Last-Minute Tax Savings for College Expenses

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My youngest will be a first-year student at the University of Virginia this fall. My coauthor Matthew’s oldest child is almost two years old. So he is just beginning to think about college funding and I’m about to start withdrawing from my final 529 plan.

With a well-designed 529 college savings plan, you can fund a college education at a deep discount. But even if you haven’t saved much for college beforehand, simply passing college expenses through a 529 plan can save you $200 to $2,000.

A 529 college savings plan offers three types of tax savings. Virginia residents receive a state tax deduction in 2009 on contributions up to $4,000 per account. Students are permitted to attend a college out of state. If you don’t live in Virginia, you can research your own state’s tax benefits. In every state you receive both federal and state tax-deferred growth and tax-free distribution when you are ready to use the money. These latter two tax benefits are the most significant. But you must invest early.

The Virginia state tax deduction, in contrast, is available merely for putting money into a 529 plan. You are allowed to make a withdrawal immediately to pay for college expenses. This worthwhile tax deduction can help trim expenses. Consider it Virginia’s way of promoting higher education.

Make sure you understand what counts as an educational expense before you begin this process. The withdrawal must be for tuition, fees, books, supplies and equipment required for enrollment or attendance at an eligible educational institution. In a recent change, a personal computer now also qualifies.

If you are paying tuition and fees, have a check sent directly from your 529 account to the college. This direct deposit will simplify bookkeeping and make filing your taxes easy. If your fees are spent elsewhere, keep receipts of all the qualifying expenses.

Consider Paul and Ali Hewson, whose oldest child Jordan will begin college in the fall. The Hewsons haven’t saved much, but Paul’s career is really taking off. So they now have the money to pay for Jordan’s college expenses. As Virginia residents, they are entitled to a $4,000 state tax deduction if they put at least this amount into one of the state’s approved 529 plans. At the 5.75% state tax rate, they will net a $230 savings for 2009 after they file taxes in 2010.

Jordan has decided to bypass Virginia’s fine in-state institutions and attend a more expensive private college. Consequently, Paul and Ali now have $40,000 of upcoming qualified educational expenses they can pass through a 529 plan to build a decade worth of carry-forward state deductions. Virginia 529 plans allow for an unlimited carry-forward deduction until the amount of contributions has been deducted. Assuming the tax laws and rates remain the same, the Hewsons will take a $4,000 deduction each year for the next decade. They will accrue a total savings of $2,300 savings over this 10-year period.

Paul and Ali can use any of the three different 529 plans in Virginia to accomplish this savings. We estimate it should take no more than an hour to set up the accounts and an hour to make the disbursements.

The College America program, the state-sponsored plan run by American Funds, must be accessed through a financial advisor. Unless you have a relationship with a fee-only advisor, you will pay a hefty commission to use this plan. If you can access the American Funds without paying a commission, invest your pass-through money in the Money Market Fund, the most liquid and stable investment in the plan. This fund requires a $1,000 minimum deposit for the initial setup. With the American Funds, expect to pay a $10 account setup fee and a $10 annual maintenance fee that kicks in if you hold the account through the end of the year.

Investors can access the state-run Invest529 to begin online enrollment. The plan charges a $25 annual fee in November and no other setup costs. It also has a money market fund available as part of its non-evolving portfolio investment options. Both the Invest529 and CollegeAmerica programs have received the highest scores from a recent Wall Street Journal report and other rating groups.

Virginia also has a program administered by the Union Bank & Trust called CollegeWealth. You can open a money market account at a Union Bank branch to receive the state tax deduction. If you are comfortable completing this task online, you may find working with a local bank difficult only because you must go there to complete all your paperwork.

Better than waiting until the last moment to start funding a 529 plan, consider investing now. With a depressed stock market, your funds can expect a healthy return for the next several years until your child is ready for college. If you have grandchildren you can get the same tax deductions by opening accounts for them. If you do not have a lump sum available to invest, start a monthly contribution from your paycheck directly into a college savings account. Although you may have to wait until your children bless you with grandchildren, they will ultimately thank you for it.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. Favorite number: e (2.7182818...)

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Matthew Illian was a Wealth Manager at Marotta Wealth Management from 2007 to 2016. He specialized in small business consulting, college planning, and retirement plans.