Advertiser disclosure

Terms and Restrictions Apply
Physician on FIRE has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Physician on FIRE and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Some or all of the card offers that appear on the website are from advertisers. Compensation may impact on how and where card products appear on the site. POF does not include all card companies or all available card offers. Credit Card Providers determine the underwriting criteria necessary for approval, you should review each Provider’s terms and conditions to determine which card works for you and your personal financial situation.
Editorial Disclosure: Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed, or approved by any of these entities.

A Rare Tax Break for the Wealthy: The 529 Account

529 tax break

Welcome to another excellent Saturday Selection, a series in which a classic (but updated) post from a member of the WCI Network is shared with you.

Today’s guest author is none other than the White Coat Investor himself. Since the original publication, tax reform has given 529 Plans a new use, since you can now withdraw up to $10,000 a year per beneficiary to pay for private and parochial K-12 school tuition.

Our boys go to public schools, so we have no plans to use ours until college, but we’ve already funded the two 529 Plans generously, having crossed over into six-figures for each of them recently.

This post originally appeared on The White Coat Investor, and he recently wrote about them again in Am I Done Saving for College?


This is another one in my series of Back to Basics posts.  I find many physicians, dentists, and trainees have never been taught many of the basics of investing and financial planning, so posts like this are designed to fill in the gaps.

529s are a critical part of the four pillars of paying for college. 529s are named after a section of the tax code, just like 401Ks.  Stupid, I know, but that’s the way these things work.  What they should have been called was The Tax Break For The Rich, because that’s what they are.  Or at least, the tax break for the high-earners, which isn’t necessarily the same thing as the tax break for the high-net-worthers.  Why is it the tax break for the rich?  We’ll get to that, but first, the basics.


529 College Savings Plan

A 529 plan is a state-sponsored way to help you save for your kid’s college.  Basically, you put after-tax money into it, then it grows tax-free, and if spent on legitimate college (or med school) [or high school as of 2019-ed] expenses, it comes out of the account tax-free.  You can put up to $15K a year in there in 2019.

Each state has their own plan (or two), and some are better than others.  Sometimes you also get a break on your state income taxes if you use the one in your state.  The expenses of the plans, like 401Ks, vary quite a bit, and change often.  You can move money from one 529 to another fairly easily, much like transferring an IRA from one custodian to another.

The 529, unlike a UGMA, isn’t your kid’s money.  It’s yours.  So you can take it out and spend it on a boat if you like (but you’ll have to pay a 10% penalty, plus your regular income taxes on the earnings.)

You can also roll it over from your daughter’s 529 to your son’s 529 to your grandson’s 529 without any penalties, which gives you a lot of options when Junior decides to smoke dope and play disc golf professionally instead of going to Yale like you planned when he was three. Be aware that the “generation-skipping tax” only applies if the new beneficiary is two or more generations away from the old beneficiary and only applies if the transfer exceeds the gift tax exemption amount.

If your state doesn’t have any income tax, or if it doesn’t give a break for 529 contributions, or if its expenses are ridiculously high, you may want to look into the best 529s out there.

Since the plans change often, so does this list, but I would consider looking into the plans from perennial front-runners Utah, Nevada, and New York.  Compare investment options, plan expenses, and expense ratios of the various funds.  Some states offer a pre-paid tuition type plan.  Basically, you pay tuition at today’s price and the state takes the risk of tuition inflation.  Given the past rate of inflation, that might be a pretty good investment, but be aware that the deal may be different for in-state schools versus out-of-state schools, unlike the more standard “defined contribution” 529s.

529 plans do count against a kid if he’s trying to get financial aid.  Thanks to a 2009 law, a 529 in either your name or your child’s name has an expected family contribution of 5.64%. (Consider having the grandparent own the account if this is an issue, but honestly, most readers aren’t going to qualify for any sort of financial aid anyway.)


Now, Why is the 529 a Tax Break for the Wealthy?


1. High Contribution Limit

An Educational Savings Account/Coverdell/Education IRA works just fine for those who don’t make much.  In fact, you can use it for high school expenses as well as college [Update: You can do this with 529s as of 2019]  and it can offer lower expenses and more investment choices than a 529.

