a permanent life insurance policy will likely lower the death benefit should you die before the loan is repaid. However, life insurance policies can help you leave a financial gift to your family and loved ones upon your passing. Having a life insurance policy in place could help your child pay for college should you pass away and they, as your beneficiary, receive your death benefit amount.

Frequently asked questions

    • Generally, you can use the money from your 529 plan for anything related to your education, including tuition, fees, books and supplies, on-campus room and board, computers, software, and some expenses if you live off-campus.
    • Yes. Taking a loan from your life insurance policy, no matter what you use the money for, will mean that the potential death benefit is likely reduced until you pay back the loan. Your insurer uses the policy as collateral for the loan, and they will add interest payments to the money that you’ve borrowed.
    • Parents may choose to purchase life insurance for their child for countless reasons. Life insurance at an early age may prevent an issue of uninsurability in the future, could help pay for college through the cash value, or — although no one wants to consider the potential death of a child — could help you pay for end-of-life expenses in the event of a tragic accident or illness.
    • The best life insurance company will vary for every child. Speaking to a licensed insurance agent about your policy needs and requesting life insurance quotes online from a few different providers can help you make your choice.
    • Money from a 529 plan must be used for education expenses, but does not have to be used specifically for tuition at a four-year university. The savings can be used for any type of education, including community colleges, technical schools, vocational and certificate programs, and more. These savings also do not expire, so if you choose to return to school later in life, the money is still available to you.