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Friday, May 29, or more appropriately, Friday, 5/29, has been designated 529 Day here in New York. 

The day has been chosen as a reminder to parents, grandparents, relatives and friends of any future college student that a 529 College Savings Plan is a safe, efficient and economical way to prepare for the ever-increasing expenses of college. 

"Every parent, friend or relative of a college-bound student in New York State should be aware of the merits of a 529 college savings plan. So we created a day to highlight the features of this unique saving vehicle," said Alba Martinez, principal at The Vanguard Group, which manages all the assets of New York?s 529 College Savings Program. 

According to Martinez, nearly every state, including New York, has its own version of a 529 plan, each with its own features. But most plans share the same basic qualities.  

Every 529 plan has been designed by its state as a financial vehicle specifically to save for college. In all cases, the money put into 529sis invested. And in many cases, the account owner can choose from a range of investment options, choosing the one that most closely fits their investment strategy and risk tolerance. Owners can even move their money from one investment plan to another at a specific time of each year. At the very least, every state has an age-based plan that is more aggressive when your child is younger, then more conservative as your child nears college age. 

Unlike other investment plans, all the money in a 529 plan grows tax-free and, provided the money is used for acceptable college expenses -- tuition, most room and board, books -- withdrawals can be made tax-free.If the money is withdrawn and used for noneducational expenses, the earnings are taxed as ordinary income and usually incur a 10% federal penalty tax. 

Generally speaking, 529 plans have much lower fees than other investment vehicles, Martinez explained, because there are no brokers to pay. All the money invested in New York's 529 College Savings Program is managed by financial giant The Vanguard Group. 

Many 529 plans, including New York?s, feature a state income tax deduction on contributions. In New York, for instance, account owners can deduct up to $5,000 a year ($10,000 for married couples filing jointly) from their state income tax return -- every year they have an account. 

"Obviously, account owners are most driven to open a 529 account by their desire to assist their children with college expenses. But we've observed that those states that offer a tax deduction have the most popular plans," Martinez said. 

She was also eager to point out that while parents make up the largest share of account owners, anyone can open a 529 account on behalf of a child. As a result, it's not uncommon, she said, to see relatives and friends open accounts for children.  

"Especially around birthdays and the holidays, we see a lot of new accounts from grandparents and aunts and uncles," she said. 

Further, to make it easier to make regular contributions, most plans have an automatic investment feature -- which allows contributors to arrange for a predetermined contribution into the account every month. Often, employers will allow employees to have their 529 contribution directly deducted from their checks and placed in their accounts.  

"We've been pleasantly surprised by the number of account owners who've chosen to arrange for automatic contributions, especially as the economy has tightened," Martinez said. "It just shows how committed parents and relatives are to the funding of their children's education -- even when it may force the family to sacrifice in other areas of their financial life." 

In New York an account can be opened with as little as $25 and there are no income restrictions. 

"There is a limit, however, to how much can be saved for a single beneficiary. In New York the limit is $368,600, " Martinez said. 

Currently, more than 500,000 households in New York State have a 529 account with New York's plan with a combined value of $1.7 billion(?). Since the plan was begun in 2001, more than 700,000(?) accounts have been opened. 

Martinez had one final bit of advice for anyone considering opening a 529 account. "Start with your own state's plan. The tax features of each 529 plan are only available to the residents of that state's 529. So if you're a New Yorker and you choose a 529 from another state, you won't enjoy the state income tax deduction you can only get as a New Yorker opening an account with the New York 529 plan," she said.

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