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529 Plans vs. Roth IRA: Which is best for college savings?

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

If you have children, you want to give them the very best. Often, that includes an excellent college education. However, helping your child pay for school has gotten much more expensive in recent years. In fact, the cost of attending a public, four-year college has gone up 25% in just ten years, according to data from The College Board.
If you want to contribute to your child’s education, it’s best to start saving when they’re young. Thankfully, there are several savings vehicles you can use to save for college, including 529 plans and Roth IRAs. Below, find out how these savings vehicles work and how to decide which one is best for you.

529 vs Roth IRA: How they compare

529 plans are offered either by your state or by an individual school. They are accounts created specifically for saving for education expenses. A 529 plan is an investment account, so you contribute money and choose investments; over time, the account grows with annual returns.

Roth IRAs are mainly for retirement savings. You contribute with post-tax dollars, so when it comes time to withdraw your money, you don’t have to pay taxes again. However, some people opt to use Roth IRAs for education savings, too.

But which is best for you? 529 plans and Roth IRAs differ in several key ways.

1. Tax benefits and penalties

According to Lloyd Sacks, a Certified Financial Planner and managing director of the private client group at Sacks & Associates, contributing to a 529 plan has some benefits when it comes to your taxes.

“Some states allow a deduction for contributions made to in-state 529 plans,” he said.

That deduction can help reduce your taxable income, potentially leading to a smaller tax bill.

Roth IRAs don’t offer the same benefit. However, withdrawals from Roth IRAs contributions are free from income taxes.

2. Withdrawal rules for education

If you withdraw earnings from a Roth IRA before your retirement, you typically are subject to early withdrawal penalties. However, there is an exception in some circumstances.

“If [the money is] used for qualified higher education expenses, the 10% early withdrawal penalty on earnings is waived, but you are still responsible for taxes on the earnings in this case,” Sacks said.

529 plan withdrawals can only be used for education expenses, or you will be subject to penalties and taxes. You’ll pay the full income tax on the withdrawal, plus a 10% penalty fee.

3. Investment options

With a Roth IRA, you have several different investment options. You can invest in individual securities, such as stocks, bonds, certificates of deposit, exchange-traded funds, or mutual funds.

529 plans have fewer options. Depending on which state you open your 529 in, you may only have access to a small range of investment options, such as index funds. You aren’t limited to opening a 529 in your home state so it pays to shop around for the best investments options and lowest fees.

4. Contribution limits

Roth IRAs and 529 plans have very different contribution limits. If you want to save aggressively, a 529 plan allows you to sock away more money than a Roth IRA.

“For 2019, the annual contribution limit to a Roth IRA is set at $6,000 with a $1,000 catch-up contribution for those over age 50,” said Sacks. “Total 529 plan contribution limits are set by each individual state. For 2019, a single taxpayer can contribute up to $15,000 in a single year to the plan [with a 529 plan].”

5. Financial aid

What savings vehicle you choose can impact the financial aid package your child is eligible to receive. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) looks at your savings differently depending on the type of account you use.

“Retirement accounts, like a Roth IRA, are not considered assets on the FAFSA, and will not impact a student’s ability to receive financial aid for college,” said Sacks.

Because Roth IRA accounts are exempt from the FAFSA, your Roth IRA balance won’t affect what financial aid your child is eligible to receive. A 529 plan balance, on the other hand, can affect your FAFSA.

“A 529 plan will impact a student’s ability to receive financial assistance towards college expenses,” said Sacks.

However, that doesn’t mean that one is better than the other. With a 529 plan, there are tax advantages to making contributions, which can be an effective tradeoff against FAFSA implications.

6. Plan B: What if you don’t use it for college?

When it comes to planning for college, it can be hard to predict where your child will be at the age of 18. If your child decides not to go to college, that can affect your finances.

With a 529 plan, you’re subject to a 10% penalty if you don’t use the money for qualified education expenses for the selected beneficiary, which can eat up a big chunk of your savings. If your child does decide not to go to school, you can switch the beneficiary to another child, another relative, or yourself. You can also use the funds to pay for trade school or even K-12 education.

A Roth IRA doesn’t carry the same penalties. If your child decides against going to school, you can keep the money in your savings for your retirement, penalty-free.

You should consider a Roth IRA for college savings if:

  • Your retirement savings are low. If you don’t have substantial savings for retirement yet, a Roth IRA can do double duty; you can save for retirement while simultaneously saving for college. If your child doesn’t go to college, you can use the funds you saved for your retirement.
  • If you’re not sure your child will go to college. Because the Roth IRA offers greater flexibility, it’s a better option if you’re not certain your child will go on to a university.

You should consider a 529 plan for college savings if:

  • You need to save aggressively. If there are only a few years left until college, or you think your child will opt for a more expensive private school, contributing to a 529 plan with higher contribution limits makes more sense than a Roth IRA.
  • You aren’t eligible for a Roth IRA. If you’re ineligible for a Roth because your income is too high, a 529 plan makes sense.
  • Your state offers a tax deduction. Some states offer tax benefits if you contribute to a 529 plan, making them a smarter option.

