As the parent of two young children, college planning is certainly on my mind, even at just 3-years and 6-months-old. While there are multiple options when saving for college, I’ve created 529 plans for my kids, which provide several benefits.
This post examines 529 plans and their benefits, followed by a description of how I’ve chosen to invest my 529 accounts. (more…)
The Washington Guaranteed Education Trust (GET) is a prepaid college tuition plan that is guaranteed to keep pace with the cost of college tuition. The GET account is measured and purchased in units, where 100 units equals the cost of one year of resident, undergraduate tuition and state-mandated fees at Washington’s most expensive public university. It can be used nationwide, and those who sign up for GET can purchase current units at a premium, to lock in the guarantee. GET units today cost $113, and their current value is $104. (more…)
Successful families agree that higher education is essential to the success of future generations, and they also realize that costs are only going to continue to rise. If paying for your children or grandchildren’s tuition is a must (similar to a liability), and you know the exact number of years until they start undergraduate or graduate school (their investment horizon), why not approach saving for their education like you would saving for retirement?
One such way to tackle this goal is through the use of 529 college savings plans. 529s are unique in that there are no income restrictions on contributions, and the contributions can grow and be withdrawn tax-free as long as the distributions go toward qualified expenses (tuition and fees, room and board, books, supplies, and equipment). However, the benefits to your family go much further.
In addition to providing Roth-like advantaged growth and withdrawals, 529 plan assets are also removed from the owner’s estate. This means if a parent or grandparent, who owns a 529 plan with a family member as a beneficiary, were to pass away, the value of the 529 plans would not be included in their gross estate1. And, the total contributions as of 2016 to individual 529 plans can be as high as $235,000 to $452,210 (Pennsylvania) per beneficiary, depending on which state you choose to open the plan. (more…)
Part I of this three-part series reviews 529 plan basics. Part II examines Washington State’s 529 prepaid tuition plan, the GET. This final section focuses on the best 529 savings plan I know, the West Virginia Smart529 Select.
Five years ago, my younger sister gave birth to her first child, a beautiful baby girl named Sydney. I was there at the hospital right after Sydney was born, and I instantly fell in love with her. When her 1st birthday came around, I decided the best gift I could give to her was the gift of education (or at least help with it). I set up a 529 account and began making monthly contributions for her benefit. My examination of 529 plans four years ago led me to the West Virginia Smart529 Select, and I believe it’s still one of the best 529 plans available today.
Why the West Virginia Smart529 Select?
I like the WV Smart529 Select plan for three main reasons:
It offers access to a world-class family of funds, Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA).
The costs are low and very reasonable.
Set-up, maintenance and contributions are simple and easy.
Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA)
The WV Smart529 Select is the only 529 plan in the country where 100% of the investment options are DFA funds. Clients who work with Merriman may recognize these as the same funds we use in our investment portfolios. DFA funds are rooted in the science of investing, and we believe they offer superior exposure, diversification and returns when compared to most other mutual funds and Exchange-Traded Funds. Ordinarily, you can’t get access to DFA funds unless you are an institutional client or you work with a DFA-registered advisor. However, through the WV Smart529 Select, all investors have access to this great fund family for college savings purposes!
The WV Smart529 Select has no sales charges, application fees or set-up charges. There is a $25 annual maintenance fee, but that is waived if you enroll in their Automatic Investment Program and contribute $25 or more each month, if the account value is $25,000 or more, or if you’re a resident of West Virginia. The annual program expense ranges from 0.65% to 0.88% of the account balance each year, depending on the investment options chosen—very reasonable for this type of plan.
Set-up, maintenance and contributions
Setting up a WV Smart529 Select account was a breeze. I was able to establish and fund the account directly online, and also enrolled in the Automatic Investment Program which transfers money from my bank account into the 529 account each month. The minimum initial investment to open an account is very low, only $250.
The plan also makes investing simple by offering Age-Based Portfolios, which are managed by DFA and automatically shift in allocation every 3 years as the beneficiary grows older. For example, when the child is between 0-3 years of age, the portfolio will be invested in 100% stocks. When the child turns 19 or older, the portfolio will be 20% stocks, 80% bonds and cash. This provides for greater growth potential while the child is younger, but increases capital preservation potential as the child approaches college. The plan also offers Static Portfolios that don’t change with age, but for my money the Age-Based Portfolios are a simple and elegant solution.
Four years into it, I’m still making monthly contributions into my niece’s WV Smart529 Select account. I intend to continue this until she finishes college, wherever she may go. She probably won’t realize all of the thought that went into selecting this plan for her; she may simply know that her uncle loves her and has planned ahead for her future. I, however, will know that I have used the best tool for the job, and that gives me tremendous satisfaction.
While all 50 states offer some type of 529 plan, only 18 states offer the prepaid tuition variety. Some of these prepaid tuition plans are now closed to new enrollment, but Washington’s Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) plan is still available to Washington residents (and WA residents only). It is only one of five prepaid tuition plans in the country that is guaranteed by the full faith and credit of the state. The GET was created in 1998 and is Washington’s only 529 plan.
How GET works
In a nutshell, account owners can purchase up to a maximum of 500 GET “units” at a specified price and redeem those units for college expenses in the future. 100 units represent the cost of one year of resident, undergraduate tuition and state-mandated fees at Washington’s most expensive public university (either the University of Washington or Washington State University). Individual units are worth 1/100th of that cost. For the 2011-2012 academic year, GET units paid out at a rate of $102.23 per unit. Account owners can use up to 125 units per year, plus any rollover units from a prior year, to pay the cost of qualified education expenses.