The Ultimate Guide to 529 College Savings Plans

5 min read


Are you looking for ways to save for the future while also getting some tax benefits? A 529 college savings plan may be the right option for you.

A 529 plan is a savings account that is specifically designed to help you or your family save money for college tuition. You can use this plan to build up a nest egg that can be used to pay for college, and you may also be eligible for some tax breaks as well.

This guide will explain what a 529 plan is, how it works, its pros and cons, and how to get started with one. We will cover topics such as contribution limits, how the money is invested, and other important details about this type of savings plan. By the end of this guide, you will have a better understanding of how a 529 savings plan can benefit you or your family in the long run.

What Is a 529 Plan?

A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged financial tool designed to grow and protect money for college. It is one of the most popular ways to save for college today, allowing you to save in either a prepaid tuition plan or an education savings plan. With either option, your money will grow over time and become available when you need it.

The prepaid tuition plan allows you to purchase tuition credits at today's rates, locking in the cost of future tuition expenses. This type of 529 plan is best for those who invest early in their child's education and want to avoid the effects of rising tuition costs.

An education savings plan works similarly to a 401(k) retirement account—you can invest money for your child in various options such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds and more. Education savings plans are ideal for those who want maximum flexibility and control over their 529 investments. With this option, there are no restrictions on how you use the money—either for qualified higher education expenses or non-qualified expenses (though withdrawal fees may apply).

Related: Best Investment Accounts for Kids

How Do 529 Plans Work?

Here's how it works: You make contributions to the 529 plan either in annual installments or with a lump sum. Your contributions are then invested in various investment portfolios, such as stocks, bonds, and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). When you're ready to withdraw from your 529 plan to pay for qualified higher education expenses, you can do so without paying any federal income taxes on the earnings.

In some cases, your state may offer state tax deductions or credits for contributions made to your 529 plans. Additionally, your withdrawals from a 529 plan may also be eligible for some type of tax break at the state level. It's important to check with your state's Department of Revenue for more information about whether your 529 plan qualifies for these benefits.

Pros and Cons of 529 Plans

A 529 college savings plan is an investment vehicle, designed to help parents start saving for their children’s future higher education costs. But before you start investing, it’s important to understand both the pros and cons associated with this type of plan.


The 529 plan offers a range of advantages that can make it an attractive choice for those thinking of investing in their children’s future:

1) Tax Advantages: 

Contributions to 529 plans are not tax-deductible, but any earnings within the account grow tax-deferred and are free from federal taxes when used for qualified education expenses. In some states, contributions may also be deductible from state income taxes.

2) Flexibility: 

The funds in a 529 plan can generally be used at any eligible higher education institution in the United States and abroad, regardless if it's public or private.

3) Low Maintenance: 

Unlike other investments with possible stock market fluctuations and changing rates, 529 plans are easy to maintain and have predetermined rates that are not reliant on stock market performance.

4) Grants & Scholarships Don’t Count as Income: 

Most grants and scholarships aren't counted as income when it comes to assessing eligibility for need-based student aid, so your withdrawals from a 529 account won't count against you either.

Source: Vincere Wealth


As with any financial decision, it’s important to consider all the potential drawbacks as well:

  • Penalties for Non-Qualified Withdrawals: If you don’t use the money in a 529 plan for qualified educational expenses (such as tuition or books), you will incur taxes and penalties on any withdrawal you make that isn’t qualified - including the 10% penalty imposed by the IRS on non-qualified distributions from a 529 plan.

  • Limited Contributions: Some states have limitations on how much can be contributed to one beneficiary in one year

How to Contribute to a 529 Plan:

Contributing to a 529 plan is easy. All you need to do is decide on the amount you'd like to contribute and make sure it's within the plan's contribution limits. Generally speaking, most states allow $235,000 to $550,000 in contributions per beneficiary over a lifetime, but it depends on the state you live in. Some states have higher limits—so it's best to check the plan's specific guidelines.

Once you've selected a plan and determined your maximum contribution limit, there are three ways you can contribute:

- Direct contributions: You can make one-time payments or ongoing monthly payments into a 529 plan through payroll deduction or automatic bank transfers.

- Gift contributions: You can also make a gift of up to $17,000 in 2023 (up from $16,000 in 2022) (or $85,000 at once) as long as it does not exceed the plan's lifetime limits. This gift will not be subject to federal income taxes for either the giver or recipient. However, 529 plan contributions are excluded from this rule. You can contribute the equivalent of five years' worth of payments all at once.

