Since their debut in 1996, 529 savings plans have been one of the best vehicles available for covering college costs. Congress expanded these plans to cover K–12 education in 2017 and to pay up to $10,000 in student loan debt in 2019. But as useful as they can be, 529 savings plans are not your only option for building a fund for your child's education. Below are four alternatives.

Key Takeaways

  • Another type of 529, the prepaid tuition plan, could help cut future tuition costs.
  • Custodial UGMA and UTMA accounts can be used for purposes other than education.
  • Roth IRAs have tax advantages similar to 529 plans and they don't count as assets for financial aid purposes.

How 529 Savings Plans Work

A major reason for the popularity of 529 savings plans is their tax advantages. The money you contribute to your account grows tax-deferred, and withdrawals will be tax-free as long as they are used for qualified education expenses. That includes tuition, room and board, and fees. Many states also provide a tax deduction or credit for your contributions, especially if you live in that state and invest in one of its 529 plans. There are no federal deductions or credits for contributions.

An appealing feature of 529 savings plans is their relatively high contribution limits. There is no limit on how much you can contribute each year, although if you contribute more than $15,000 you can trigger federal gift taxes. (Note that it is permissible to front-load a 529 plan—and not incur gift taxes—by contributing five years of payments at once.)

Here are four alternatives to 529 savings plans, and how they compare:

Prepaid Tuition Plans

Technically another type of 529 plan, prepaid tuition plans work differently from the more common and familiar 529 savings plans. These plans allow you to pay for future tuition at current rates, which could mean significant cost savings down the road.

Some states do cap the total allowable balance in your account, but those limits are relatively generous—recently ranging from $235,000 to more than $500,000.

The primary drawback of prepaid tuition plans is that they generally apply only to certain community colleges, colleges, and universities, typically within a particular state. Also, unlike 529 savings plans—which can cover a wide range of expenses, including room and board—these plans generally are limited to tuition only.

What's more, few states currently offer prepaid tuition plans, while all 50 states and the District of Columbia have at least one 529 savings plan, and sometimes several.

However, if your state offers a prepaid tuition plan and you're reasonably certain that your child will be attending college there, this is an option worth considering.

Coverdell Education Savings Accounts

Before 529 savings plans were modified in 2017, Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (ESA) had a major advantage over them: Coverdells could be used to cover both college and pre-college costs.

For college savers, the potential advantage of a Coverdell ESA is that it can provide a wider array of investment options, such as individual stocks, than most 529 savings plans, which are typically limited to a menu of mutual funds.

Coverdell plans also have some significant drawbacks compared with 529 plans. The money you contribute won't get you any tax deduction or credit. Your contributions are limited to $2,000 a year, and your modified adjusted gross income can't exceed certain limits—$110,000 for single filers and $220,000 for married couples filing jointly, as of the 2020 tax year.

UGMA/UTMA Accounts

Custodial accounts established under the Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) or Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) do not provide the tax benefits of a 529 plan, but they do allow account holders a great deal of discretion in where the money is invested and how it is eventually used.

While balances in these accounts are to be used for the benefit of the child, they are not specifically earmarked for college. That may make them especially useful for parents who are unsure if their child will actually go to college. Like the Coverdell, investment options for the UGMA/UTMA are virtually unlimited.

UGMA/UTMA accounts don't have the tax advantages of 529 plans. Contributions won't earn any tax deduction or credit, and the account's earnings are taxable.

They can also have a negative impact on financial aid eligibility. Because they are considered assets belonging to the child, up to 20% of their balance is counted in computing the Expected Family Contribution on the FAFSA. By contrast, 529 accounts are considered parental assets, and only up to 5.64% of their balance is counted.

Roth IRAs

Although primarily intended as a retirement savings vehicle, Roth IRAs can be used for college planning. You won't get any upfront tax deduction (unlike a traditional IRA), but your account will grow tax-deferred and your withdrawals will be tax-free no matter what you use them for, as long as you're age 59½ or older and have had a Roth IRA for at least five years. Otherwise, you'll have to pay taxes and generally a 10% penalty.

However, you can withdraw your Roth IRA contributions (but not the earnings) at any time and for any reason, tax-free.

As an added Roth benefit, the money you hold in retirement plans (unlike a 529 plan) isn't counted as an asset when you apply for financial aid through the FAFSA.

There are a couple of downsides to using a Roth IRA instead of a 529 savings plan. One is that your contributions are limited to just $6,000 a year, or $7,000 if you're 50 or older. Those are the limits for the 2020 and 2021 tax years. Still, if you have enough money to invest, there's no reason you couldn't fund both a 529 plan and a Roth IRA.

A further, and perhaps more important, downside of using a Roth IRA to pay for college is that you'll have less money for retirement when the day rolls around. And your child will have many more years to repay an education loan than you have to recoup your lost retirement savings.