Benefits of a 529 Plan: 8 Reasons to Start Saving for College Today

March 18, 2022

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Hi everyone! We've got a great guest post today from Mary Morris, the CEO of Virginia529! Mary is a leading voice and advocate for the benefits of a 529 plan and that's exactly what she's going to share with us today. So parents and grandparents, check out this post from Mary and take advantage of time and invest before our kiddos are off to college. Enjoy!

With the season change comes the opportunity to consider your finances and the future higher education needs of your family.

In 1996, Congress enacted Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code. This established federal tax rules for 529 plans, which allow families to save in advance for the costs associated with higher education.

But more than 25 years later, only about 35 percent of Americans have heard of 529 plans. Of those, only one in four connect the plans with higher education savings.

And while the most well-known way to use a 529 plan is to cover expenses at colleges, universities and vocational schools, there are many other benefits to these accounts. 

Benefits of a 529 Plan

1. Federal and State Tax Benefits

Earnings on your accounts grow free from federal tax when used for qualified higher education expenses.

Depending on your state of residence, you may be entitled to additional tax advantages. More than 30 states offer a full or partial tax deduction or credit for 529 plan contributions. For instance, Virginia taxpayers with a Virginia529 account are eligible to claim $4,000 per account, per year on their state income taxes.

Note from Andy: We enjoy a state tax deduction in our great state of Michigan too!

2. It's Never Too Late — or Too Early!

Whether your child was just born or has just started high school, there’s no time like the present to put away money for their education. The sooner you start, the more time your investment will have to grow.

3. Fits Your Budget

You can start small, and still save big with a 529 account. With Invest529, Virginia529’s direct-sold savings option, you can open an account with as little as $10 and save at your own pace.

Managing your account is easy, too! Small, regular contributions add up, so set up automatic monthly contributions through your bank or your employer.

4. Your Family Can Help, Too

Ask family and friends to contribute to your child’s 529 account. This could be as an alternative to toys and other gifts for holidays or birthdays. Many plans offer gifting flexibility with gift cards, certificates and online gifting centers all available.

5. Flexible Enough to Achieve the Dream

Money saved in an Invest529 plan can be used for qualified higher education expenses at two- or four-year public or private colleges, universities and community colleges nationwide and overseas.

6. Use it on K-12 Tuition

Withdrawals of up to $10,000 per beneficiary per year for tuition may be taken as a qualified higher education expense from a 529 plan. The costs of textbooks, room and board, supplies and other expenses for K-12 education, however, are not covered. 

7. Repay Your Student Loans

In 2019, Congress established a lifetime limit of $10,000 from a 529 plan that can be used without any penalties or tax consequences to repay a qualified student loan of the beneficiary or a qualified student loan of the beneficiary’s sibling, including federal and most private loans.

8. Registered Apprenticeship Programs Qualify

Anyone wanting to pursue a career in the trades can use a 529 plan to support that pathway by using 529 funds to pay for certain eligible expenses associated with their apprenticeship.

Benefits of a 529 Plan: Frequently Asked Questions

Are 529 Accounts only for children?

No. 529 plans are for learners of all ages. That can be a child attending a private K-12 school, a teen preparing for their college years, or an adult returning to school to upgrade their career skills.

What happens if my child doesn’t go to college?

You will never lose control of your money. The money put into the account is always yours.

If plans change, withdraw the money and you’ll only pay taxes on the interest earned. Earnings that are not used for qualified education expenses, however, are subject to a 10 percent federal tax penalty (with certain exceptions for death, disability and scholarships).

Does my child have to go to college in the state where I open the account?

Your child can use their funds at any eligible college, no matter where your 529 savings plan is based. This includes four-year public and private colleges, community colleges, trade schools and even some international schools.

How does a 529 account affect financial aid?

Any non-retirement investment or savings account may affect eligibility.

For accounts owned by parents and dependent students, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) assesses 529 assets at a maximum of 5.64 percent of the value when calculating the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) for financial aid eligibility.

Accounts owned by other parties will impact eligibility differently. For more information, consult fafsa.ed.gov or an educational financial aid adviser.

Related Content: UTMA vs. 529: How Are These Accounts Different?

Can a 529 Plan Lose Money? 

As investments in your child’s future go, a 529 plan is one of the most effective options out there, not only because it comes with tax benefits but also because it can generate sizeable returns while your child grows to college age.

However, as with any investment, the risk is part of the equation when opening and managing a 529 plan – risk that carries added weight, thanks to the purpose of the funds at stake. Naturally, those considering a 529 plan want to know if a 529 plan can lose money, but the answer isn’t a straightforward one.

When managing a 529 plan, the likelihood of losing money will depend on a variety of factors – like market conditions and the type of investment portfolio that you have selected.

Is a 529 Better than a Traditional Savings Account?

Putting money in a savings account is one of the simplest ways to save. It’s also considered low risk because it largely preserves your principal. But even in a high-yield account, the interest you’ll earn might not be enough to keep up with tuition inflation. You may miss out on the higher returns and tax savings you could achieve by investing through a 529 college savings plan.

Although in general, portfolio options available in 529 plans are subject to market risk, including loss of principal, some plans offer low-risk options such as FDIC-Insured portfolios that are bank insured and preserve capital without taking on the level of risk found in other options.

Families must decide whether the flexibility gained from not being required to use these accounts for education expenses outweighs what they give up by not using an account whose tax advantages, financial aid considerations and investment options are specifically designed for college.

Final Thoughts on the Benefits of a 529 Plan

When choosing the best 529 college savings plan for your family’s needs, consider your state of residence, your risk tolerance and your investment time horizon.

There are 529 plan rankings available, but the 529 plan that best suits one family’s needs won’t necessarily meet yours. Ultimately, your goal is to choose the 529 plan that maximizes the amount of money available to pay for college.

Be sure to research all your options using a resource such as Savingforcollege.com. If your state doesn’t offer benefits for residents, you can choose any other state’s plan.

About Mary Morris

Mary Morris
Source: Mary Morris

Mary Morris, CEO of Virginia529, brings more than three decades of financial and taxation services experience to her role. As an industry authority and she possesses expertise in some of the timeliest issues of the day. These include higher education access, education savings, student loan debt, disability savings, financial literacy and more.

As a knowledgeable and trusted voice, Mary is regularly featured by the most respected national and local media outlets.

Her experience – as the CEO of the nation’s largest 529 plan, as a private lawyer in a national law firm and as a public servant (having served as the Treasurer of Virginia and Virginia Senior Assistant Attorney General for Tax and Finance) – uniquely qualifies Mary as an exceptional resource for financial, taxation, social and legal matters.


Would you agree with the benefits of a 529 plan? What do you think of the advice from Mary Morris?

Please let us know in the comments below.


Andy Hill

Andy Hill is the award-winning writer, speaker and podcaster behind Marriage, Kids and Money - a platform dedicated to helping young families build wealth and thrive. Andy's advice and personal finance experience has been featured in major media outlets like Business Insider, MarketWatch, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and NBC News. Trusted as a personal finance influencer and corporate financial wellness speaker by global brands like JLL, Andy’s message of family financial empowerment has resonated with listeners, readers and viewers across the world. When he's not "talking money", Andy enjoys wrestling with his two kids, singing karaoke with his wife and watching Marvel movies.

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