Ask the grumpies: Could you revisit 529 plans?

Minnesotan asks:

Can you please discuss 529 plans again? Do you still have your kids in Utah’s plan? My state now has “parity” and will give some income tax deduction for donations to any state plan (still need to read more on this). Should I go with Utah, or is another state the best option now?

Disclaimer:  We are not financial professionals.  Please consult an actual financial professional and/or do your own research before making important financial decisions.

Ooh, great question, and great benefit.  Let’s take a look at this parity thing…


Minnesota taxpayers now have the option of claiming either a tax credit or deduction for contributions to any state’s 529 plan…

Deduction:  Up to $3,000 for a married couple filing jointly or $1,500 for all other filers for contributions made to a qualified 529 account…

Credit:  Credit can be claimed on half of contributions up to $500, subject to phase-out starting at a federal adjusted gross income of $75,000…

Calculator for which is better In 99 percent of cases, however, they’re going to be better off using the credit if they’re under the $100,000 income threshold…it’s safe to assume above and below the $75,000 and $100,000 income levels that they should take the credit or deduction, respectively.

So that’s cool.  The question then becomes, what state’s 529 plan should you use.  It seems like the answer should be the same as for people who don’t get any state income tax deduction from being in a 529 plan.  And for that, you want places with (1) low fees, (2) reasonable investment options, (3) reasonable customer service… and probably in that order.

Let’s see what the big financial sites are saying now.

Forbes:  Rates Maine, Nevada, and Utah as best options.  (They also like Alaska, but note it has higher fees.)

Investopedia:  Ohio, Utah, Illinois, Virginia, New York

Morningstar:  Illinois, Virginia, Utah, California, though they intend to put out new numbers using a new methodology sometime in October that emphasize fees more.  You will probably want to check this out before making any major changes/investments.

Kiplinger:  Utah

So… to answer your question, yes our kids are still in the Utah plan.  Although some years another plan may match or even beat Utah’s fees, those plans don’t tend to consistently have the lowest fees.  Although Utah doesn’t always have the lowest fees every single year anymore, it has always been competitive for non-resident plans every time I’ve looked.  That consistency over time is why I don’t regret picking Utah and sticking with it given that we don’t get a tax break only from using our own state’s plan.  Past performance doesn’t predict future performance, but there is something to be said for having a steady track record with fees over time.  You’ll probably also want to take a look at Illinois and Virginia and maybe some of the other states listed above and see what you think.

Grumpy Nation, if applicable, what state is your 529 plan from?

I guess I’m not going to front-load DC2’s 529?

I’d been waiting for our emergency fund to refill after all of the big expenses we had had.  (March has been so long that I don’t even remember what the last big thing was… I mean, I know we hired a handyman to fix some stuff because I haven’t finished that post yet, and I know we bought a car this summer, paid for lots of summer travel and camps that probably won’t happen now, maybe it was front-loading DC1’s 529… probably that.  Bad market timing there, eh?  Shoulda kept dollar cost averaging!)  Since our tax bill and estimated taxes ended up being a wash again this year, we’re back to having more money than we need for the long unpaid summer.

I still don’t know how much college is going to cost for DH’s relative’s kid next year.  They weren’t clear about if the number given was just for summer semester (which they mistakenly put down as the first semester of attendance) or the full year or what.  They also didn’t know if that number included loans etc. etc. etc.  So they were going to move his start to the Fall with everyone else and then get the page with the full work-up of the costs to us.  That hasn’t happened yet because the ‘Rona shut the university down and so on.

In any case, I’m hoping he’s still planning to go in the fall [update:  currently unlikely– he’s moved out and may not finish high school] and I’m thinking that selling stocks is not such a great idea right now, even if they’re only down to 2017 levels.  So instead I’ll keep stockpiling in cash.  There seems much less of a reason now to try to figure out where to put money.  I can’t predict the future, but I somehow doubt we’re in a temporary market low that will immediately zoom back up making me regret not having invested more than our usual right now.

