Despite being promoted for more than a decade as the best way to save for college, 529 plans are a mystery to almost two-thirds of American families. Which means they’re losing out on what is essentially free money for college.
Part of the problem, of course, is that many Americans feel they don’t have any extra money to save for any reason, college included, one recent survey found.
But today—5/29 (get it?)—is a great day to take a closer look at how these college savings plans work. For one thing, so-called “529 Day” comes with cash bonuses. Many hospitals, for example, will give babies born on this day $529 toward college savings. The state of California will kick in $50 in matching contributions made to its 529 accounts today. And Virginia is giving anyone who opens a new college savings account this month a chance to win $10,000.
These short-term promotions are designed to draw attention to the more permanent advantages of the 529 plan. Thirty-four states offer state tax breaks or scholarships to residents who invest in college savings accounts that add, on average, the equivalent of 8.7% to your contributions. And earnings on any 529 investment can be used tax-free to pay for your child’s college expenses, which boosts the net value of your college savings over what you would earn in a regular investment account.
Unfortunately, many parents who can afford to save don’t do so, often because they have misconceptions about the costs and benefits of 529 plans. Here’s the truth behind six of the most common false assumptions that experts say they hear.
It will impact financial aid. Some parents who have saved for college fear that their nest egg could turn into a financial hand grenade when their student applies for financial aid, says Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of The College Solution. And, in fact, every $1,000 you’ve saved in a college savings account can reduce need-based aid offers by up to $56. But many families don’t see that much of a reduction. And even those who do are still wealthier and far more able to pay for college than they would have been without saving, O’Shaughnessy says.
I can’t afford the contribution minimums: A lot of families get paralyzed by the idea that they can’t put a large sum aside, and so they don’t save anything at all, says Betty Lochner, director of the Guaranteed Education Tuition plan in the state of Washington. “They think it’s too steep a hill to climb, and it’s not,” she says. At least 33 states allow you to open accounts with deposits of $25 or less, according to the College Savings Plans Network’s tool to compare plans.
The investments are too risky. Many parents are naturally afraid to put money in investments they don’t understand or trust. But most states offer low-cost, professionally managed plans specifically designed for parents who don’t want to have to worry about the ups and downs of the market, says Joe Hurley, an expert on 529 plans and founder of Savingforcollege.com. For example, the increasingly popular age-based portfolios, many of which are managed by well-respected firms such as Vanguard, Fidelity, or T. Rowe Price, will manage the risk of stock markets by moving money to more conservative portfolios as students get closer to college age.
There are also several independent guides to help you pick a good plan. Savingforcollege.com compiles a quarterly list of the top performing plans, and Morningstar publishes an annual research analysis.
It limits college choices: Although most 529 plans are sponsored by a state, the funds can be used at any accredited college in any state, says Lochner, who is also chairwoman of the College Savings Plans Network, a consortium of state plan administrators.
But my kid’s going to get a full ride! Time for a reality check: The idea that bright students can easily earn full-ride scholarships is a myth, says O’Shaughnessy. Only .3% — that’s less than one third of 1% — of college students receive true full rides, according to research by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors and author of “Secrets to Winning a Scholarship.” Even if your child gets a scholarship to cover tuition, there’s still room and board and books to pay for, both of which qualify as educational expenses for 529 accounts. (Congress is considering a proposal that would expand what qualifies to include computers, software, and internet access.)
Any additional money left over in a 529 can be easily transferred to a college savings account for yourself, or for a sibling, cousin, or future grandchild. Alternatively, you can withdraw 529 money from an account and spend it on anything you want—you’ll just have to pay taxes on the gains (as you would have done for funds from a regular investment account), and there will be a 10% additional tax penalty on those gains. If you are spending money left over in a 529 because your child won scholarships, however, the tax penalty is waived, Lochner says.
My kid will blow the money on video games. Having a nightmare about your daughter going through a rebellious teenage phase and cashing out the college savings plan to finance a backpacking trip across Europe? Not going to happen. Parents remain in control of the account even after a child turns 18.
To learn more about 529 plans and get help figuring out which 529 plan is right for you, check out MONEY’s guide.