Should You Change Your College Savings Strategy as a Result of COVID? Ep# 112


In times of crisis and uncertainty, the potential need to access our savings seems to rise to the forefront. However, many of the accounts that we utilize for our savings are tied to certain restrictions. For example, the age 59.5 restriction for retirement account withdrawals without facing a 10% penalty, or HSAs and 529 accounts which must be used for medical expenses and education expenses respectively. These unique accounts are great tools to efficiently invest our savings given the tax deferred or tax-free growth. The issue though is what happens when we need funds to cover items that don’t meet the parameters and restrictions set forth by these accounts.

COVID-19 has me pondering my own finances and how well equipped they are to be flexible in times of need. These circumstances we’re in have produced many implications to our finances and society with a big one being the impact of education from pre-school age all the way through college.

We’ve seen a shift to more online educational resources in recent years and this has only escalated with the impacts of COVID-19. College students have spent the better part of their spring 2020 semester living at home and completing their coursework online. While certainly not the college experience these students anticipated, they’re still able to receive a quality education without the cost of living in a dorm room on campus or 3+ meals per day at the campus dining hall. We’ve even seen some refunds returned to students which if were withdrawn from a 529 account originally, then that money needs to go back into the 529 account to avoid taxes/penalties.

So what does this mean for our college savings strategy? For my two 2.5-year-old boys I’ve been saving monthly in a 529 account since they were born with intention to provide a portion of their college education from the 529 account. However, I’ve reconsidered this strategy this week and am shifting to utilizing a couple other accounts for their future savings. At Financial Symmetry we had many discussions with clients about not over-funding college savings accounts given the high taxes and penalty if not used for education along with discussions about savings for the parents own retirement and financial independence.

Roth IRA

A great savings tool as the contributions can we withdrawn at any time tax-free, and the earnings grow tax free and can be withdrawn after age 59.5. This is the primary account I’ll now be using for future education needs for my twin boys as I’ll be able to withdraw the contributions for the education if needed. If for whatever reason they don’t need those funds for college then no worries as I can retain the Roth IRA for my own future financial needs. With a 529 plan though, I wouldn’t be able to do that as those funds would be restricted to education expenses.

Brokerage Account

I ran the numbers on the actual advantage 529 accounts do provide. Say my monthly contributions add up to $15k and earn $5k over the years to equate a $20k balance. Those earnings would be tax free in a 529 account for education expenses. If those funds were instead in a taxable brokerage account and assuming a 22% federal tax bracket this would be $1,100 of tax due on those earnings. You must weigh the flexibility of a non 529 account vs. the tax savings it can provide. Also consider that with proper tax planning in a brokerage account could mean even less taxes due given accessibility of tax efficient funds, tax loss harvesting, donating earnings to charity as ways to lower that tax bill.

So who should use a 529 account?

  • For those that already are maxing Roth IRA contributions, contributing a large amount to 401ks, and maxing HSA contributions.
  • Those who exceed the AGI limitation of Roth IRAs and are unable to utilize the back-door Roth strategy
  • High probability of attending private grade school as 529 accounts can now be used for earlier education than college.
  • If grandparents or others are making gifts to the child, then a 529 account is still a great vehicle to receive those gifts.
  • If you live in state with tax deduction for 529 contributions (North Carolina does not offer this).

Certainly nothing wrong with using a 529 account as you’re still saving for your children’s future needs, but just consider there are other vehicles that may be more appropriate given your financial situation. Also, depending on your financial situation there are other factors to consider such as financial aid.

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