529s, Roth IRAs and Other Strategies for Your College Savings Plan

Woman taking a class


Craig Lemoine, Director of Consumer Investment Research


I often find college savings at the top of my pile of financial stressors. Unless I find a money tree in my backyard, my oldest child is going to turn 18 well before I retire. We all have different values surrounding the education of our children or grandchildren. Some of us want to pay as much of our children’s college costs as we can. Others may believe in the power of being self-made, while some families fall in between. I proudly fall in the middle.

College costs continued to rise for the 2021/2022 academic year. The average annual tuition and fee cost for a public in-state university is $10,740, rising to $27,560 for an out-of-state school and cresting at $38,070 for private schools. These costs do not include living expenses, housing or optional fees. Fold in the extras of everyday living, and college costs grow to around $30,000 annually per in-state student.

These numbers quickly scale, compound and backflip into being overwhelming. Using time value of money techniques helps provide a path to clarity. Assuming the costs mentioned above, the ability to earn slightly more than inflationary pressure (3.45%) while providing four years of college costs would require just over $110,300 set aside for a student beginning college next year. These costs increase for students going out of state, attending private schools or in higher-cost-of-living areas.

Americans tend to pay for college through a combination of parents pitching in from their income (40%), college savings plan distributions (11%), scholarships and grants (25%), student loans (11%), children utilizing their income and assets (8%) and other resources (5%). Every student and their support network will find a unique path to paying for college.

These percentages help provide a framework of developing your own college savings plan. Developing a college plan is the launching pad to determine how much to save and what types of accounts to use.

My personal goal is to save enough to provide for each of my children’s first two years at a public, in-state university. Beginning their junior year, my kiddos will need to pay their own housing and living expenses. This goal reflects my values and income and strikes a balance with completing long-term goals. Everyone is going to have a different perspective and starting point for college planning.

The most common tool used for reaching college savings goals is a 529 plan – 37% of American families reported using a 529 plan to pay college costs in the prior academic year, with average account distributions of just under $8,000. Usage of 529 plans was more common among parents using retirement accounts or other investment vehicles, and they have quickly become America’s preferred method of saving for college, with Morningstar reporting $363 billion dollars held across 61 state plans in 2020.

Why do we love 529 plans? They provide investors with immediate diversification, age-weighted portfolios and low costs. These plans often come with a state-income tax deduction on contributions, provide tax-deferred growth and state oversight, and allow owners to change plan beneficiaries to family members tax-free. Plans can be opened by an adult (referred to as the account owner), who names a beneficiary. The owner of the account (generally a parent or grandparent) controls investment options and can name and change the plan beneficiary (generally a child). The plan beneficiary receives tax-favored distributions based on their educational expenses.

There are two varieties of 529 plans: college savings plans and prepaid tuition plans. While every state offers the college savings plan option, not all states offer a prepaid tuition plan. Prepaid tuition plans provide the option of paying for future college credit hours at a fixed cost. The cost is often hefty, but the plan invests dollars with the goal of paying future college costs. Prepaid tuition plans are attractive to conservative investors with a nest egg to invest.

College savings plans allow owners to choose investment options from a slate provided by the plan administrator. These plans feature age-weighted mutual fund portfolios that grow more conservative as a beneficiary approaches traditional college age. Owners can also choose traditional mutual fund options based on plan offerings.

If the account is used to provide qualified education expenses for a beneficiary, distributions are income tax-free. Qualified expenses include:

  • College tuition
  • College fees
  • Required supplies and equipment
  • Computer and internet access
  • K-12 tuition and fees (up to $10,000)

College savings plans wilt when proceeds are used to provide non-qualified expenses. Non-qualified expense gains are taxed as ordinary income and, with little exception (exceptions include offsetting beneficiary scholarships, military service, disability or death), assessed a 10% penalty. Non-qualified 529 expenses include:

  • Travel expenses to and from college
  • Car payments and upkeep
  • Car insurance costs
  • Expenses associated with a cellphone
  • Fraternity, sorority or other club dues
  • An allowance, gifts or other support

Committing entirely to 529 accounts for your college savings plan guarantees you will be paying some costs out of your cash flow while children are in school, or will find yourself making tax-heavy distributions from the account. Taxable distributions raise owner income, which will possibly lower financial aid eligibility, creating a ripple of pain. A better approach may be a core and satellite strategy. The core of a college savings strategy remains a 529 plan, but the satellite can take many forms.

