Saving for college is always a good idea. Some people start with a regular savings account through their bank. Others choose to invest in mutual funds or other security. There are some state sponsored plans that can help you get the best tax benefit for your money.
These state plans are referred to as qualified tuition plans, 529 plans or 529 programs. The money you put in is actually invested, so there is some risk. This is much like a 401K plan where your contributions are invested. Every state in the US offers at least one 529 plan. If you invest in a Texas 529 plan, live in Alabama and your child chooses to go to school in New York, you can still use that Texas sponsored 529, as long as the school your child is attending qualifies. Basically, the 529 savings plan has to be used at an accredited school. Check online for eligible institutions before you choose a school.
There is also a prepaid 529 plan that works a little differently. This program allows you to prepay for college tuition in-state. If your child decides to go to school out of state, then all is not totally lost. You can transfer your prepaid 529 to another state, but depending on the state, you could end up losing part of your money.
Colleges can offer their own 529 plans. If you choose to prepay for a specific institution, make sure that you know what terms you are agreeing to. There may be special restrictions about transferring to another school.
The best thing about 529 plans is the tax breaks. State tax breaks can vary from state to state, so check with your state to get the facts. Many states offer a state tax deduction for contributions that you make to the plan. You will not get a federal tax break on the contributions, but your earnings will grow tax-deferred.
You remain in complete control of the 529 account. The money is not in the child’s name and you can take it out whenever you wish. If you use the distributions to pay for college tuition, the distributions are federally tax-free. Your state may also let you have tax-free withdrawals, but this depends on the state. If you want to take the money out and use it for something other than college, then the distribution will be a taxable event, federally and from your state. Additionally you will be charged a 10% penalty for withdrawing for something other than school.
Most people do not end up saving near enough for college and start looking for other forms of financial aid. There are a lot of special benefits and terms for college students who need to take out student loans or private student loans. Do your research and college could be easier to pay for than you planned.