College Saving: How Does a 529 Plan Compare to a Roth IRA?

March 14, 2018

529 plans were created 22 years ago, in 1996, to give people a tax-advantaged way to save for college. Roth IRAs were created a year later, in 1997, to give people a tax-advantaged way to save for retirement. But a funny thing happened along the way — some parents adapted the Roth IRA as a college savings tool.

Tax benefits and use of funds

Roth IRAs and 529 plans have a similar tax modus operandi. Both are funded with after-tax dollars, contributions accumulate tax deferred, and qualified distributions are tax-free. But in order for a 529 plan distribution to be tax-free, the funds must be used for college or K-12 education expenses. By contrast, a qualified Roth distribution can be used for anything — retirement, college, travel, home remodeling, and so on.

In order for a distribution from a Roth IRA to be tax-free (i.e., a qualified distribution), a five-year holding period must be met and one of the following must be satisfied: The distribution must be made (1) after age 59½, (2) due to a qualifying disability, (3) to pay certain first-time homebuyer expenses, or (4) by your beneficiary after your death.

For purposes of this discussion, it's the first condition that matters: whether you will be 59½ or older when your child is in college. If the answer is yes (and you've met the five-year holding requirement), then your distribution will be qualified and you can use your Roth dollars to pay for college with no tax implications or penalties. If your child ends up getting a grant or scholarship, or if overall college costs are less than you expected, you can put those Roth dollars toward something else.

But what if you'll be younger than 59½ when your child is in college? Can you still use Roth dollars? You can, but your distribution will not be qualified. This means that the earnings portion of your distribution (but not the contributions portion) will be subject to income tax. (Note: Just because the earnings portion is subject to income tax, however, doesn't mean you'll necessarily have to pay it. Nonqualified distributions from a Roth IRA draw out contributions first and then earnings, so you could theoretically withdraw up to the amount of your contributions and not owe income tax.)

Also, if you use Roth dollars to pay for college, the 10% early withdrawal penalty that normally applies to distributions before age 59½ is waived. So the bottom line is, if you'll be younger than 59½ when your child is in college and you use Roth dollars to pay college expenses, you might owe income tax (on the earnings portion of the distribution), but you won't owe a penalty.

If 529 plan funds are used for any other purpose besides the beneficiary's qualified education expenses, the earnings portion of the distribution is subject to income tax and a 10% federal tax penalty.

Financial aid treatment

At college time, retirement assets aren't counted by the federal or college financial aid formulas. So Roth IRA balances will not affect financial aid in any way. (Note: Though the aid formulas don't ask for retirement plan balances, they typically do ask how much you contributed to your retirement accounts in the past year, and colleges may expect you to apply some of those funds to college.)

By contrast, 529 plans do count as an asset under both federal and college aid formulas. (Note: Only parent-owned 529 accounts count as an asset. Grandparent-owned 529 accounts do not, but withdrawals from these accounts are counted as student income.)

Investment choices

With a Roth IRA, your investment choices are virtually unlimited — you can hold mutual funds, individual stocks and bonds, exchange-traded funds, and REITs, to name a few.

With a 529 plan, you are limited to the investment options offered by the plan, which are typically a range of static and age-based mutual fund portfolios that vary in their level of risk. If you're unhappy with the market performance of the options you've chosen, under federal law you can change the investment options for your existing contributions only twice per calendar year (though you can generally change the investment options on your future contributions at any time).

Eligibility and contribution amounts

Unfortunately, not everyone is eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA. For example, your income must be below a certain threshold to make the maximum annual contribution of $5,500 (or $6,500 for individuals age 50 and older).

By contrast, anyone can contribute to a 529 plan; there are no restrictions based on income. Another significant advantage is that lifetime contribution limits are high, typically $300,000 and up. And 529 plan rules allow for large lump-sum, tax-free gifts if certain conditions are met — $75,000 for single filers and $150,000 for married joint filers in 2018, which is equal to five years' worth of the $15,000 annual gift tax exclusion.