Potentially excess money can sit a while in savings until we find out whether or not it will all be turned into tuition next year or regular spending if DH gets laid off.  We can re-evaluate on frontloading DC2’s 529 in the future, and in the mean-time we will continue to put $750/month in there.

All the good personal finance bloggers out there will say stay the course, and we are… I’m not dropping 403b/457/regular 529 investing.  But I’m also not looking at this as a huge opportunity to get in the market.  Who knows how long the recession will last.  Maybe things will bounce back after a vaccine is out.  But maybe all the things that the Trump administration did to hurt the economy will be exposed and it will be a while before we dig out of this one, just like with W’s recession.

Are you changing any money plans because of the pandemic/upcoming recession?


Should I put lump sums in the 529 instead of dollar cost averaging?

One of the reasons this blog seems to have become a spendapalooza is that there’s really not any obvious place for extra money to go.

But there actually is one place for extra money to go– the kids’ 529 plans.  (A 529 plan is an awesome way to save for college or vocational school such that the earnings are tax-free.  But, it’s a good idea to max out your retirement before setting money aside in 529 plans because retirement accounts aren’t included in college financial aid calculations and you can take out loans for college but you can’t for retirement.)

In the past, I’ve always said, “and the kids’ 529s are on track to pay for the school of their choice [by the time the graduate college].”  What I mean by that is that we’ve been putting away $750/month in the accounts, even in the summers when I don’t get paid.  (It used to be $500/month, but we increased it when we paid off the mortgage and stopped paying for daycare.)  But we haven’t *actually* put enough money to be able to cash flow the remainder of the cost of (a four-year private) college yet.  We’re just on track to.

Over the next 4 years before DC1 starts college, $750/mo works out to $36,000 (actually a little less than that since it’s November, but it’s an estimate).  Over the next 8 years before DC1 ends college, it would be $72,000.  (That’s a LOT of money!)

We could just put in $36K (instead of $9,000) over the course of this year and then either start contributing again once we know where DC1 is going to college or not based on the cost of hir chosen school.  (Given hir struggles in English, it is likely that HMC is out, but also out with HMC is its insanely high $72K/year tuition.  I told DC1 we could get hir a unicycle anyway.)

Doing it this way loses some dollar-cost averaging benefits, but it gains the benefits of a longer period of untaxed earnings.

There are some wrinkles to doing BIG 529 account transfers.

The first is that even though the account is a custody account and doesn’t actually belong to the child, it still is subject to the annual gift tax.  For 2019, the amount that can be given annually without tax is $15,000.  Each parent can give that amount, so a married couple can give $30,000 in one year.  $36K is more than $30K, but there’s a loophole with the 529.

This wrinkle has its own wrinkle:  An individual or couple can give a larger lump sum, so long as the total given in that five year period is still less than 5 times the annual exclusion.  So DH and I *could* give $150K this year so long as we didn’t contribute again for another 5 years.  (Of course, that’s a moot point because we don’t actually *have* $150K to give, but you get the idea.)  That means when DC1 actually gets into college, we should be able to continue to contribute to hir 529 without penalty.

So our plan is to do a lump sum of $36K this month to DC1’s account (this gets rid of all our excess cash and digs pretty deep into our emergency fund, but the emergency fund doesn’t actually have to be full until May since we can cash flow most emergencies when we’re both being paid).  Then we will stop contributions to hir account entirely.  We will continue as normal with DC2’s account (contributing $750/month) until we build up excess cash and I start to feel like forcing DH to buy all the Apple products again.  At that point we will re-evaluate and decide whether we want to do a lump sum to DC2’s account or if we just want to increase the monthly contribution.  I’m sure I will post about what we end up doing.

In ~4 years when we know where DC1 is going to college, then we’ll decide whether or not to start contributing to that 529 plan again, and we will have a better idea about how much DC2’s account can bear without going over.

Grumpy Nation, I don’t have a good question for this post.

Ask the grumpies: How much to save for different long-term priorities

Ali asks:

How much to save for college vs retirement vs other savings, etc.  Basically, tell me what to do.