  • A rocky satellite is a Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) or Uniform Trust to Minors Act (UTMA) account. These accounts allow minors to begin investing along with a custodian. Custodians can purchase individual equities, bonds, cryptocurrency, mutual funds or real estate. The custodian rolls off the account at the child’s age of majority (18 or 21, based on state of residence), leaving the child as the sole owner of account assets. UTMA and UGMA accounts are great at passing wealth to children, but they do not make a strong satellite in a college savings plan. UTMA/UGMA accounts can reduce financial aid more than other options, though they may be subject to parent income tax rates, and a child will control account assets once they turn 18 or 21.
  • If your child works part-time, a Roth IRA in the child’s name is an outstanding college savings satellite. As long as children have earned income, they can make after-tax contributions to a Roth IRA up to $6,000 annually. The Roth IRA will grow tax-free and account basis (initial contributions) can be used at any time. Roth IRAs are not considered in a financial aid calculation. Roth accounts can be invested in a range of investment options, including individual equities, bonds, mutual funds and cryptocurrency. Roth IRAs pair as an extraordinary satellite to 529 accounts. Consider the following example:

Victoria, 14, spent her summer mowing yards, house sitting and dog walking. She recorded her income and expenses and earned $5,500 over the summer. Victoria’s parents then opened a Roth IRA for her and bought two shares of Stock A at $2,750 a share. Assuming Victoria continues working through high school and her parents continue contributing, then by the time she begins college, her Roth IRA would have eight shares of Stock A and her account would have a cost basis of $22,000 ($5,500 multiplied by 4 summers).

Victoria can sell shares as needed to provide supplemental expenses, and can take up to $22,000 out of the account without incurring any penalty. Shares will (hopefully) continue to appreciate in value, and Victoria can make additional contributions to the account if she continues working.

  • If your child does not have any earned income, consider opening a parent-owned non-qualified brokerage account to help save for non-529 expenses. The account will be subject to tax on dividends, interest and gains, but there are no asset or usage restrictions. Consider growth equities to limit income tax exposure, and choose positions not offered by the larger 529 college savings plan. Non-qualified brokerage accounts make strong satellites when orbiting with a 529 account.
  • Exotic satellites include cash value life insurance policies, rental properties and other real estate. They may have higher costs and require a time commitment, but can pair nicely with a core 529 account balance.

Add the moon to your college savings plan. A financial adviser can help you personalize a core/satellite approach. Meeting with a financial planner can also help you set a course of action, decide on weekly savings targets and develop an asset allocation built around your college savings needs.


Craig is not affiliated or registered with Cetera Advisor Networks LLC. Any information provided by Craig is in no way related to Cetera Advisor Networks LLC or its registered representatives.

These examples are hypothetical only, and do not represent the actual performance of any particular investments.  Investments in securities do not offer a fixed rate of return.  Principal, yield and/or share price will fluctuate with changes in market conditions and when sold or redeemed, you may receive more or less than originally invested.

A Roth IRA offers tax free withdrawals on taxable contributions.

To qualify for the tax-free and penalty-free withdrawal or earnings, a Roth IRA must be in place for at least five tax years, and the distribution must take place after age 59 ½ or due to death, disability, or a first time home purchase (up to a $10,000 lifetime maximum). Depending on state law, Roth IRA distributions may be subject to state taxes.

Before investing, the investor should consider whether the investor’s or beneficiary’s home state offers any state tax or other benefits available only from that state’s 529 Plan.

Get in Touch

In just minutes we can get to know your situation, then connect you with an advisor committed to helping you pursue true wealth.

Contact Us
Business professional using his tablet to check his financial numbers

401(k) Calculator

Determine how your retirement account compares to what you may need in retirement.

Get Started