How to sidestep big student loans

4 years of college can cost on average $140,000

With student loan payments set to resume in October after President Joe Biden’s pandemic pause, roughly 30 million Americans will have less discretionary income, perhaps as much as $300 less per month, according to estimates.

Taking on student loan debt can run on average $35,000 annually or $140,000 over four years for an undergraduate degree, so socking money away tax-free in a 529 plan can be a good option.

FOX Business asked money experts to share the pros and cons.

What is a 529 plan?

Jesse Little, senior director of advice for Wells Fargo Wealth and Investment Management who is based in Palm Beach, Florida, says a 529 plan offers both federal and some state tax benefits when the assets held in the plan are used for qualified education expenses.

Earnings within the plan are tax-free, and withdrawals spent on qualified higher education expenses (and up to $10,000 per year on K-12 tuition) avoid federal income and capital gains tax, he said, adding, "Additionally, some states offer additional state tax benefits."


Depending on which plan a person chooses, maximum investments can exceed $500,000 over the life of the account, and deposits up to $17,000 per year per individual (in tax year 2023) will qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion, Little said.

"There’s also an option to treat a contribution up to $85,000 in one year as if it were made over five years [for gift tax purposes] to shelter a larger amount from taxes. Earnings are subject to income tax and a 10% penalty if the withdrawal is not spent on qualified education expenses," Little told FOX Business.

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What can a 529 plan pay for?

Tiana Patillo, financial adviser at Vanguard based in Malvern, Pennsylvania, told FOX Business that a 529 plan can be used to pay for tuition and fees for K-12, college, grad and trade school, books and supplies, tech supplies, apprenticeships, study abroad and even student loan repayments – a major incentive as student debt continues to amass.

"Furthermore, the account owner can save for anyone [including themselves] and can even transfer funds to another beneficiary as often as needed," Patillo said. "Gifting is also an option, so family and friends can also contribute."


College student studying in library

Students study in the Rice University library on Aug. 29, 2022, in Houston. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images / Getty Images)

Another benefit in a parent or grandparent’s favor, says Patillo, is that 529s have a much lower impact on financial aid for higher education than other account types, as long as the account owner is the parent and the child is the dependent.

She says the sooner you can start contributing to a 529 plan, the more time your money has to grow.

"While the benefits of saving early are massive, there’s still value in starting now even if your child is in high school, to help decrease the amount of necessary student debt," Patillo told FOX Business.


When does it not make sense to use a 529 plan?

A 529 plan is used for saving for educational expenses – so it is best used by people who are planning or considering education, Patillo says.

"However, thanks to Secure 2.0, starting in 2024, 529 plans will offer the option to roll up to $35,000 into a Roth IRA, allowing those who end up not having educational expenses a good avenue for utilizing 529 funds and a head start on achieving long-term financial success," she said.

Little says 529 plans aren’t the right fit for everyone.

"For example, if a person lives in a state without state income tax or no state tax benefits for using a 529, the only benefit to the plan is the tax-free benefit on earnings," he said. "Depending on a family’s situation, it may make more sense to invest in another way rather than choosing a 529 plan, especially if there is uncertainty as to whether the child/beneficiary will attend college. Other investment vehicles would avoid the 10% penalty for distributions made for nonqualified purposes."

How can you choose the best 529 plans?

According to Little, each U.S. state offers its own unique 529 plan, but an individual is not required to invest in their home state’s plan.

"It is prudent to perform due diligence on the differences in plans prior to opening an account," he said. Certain states also offer a 529 plan that lets students and families prepay for college at current tuition rates, even if the student beneficiary won’t be enrolled in college for many years.

"This can result in significant saving since college costs increase every year," Little said. "Prepaid tuition plans normally don’t cover housing and meal plans and usually limit where a student can enroll."

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You should consider a few other issues in order to choose the right plan.

First, Patillo says you’ll want to understand what tax breaks and benefits on qualified higher-education expenses are offered through the state in which you live.

"This will help you to determine whether to invest in your state’s 529 plan or to pursue one through a third party, such as a brokerage firm," she said.

Next, look at plan fees and costs: "The less you pay here, the more you’ll have left over to cover qualified expenses," Patillo said. "Plans with even slightly higher fees could eventually offset any state tax benefits, so be sure to compare thoroughly."

Also, she notes that there are also ways to simplify your education savings decisions, such as choosing a plan that offers enrollment-year options with portfolio management built in.

"These provide automatic adjustments and get more conservative as students inch closer to their anticipated enrollment date," Patillo said. 

Even modest contributions to a 529 plan are beneficial

While investing a large amount of money into a 529 plan at the start is a good way to kick-start your education savings, it may not always be possible: "If you can’t swing it, we recommend looking for a plan that has a minimum investment that fits your budget and speaking with a financial adviser to confirm how much to regularly put aside," she said.

Little agrees that deciding how much to contribute to a 529 plan is dependent on a variety of variables that will be unique to each family.

"But fundamentally, a contribution strategy should include consideration of the estimated cost of education and a family’s financial resources," he said.