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529 plan vs. Roth IRA: Here’s how families can use both to save for college

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You don’t have to be a scholar to understand that college is expensive and only becoming even more so. Over the last 20 years, tuition and fees at private U.S. universities have risen a staggering 144 percent, according to U.S. News – vastly outpacing the rate of inflation. And while public universities tend to be cheaper, their prices have gone up even faster, with out-of-state tuition rising 171 percent and in-state tuition increasing 211 percent.

If you have to foot the bill, you’ll want to maximize your savings by taking advantage of every available option. Before using a normal taxable account or having to take out a student loan, you’ll want to look at the 529 college savings plan, which was created expressly to assist in paying college bills. But you might also consider using your Roth IRA, because of its many tax advantages.

Here are the pros and cons of using a 529 or a Roth IRA to pay for college.

What is a 529 plan and how does it work?

A 529 plan, also called a qualified tuition plan, is a tax-advantaged savings plan sponsored by states, state agencies or educational institutions.

It can come in one of two versions:

  • Prepaid tuition plans, in which the saver purchases credits at participating universities for future use. Plans typically do not cover room and board.
  • Education savings plans, in which the saver opens an investment account to pay for qualified college expenses, including tuition as well as room and board.

The contributions to a 529 plan can grow tax-deferred, and any funds in a 529 plan are not subject to federal income tax (and in many cases, state taxes, too) as long as they’re used for qualified educational expenses. A 529 plan can be used for college as well as for K-12 education. It can also be used for vocational and trade schools.

Savers don’t get an immediate tax benefit from the federal government for contributing to the plan, since contributions are made on an after-tax basis. However, many states do offer tax deductions or credits for contributions.

In addition, the contribution limits can be higher for 529 plans than they would be for an IRA. While the maximum contribution in each state’s plan may differ, any contributions over the maximum gift tax exclusion – $15,000 for 2021 – could make you liable for gift taxes.

The 529 plan can also be a useful vehicle for extended family to help pay for college. “Anyone can contribute to a 529 plan – this is an opportunity for relatives to assist in funding,” says Philip D’Unger, a certified financial planner at CAPTRUST. And if they’re overfunded, “these accounts can be rolled to a 529 plan for the benefit of other family members.”

Pros and cons of 529 plans

“529 savings accounts are an incredible tool that provide savers with a combination of state income tax deductions, tax-deferred savings, and tax-free distributions for qualified educational expenses,” says Joshua C. Young, a certified financial planner at RMB Capital.

Those are the biggest positives of such plans, but 529 plans also offer an advantage over the Roth IRA, especially for parents who are on the younger side.

“Since earnings cannot be withdrawn from a Roth IRA prior to age 59½ without paying taxes, parents who will be under that age when their child is in college will likely be better off investing in a 529 plan,” says Jim Mahaney, vice president of strategic initiatives at Prudential Financial.

Note that this caveat applies only to the earnings in a Roth IRA, not the contributions, says Morris Armstrong, founder of Morris Armstrong EA, a tax preparation firm. “If you are younger, the amount of your basis will come out first (your contributions) and be tax-free.”

But 529 plans have some downsides, too. Perhaps the most obvious is their inflexibility. While the plans can be used for schooling, that’s all they can be used for, at least without penalty.

If you’re unable to use the money for qualified expenses, you may have to withdraw the money. In that case, you’ll owe income taxes on the earnings – but not the principal you contributed – and you’ll be assessed an additional 10 percent penalty on any earnings that you withdraw.

But there are alternative ways to use the funds without incurring taxes or penalties: change the beneficiary to a sibling or other family member, pay for your own ongoing education or save the money for a grandchild, among other options.

In addition, education savings plans may offer only a set choice of investments, so that you’re unable to invest in exactly what you want. You’ll typically have a choice of fund portfolios, and the range of options may not meet your needs.

What is a Roth IRA and how does it work?

A Roth IRA is a type of IRA that allows you to save money in a tax-advantaged account and then withdraw it tax-free in retirement, which is considered to be age 59½. So savers contribute after-tax money today in order to get a tax break tomorrow. (That’s in contrast to a traditional IRA, where the tax break comes today.) The Roth IRA allows you to contribute a maximum each year – $6,000 in 2021, and an extra $1,000 catch-up contribution for those over 50 years old.

The Roth is especially flexible because of how it allows the saver to withdraw money.

“For someone under the age of 59½,” Mahaney says, “money contributed to a Roth IRA can be withdrawn tax-free and penalty-free if used for higher education expenses, assuming the account has been open at least five years….For anyone over the age of 59½, however, withdrawals of both contributions and earnings are both tax-free and penalty-free.”

Pros and cons of Roth IRAs

“Roth IRA accounts have the same taxable benefits as a 529 account,” says Matt Boelter, financial advisor at Viridian Advisors. “They also have the added benefit of not being limited to paying for school.”

The Roth IRA also offers benefits in terms of available investments, unlike the 529, where investment choice is limited to funds that may not offer low-expense options. That’s not the case with a Roth, which allows you to invest in nearly anything.

“In a Roth, you can luck out with Apple or Netflix, or plod along with a portfolio of low-cost index funds representing the market and academic growth,” says Armstrong. “You have substantially more control over the Roth account.”

Boelter says that it’s common to see grandparents use a Roth IRA for a grandchild’s education. He sees older investors converting some of their traditional IRA assets to a Roth IRA, though they spread out the conversion over years in order to minimize the tax bite of conversion.

This approach has several benefits, says Boelter: “It reduces their future required minimum distributions from the traditional IRA, allows the grandparent to keep more control over the money, and the money doesn’t get counted against financial aid.”

And it’s important to understand how the Roth IRA affects financial aid.

“Families applying for financial aid under the federal methodology will want to keep in mind that Roth IRAs are not reported as an asset on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form,” says Mahaney.

However, Roth IRAs can affect a student’s eligibility for aid if distributions are made from them.

“Income has a larger impact on the FAFSA calculation than savings does,” says D’Unger. “Withdrawals from a Roth IRA would count as income for the FAFSA form even if it is not taxable, which would have a significant impact on future eligibility.”

Bottom line

It’s important to remember that the 529 plan and the Roth IRA were created for specific use cases, even if you can use the Roth IRA to fund educational expenses. So each account is best-suited to its intended purpose.

“529 plans will provide the best benefit for college savings,” says D’Unger. Meanwhile, the Roth IRA “is generally beneficial for education savings when the saver is unsure of the intended use of the funds or needs to save for multiple goals in one account.”

So the Roth IRA’s flexibility can make it a better backup account, while the 529 plan is a better primary account.

“We do not recommend that our clients use a Roth to fund education expenses unless they have exhausted other options, such as a 529 account or non-retirement assets,” says Young of RMB Capital.

Young adds: “It is important to remember that the greatest value of a Roth IRA is the power of tax-free compound growth over the long-term. Depleting these assets early can potentially reduce retirement security for some families and take away a valuable wealth-transfer tool for others who have multi-generational financial planning goals.”

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Written by
James Royal
Senior investing and wealth management reporter
Bankrate senior reporter James F. Royal, Ph.D., covers investing and wealth management. His work has been cited by CNBC, the Washington Post, The New York Times and more.
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