Much is written about 529 plans, the standard tax-advantaged savings plan for a college education. (They are legally known as “qualified tuition plans,” authorized by Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code.) Their benefits are wonderful - nearly unlimited savings and tax advantages, flexibility and sometimes a state tax credit or deduction.
For those few with significant resources, it is the no-brainer choice for putting away tens of thousands of dollars into a tax-free college fund for your children's college education.
But for most parents, a Coverdell Education Savings Plan (ESA) not only works just fine, they generally provide more investment options and lower fees. Further, withdrawals can be used for qualified elementary and secondary education expenses as well as for college.
Coverdell accounts limit contributions to $2,000 a year per child for those with an adjusted gross income under $220,000 (joint). But the vast majority of households are under this income limit. Further, for the average family with about two children, saving $4,000 a year is realistically about their college savings limit.
Both 529 plans and Coverdell ESAs offer great benefits. They allow for tax free growth as long as the proceeds are used to pay for qualified education expenses. The plans remain your assets, not your child's, which means you are not committed to giving them this money.
And because the assets are yours, they have significantly less negative impact on financial aid. (Note that if funds are not used for education or other purposes the IRS approves of, the gains are eventually taxed with an additional penalty.)
529 plans are set up separately in each of the fifty states and their rules vary by state. In general, contribution limits are much higher than Coverdell’s, there are no income limits for contributors and have no age limits for beneficiaries.
Further, some states offer a state income tax deduction or credit for contributions to 529 plans but not for Coverdell plans. Again, these are great benefits for high income families trying to save a lot of money for their children's college expenses.
But at the more modest income and savings levels most of us live, a Coverdell ESA is often the better plan. Further, even if you have a Coverdell ESA, you can also have a 529 plan. Here's how the Coverdell works.
Coverdells are widely available at large brokerage firms, such as TD Ameritrade, E-Trade and Charles Schwab, with low minimum balances and no annual fees. You can generally invest in most of what they sell, which is just about everything, usually with no trading costs. Further, they offer broad very low-cost indexed funds, which are considered the best investment for most investors.
For example, you can open a Coverdell at Charles Schwab with no minimum and no maintenance fees. They charge no commissions on online equity trades with no minimums on trades. They also offer standard indexed funds with fees as little as .03%. Note that this is three hundredths of one percent, which is essentially zero. For a typical education savings account of $25,000, the fee comes to less than ten dollars a year.
Here’s some quick math on such a Coverdell. Over the past 100 years, the S&P 500 index (an index of the 500 largest U.S. stocks covering approximately 80% of the U.S. market capitalization), has returned a little over 8% a year after accounting for inflation.
Let’s assume you invest the maximum $2,000 a year into an S&P 500 indexed fund with near zero expenses. Assuming an average rate of return, your child will have about $80,000 in their Coverdell account in today’s dollars, which would cover most of the expense of a 4-year in-state college degree.
Let’s compare this with a 529 plan. My quick check found that most firms admit to fees up to 1% a year, an amount that could cut your total return significantly. 529 plans generally invest in a limited number of mutual funds, which tend to have higher turnover in their accounts, raising the total fees for these funds.
In life, simple and easy is not always preferable to complex and difficult. But in the financial world today, simple and easy usually means cheaper and better. In the past several decades, largely because of software and the internet, complex financial dealings have become simple products readily available at ultra-low costs to almost anyone.
But financial firms have struggled moving to a world where much of their former work has become largely valueless. Therefore, many work hard to obfuscate how little is needed to get a great return on your investments, instead encouraging products and services you probably have little need for.
This appears to be the case with 529 plans. Most aren’t set up, as are Coverdell’s, to have you simply invest your money in a near-zero fee indexed exchange traded fund, where the firm receives little income and you receive almost all of the gains from the underlying investments.
I did some research on 529 plans offered by Edward Jones. They quickly told me that “investing is personal” and immediately wanted my name so they can put me in touch with one of their financial advisors “to help.”
Unfortunately, these financial advisors are probably not going to help show you that your best option may be an ultra-low-cost Coverdell account where their firm will get less than $10 a year in fees. No surprise, Edward Jones doesn't even offer them. Instead, they quickly try to convince you of all the benefits of their 529 plans.
I tried to find fee information for their 529 plans. I never found any figures but I did find this buried away in their documentation: “529 plans will have fees and expenses, which will lower the rate of return. 529 plans generally carry sales charges (and) built-in operating expenses that affect the fund’s return (including) distribution and marketing fees (12b-1 fees), management fees, networking fees, annual account maintenance fees and transaction fees. Edward Jones receives a portion of the sales charge on 529 plans, and your financial advisor receives a percentage of that sales charge. Further, Edward Jones receives ongoing service fee payments, provided by the 12b-1 fees, and your financial advisor receives a portion of those ongoing service fees.”
Sales charges, distribution and management fees, networking fees, annual maintenance fees, transaction fees, sales charges, service fees. Only a fool would believe their fees are anything close to the $10 a year a typical education savings plan can cost you in a Coverdell ESA with a low-cost brokerage firm.
In comparison to these often complicated plans, a Coverdell ESA is just a simple brokerage account with IRS tax advantages. Otherwise, they function as another brokerage account, often including ultra-low costs.
Coverdell accounts have one other great feature, and that is they generally allow you to purchase almost any investment sold by the brokerage firm. In comparison, 529 plans are often limited to a subset of their mutual funds, often with higher fees than low-cost indexed exchange traded funds broadly offered by brokerage firms.
If you have a 401(k), this may sound familiar. 401(k)s are great retirement savings plans, but a little investigation shows that the same money in an IRA with a low-cost brokerage firm offers far more investment options at a lower cost. That is why whenever you are given the option, it is normally wise to transfer a 401(k) into an IRA, but that’s another topic.
529 plans are a great plan for many, especially for high-income taxpayers, primarily because they have few upper limits for income and contributions, and can offer a state deduction or credit. But when these are not considerations, which is true for most of us, a Coverdell account is a better option. They generally are easy to set up, have lower costs and more investment options, and provide more ways that the money can be used for a child’s education.
As always, 529 plans are different for each state and Coverdell accounts are different with every brokerage firm, so you are encouraged to do your own research before investing in anything.