You don’t get a state tax break with an ESA, but the working class doesn’t pay all that much in income taxes anyway.  The problem with an ESA is that you can only put $2K a year into it.  That just isn’t enough to pay cash at Harvard.  This isn’t an issue for the working class.  It’s hard enough to put $2K into that account for each of their kids.  But for a high-earner, it’s nice to have the higher contribution limit ($15K/year) of the 529.


I've got my 2 acres of non-leveraged, crop-producing, cashflowing farmland via AcreTrader. Get yours.


2. State Tax Breaks

My state allows both me and my wife to put $1,960 EACH [$4,000 joint in 2019 – Ed] into a 529 for EACH of our children and get a credit for it on our state taxes.  That’s the equivalent of a $16K deduction off my state taxes, which saves me about $800 a year.  Tax break going in, tax break while growing, tax break coming out.  Can’t beat that.


3. Lump-Sum Contribution

Would you like to shelter MORE than $15K per child, per parent, per year?  You can.  You’re allowed to front load up to 5 years worth of contributions at one time, up to $150K per child.  Eventually, there’s a limit on contributions, usually somewhere around $300K to $500K per child, but it varies by state.

Imagine putting in $150K in when your child is born, $150K when your child turns 5, $150K when your child turns 10, and another $90K when your child turns 15.  By the time he turns 18, assuming 8% returns, you’ll have well over a Million for college.  I don’t care what tuition inflation is, that’s going to cover it.  Obviously the poor can’t do this, but the rich can. [PoF edit: Many plans won’t allow you to contribute further once the balance reaches the cap, but further growth via returns from the funds the balance invested in is typically allowed.]


529 tax break
a couple of 529 hundred-thousandaires


4. College Savings

The working class pays for college by working their way through it and taking loans.   They’re doing well to put away $15K for retirement, much less for their kid’s college.  They simply don’t have a need for a 529 plan. As a general rule, only high-earners have a little extra to put away for the next generation.


Should the High Earner Overcontribute to a 529?

Now, for the advanced reader, a discussion of whether you should purposely overcontribute to a 529.  Let’s say you’ve maxed out your IRAs, 401Ks etc.  You’ve got more money to save, but are already saving plenty for college.  Should you put even more into 529s planning to take it out later and spend it during retirement?

Let’s analyze how you’ll end up.  First, some assumptions.  Let’s assume you get a 5% tax break on your contributions, that your investments earn 8%/year, and that you pull the money out 30 years after you put it in.

Let’s further assume that your state DOESN’T recapture the state tax breaks you got years earlier when you contributed it.  (Some do recapture these.)  We’ll also assume you invest in a relatively tax-efficient investment such as a stock index fund, and that the 529 expenses are 0.3% higher than they would be in a taxable account and that your total marginal tax rate when you withdraw the money is 30% and your total capital gains tax rate is 15%.

Let’s compare investing in the 529 with a taxable account.


$10,000 into a 529

Instant 5% return= $500

After 30 years, $10,500 invested at 7.7% (reduced for 529 expenses) grows to $97,199. 30% taxes plus 10% penalty reduces this to $58,319.


$10,000 into a taxable account

After 30 years, $10,500 invested at 7.7% (reduced for capital gains/dividends of 2%/year taxed at 15% rate) grows to $97199.  You now sell it at 15% capital gains rates with no penalty, leaving you with a total of $82,619.

Now, you might have to pay a little more in taxes in the taxable account if you churn your account, but you also might have opportunities for tax loss harvesting, charitable donations, etc… to reduce your tax burden.  (See my article on Taxable Accounts for more details.)

It’s pretty clear that investing in a 529 for reasons other than education isn’t very bright.  If you do mistakenly over-contribute, you can always roll it over to another family member’s 529, but you certainly shouldn’t be trying to game the system by purposely over-contributing for your retirement. Over-contributing in order to start a college fund for a grandchild is another matter, of course, as is over-contributing in order to roll it into an ABLE account for your disabled child.

In summary, a 529 is a great way to save money on your taxes and help Junior avoid the loan burden you probably had to deal with.  As tuition continues to skyrocket, even state school undergraduate degrees may soon be out of reach of those who can’t pay at least part of the bill using savings.