Saving for college

Saving for college can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to deciding on the best savings plan for you. If you’re torn between a Roth IRA and a 529 plan, the Roth IRA offers greater flexibility.

“Unless the clients fall into the high net-worth category or are fairly affluent, I usually recommend saving and investing in a Roth IRA if they are eligible to contribute to one,” said Sacks. “By utilizing the Roth IRA, a client is able to save for college expenses while also funding their own personal retirement in the event they fall short of their savings goals through other means; the funds within a Roth IRA can be used for either purpose.”

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Kat Tretina
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Kat Tretina is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Kat here

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Investing

Should You Pay Off Debt or Save Your Money?

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

You have a regular source of income, you’re paying your bills on time and you have some extra dollars left over each month. What should you do with that extra cash?

If you don’t have debt (lucky you!), then the choice is simple — save or invest as much as possible. If you have debt, however, the choice can be a bit murkier: Should you pay off your debt first or save? Here are some things to consider when asking yourself that question.

Three times that saving your money might be smarter

1. If you don’t have an emergency savings fund

Just when you’re cruising along, life can throw some unexpected and expensive curves your way. A sudden job loss, medical bills or car repairs can pop up out of the blue, and if you don’t have the funds to pay for them, you can end up seriously in the red. To cover unexpected costs, some may resort to high-interest credit cards and loans. Those kinds of moves can dig you into a financial hole that can take years to pay your way out of.

Saving up a healthy emergency fund can protect you in instances like these. How much should you save? Experts generally suggest that you should save an amount equal to between three and six months of living expenses. Depending on your individual circumstances, however, you may need more than that. (Check out this article to figure out how much to save and where to keep it.)

2. Your employer offers matching retirement contributions

If you’re fortunate enough to work for a company that offers a retirement plan with matching contributions, then consider making that method of saving a priority.

For example, if your employer offers to match your contributions dollar-for-dollar up to 6% of your salary in a 401(k) plan, then contribute at least that much, if possible. The money can then grow in a tax-free or tax-deferred 401(k) until you withdraw it in retirement — all that compound interest can really add up over the years. If you don’t contribute up to that amount, you’re leaving free money on the table.

Note, however, that If you need to withdraw these funds early (before the age of 59 and a half and before the account is five years old) there will be penalties to pay. That makes this a better tool for long-term savings rather than for the short-term or as an emergency savings fund.

3. Your debt has a very low interest rate

Debt gets a bad rap — often for good reason — but in some cases, carrying your low-interest debt and investing or saving your funds instead may be more beneficial. For example, the current fixed interest rate for direct subsidized and unsubsidized student loans is 5.05%, and the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate is about 4.3%. The stock market, on the other hand, has gone up an average of 10% a year since 1926.

Beyond comparing interest rates, however, you also need to assess how much risk you’re willing to take and how much access to your savings that you’ll need. Of course, there are no guarantees that your investments will perform well, and paying down debt comes with zero risk. Savings accounts are a less risky saving option, but the average interest rate is often less than 1 or 2%. Other options, such as individual retirement accounts (IRAs), have restrictions on how the funds can be used outside of retirement.

Four times debt repayment may be more beneficial

1. You have high-interest debt

It’s hard to get ahead of high-interest debt, because compound interest is working against you. Credit card interest rates, for example, average between 15 and 20% — an amount which adds up quickly. If you make the minimum payment, you may not even be making a dent in the principal amount owed, and you can spend years just paying interest. Calculators like this one can help you figure out just how much interest you’ll pay and how long it will take to pay off.

If you have high-interest debt, make sure you explore all the options for paying it down, including consolidating your debt and researching balance transfer cards.

2. Your debt doesn’t offer any benefits

Though your debt is costing you in interest, you might find that some loans may offer useful perks. For example, federal student loans may offer tax benefits and even loan forgiveness programs for eligible borrowers. Similarly, there are tax write-offs for mortgages and in many cases, the money you invest in a home will pay off down the line when you sell your property.

On the other hand, the debt on the credit card you maxed out to pay for that trip to Cabo comes with no benefits — just a bunch of interest. High-interest debt with no benefits should be at the top of your pay-off priority list.

3. You want to raise your credit score

While there are many factors that go into determining your credit score, the amount of debt you carry is an important component. If you plan to buy a home or secure a loan in the near future, take a look at your debt-to-income ratio (DTI), which many lenders consider before approving you for a loan. If your DTI is high, you may want to consider paying off some debt before applying for that new loan, which may result in lower interest rates for you later.

4. Your debt stresses you out

Debt can take an emotional and physical toll on people, ranging from depression to insomnia and more. When it feels like a black cloud hanging over your head and it’s affecting your life in negative ways, it may be in your best interest to prioritize paying debt off first.

Should you pay off debt or save?