Consider the case of a grandmother who wants to make a one-time lump-sum contribution to a 529 plan in the amount of $85,000 ($17,000 x 5 years). No taxes will be due as long as the person doesn't make another contribution within the next five years.

- Rollovers: A 529 college savings can also be funded by rolling over money from another account such as an IRA or Coverdell ESA. Just keep in mind that funds must be contributed within 60 days of being rolled over in order to avoid being taxed as income.

No matter your method of contributing, make sure that all funds are deposited into the 529 by December 31st of each year in order for those funds to count toward your annual contribution limit and take advantage of any tax benefits associated with that year's contributions.

A Look at the Different Types of 529 Plans

There are two main types of 529 plans: prepaid tuition plans and college savings plans. Both types of 529 plans offer tax benefits and come with a variety of investment options. Here's a brief overview of each:

Prepaid Tuition Plans

Prepaid tuition plans allow you to purchase "tuition credits" at today's prices for college in the future. The biggest advantage is that you can lock in current tuition costs, meaning you won't have to worry about rising tuition prices. The downside is that many prepaid tuition plans only cover tuition costs and not room, board and other fees.

College Savings Plans

College savings plans allow you to invest your money into an approved investment account with the goal of having enough money to cover college expenses when the time comes. College savings plans typically have more flexible investment options than prepaid tuition plans, but your money may not earn as much interest as it would with other forms of investments.

How to Pick the Right 529 Plan for Your Needs:

You have plenty of options when it comes to picking the right 529 plan for you, and weighing up the pros and cons is key here.


Fees vary from plan to plan, so it’s important to compare costs between different providers to make sure you are getting the most value for your money. Many plans charge an annual maintenance fee, which can range from 0.25% to 0.75%, but some providers may waive the fee for certain circumstances or accounts.

Investment Options

Take a look at the investment options offered by each plan. Most provide diversified portfolio options – such as age-based investment options that adjust allocations as your child grows older - though this varies from state to state. Consider what best fits your child’s goals and risk tolerance, and whether you need more control over investments than what is available in a 529 plan.

Tax Advantages

529 plans offer tax advantages in some states: contributions may be eligible for a state tax deduction or credit; earnings are not subject to federal or most state taxes; and withdrawals are free of both federal and state taxes if used for qualified higher education expenses. Be sure to research the rules in your own state carefully before settling on a 529 plan provider.

Identify Costly Habits

When tracking and reassessing your emergency fund, it’s important to identify any spending habits that could be hindering the growth of your savings. Be honest with yourself about how you are managing funds, and take steps to ensure that unnecessary expenses don't impact the increase of your savings goal.

By taking proactive steps to track and reassess your emergency fund on a regular basis, you will have the peace of mind knowing that you are prepared for whatever life throws at you.

Grab your FREE BUDGET template here!

What Are Qualified Expenses for a 529 Plan?

When you plan for college expenses with a 529 plan, you want to be sure that you know exactly what is considered a qualified expense. The good news is that approved costs are quite expansive. Qualified expenses for 529 plans cover everything from tuition fees and room and board, to course-related books and materials, and even computer technology required for educational purposes.

In addition, up to $10,000 in tuition expenses per beneficiary can be withdrawn from your 529 plan to pay for tuition at an eligible K-12 private or religious school each year – so long as the institution meets certain requirements outlined by the IRS.

To ensure that your 529 plan is used appropriately, make sure you track the money that you have set aside in the account in order to ensure it’s used solely on qualified expenses – otherwise, any funds not used on these types of costs will be subject to income taxes and 10% penalty fees.

Source: Vincere Wealth


In conclusion, 529 college savings plans are an effective way to save for college expenses and give families the flexibility to meet a variety of their financial goals. These plans provide tax benefits that can help reduce the burden of college costs and create a more secure financial future for families. However, it's important to understand the fees and other considerations associated with 529 plans, so it's best to consult a financial advisor before investing. Whether you choose a 529 savings plan, prepaid tuition plan, or a combination of the two, the most important thing is to start saving as soon as possible in order to make sure your children have the best possible chance at achieving their higher education goals.

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I hope this information was helpful. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out. I’d be happy to chat with you. 

Connect with Josh

About the Author

As Managing Partner of Vincere Wealth, Josh assists clients in navigating financial challenges and making sound financial decisions. Having someone guide you in making sensible financial decisions today can have a substantial impact on your future financial wellbeing. Josh takes great pride in guiding customers through the complexities of taxes, real estate, businesses, employer stock and international financial planning.

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