Saving for College: 5 Costly Mistakes to Avoid

March 1, 2023
A 529 college savings plan offers many advantages, but it can come with some surprising pitfalls. Here are five mistakes to avoid.

Opening a college savings account is a smart way to invest in the education of a family member, a friend, or even yourself—and it often comes with tax benefits.

A popular option is a 529 college savings plan. This investment vehicle was primarily designed to cover higher-education expenses with tax-deferred growth and the potential for tax-free qualified distributions. Almost all states and the District of Columbia offer some type of 529 plan. Although you're not restricted to your own state's plan, you should always consider the tax benefits provided by your state before investing in another's.

A 529 plan doesn't guarantee that you'll save enough to pay for tuition by the time the first bill comes due. It still requires careful management, such as determining your contribution rate and how to invest your contributions, between the time you set it up and when you begin to pay tuition. (This is also the case for pre-paid tuition 529 plans. While they offer certain guarantees to keep up with the cost of tuition, you still have to save enough to cover other expenses.)

You can help improve the benefits you receive from investing in a 529 plan by avoiding these five common mistakes.

1. Assuming your money will grow

A 529 plan might be called a college savings account, but don't let the word "savings" fool you. Like a 401(k), your money isn't guaranteed to grow, and your plan's performance depends on your investment selection, as well as market conditions.

It's important to note that your investments can fluctuate, and you can lose money in a 529 plan. Your purchasing power can also decrease due to inflation, which means your investments may not keep up with the cost of college. 

You can help mitigate these risks by starting a 529 plan early so that you have more time to potentially recover from market losses, choosing a diversified portfolio of investments based on your risk tolerance and time horizon, and taking advantage of potential compounding growth over time.

2. Forgetting to adjust your asset allocation and savings rate

When you shop for a 529 plan, you typically have the option of choosing an age-based or a static portfolio allocation. An age-based portfolio initially holds more stocks than bonds when the child is younger and then becomes more conservative the closer the child gets to college age (similar to a target-date fund).

A static portfolio allocation sticks to the mix of assets you pick. If you go with this option, you're responsible for periodic rebalancing and adjusting the asset allocation over time. As with many investment goals, the standard advice here is to reduce your allocation to stocks as college enrollment approaches. 

Setting up automatic 529 contributions is a great way to get things rolling without having to think about it, but it can also make you complacent about your savings goal. Consider increasing your annual contribution as your earnings grow, particularly if you start off with a modest amount. You can also supplement regular deposits with periodic contributions from birthday or other holiday gifts from friends and family.1

3. Missing your contribution deadline

For most states, contributions to 529 plans must be made by December 31 to have them count toward the current year for gift tax purposes. However, if your 529 plan offers a state income-tax deduction, you might have until mid-April of the following year to contribute for income tax purposes.

4. Withdrawing funds too late or for unqualified expenses

Once your child has begun college and the bills start rolling in, make sure to take out only the money you'll use for qualified college expenses within that calendar year. This is particularly important for tuition bills that arrive in December but might not be due until January. 

If you pay the full tuition bill before the end of the year, you'll need to withdraw the funds in December—otherwise, the distribution may be seen as unqualified. You may wait until January to make the payment, but to do so, you must delay withdrawing the funds from the 529 until then as well.

Also, make sure to claim only qualified expenses for 529 plans that aren't already covered by other tax-advantaged sources or scholarships.

5. Emptying an account when your child doesn't need the money

Speaking of scholarships, what if your child ends up with a full or partial free ride to college? In that case, you can withdraw the exact amount of the scholarship. The usual 10% penalty on nonqualified distributions of earnings will be waived, but the distribution will be taxed as ordinary income. You can use the remaining funds for qualified expenses not covered by the scholarship.

If some of your child's college expenses don't qualify, you don't have to resign yourself to paying taxes and penalties. For example, if your child intends to pursue an advanced degree, you could leave the money in the plan where it will continue to have tax-deferred growth potential until you pay for graduate school.

Another option is to change the beneficiary. You could name your other children or grandchildren as beneficiaries of the funds without paying any penalty or tax. Just be sure to make the switch before the child begins college. In fact, as long as the funds are used for educational purposes, you can appoint yourself, siblings, parents, grandparents, or other eligible family members as beneficiary as well.

Finally, under SECURE Act 2.0, you'll be able to roll up to $35,000 from a 529 into a Roth IRA for the beneficiary2 starting in 2024. The account must have been open for at least 15 years, and rollovers are subject to Roth IRA annual contribution limits. We hope to hear more details from the IRS by next year.

Creating a savings strategy

In addition to the tips above, you can avoid costly missteps with thoughtful planning. Do your research to find the appropriate college savings plan for your family. Then, work with a financial planner or tax advisor to find ways to make tax-smart savings and investing decisions.

529 College Savings Plans, Custodial Accounts, and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts.

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1For 2023, you can contribute up to $17,000 a year (or $34,000 for couples) without incurring the gift tax. It's also possible to contribute a lump sum of up to $85,000 to one or more 529 college savings plans in a single year ($170,000 for couples) without being subject to the gift tax. The IRS views the money as an annual $17,000 (or $34,000 for couples) gift over five years. However, if you contribute more money on behalf of the same child during those five years, you may trigger the gift tax. States can also put a cap on how much can accumulate in a 529 account. Most states set the limit in the $400,000–$500,000 per beneficiary range, though some states have lower or higher limits.

2The beneficiary must have earned income up to the amount converted to the Roth IRA.

Learn more about saving for college.

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Just because you have student loans to pay off doesn't mean you should put investing on hold to do it—you don't have to prioritize one over the other.

Saving for College: 529 College Savings Plans

A popular college-savings vehicle is the 529 savings plan, which provides several tax advantages when used for education expenses.

Investors should consider, before investing, whether the investor's or designated beneficiary's home state offers any state tax or other state benefits such as financial aid, scholarship funds, and protection from creditors that are only available in such state's qualified tuition program.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

Diversification, asset allocation, and rebalancing strategies do not ensure a profit and do not protect against losses in declining markets.

This information does not constitute and is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal, or investment planning advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, Schwab recommends consultation with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner, or investment manager.

Investing involves risk, including loss of principal.

Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve. 

Roth IRA conversions require a 5-year holding period before earnings can be withdrawn tax-free, and subsequent conversions will require their own 5-year holding period. In addition, earnings distributions prior to age 59½ are subject to an early withdrawal penalty.