I hope you’ve enjoyed WCI’s take on 529 plans. Continue reading for my own take on 529s — Physician on FIRE


Shortly after our children were born, we started 529 plans to get a head start on college savings. Before they could walk or talk, these lucky kids had thousands of dollars invested in a tax-advantaged account with many years for that money to compound before they might need it.

I say “lucky” because the vast majority of kids don’t have a 529 plan. Greater than 97% of families in the United States don’t use them, which is a shame, because these accounts are an excellent way to pre-fund at least a portion of a child’s future education.

There are the tax advantages that we’ll detail, the flexibility that can be useful, and the benefit of earmarking money solely for education in an account that you won’t be tempted to use in any other way.

With those advantages come some potential disadvantages, and we’ll cover those, too. I’ll also highlight some of the best plans available, discuss why you may or may not want to use your own state’s plan, and share the reasons that you probably don’t want to fund all your child’s education via a 529 plan.


529 Plans: What You Need to Know About College Savings

Established in 1996, this “qualified tuition program” is based on section 529 of the Internal Revenue code, hence the term “529 plan.”

They come in two varieties, but the most common is a savings plan, which is essentially an investment account with a current or future student named as the beneficiary.

The other flavor is a prepaid tuition plan, which is currently an option in FL, IL, MD, MA, MI, NV, PA, TX, VA, and WA. With these plans, you typically pay for tuition at the current rate and the beneficiary will have their tuition covered later on regardless of the cost at the time.

Personally, I prefer the flexibility of the savings plans, as the money can be applied to any of many thousands of schools nationwide (and some internationally, as well). The prepaid plans may allow you to use the money at a different institution, but the rules vary by plan and you may not get the best value if you choose a different school.

However, there may be a case for prepaid tuition. If you live in Ann Arbor, bleed maize and blue, and the previous five generations of your family are proud Wolverines, you might want to consider the MET, Michigan’s version of a prepaid tuition plan (and the first 529 plan) for your child. When our kids were born in Michigan, we chose the MESP, the Michigan Education Savings Program, which is a good thing because my kids bleed maroon and gold.


529 Plan MN
dad bleeds maroon & gold, too


Tax Savings from 529 Plans

The tax treatment at the federal level is the same no matter which plan you select. You invest with post-tax money and your invested money will grow tax-free. If used for qualifying educational expenses, there will be no taxes levied on the withdrawals.

Qualifying expenses include tuition, fees, books, computers used for education (not gaming), and room and board up to the amount determined by the institution as part of the cost of attendance.

Ineligible are things like health insurance, transportation, or student loan payments.

In addition to the tax-free growth, most states offer a tax break of some sort on your state income taxes. States that don’t levy a state income tax (AK, FL, NV, NH, SD, TN, TX, WA, and WY) obviously cannot give you a state tax deduction or credit.

Most states offer a deduction, but some offer a partial tax credit if you have low income. CO, IL, MN, UT, and VT offer credits of 5% to 50% and most (but not all) other states offer a tax deduction, and many of those require you to invest in the plan of the state you reside in.

If your state is like most and offers a tax deduction rather than a credit, there is a wide variety of benefits with some being generous and others minuscule.

Some states place a limit on the deduction per beneficiary, and some have a deduction limit per household, and it’s common for couples to get double the limit as an individual. Oregon’s limit for a deduction is under $5,000. Minnesota’s in only $3,000 (but is a 50% credit if you have an AGI under $75,000). A few states like IL, MS, and OK will give you a deduction on up to $20,000 per year per couple.

You can look up the specific rules in your state here.


The Tax Penalty on 529 Plans When Not Used for Education

As I mentioned, there are some downsides. One is the tax penalty you will be on the hook for if you withdraw money to buy a new hot tub instead of a liberal arts degree.

The penalty is only applied to the earnings. For example, if you invested $100,000 and the plan grew to $200,000, which you withdrew completely to fund your travel habit because Johnny’s more interested in his grunge tribute band than Logic 1001, you’d pay the penalty on $100,000 of the withdrawal.

You’ll owe a 10% penalty plus income tax on the money when used for non-eligible purchases. Depending on your income bracket and how much of the money in the account is earnings versus basis, that could add up to a tidy sum.

Fortunately, there are options to use the money for other people, including yourself, in creative ways, so you shouldn’t have to pay this potentially severe penalty.

