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It’s no secret that education costs have increased in recent years. According to the U.S. Department of Education, over 40 million Americans owe an average $30,000 in student debt. But did you know bachelor’s degree recipients earn roughly $1 million more than high school graduates over a lifetime? While education may be expensive, it plays a large role in earning potential over time.

With costs on the rise, it’s no longer enough to simply put away money in a standard savings account when saving for college. If you plan to put a child through school someday, you’ll want to make sure you can afford it. A great way to do this is with a 529 plan.

What is a traditional 529 plan?

A traditional 529 plan is an account that covers the costs of education, including room and board, tuition, fees, technology and books. These plans use an investing component to offer a return on contributions. You can choose a plan based on your risk tolerance and when you’ll need the funds.

The plan owner is typically the parent. The owner is responsible for selecting a beneficiary, and can change that beneficiary at any time. This comes in handy if your child decides to forego college for an alternative career path. You can ensure the money is used for education by changing the beneficiary.

Anyone can open a 529 plan, but the more time you have before the funds are needed, the better. As with any investment, regular and consistent contributions over time are the keys to success.

Benefits of using a 529 plan

Tax advantages offered by 529 plans make them a great tool for building an education fund. The plan owner, as well as the beneficiary, won’t have to pay taxes on the account earnings as long as they are used for qualified education expenses.

All 50 states offer variations of the traditional 529 plan. In some cases, you may be able to enroll in a plan offered by a neighboring state.

If a plan owner’s income falls below a certain threshold, they may be eligible for additional benefits. Some employers offer matching contributions and bonus contributions to encourage families to save more for education.

What’s a prepaid 529 plan?

A prepaid 529 plan is another option for parents planning further ahead for education. A prepaid plan locks in the price of tuition at an in-state, public university as it is today. So if you’re sure your child will attend that school, you can have tuition paid for in advance.

Since a prepaid plan is locking in a lower tuition rate, there’s no need for funds to be widely exposed to the stock market for growth purposes. You decrease your exposure to risk by taking the cost of college at the time you start saving versus what it will cost in the future.

If a beneficiary decides to go to school elsewhere, they may not get the most out of the plan. They’ll be able to use the funds in full, but it may not cover costs at another university. These plans aren’t offered by all states, so it’s important to research options based on where a beneficiary plans to go to school.

Maximize your return

Regardless of which plan you choose, don’t underestimate the time it takes for your money to grow. If you can, combine regular contributions with lump sum contributions from time to time. Some savers even contribute to traditional 529 plans and prepaid plans to maximize coverage of college costs.

Education allows students to become professionals and achieve a higher quality of life. Give that gift to your child by opening an account to fund their future, and ultimately, their success.

Navy Federal Financial Group, LLC (NFFG) is a licensed insurance agency. Non-deposit investments, brokerage, and advisory products are only sold through Navy Federal Investment Services, LLC (NFIS), a member of FINRA/SIPC and an SEC-registered investment advisory firm. NFIS is a wholly owned subsidiary of NFFG. Insurance products are offered through NFFG and NFIS. These products are not NCUA/NCUSIF or otherwise federally insured, are not guaranteed or obligations of Navy Federal Credit Union (NFCU), are not offered, recommended, sanctioned, or encouraged by the federal government, and may involve investment risk, including possible loss of principal. Deposit products and related services are provided by NFCU. Financial Advisors are employees of NFFG, and they are employees and registered representatives of NFIS. NFIS and NFFG are affiliated companies under the common control of NFCU. Call 1-877-221-8108 for further information. 

About the Author: In the role of VP, Advisory Services, Kevin provides leadership and oversight advisory services to achieve NFIS' and Navy Federal’s strategic plans and initiatives. He ensures optimum revenue generated through design and execution of sales strategies and sales channel distribution. He also assists the Chief Operating Officer with development of strategic plans and initiatives. Kevin began his career in the financial services industry 20 years ago in the commercial and personal insurance business, migrating into investments and financial advice in 2000. Along the way Kevin worked as a Financial Advisor for NFIS in the Orlando, Florida market. Most recently he was Manager, Investment Services where he oversaw the NFIS contact center as well as the financial advisors working in the Branch Network in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, California, Washington and Hawaii. He has a Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) designation as well as certifications including General Securities Representative (Series 7), Uniform Combined State Law (Series 66), General Securities Principal (Series 24) and Virginia Property and Casualty and Virginia Life Insurance. Kevin is a graduate of The University of Florida with a Marketing Major in Business Administration.

This article is intended to provide general information and shouldn't be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.