A Higher Education in College Planning

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The Harold Alfond Foundation recently announced an expansion of its college savings program. It now will give every baby born in Maine a $500 grant, which is invested in a 529 college savings account for future college costs.

Sounds great, right? Who would say no to free money, especially when its for something as important as a child’s college education?

But along with the money, the Alfond Foundation and the State of Maine, which administers the 529 savings program through the Finance Authority of Maine

should also give parents some free advice: the 529 savings account might not be the best option for college savings.

As a professional financial advisor and investment manager and as a father of three under three” – I wouldnt  suggest a 529 college savings account as my first choice. Or second. Thats because, in my opinion, 529 programs have some distinct disadvantages over other investment options.

  1. Many 529s have high fees that really may not be justified given the alternatives out there. Parents should take a hard look at what theyll be paying in expenses for 529s.

  1. Withdrawals tend to be inflexible. In order for the withdrawals to be federally income tax free, they can only be used for qualified educational expenses.If you use the money for something other than a college education if your child decides against college, for example,youll be taxed on the earnings and pay a 10% penalty. Tax treatment at the state level may vary.

  1. A 529 plan tends to offer limited investment options and may not allow owners to adequately diversify their funds.

So if a 529 plan isnt for everybody, what might be a better option?

How about a Roth IRA? A Roth IRA is primarily a retirement vehicle. You deposit after-tax money (just like a 529), and any  earnings accumulate tax-deferred (just like a 529). When you attain age 59.5, your entire withdrawal is tax-free provided you have owned the account for 5 years..

But, there is a positive nuance to Roth IRAs that may not be widely known. You can always withdraw your regular contributions for any purpose without incurring taxes or penalties. Since your contributions were made with money that has already been taxed, you are allowed to withdraw these contributions (known as basis) anytime, tax-free.

Heres a reasonable scenario:

You and your spouse begin contributing to your Roth IRAs (you can each have one, subject to income limits) after the birth of your first child. You each contribute $5,500 per year (the limit for 2014) until your child reaches 18. If we assume an average annual return of the market at 8%, the combined account values would be roughly $445,000 $198,000 of which (your contributions) would be available for you to withdraw (tax free). Certainly a nice chunk of change to help cover tuition and fees at the top colleges in the country (or for anything else you choose, for that matter).

If you were saving in a 529 plan, this withdrawal can only be used for college expenses. Otherwise IRS taxes and penalties apply. Not so for your Roth contributions. Total flexibility. It is simply your already taxed money being returned to you. And oh, dont forget about the other $247,000. It keeps chugging away, and any earnings continue to accumulate  until you decide to withdraw at retirement, tax free. Not a bad retirement/education vehicle. Now remember that if you withdraw any of the earnings prior to age 59 ½ and owning the account for 5 years, a tax penalty may apply. Future tax laws can change at any time and may impact the benefits of Roth IRAs. Their tax treatment may change.

You can open a Roth IRA virtually anywhere, and more importantly, (preferably with assistance from a qualified investment professional) you can invest in a diversified mix of individual stocks, as well as most other traditional investments. And unlike a 529 plan, the balances in a parents Roth IRA are not considered an asset on the federal college financial aid forms very important when calculating eligibility.

No question, its important to raise aspirations, especially in Maine, and encourage young people to get a college education. But its also important to educate students and their parents about sensible ways to save and invest, for college and retirement.

Speaking of which, heres another tip: I wouldnt suggest putting a dime toward saving for your kids college education until you have a secure retirement plan. Your child might never need a college savings account if there are grants and scholarships available, and even a loan isnt the end of the world. But a retirement without any money kind of is.

Benjamin Beck, a South Portland native, is Managing Partner and Chief Investment Officer of Beck Bode Wealth Management, located in the Boston area. He can be contacted at benjamin.beck@beckbodewealth.com

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