The vast majority of our readers should max out their retirement savings prior to saving for kids’ college.  The reason for this is that you can get loans for college, but you can’t get loans for retirement AND US colleges don’t include retirement savings in their financial aid calculations.   That means every dollar that you hide in retirement is a dollar the universities don’t take into account for their financial aid calculations.  If worse comes to worse (ex. student loan rates are high), you can contribute less to retirement while the kids are in college (because you already have so much saved up) and cashflow some of those college expenses with what you would have contributed to retirement.

Disclaimer:  This is not what we did.  Originally I paid a lot of attention to the “recommended” savings percentages in various books and made sure we were putting away 20% of our income for retirement (recommended is 10-20%, we were on the “went to graduate school and need to save extra to make up for low savings years” track).  Then some extra money went into 529s (tax advantaged college saving) for our kids and then the stock market went crazy in a bad way (remember 2008?) and we started prepaying our mortgage as well.  It wasn’t until later that we started contributing to a 457 plan, even though that would have made more sense than contributing to the 529s.

The following assumes you have no debt other than a low interest mortgage.

  1. Save an emergency fund that will get you through a missing paycheck or late reimbursement or small emergency.
  2. Put money into retirement up to any employer match.
  3. Save an emergency fund that will get you through a reasonable job loss or other large expense.  (A Roth IRA is a good place to stash this when you’re just starting out since you can tap the principal without penalty and it can go to retirement if you don’t have a major emergency.)
  4. Save 10-20% of your gross income for retirement (or the max if are a high earner).  Play with retirement calculators to get more specific on the percent.
  5. Start putting money away in a 529 plan based on how much you’re planning to contribute and what schools your kid is considering.  We have more details here, and also more generally with other 529 posts.  The short is you’ll want to play with some college savings calculators AND the financial aid calculators at individual schools that you’re looking at.  (You might want to pay down your house at this step instead because colleges don’t use most housing wealth in their calculations for financial aid, but play with those different assumptions with the calculators.)

I DO think it is important to have a 529 for relatives to put monetary gifts in if you have relatives who are likely to think that’s a good idea, and don’t just have one for the oldest boy even though the money is fungible across kids.  That’s not how gifts work– people want to give to both kids, not just one.

So… I guess that’s the basic advice.  There are exceptions to the above– people who have access to a backdoor 401k at work but don’t have high incomes might never be able to max out their retirement, for example.

Grumpy Nation:  What advice would you give?  How do you decide how much to save where?

Ask the grumpies: How best to save for kids’ college

First Gen American asks:

I would love a post on savings bonds as a vehicle for college savings…pros and cons vs 529. Also is one better for high earners. There seems to be some language about earning limits on the tax deductability of the earnings but no penalty if not used for educational expenses.

Disclaimer:  We are not professional financial planners.  Before making important financial decisions, talk to a fee-only financial planner with fiduciary responsibility and/or do your own research.

According to this page from the treasury:

For single taxpayers, the [education] tax exclusion income limit [for savings bonds] is an adjusted gross income of $92,550 and above. For married taxpayers filing jointly, the tax exclusion income limit is an adjusted gross income of $146,300 and above.

So to me that says that savings bonds are not a good vehicle for college savings for high earners.  Maybe if they’re the kid’s and the kid is not filing as a dependent, but that seems risky too given how FAFSA and CSS heavily weight the kids’ savings (exceptions here).

Savings bonds are also a less risky, lower earning asset.  Given the lack of tax advantages for higher earnings and current interest rates, they’re not much better than CDs or high interest savings accounts for low-risk low-earnings savings and will also show up in financial aid decisions.

So… for both high and low earners in the “may get some financial aid” range, the best thing to do with your money is to put your savings in places that won’t count against your financial aid– so fill up retirement accounts (especially IRA Roths if you can since you can take out the principal on those in case of emergency), pay off credit cards, put money in home equity below what CSS forms pick up, fill up your HSA, and so on.  (Forbes magazine is probably the best place to look for these kinds of limits/suggestions.)  That may seem counter-intuitive that the best way to save for college is to hide money in ways that it is more difficult to tap for college, but financial aid is powerful and you can take out (short-term) loans for college but you can’t take out loans for your retirement (and taking out loans for your mortgage can be expensive and problematic).

