Financing An Education: A Guide For Students And Parents

Learn more about two common vehicles: 529 plans and student loans

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In 1 minute

There’s more than one way to finance your education.

A 529 plan is like a retirement account—but for education. It comes with tax benefits and can grow over time. Just keep in mind that each state has its own 529 plan, and the investment choices, rules and benefits vary. Some states match whatever you put into the account, or let you pay for tuition credits now (with today’s prices). Performance, contribution limits, and usage rules can also vary from plan to plan.

You’re not limited to the 529 plan offered by your state. So don’t assume your state’s plan is right for you. As you compare plans, focus on tax benefits, fees, and investment choices.

You can also pay for school with student loans. Most students have to take out at least some loans to fund their education. As long as you choose your loans wisely and have a strategy for paying them off, borrowing can make sense. You may not even have to repay all of your loans if you qualify for loan forgiveness after you graduate. And if you need to, you can usually consolidate or refinance your loans to make repayment simpler or lower your interest rate.

Whether by borrowing, saving, or some combination of the two, an early emphasis on how to fund your studies helps set you up for academic success once class is in session.

In 5 minutes

In this guide, we’ll cover:

  • Investing in a 529 plan
  • Financing responsibly with student loans

Whether you’re looking at university or trade school, education is expensive. And if you’re like most people, you probably don’t have that kind of cash on hand. Some manage to work their way through college, but depending on the school, even a full-time job will barely put a dent in your expenses. 

So how should you pay for school? The answer depends on how much time you have, where you live, and where you want to go. If you have money to set aside for school, a 529 plan might be your best bet. Student loans are always an option, too—you just have to be careful.

What’s a 529 plan? How do you choose one?

A 529 plan is a specialized investment account with tax benefits. It works similarly to a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k). You put money into the account and pay taxes up front, and if you withdraw for education expenses, you usually don’t have to pay taxes on anything you earned. While IRAs and 401(k)s help you plan for retirement, 529 plans help you plan for education expenses. Oh, and every state has its own plan.

There are two types of 529 plans:

  1. Prepaid tuition plans
  2. Education savings plans

Prepaid tuition plans

With a prepaid tuition plan, you pay for tuition credits upfront, using today’s tuition rates. These plans are not very popular, and most states don’t offer these plans anymore, but since tuition costs are always increasing, this can be a good option. Who knows how much tuition will cost in the coming years! The downside is that this money can only be used for tuition, and there are plenty of other education expenses.

Education savings plans

An education savings plan is more like a traditional investment account. You invest in funds, stocks, bonds, and other financial assets, and your account has the potential to grow through compound interest. You can also use this money on more than just tuition. Depending on your state, you could use your account for education fees, living expenses, technology, school supplies, or even student loan payments.

Use it on anything else, and there’s a 10% penalty.

529 plan limitations

Every 529 plan needs a specific beneficiary. It could be yourself, your child, a grandkid, a friend—whoever. Their age doesn’t matter. The only limitations are what the funds can be used for and how much you can contribute.

Everything you put into a 529 plan is considered “a gift” to the beneficiary. And there are limits to how much you can gift to a person each year before being subject to gift tax rules. But you also have a lifetime limit in the millions of dollars. After that, there’s a gift tax. Gift tax rules are complex, so we recommend consulting a tax professional.

Every state is different

529 plans can vary widely from state-to-state. And since you can choose plans from other states, it’s worth shopping around.

While some plans let you apply your account to in-state or out-of-state education, others don’t. If you’re looking at a plan you can only use in-state, make sure you’re comfortable with the available schools. 

Some states offer a match program, where they’ll match a percentage of 529 plan contributions from low- and middle-income families. This could substantially boost your savings. Your state might also offer a full or partial tax break on your contributions—but that usually only applies if you live in state. And of course, each 529 plan is an investment account, so you’ll also want to review the investment choices and consider the cost of fees.

For every plan, the account’s total worth can only be equal to the “expected amount” of future education expenses for each beneficiary. But that’s going to vary widely from state to state. The exact limit depends on which 529 plan you choose, but it’s typically a few hundred thousand dollars for each beneficiary. If you’re wanting to save for a private college or grad program, that may not be enough. And if your state’s limit is lower than what you think you’ll need, that may offset the benefit of a state tax break or match program.