This would be a good time to point out that you should only invest in a 529 plan if you’re also taking care of your own retirement. Loans can be taken out for school, but they don’t work well at all for funding your own retirement.


Using a 529 Plan for K-12 Private and Parochial Education

Starting in 2018, money in 529 Plans became eligible to be used for Kindergarten, Elementary School, and High School costs. Up to $10,000 per year can be taken from a 529 plan to pay for private schooling.

Note that not as many states will give you a state income tax break when using 529 plans on K-12 education, and currently only these 21 states do.

If you’re considering doing so, you may want to run the numbers. Note that if you contribute and withdraw $10,000 from a 529 plan, the money that went round-trip may not be eligible for a deduction at all.

California has gone so far as to impose a 2.5% tax on earnings when money is withdrawn for K-12 education, so you’ll want to take a good look at your own state’s rules before employing a 529 strategy as part of a plan to fund a private school K-12 education.


529 Plans and Financial Aid

If you’ve been a diligent 529 saver and your child qualifies for a merit-based scholarship, what then? There are likely some eligible expenses that won’t be covered by the scholarship, and you can withdraw 529 funds tax-free for those.

Furthermore, you can withdraw an amount equal to the value of the scholarship without having to pay the 10% penalty. Taxes will be due on the earnings, however, so if you’ve done well with the investments in the plan, this may not be a smart option.

Regarding need-based financial aid, 529 plans are considered when applying for aid and will be reported on the FAFSA. The presence of money in a 529 account predictably, and one could argue rightfully, reduces the financial need of a student.

That last point is another drawback of a 529 plan, although most people who choose to fund these plans are in a financial position that will likely exclude their children from any serious need-based financial aid. A notable exception is a child whose 529 plan is being funded by a wealthy relative or friend of the family in a case where the parents have little means.


Who Can Open a 529 Plan?

You don’t have to be a parent to open a 529 Plan on another’s behalf. In fact, you can be a non-parent and open one on anyone’s behalf, including your own, as long as you’re a U.S. taxpayer.

Why would you want to name yourself as a beneficiary?

The most common reason would be that you plan to have children, and want to get a head start on their college savings. You can name yourself as the beneficiary, and change it later on when you’ve made some babies. Miss Bonnie MD did this, opening an account for her son before he was born.



529 Utilization

How many of these eligible taxpayers are taking advantage of 529 plans? As I mentioned in the intro, very few.

According to the most recent data published by the Federal Reserve, only 2.5% of U.S. households had a 529 account in 2013, down from 3.1% in 2007. For those with income below the 50th percentile, it was only 0.3%.

Nearly 8% of households with income at the 90th to 95th percentile had one, and 16% of the 5%ers in the 95th to 100th percentile of income were using one.

The average balance reported across all income levels was about $56,000, but, like income data, the mean was skewed by those at the very top. The average balance for the bottom 95% was in the $25,000 to $33,0000 range, while the highest income households had an average balance of about $120,000.

The numbers are even more skewed when households are broken down by wealth. The average balance of a 529 plan in households with wealth under the 50th percentile was just $3,800, whereas the wealthiest 5% have an average balance of $152,300.


Superfunding a 529 Plan

Some of those wealthiest households may have contributed the bulk of that balance in one fell swoop. In a move sometimes called “superfunding,” a couple can contribute up to $150,000 to a child’s 529 plan without affecting their gift tax.

The way the gift tax works is that, normally, the amount of any gift of over $15,000 per person ($30,000 as a couple) to another individual results in a lowering of one’s estate tax exclusion.

For example, if my wife and I give someone $130,000 to buy a tricked out used Lamborghini (we don’t like anyone that much), and if our estate was someday worth more than the current 2019 estate tax exclusion of $22.8 Million, our exclusion would be “only” $22.7 Million. Any money inherited by our heirs in excess of $22.7 Million would be subject to federal estate tax.

It’s a very first-world problem and unlikely to be an issue for the vast majority of us, but it’s the reason this superfunding loophole of sorts exists.

A contribution to a 529 Plan is considered a gift, and therefore, one would normally be limited to annual per-recipient gifts of $15,000 as an individual or $30,000 as a couple. However, with 529 plans, you’re allowed to give five years’ worth of gifts at once.

