- With the market in flux,
keep an eye on your 529 plan for rebalancing.
- Choose from several investment
options, including index funds and ETFs.
- You can transfer money to
another 529 plan, or into a custodial account.
Conventional wisdom says 529 plans are the best way to save for
college. These plans, based on rule No. 529 of the federal income tax code, are investment accounts that allow tax-free savings
and withdrawals for qualified higher-education expenses. But as the economic climate has shifted dramatically, so have 529
With a student's education depending on a solid 529 plan, what
are the latest developments in these offerings? How can you take advantage of them if you've saved in another type of account
or aren't happy with your current 529 plan? And has the economic crisis changed the rules of college savings?
changes to college savings plans
more 'set it and forget it'
funds and ETFs join investment mix
plan fees are dropping
2009, IRS allowing 2 changes to 529s
credit cards contribute to 529s
sponsorship may be in the works
No more 'set it and forget it'
Early on, most 529s
offered age-based, asset-allocation strategies, says John Carl, president of Brainerd, Minn.-based Retirement Learning Center,
which counsels financial advisers. The older your child grew, the more the plans shifted to a conservative mix of more bonds
and less stocks.
Those plans still exist, but financial experts suggest you keep
an eye on them nonetheless. The market has changed, and you'll want to take advantage of an array of new options.
For instance, if your plan's automatic rebalancing schedule says
it's time to sell stocks and buy bonds as your child reaches college age, you might want to make a change, says Larry Glazer,
managing partner at Mayflower Advisors, a financial consulting firm in Boston. It's probably not wise to sell stocks now after
they've already fallen so far.
"The idea that you can park your money and not worry about it
doesn't work," says Glazer. "You need to examine your funds periodically."
Index funds and ETFs
In recent years, index
funds have become a hot item among 529 plans, says Joseph Hurley, a Bankrate adviser and founder of Savingforcollege.com (a Bankrate company), a Web site that provides information about funding higher education. Index funds invest in a basket
of stocks or bonds that represents a particular benchmark, such as the Standard & Poor's 500. They are not "actively managed,"
meaning there's no trading of securities in reaction to changing market conditions. This keeps their fees lower than other
Also popular are exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, which are special
securities designed to track groups of stocks or bonds, usually market benchmarks as index funds do, Hurley says. The primary
difference between ETFs and index funds is that ETFs are traded like individual stocks, he says. Their price changes throughout
the trading day while index funds have their value calculated only once a day.
ETFs tend to have an even lower expense ratio than index funds,
except with ETFs you have to pay fees because they can only be bought and sold through brokers. "Among broker-sold (college)
plans, ETFs are a fairly new development," Hurley says.
But if recent market volatility has soured you on stock funds,
a number of more conservative instruments are available, including a variety of banking products.
"More 529 programs are offering FDIC-insured banking CDs or savings
accounts," Hurley says. These certificates of deposit are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for up to $250,000.
An equally welcome
development has been the slashing of 529 fees as competition has heated up. Yet 529s remain more expensive than other types
of investments because of the extra level of management and marketing, Hurley says.
For instance, the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund has an
expense ratio of annual operating expenses versus the fund's net assets of just 0.15 percent, one of the lowest around. But
the corresponding 529 plan, which invests solely in the exact same mutual fund, has a total expense ratio of 0.5 percent.
"There's still room for fees to come down," Hurley says.
Fee structures are complex, too, he says. Before choosing a 529
plan, compare fees and understand what they include. A good place to start is at Savingforcollege.com.
Changing your asset allocation
Many 529 investors
have been disappointed by their plan's performance lately. If you think current stock prices represent a buying opportunity,
you might want to shift your 529 portfolio to favor stocks. On the other hand, if recent volatility has turned you off stocks,
you might prefer to move to safer, more conservative instruments such as bonds or bank CDs.
To make such changes, all you have to do is contact your broker
or the plan's sponsor -- Fidelity, Vanguard and others. There's no penalty, as long as you don't do it too often.
"The IRS allows changes to your 529 investment mix one time per
year, but for 2009 it's allowing two changes," says Kara L. Harmon, a financial consultant at Moneta Group in Clayton, Mo.
A rules change in 2009 and 2010 allows computer purchases as qualified
expenses for higher education, says Will Hepburn, president of Hepburn Capital Management in Prescott, Ariz. That means 529
funds can be withdrawn tax-free to purchase PCs and related accessories.
Switching 529 plans
If you want to switch
funds from one state's 529 program to another state's 529 program, known as a rollover, you can do it once every 12 months,
Hurley says. "When setting up your new plan, simply write on the application that you want the funds rolled over from a different
529 plan," he says.
Alternatively, you can withdraw funds from one 529 and deposit
them into another, but you have to do it quickly to avoid paying taxes as well as a 10-percent penalty for unqualified withdrawals.
You must redistribute the funds to a new plan within 60 days to avoid it, Hurley says.
You also can change your 529 plan every time you change the beneficiary,
even if it's less than 12 months since your last 529 rollover. The rule on changing beneficiaries is once every calendar year,
provided the new beneficiary is a sibling, cousin, parent or child of the previous one, says Carl.
If the new beneficiary is the child of the former beneficiary,
the transfer may be considered a "gift," which would be taxable if it's worth more than $13,000, Carl says.
Switching from another type of account
If you have savings
in another type of account and want to switch to a 529, your best bet is to liquidate the old account and place your money
in a new 529 or add it to an existing one, says Greg Merlino, president of Ameriway Financial Services in Voorhees, N.J.
In general, he says, 529 plans can only be funded with cash. You
can't simply reclassify a different type of account.
Still, it can become more complicated if you want to shift funds
from a custodial plan, an account for a minor who takes over ownership of the account upon reaching adult age -- 18 or
21 -- depending on the plan. These would include accounts set up under the Uniform Gifts to Minors Act or Uniform Transfer
to Minors Act.
In such cases, you have two choices:
- Move the custodial account into a 529. That
is, fund the new 529 with the old account instead of cash. The new plan will gain the 529's advantage of tax-free withdrawal
for higher-education expenses, though not the option to change beneficiary, Merlino says.
- Withdraw funds from the custodial account,
which becomes taxable, and promptly reinvest in a 529 in your own name but with the same beneficiary. The IRS can levy penalties
if it thinks you've spent the custodial funds for yourself or some other noneducational purpose. You can, however, change
the beneficiary later.
New contribution methods
There are some new
ways to contribute to 529 plans. "Some 529 vendors offer affiliated credit cards, so a percentage of every purchase goes to
the fund," says Julie Murphy Casserly, a planner at JMC Wealth Management in Chicago and author of "The Emotion Behind Money:
Building Wealth from the Inside Out."
"It's like collecting mileage points," she says.
She also highlights Upromise.com, the Web program that puts a portion of qualified purchases into a designated college savings plan, using multiple credit
cards and even certain store memberships to earn credits.
A greater need than ever, and greater
More corporate sponsorship
of college savings plans may be in the works, Hurley says. Congress is considering giving employers a tax break for contributions
to employees' 529 plans.
There's also a bill that would give low- to moderate-income individuals
a federal income-tax credit for contributions to 529s, as is now available for IRA contributions, under what's called the
Saver's Credit, a program that allows nonrefundable donation s to qualified plans with a dollar-for-dollar reduction in tax
payments, Harmon says. Both measures remain active in Congress, but it is unclear if either will reach a vote in the current
Glazer says that should counter one troubling aspect of the credit
crunch: the increasing difficulty of securing student loans.
Ben Mattlin is a freelance writer from Los Angeles and a contributing editor to Institutional