Ah, September. After the dog days of summer, this is the month where we can finally enjoy some cooler weather, all things pumpkin, football, and maybe even a cozy sweater or two. And if you’re a parent, you are either counting down the days or already basking in, what is really the most wonderful time of the year: back-to-school time.
It’s fitting, then, that this month we take a look at what it takes to get your kids to and through school — and we’re not just talking college! Let’s face it, K-12 can be costly, too, at both the public and private level. Luckily, there are two savings plans that help you plan and save for both your immediate secondary school costs, as well as your future college costs.
Let’s start with the Coverdell Education Savings Account. This investment account allows you save up to $2,000 annually in after-tax contributions until the beneficiary turns 18. Earnings are tax-free and so are withdrawals, if they are used for qualified education expenses.
This a self-directed plan, giving you the flexibility to invest in what you’d like. Parents, grandparents and other family members may contribute in the child’s name. However, it does come with limitations on who can contribute, based on income: if your AGI is more than $190,000 for joint returns or $95,000 for single filers, this is not available to you.
For Use In: K-12 and College
Qualified Expenses: Books and supplies, tutoring, computers/laptops, transportation, special needs services, uniforms, private school tuition, college tuition, and room and board.
Other Things You Should Know: The balance must be spent by the time the beneficiary is age 30. However, you may transfer the balance to another beneficiary or roll it into a 529.
The 529 plan is administered at the state level and also offers tax-free earnings and withdrawals for qualified education expenses. Think of 529 plans and ESAs as Roth IRAs that are pinpointed for education.
Previously used only for post-secondary costs, the 529 plan was updated in 2018 to allow for an annual withdrawal of $10,000 per year for K-12 tuition. Take note of that: unlike the Coverdell, the 529 can be used only for tuition at the K-12 level.
The 529 also differs from the Coverdell in that there is no contribution cap. However, $15,000 annually is a good number to shoot for, since that is the maximum allowance under the gift tax exclusion. There is also no income limit for contributors.
With this plan, your investment selections are limited to what your state provides. Thus, you may choose to use another state’s 529 plan (yes, you can do that!). Your state may try to keep you local, however, by offering an income tax deduction for your 529 contributions. Check state-by-state deductions here.
For Use In: K-12 (private school tuition only) and College
Qualified Expenses: Books and supplies, computers/laptops, private school tuition, college tuition, and room and board.
Other Things You Should Know: Should your child not go to college or you have excess funds, you can still use the 529 balance for non-education expenses. However, you will be assessed a 10% penalty and pay taxes on the earnings (and may have to repay any state tax breaks).
The 529 is also transferable to other beneficiaries for education expenses, including siblings, grandkids, or even yourself. Or you can let the account stand and apply it toward graduate school. Worst case your grandchildren could inherit them!
In addition to these savings plans, don’t forget to look into any state or federal tax credits for which you may qualify.
For secondary school costs, there are some states that allow for credits or deductions on qualified expenses. Depending on the state, that can include private school tuition or out-of-pocket costs for special needs students. You can view all state programs here.
American Opportunity Credit
At the post-secondary level, you or your student can take advantage of the American Opportunity Credit for most undergraduate college costs (except transportation or living expenses). You may claim 100% of the first $2,000 spent on qualifying expenses, and 25% of the next $2,000 for a total credit of $2,500.
Parents will get the credit as long as the student is claimed as a dependent, with some limits based on modified AGI. The credit can be claimed for a maximum of four years.
Lifetime Learning Credit
A little more flexibility is available with the Lifetime Learning Credit, including the ability to claim books or supplies, and the inclusion of graduate, vocational, and non-degree students. There is also no time limit on how many years you may claim the credit.
The maximum amount you may claim is $2,000, or 20% of up to $10,000 in qualifying costs. Like the American Opportunity Credit, there are also income limits based on modified AGI.
Ask an Expert
Just like we encourage our kids to seek help from a trusted expert, I encourage you to sit down with a financial advisor to make sure you’ve explored every option to make the most of your school savings plan. As programs and plans vary among states, your advisor can keep you posted on the plans, credits, or deductions that will allow you to maximize your money – now that’s a smart move!