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Best College Savings 529 Plans

One of the smartest ways to save for college is through a 529 Plan. 529 Plans are college savings plans that are funded with after tax dollars (net pay) which grow tax-deferred and allow tax-free withdrawals for the express purpose of paying qualified education expenses (tuition, room & board, required computers & required fees) for secondary education purposes (i.e. post-high school education) such as college, graduate school, trade schools or vocational schools.

Anyone can establish a 529 plan for anyone else, however, typically a parent or grandparent will establish a 529 Plan for a child or grandchild, through a financial advisor, with a small lump sum contribution followed by automated monthly contributions. You can even direct your employer to make the monthly contributions from your net pay.

Every state has a 529 Plan and some states have more than one plan. Anyone can contribute to a given 529 Plan, as contributions are not restricted to the account owner. Contributions are considered gifts and are subject to the Gift Tax rules. These rules currently limit contributions to $13,000 per year per recipient. There is an exception that permits contributors a 5-year front-loading election for 529 Plan contributions, increasing this gift amount to $65,000.

Most plans allow anyone from any state to open a 529 Plan, so you generally don’t need to be a resident of a particular state to open one. Some plans are sold by financial advisors and some or sold directly to the consumer. The direct-sold plans mean that you will have to complete and submit the application paperwork yourself and decide which investment choices are appropriate. With the financial advisor-sold plans the financial advisor completes and submits the application paperwork and determines which investment options are appropriate given your level of risk tolerance.

So which 529 Plans are the best plans?

Some of the better plans around are the University of Alaska College Savings Plan, the Ohio College Advantage Plan and the Rhode Island CollegeBoundFund Plan. The Alaska and Ohio plans are direct plans, while the Rhode Island plan is sold through financial advisors. Each plan is rated 4.5 out of 5 for non-residents (i.e. New Jersey residents) according to saving for college’s web site.

The University of Alaska College Savings plan is managed by T. Rowe Price. The initial minimum contribution is $250. For those who cannot afford a lump sum contribution of $250, they can make monthly contributions under the Automatic Asset Builder program until the cumulative contribution amount reaches $250. The minimum for all subsequent contributions must be at least $50 each. The Plan offers 3 investment options:

1. an age-based option
2. a static (never changing) option and
3. a balanced investment option.

The fees include a $25 annual fee, which is waived if you are contributing under the systematic investment or Automatic Asset Builder programs, or if you are investing under the balanced investment option. There is also a .28% annualized program fee for all investments other than those in the balanced investment option, which makes this one of the least expensive 529 plans in the nation.

The Ohio College Advantage 529 Plan (Direct Plan) is administered by The Ohio Tuition Trust Authority; however, the funds are managed by Putnam, The Vanguard Group and Fifth Third Bank. The Plan allows contributions as low as $15 (one of the lowest minimum contribution amounts among all plans), although investments in Fifth Third Bank require a minimum investment of $500.

There are 32 investment options, however, non-residents are only permitted to invest in only 16 investment options, as The Vanguard Group of funds are only available to Ohio residents or Ohio beneficiaries/students. The only fee is the annual asset-based fee, which ranges from .23% to 1% on the account balance. There are no loads, application or annual account maintenance fees. This ranks the Ohio Plan as among the least expensive in the nation.

The Rhode Island CollegeBoundFund Plan is managed by Alliance Bernstein and offers 16 investment options through 4 investment categories: 1. Age-Based; 2. Fixed-Allocation; 3. Stable-Value; and 4. Individual Funds. There is a minimum contribution of $1,000, however, this minimum is waived when participating in the automatic investment plan ($50 minimum for each separate automatic contribution). In terms of fees there is a $25 annual maintenance fee, annual management fee of .4% to 1.37% and sales loads, which range from 1% to 4.25%, depending on the fund Class.

In New Jersey, there are two 529 Plans. The NJBEST College Savings Plan and the Franklin Templeton 529 College Savings Plan. Both have very good ratings of 4 out of 5 for residents. Franklin Templeton manages both plans. The NJBEST plan is available only to residents and is not sold by financial advisors or brokers. Both plans offer a first semester scholarship ranging from $500 up to $1,500 based on a graduated scale tied to the life and participation in the plan.

In order to get the minimum $500 scholarship the contributors must have contributed at least $1,200 into the plan and the plan must have been in existence for at least 4 years. Thereafter, for every 2 years in which $300 has been contributed (per year), the state will add an additional $250 to the scholarship amount. In order to get the full $1,500 scholarship, the plan must have been in existence 12 years with a requisite $300 contribution having been made in years 5-12.

The scholarship is only available to beneficiaries (students) who attend a New Jersey college or university. New Jersey does not offer any tax deductions for contributions to either plan. There are minimum contributions and minimum account balances for both plans. The NJBEST Plan minimum contribution is $300. If you agree to make monthly contributions of $25 for the first year, this minimum is waived. The Franklin Templeton Plan minimum contribution is $250.

Once the account balance reaches $1,200, in either plan, you are no longer required to make any further contributions to keep the account open. The maximum, cumulative account balance any one account may have is $305,000. Annual program management fees in both plans are .4% of the account balance. There are no account maintenance fees for New Jersey residents. In the Franklin Templeton Plan there are annual distribution/servicing fees of .25% for Class A shares and 1% for Class B and C shares as well as one-time sales charges for Class A (4.25%-5.75%) and Class B and C shares (1.84%-2.21%).

Tom is a Certified Public Accountant, a Certified Financial Planner, CLTC (Certified Long-Term Care) and President of Cerefice & Company, the largest CPA firm in Rahway, New Jersey. Tom works with clients helping them manage their money, retirement planning, college savings, life insurance needs, IRAs and qualified plan rollovers with an eye towards maximizing tax benefits and minimizing taxes. Tom is founder of the Rich Habits Institute and author of “Rich Habits”.

The Best College Savings 529 Plans
By Thomas Corley

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