As such, an individual can put $75,000 into each kid’s 529 plan and a couple can put up to $150,000 in at once. If you do this, any contributions in the following 5 years would affect your gift tax exclusion, so if you think you can afford this option, you might as well go all in and give to the max.

Reasons not to superfund a 529 include not having a swimming pool full of cash or living in a state that gives you a tax deduction up to a certain amount each year. It’s probably best to space out your giving in those instances.

However, if you are figuratively or literally swimming in cash and live in a state with either no state income tax or no state tax deduction offered for 529 contributions, superfunding could be a legitimate consideration.


How Much Can You Contribute to a 529 Plan?

Like the answer to most of these questions, it depends on where you live. Every state has a cap at which the account will no longer accept contributions. It can be as low as $235,000 as it is in GA, MS, and TN, or as high as $500,000 or more, as it is in D.C., LA, MI, NH, NM, NY, PA, SC, VA, and WA.

These limits will vary as laws change, and some are tied to inflation, so be sure to check the latest cap for your state. I’ve found Saving for College to be an excellent resource for up-to-date data on 529 Plans.

Note that the 529 plans can grow to be larger than these limits, but you cannot continue to contribute once the cap has been reached.


How Much Should You Contribute to a 529 Plan?

It’s a common question, and I don’t have a great answer. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but personal finance is personal. The correct answer will depend on many factors specific to the needs and wants of both you and your children (or other beneficiaries).

We’ve chosen to fund our kids’ plans rather aggressively, knowing for the last few years that my high-income years could be coming to an end. They don’t know it yet, but our boys each have just over $100,000 in their 529 plans, we’re not done contributing, and they won’t be of typical college age for another 8 to 10 years.


What should you do?


Factors that Suggest Contributing Generously to a 529 plan:

  • Private K-12 schooling
  • A desire for private college or university (or out-of-state public without reciprocity)
  • Beneficiary unlikely to receive an academic or athletic scholarship
  • A high likelihood of graduate or professional school
  • Parents earn too much or have too many assets to qualify for need-based aid
  • You can easily afford it after prioritizing funding your own retirement
  • A desire for multi-generational college funding
  • An interest in your own life-long education


Factors that Suggest Contributing Meagerly to a 529 plan:

  • Child (or recipient) is not “college material.”
  • Public schooling for K-12
  • A desire for an in-state public college or university (or out-of-state with reciprocity)
  • Recipient is likely to qualify for academic or athletic scholarships
  • Recipient will likely complete high school with substantial college credits
  • Need-based financial aid is likely
  • You are unable to max out your own tax-advantaged retirement accounts
  • You prefer an alternative method for college funding


What To Do With Leftover 529 Money

If you find yourself among the tiny percentage of Americans who not only contribute to a 529 plan (remember only 2.5% of households do this at all), but end up overcontributing, you’ve got some viable options for those stray dollars.

There is the option to withdraw the money and pay the 10% penalty and income taxes on the earnings. This is not a great option, but if you need the cash, it’s the one that will put the most money in your pocket.

However, you probably don’t need the money if you were in a position to overfund a 529 account in the first place. In this case, you will look for someone else who might be able to use the money. That could be a sibling of the beneficiary, a first cousin, or even a future child of the beneficiary. Some people like to call them Grandchildren (assuming your child was the initial beneficiary).

Just imagine what two to three decades of tax-free compounding could do for that 529 balance if your college-aged offspring don’t need the money.

You might also find the most appropriate beneficiary in the mirror. How would you feel about paying for room, board, tuition in fees in one of five eligible schools in Paris, France? You’ll find hundred of eligible international schools on Page 145 to 155 of this document. There are also two dozen U.S. culinary schools that might be fun to try.

Bon appétit!


What’s the Best 529 Plan?

If your state offers a tax break for contributing to your own state’s plan, the best plan is almost certainly your own state’s plan.

On the other hand, if there is no state tax incentive to contribute to your own state’s plan (or any plan), you might as well choose a plan that has the best investment options. Generally, that means having a reasonably broad range of low-cost investment options. The cap at which contributions must cease may also be a consideration; the higher, the better.

