The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on many aspects of people’s financial lives. Despite this, many people report that they have not stopped contributing to their children’s 529 college savings plans.
In early May, Savingforcollege.com released survey results showing the pandemic’s economic impact on families saving for college. About two-thirds of respondents reported seeing a decrease in their 529 plan’s value since January. Approximately one fourth said that someone in their household had lost a job or was making less money. However, most also said they hadn’t changed their strategy for saving for college.
As the situation developed, though, and economic hardship continued, more families (although not a majority) did report an impact on their college savings. A CollegeBacker survey in May reached out to 1,200 American adults. About 16 percent said they had paused their college savings contributions. Additionally, 17 percent planned to withdraw money from their college savings accounts, and 13 percent had decreased the amount they were contributing.
The June 2020 State of Savings report from Ascensus, which analyzed 529 plans with fewer than 500 participants between early 2019 and May 31, found about a 21 percent decrease in the amount of one-time contributions between the end of March and the end of May. However, Ascensus’ analysis showed hardly any change in automated contributions during that time period.
“There are many families facing a tougher situation so you do see some occasional monthly reductions in their contribution rates, but overall it hasn’t been as dire as you might expect,” Jordan Lee, founder and CEO of CollegeBacker, said in a press statement. Here’s what you need to know about 529 plans during the pandemic:
This Is How 529 Plans Work
The value of a 529 plan is that it allows adults, primarily parents or grandparents, to save money for a designated beneficiary. The account will grow tax-deferred, and money can be withdrawn tax-free for qualified expenses related to education.
The money can be withdrawn for other expenses (financial planners recommend this option only be used as a last resort) if times are hard. However, the plan’s earnings would then be subject to a 10 percent penalty, and the account holder would also be charged federal income tax on the withdrawal.
Extensions Were Granted to Return Money Refunded as a Result of the Pandemic
Federal regulators offered one break, however, for 529 plans during the pandemic. In some cases, families paid for college expenses for spring 2020 out of their 529 plans and may have received a refund for tuition or room and board due to schools closing their physical campuses and going online for much of the semester.
In a typical year, account holders would be required to reinvest the refund into their 529 plan quickly or be penalized. This year, the Internal Revenue Service allowed families 60 days (the deadline was July 15) to return the money without a penalty.
529 Plans Are Good Investments
The pandemic has forced many families into tough situations, as working members of families have faced layoffs, furloughs, and other economic hardships. However, 529 plans remain an excellent investment, as rules for how the money can be used have been relaxed over the years. Qualified expenses can include everything from tuition for vocational and trade schools to paying off student loans to some costs associated with K-12 education.
Federal laws restricting gifts to $15,000 each year are less stringent for 529 accounts. This means that grandparents or other adults who want to invest in a child’s education can give as much as $75,000 in a single contribution. In addition, if the account’s recipient decides not to go to college, another family member can use the money.
Your Budget May Be More Flexible Than You Think
Experts advise families to keep making contributions to their 529 plans—and even increase them if possible—during the pandemic. Some financial planners point out that typical budget items, such as eating out and vacations, may not be spent and the money could instead be allocated to college savings.
Families also should regularly review their budget and financial planning outlook. The current economic situation is changing rapidly due to ongoing questions about employment and the market. However, college will still be an expense in most cases, and a 529 college savings plan remains an excellent way to save for college even if you find yourself in financial hardship.
Plans May Be Uncertain, but 529s Are Flexible
The pandemic has forced many to change their plans, and your student may even be considering putting college off or choosing a different route all together. Restrictions on indoor gatherings have required many American colleges to remain online, an educational format that is less appealing to many students.
The good news is that 529 plans are designed for flexibility. This means you can continue saving while your student’s educational future unfolds, and the plan likely will cover other educational expenses if your student decides to pursue a nontraditional educational opportunity. And if your student foregoes education entirely to work or travel, the 529 plan can be transferred to a qualified relative whose education can benefit from the savings.