And according to Federal law, you can use up to $10,000 from a 529 plan to pay for “enrollment or attendance at an eligible elementary or secondary school.” It also lets you apply $10,000 toward student loans. But some states don’t follow these federal laws. If they don’t, and you use your funds like this anyway, you’ll have to pay a 10% penalty.

Bottom line: do your research, and make sure you’re familiar with the specifics of your 529 plan.

How to choose a 529 plan

The best 529 plan for you depends on:

  • Where you live
  • Where you or your beneficiary will go to school
  • How much you want to save
  • What you want to spend this money on

But if you’re wondering how to tell which plan is likely to make the most of your money, it really comes down to just three things: tax benefits, fees, and investment choices. Be sure to look at all plan details and compare these factors before choosing one.

Student loan basics

Student loans have a bad reputation. And it’s understandable. About 43 million Americans owe an average of $39,000 in student loans. The average student needs to borrow about $30,000 to earn their bachelor’s degree.

But when it comes down to it, if you don’t have money to contribute to a 529 plan or investment account (or your account doesn’t have enough money), your options are:

  1. Work your way through college
  2. Take out student loans

Even with a job, you may need to take student loans. Used wisely (and sparingly), student loans don’t have to consume your finances or derail your other goals. But as with 529 plans, you can’t assume every loan is the same.

Types of student loans

There are two main types of student loans to consider:

  1. Federal
  2. Private

Federal student loans often (but not always) have the lowest interest rates, don’t require credit checks, and come with benefits like pathways to loan forgiveness. You don’t need a cosigner to get most federal loans, and nearly all students with a high school diploma or GED are eligible for them. However, there’s a cap on how much money you can take out in federal loans, and some types of federal loans require you to demonstrate financial need.

Financial institutions like banks can also provide private student loans. These typically require a good credit score, and you can take out as much as you need (as long as you’re approved for it). 

Another big difference: with private loans, you typically start making payments immediately and have a fixed repayment schedule set by your lender. With federal loans, you may not have to pay while you’re in school, you get a six-month grace period after you graduate, and you can choose from four repayment plans.

Federal loan repayment options

Federal loans give you flexibility with repayment. If you’re struggling to make monthly payments, you can choose one of four Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) plans that may work better for your situation.

Each of these plans allows for payments based on your income, usually 10-20% of it with a few exceptions, which makes individual payments more manageable. Unfortunately, this usually also means you’ll be making payments for longer. Check out the Federal Student Loan website for more detailed information on each plan.

If you want to pay off your loans faster, you can also select a Graduated Repayment Plan, which increases your payments periodically, ensuring you pay off your loans in 10 years.

There’s also another way to ditch your federal loan payments ahead of schedule: loan forgiveness.

Student loan forgiveness

With federal loans, there are two pathways to loan forgiveness:

  1. Public service
  2. Income-Driven Repayment

Go into the right line of work after college, and you could be eligible for Public Student Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). This is available to students who pursue careers with nonprofits, government agencies, and some public sectors. If you make monthly qualifying payments for 10 years, then you can apply for forgiveness.

If you don’t qualify for PSLF, but you’re on an IDR plan, you have another potential pathway to forgiveness. After 20-25 years of monthly payments, you may qualify for forgiveness, too. Unfortunately, on this path, you have to pay income taxes on the amount that was forgiven. (This is referred to as a “tax bomb.”)

Consolidating and refinancing student loans

Sometimes it’s tough to juggle multiple repayment schedules, interest rates, and payment amounts. If you’re having a hard time keeping track of your student loans, you may want to consider consolidating them so you have one monthly payment.

Consolidating through a private institution could also give you a new interest rate (the average of your old ones) and let you adjust your payment time horizon.

The federal consolidation program won’t change your interest rate, but it will still group your loans into a single payment for you.

Whatever loans you wind up with and whatever your repayment plan, make sure you stay on top of your minimum payments. Fees and penalties can significantly increase your debt over time.

Find your path to education

Education is expensive. But it’s not out of reach. Saving early and investing in a 529 plan is one of the best ways to finance your education, but using student loans wisely works fine, too. Just be sure you have a strategy to repay any debt, so you can focus on pursuing your passion and starting your career.