I’m not going to make a judgment call here, but plans that fit the bill and are frequently mentioned in the “Best of” lists include CA, NV, NY, UT, AZ, DE, MA, NH, MI, and probably a couple others. Any of these plans will offer a range of index funds with expense ratios under 0.20%.

Personally, I think there’s no good reason to consider an advisor-sold plan. You can choose your investment(s) directly and save some money. Many states have a “target date” option that becomes more conservative as the beneficiary approaches college age.

Whether or not such a plan makes sense for you depends on your risk tolerance, how dependent you are on those particular dollars fully funding education, and your interest in multi-generational funding. We’ve chosen to invest aggressively in stock-based funds and plan to remain invested that way until the money’s gone or we’re blessed with leftovers for another generation.


529 Plans as an Estate Planning Tool

Like I said, most of us will not need to worry about bumping into an estate tax issue, at least not if the exemption remains near its current level, but there’s a chance some of us will. The estate tax exemption could return to previous levels in the range of $5 Million like we had in the early 2010s.

Consider an example where the estate tax exemption for an individual is $5 Million. The matriarch of the fortune was never married, and she’s stricken with a terminal illness with a net worth in the range of $6.5 Million.

Money in 529 plans will not be subject to the estate tax. Suppose the cannabis-infused energy drink baroness has 20 grandchildren under the age of 18. She could superfund a 529 plan for each of the 20 future heirs and heiresses with $750,000 and reduce her taxable estate to $5 Million, eliminating the possibility of paying hefty taxes on that $1.5 Million of her estate.


Why You Should Not Plan to Pay for College Completely with a 529 Plan

If you’ve got kids in college and income (specifically, modified adjusted gross income (MAGI)) under $160,000 as a couple, you would be a fool to cover all of your child’s education costs via a 529 plan.

Why? The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) is why.

If your income qualifies — it phases out over $80,000 to $90,000 as an individual or $160,000 to $180,000 as a couple — you would be forgoing free government cheese.

The AOTC gives you a full tax credit on the first $2,000 paid toward college expenses for your dependent each of the first four years. For every dollar you put in in the first $2,000, your tax liability is lowered by a dollar. That’s free money.

The AOTC also gives a 25% credit for the next $2,000. That’s a total of a $2,500 tax credit if you chip in $4,000 from your checkbook rather than a 529 plan.

If your income is in the range that qualifies, you should absolutely pay for the first $4,000 out of pocket before tapping a 529 plan. If your salary puts your MAGI over $180,000 (or $90,000 for single filers), then it doesn’t much matter. But it does make early retirement a little more enticing, doesn’t it?



529 Plan Alternatives

No discussion of 529 plans would be complete without a discussion of the alternatives.

I’ve heard people talk about investing in Roth IRA accounts to pay for college. After all, you can pull Roth contributions out tax-free and penalty-free as long as you’ve had a Roth IRA for 5 years or more.

I would not recommend this option. There’s only so much money you can get into Roth, and it’s very valuable there. Leave it be for as long as possible.

You can also invest in a plain old taxable brokerage account. There are no restrictions on how the money is used and tax drag can be minimized. If you don’t benefit from a state income tax deduction on 529 contributions, the upside of the flexibility here may outweigh the potential drawbacks of the limitations imposed on 529 money. Money is fungible, so money in a taxable account can be used to pay for college or anything else.

Another plan outlined is to buy one rental property and use the proceeds to pay for college. Bonus points if the property is next to a college campus that your child ends up attending and actually lives there.

I think this is a decent option if you’re going to be investing in rental real estate, anyway, but I don’t see it as a substitute for investing in a 529 plan. Again, money is fungible, so only choose this option if you like real estate as a primary investment vehicle.

Finally, there are Coverdell ESA accounts which can be used as a supplement to a 529 plan. They’re not a replacement, because the annual tax-advantaged investment amount is only $2,000 a year.

Furthermore, there’s a phase out that starts at $220,000. They also must be used up or rolled over by the time the beneficiary turns 30, whereas 529 plans have no such age limit. There is no state tax deduction for contributions to them. I’m not a fan and don’t use them, but I mention them because they still exist and The White Coat Investor published a Pro / Con piece on them (he landed squarely on Con).