AFTER you’ve hidden as much as you can, I still think the 529 in a state that either gives you a state tax break or, failing that, a state that has good Vanguard options with low fees is your best bet.  You could also do a Coverdell if your income is low enough (<220K in 2017 and 2018), but they’re not really any better than 529s unless you have private K-12 tuition that it could go towards, and the limit is pretty small.

If you are too high income to qualify for financial aid (and note that that income may be higher than you think) then you don’t need to play games hiding your income and savings because there’s not anything you could do to get things low enough for colleges to pitch in.  It may also be worthwhile in this case to push some savings onto the child so as to take advantage of the child’s lower income.  If you’re in this situation, don’t just read free advice from the internet– pay for a fantastic fee only financial planner with fiduciary responsibility and get all of your financials in order.

High earners and grandparents cutting down their estates may want to look into frontloading 529s with 5 years worth of 14K gift exclusions or, if they don’t want to force the money to be used for college, they can look into a gift trust.

How are you saving for kids’ college (if applicable)? 

Ask the grumpies: How to save for multiple kids’ 529s?

First Gen American asks:

Once our mortgage is done again, we’ll swap that out with a 529 auto deposit option that comes out of both paychecks….which brings me to another question…Should we funnel a ton now into older kid and worry about younger kid later (he’s 4 years younger) or should we fund both at the same time now? I’m assuming we can roll over older kid’s excess into younger kid if we over deposit but then if we die before kids do, an uneven distribution would screw things up for kid 2. Not sure what to do yet.

I have also spent some time thinking about this.  I am not sure it actually matters that much.

Yes, if you have too much money for kid #1, you can easily transfer the leftover amount to the second child.  (An added wrinkle–if you undersave for DC1, will you take from DC2’s account?  You can, but would you be willing to?)

A quick check on the internet suggests that the 529 does not automatically go to the child who is named on its behalf– you can name a beneficiary.  It is also something that you can talk about with an attorney for a trust if you do not have a successor that you trust not to just liquidate it at a loss.

We have target-date accounts for our children in their 529s, so it makes sense in terms of risk to fund them separately.  That means DC1’s account has less risk in it right now (a larger bond to stock ratio) than DC2’s does because DC1 is closer to college.  But I’m thinking of them as separate buckets and we’re aiming to fully fund 4 years at a private school given that we’re not expecting much financial aid.

If you’re not thinking of them as separate buckets, then you might want to think of it as if you are going to “retire” and you know you’re going to be alive for 8 years after “retirement” and then suddenly “die” (if you’re planning on funding post-college education, or your DCs might take more than 4 years to graduate, then you might want to add some years to that).  What kind of investment portfolio would be optimal in that scenario?  It’s going to depend on your risk aversion, but you probably could pick a single fund that would fit your risk preferences given that scenario.

In terms of how we’re funding, I don’t actually think that our method of putting in $X/month to each child’s fund is necessarily optimal.  It would make better sense while we have excess cash to put in lump sums right now and stop contributing later (allowing for more tax preferred earnings).  But $X/month/kid is predictable and is easy to fiddle with should our situation change.

The important thing that gets brought up in the comments when we talk about this kind of situation is the perceived fairness of the situation by the kids.  Pick some rule that seems fair for both kids and stick to it.  If you have to make adjustments, make sure that you adjust for the other kid as well.  For us, we’ve decided that fully funding tuition without loans is what we consider fair, so we will be ignoring the actual costs and financial aid for the schools.  Our kids will get college paid for by us no matter what college they choose.  Other people choose a specific dollar amount (though I hope they adjust it for inflation!), or may have a rule like, “we will pay up to the cost of state school X”.  What you don’t want to do is pay full freight for one kid and force the other to take out loans for the full amount because that can lead to them writing about how you don’t love them on money forums, and nobody wants that.

Grumpeteers– How do you think First Gen should save for two kids’ college?