Of course, saving vs. paying off debt early doesn’t have to be an either/or situation — ideally, you can do both at the same time. If, however, a choice must be made between the two, there are many factors to consider. As with most financial moves, there are no cut-and-dry rules, and the best one for you will depend on your individual circumstances.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Julie Ryan Evans
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Julie Ryan Evans is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Julie here

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Investing

How to Make Money in Stocks

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

Putting money in the market is well-worn financial advice for a reason: Investing in stocks is one of the best steps you can take toward building wealth.But how, exactly, is that wealth built? How is money earned by purchasing stock market holdings, and what can you do to maximize the gains you make from your own portfolio?

How to make money in stocks: 5 best practices

The way the stock market works — and works for you — is as simple as a high school economics class. It’s all about supply and demand, and the way those factors affect value.

Investors purchase market assets like stocks (shares of companies), which increase in value when the company does well. As the company in question makes financial progress, more investors want a piece of the action, and they’re willing to pay more for an individual share.

That means that the share you paid for has now increased in price, thanks to higher demand — which in turn means you can earn something when it comes time to sell it. (Of course, it’s also possible for stocks and other market holdings to decrease in value, which is why there’s no such thing as a risk-free investment.)

Along with the profit you can make by selling stocks, you can also earn shareholder dividends, or portions of the company’s earnings. Cash dividends are usually paid on a quarterly basis, but you might also earn dividends in the form of additional shares of stock.

Micro-mechanics of how stocks earn money aside, you likely won’t see serious growth without heeding some basic market principles and best practices. Here’s how to ensure your portfolio will do as much work for you as possible.

1. Take advantage of time

Although it’s possible to make money on the stock market in the short term, the real earning potential comes from the compound interest you earn on long-term holdings. As your assets increase in value, the total amount of money in your account grows, making room for even more capital gains. That’s how stock market earnings increase over time exponentially.

But in order to best take advantage of that exponential growth, you need to start building your portfolio as early as possible. Ideally, you’ll want to start investing as soon as you’re earning an income — perhaps by taking advantage of a company-sponsored 401(k) plan.

To see exactly how much time can affect your nest egg, let’s look at an example. Say you stashed $1,000 in your retirement account at age 20, with plans to hang up your working hat at age 70. Even if you put nothing else into the account, you’d have over $18,000 to look forward to after 50 years of growth, assuming a relatively modest 6% interest rate. But if you waited until you were 60 to make that initial deposit, you’d earn less than $800 through compound interest — which is why it’s so much harder to save for retirement if you don’t start early. Plus, all that extra cash comes at no additional effort on your part. It just requires time — so go ahead and get started!

2. Continue to invest regularly

Time is an important component of your overall portfolio growth. But even decades of compounding returns can only do so much if you don’t continue to save.

Let’s go back to our retirement example above. Only this time, instead of making a $1,000 deposit and forgetting about it, let’s say you contributed $1,000 a year — which comes out to less than $20 per week.

If you started making those annual contributions at age 20, you’d have saved about $325,000 by the time you celebrated your 70th birthday. Even if you waited until 60 to start saving, you’d wind up with about $15,000 — a far cry from the measly $1,800 you’d take out if you only made the initial deposit.

Making regular contributions doesn’t have to take much effort; you can easily automate the process through your 401(k) or brokerage account, depositing a set amount each week or pay period.

3. Set it and forget it — mostly

If you’re looking to see healthy returns on your stock market investments, just remember — you’re playing the long game.

For one thing, short-term trading lacks the tax benefits you can glean from holding onto your investments for longer. If you sell a stock before owning it for a full year, you’ll pay a higher tax rate than you would on long-term capital gains — that is, stocks you’ve held for more than a year.

While there are certain situations that do call for taking a look at your holdings, for the most part, even serious market dips reverse themselves in time. In fact, these bearish blips are regular, expected events, according to Malik S. Lee, CFP® and founder of Atlanta-based Felton & Peel Wealth Management.

So-called market corrections are healthy, he said. “It shows that the market is alive and well.” And even taking major recessions into account, the market’s performance has had an overall upward trend over the past hundred years.

4. Maintain a diverse portfolio

All investing carries risk; it’s possible for some of the companies you invest in to underperform or even fold entirely. But if you diversify your portfolio, you’ll be safeguarded against losing all of your assets when investments don’t go as planned.

By ensuring you’re invested in many different types of securities, you’ll be better prepared to weather stock market corrections. It’s unlikely that all industries and companies will suffer equally or succeed at the same level, so you can hedge your bets by buying some of everything.

5. Consider hiring professional help

Although the internet makes it relatively easy to create a well-researched DIY stock portfolio, if you’re still hesitant to put your money in the market, hiring an investment advisor can help. Even though the use of a professional can’t mitigate all risk of losses, you might feel more comfortable knowing you have an expert in your corner.

How the stock market can grow your wealth

Given the right combination of time, contribution regularity and a little bit of luck, the stock market has the potential to turn even a modest savings into an appreciable nest egg.

Ready to get started investing for yourself? Check out the following MagnifyMoney articles:

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Jamie Cattanach
Jamie Cattanach |

Jamie Cattanach is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Jamie here

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