The 529 Plan: What You Need to Know

By now, I hope you’ve learned much of what you need to know. In summary, the 529 plan is an investment account that offers everyone the advantage of tax-free growth and many the benefit of a state income tax reduction as long as the money is used for education when withdrawn.

A small minority of households use them, and I feel they’re woefully underutilized. Student loan debt is crippling and our graduates are leaving school with ever-increasing levels of debt. If we can afford to do so, we should do what we can to ease that burden from our loved ones in the next generation.

Be sure to take care of your own retirement before you fund someone else’s schooling, even if it is your own children we’re talking about. No bank that hopes to remain solvent is going to underwrite a retirement loan.

Finally, be sure to understand the advantages and potential disadvantages of funding a 529 plan in the state in which you live. Every time you cross a border, the rules and numbers can change.

The average indebted medical student graduated with about $200,000 in debt in 2018, and that debt level tends to grow throughout residency and fellowship. It’s not uncommon for undergrads to matriculate with a six-figure student loan debt that can stick with them for decades.

Think about that when you debate whether or not to open a 529 plan for someone you care about.



Have you opened a 529 plan yet? Are you funding one for your own children, someone else’s children, or even yourself? I’d love to hear your perspective on 529 plans.


A generous and temporarily increased welcome bonus of 80,000 points & Peloton membership credits on the Chase Sapphire Preferred & premium card perks with the Chase Sapphire Reserve!

Annual fee
Intro APR
Regular APR
Recommended credit
Bonus Intro Rewards
bonus_miles_full read more
Annual fee
Intro APR
Regular APR
Recommended credit
Bonus Intro Rewards
bonus_miles_full read more

Share this post:

16 thoughts on “A Rare Tax Break for the Wealthy: The 529 Account”

  1. Pingback: College Admissions Scandal Highlights the Absurd Entitlement of the Ua-Wealthy – Mother Jones – Mother Jones – Impact investing
  2. Subscribe to get more great content like this, an awesome spreadsheet, and more!
  3. Pingback: Faculty Admissions Scandal Highlights the Absurd Entitlement of the Extremely-Rich – Mom Jones - LBNN
  4. Pingback: College Admissions Scandal Highlights the Absurd Entitlement of the Ultra-Wealthy – - Top 10 Percent News
  5. Can you use 529 funds for international tuition and housing? Not just for study abroad but for a university degree.

  6. I had a question, that I hope folks can shed some light on.

    What would you say is a good amount to contribute each year per child if you wanted to not only pay for college but 4 additional years of graduate school. I had the amazing blessing of having my medical school paid for, however with the expectation that I do the same for my children.

    I realized that the 529 not only can pay for tuition but also for housing, books etc. So I’m unsure how much I should save into this account. I want to put a decent amount in, but as described earlier I’m not looking to use the 529 as a tax shelter where I could potential place the money in a taxable account to grow.

    I also realize that it greatly depends on whether my children go to a instate public vs private college. But lets assume my kids go to a public college not one that cost 50k/year. I’m leaning to 5-6K per year per kiddo. What would the FIRE community recommend.

    Thank you for any insight that you may provide.

  7. I have a few questions on the front loading option:

    1) Do you have to do all 5 yr front loading at once or can it be done partially (say 2 or 3 yrs)
    2) If it is done partially do you have to wait till that front loading time period has passed or can you do the same the very next year as long as it amounts to the initial 5 yr front load (ie in year one can you pay 3 yrs ahead and year 2 pay 2 yrs for a total of 5)
    3) What happens if you front load all 5 yrs and then tax change increases the annual amount of gift that can be given (which happened for 2018 raising it to 15k from 14k). Are you allowed to put the extra in for the years you front loaded at the lower amount?

