Educating the Carolinas

Getting the Most out of Your 529 Plan

529 plans provide a smart, tax-advantaged way to save for college and avoid interest on loans. Today, every state in the U.S. offers at least one 529 plan. While the way plans are structured may vary, they are generally categorized two ways:

Savings: Typically provided by the state, a qualified college savings plan offers a lot of flexibility. There are no income requirements or age limits to open the plan, unlike Coverdell ESAs, which have income and phase-out limits that leave high-earning taxpayers ineligible for tax advantages. Plus, anyone can contribute to the 529, from parents and grandparents to other relatives and friends. You can even open an account for yourself if you want to go back to school.

Prepaid: Typically administered by states, higher education institutions or not-for-profit organizations, prepaid tuition plans are not offered everywhere. They provide parents the opportunity to pre-purchase tuition to a specific university or group of universities based on today’s rates.

Whether you choose a college savings or prepaid tuition plan, there’s one important thing to keep in mind: Withdrawals from 529 plans must be used on qualified higher education expenses. So what is considered a qualified expense?

Qualified Expenses

To gain the maximum advantage of a 529 plan, you can only spend your funds on qualified higher education expenses. These include:

  • Tuition
  • Room and board (for students enrolled half-time or more; includes off-campus rent)
  • Mandatory fees
  • Books and supplies
  • Equipment required for enrollment (such as a computer)

Make sure to check the list of qualified expenses at your beneficiary’s institution. They don’t always include items that may seem necessary, like clothes or transportation. Even a computer is not eligible unless the school has a written policy requiring it for attendance. Fortunately, that requirement is becoming more common across the country.

Tax Implications

The tax advantages of 529 plans are one of the main reasons so many people invest in them. Earnings in a 529 plan grow tax-deferred and withdrawals are free of federal income tax when used for qualified higher education expenses.

But if you use the money in your 529 account for non-qualified purposes, the earnings portion of the withdrawal will be subject to ordinary federal income tax, plus an additional 10 percent federal income tax, and any applicable state income tax. It’s important to note that not all states offer a state income tax deduction for a 529 college savings plan. To find information on your state, visit 

Saving Smartly

When planning and budgeting for your college savings, remember that qualified expenses are the majority of the cost of college. While everyone’s needs and situations vary, one strategy always applies: Every dollar you save today gets you a little closer to your college-savings goals.

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The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. Individuals are encouraged to seek advice from their own tax or legal counsel.