    And on a separate note, are there any good guidelines of what balance you should have in a particular child’s account based on his or her age? It would be nice to compare where I am at with my child (I believe I have around $66k and she is in the 7th grade

    Also I am currently single so I don’t have the benefit of doubling the amount to my daughter’s account that a married couple has but I was thinking of “cheating the system” this way:

    Since I am allowed to gift 15k to anyone without tax implications, is it possible to first contribute to my daughter 529 using up that gift amount and then gift my mother (her grandmother) the same amount and then she can then later turn around and gift it as a separate 529 contribution back to my daughter (she doesn’t have the finances to do it herself). My theory why this would work is I am allowed to gift to my mother and that money becomes hers and she can do whatever she wants with it but would put it in 529 for my daughter as her own gift (which was my original intention with this money)

    Lastly when you gift this amount for 529 is that something there is a line you report in your taxes for (similar to establishing a basis in a non deductible ira (believe form 8606)? And do you have to indicate that you are giving a gift up to limit on your tax return? (this is first yr attempting my own taxes)


  8. How are 529 plans inherited? If my daughter doesn’t use all the funds and we change the beneficiary to her son (my grandson), could my daughter inherit the 529 and fund my grandson’s education?

  9. one thing that i haven’t found addressed anywhere: can you set up a 529 account and receive the tax break for a child that is NOT yours? i.e. our friends are having a baby, we are the godparents, can we set up a 529 for this kid under our names and get the tax break? We don’t want to put the child’s name as owner, as they will have direct access to all funds, and we aren’t 100% sure the parents would use the funds as intended (i.e. while we would pay for a class in underwater basket weaving – how awesome of a class would that be!? – we don’t necessarily want to pay for a degree in it)

  10. In our case they arent really for the rich – our state North Dakota plan is among the highest expenses for 529 and our state taxes are among the lowest so we saved money by using the Utah plan through Vanguard. Would have done the same if we werent high earners.
    We dont overfund, plan on having 100K by 10 year bdays and taking it from there, chose the aggressive glide path because we dont need the 529 so put it at risk knowing we’ve started funding young. Best 60K (so far) weve spent. We get more satisfaction looking at the 529 balances than our brokerage, and the brokerage = FIRE!

  11. As someone pointed out earlier – indeed having a 529 for yourself is a great investment tool in case you want to pursue further education (at any time). Plus a child can be added as a beneficiary anytime.

  12. Yep — my concern is over-contributing — especially when paired with how I’m hoping to help my kids “hack” the typical path using CLEP, dual enrollment, and similar. There are caveats that let you withdraw penalty free in the case of the a scholarship. But no such rules exist just for underspending. So I’ve decided to pause my 529 contributions for the foreseeable future.

  13. I didn’t use 529 accounts as the state university costs could have been easily cash flowed but as it turned out my three millennial kids all got 100% free ride academic scholarships. I have no interest in being a full time paid student in retirement considering there is unlimited free/cheap educational material available now on the internet. I also don’t have any grandkids and would not pay their schooling if I did as that might be harmful to my kids. I suppose in a case like mine I could have gotten the money back by paying a 10% penalty and taxes on any gains?

  14. Your calculations do not take into account the returns when a person actually uses the 529 for its intended purpose at retirement. Most physicians go into medicine expecting to be lifetime learners so if like me you contribute to a 529 for yourself and spouse to actually use the account as intended it’s a great investment tool. Not only can you use the money for school expenses but also for living expenses up to the amounts prescribed by federal guidelines for a students average living expenses while enrolled tax free. If your lucky the local schools give senior citizens tuition reductions and make your actual costs for school quite low and still allow full living expense withdrawals from the 529. It requires the student to be enrolled full time but there are many courses that I’m looking forward to take for self fulfillment. Certainly the opportunity to study abroad paid with a 529 account is another great idea for the retired physician.

  15. A lot of people contribute monthly or annually. It is fine to get the annual tax credit if your state offers one. Otherwise, the math works out for an early lump-sum investment to give you a better tax benefit than a steady investment over time. Most “average workers” can’t afford this so they pay as they go. A lot of doctors could afford to pay in early though. I learned this from a Joshua Sheats podcast.

  16. Thanks for the great article. As my child opted to go to an in state public university, I will have about $50K left in the 529 when she graduates. Could I transfer the account to myself if I wanted to take a University course in Italian history in Florence, Italy? Assuming I can, does the entire amount have to be transferred or could a portion be transferred to my wife and she would take an art course in Florence?


Leave a Comment


Doctor Loan up to 100% Financing

Related Articles

Subscribe to Physician on FIRE

If you do not see a subscription box above, please navigate here to subscribe.

Join Thousands of Doctors on the Path to FIRE

Get exclusive tips on how to reclaim control of your time and finances.