Enrolling in a 529 plan is the first step toward conscious planning for your child’s college education, but don’t stop there. With college costs rising steadily — over 168 percent over the last 20 years, according to U.S. News — it’s important to maximize the value of your plan to ensure you reach your college savings goals.

First, it’s important to know the specifics of 529 plans. For instance, there are two different types of these state-sponsored plans available:

  • Probably the most well-known, the college savings plan allows your money to be invested in a variety of ways, such as mutual funds and the like, and it will compound interest over time. The account will go up or down in value based on the performance of the investment options.
  • A pre-paid tuition plan allows savers to purchase units on a credit-based system to put toward tuition and fees for campus living, excluding secondary expenses such as room and board. Because prepaid plans allow you to lock in current tuition prices, if budgeting is a priority, this plan might be the best fit. Just be sure to check which colleges and universities participate in the plan because not all do.

Start early

Because 529 plans compound tax-free over time, starting early gives you an advantage. The longer the money is in the account, the more time it has to grow.

Take Advantage of Automatic Contributions

Automatic contributions to 529 plans can commonly be withdrawn from a linked checking or savings account. This makes it easier to stay on track to reach your goal. If financial situations change, account holders can adjust this setting in their account and continue to make contributions when it’s practical.

Be Mindful of Rules and Fees

Like IRAs, you make yourself vulnerable to penalty fees if you withdraw earnings from a 529 plan too soon, like withdrawing funds before the beneficiary’s tuition bill is due, which could incur a 10% penalty fee. Likewise, withdrawing more than allotted for qualifying expenses that year will prompt a fee. Though non-qualifying expenses, like medical bills, will provoke a penalty fee, there are some exceptions to this rule, such as if the beneficiary receives a scholarship or another type of educational assistance.

Both prepaid and college savings plans typically include enrollment and administrative fees when you withdrawal funds, but college savings plans may also add an assessment management fee.

Cut the Middle Man—You

An effective way to use your 529 funds to ensure that you’re not taking out more than your expenses, and thereby causing a tax liability, is to have the plan pay the costs directly to the school with direct payment.

Know How Your State Operates

Individual states make their own rules for 529 plans, so in whichever state you set up your 529 plan, it’s important to understand that state’s benefits, drawbacks, rules, and fees. State income tax deductions will also vary by state.

Withdraw from the Correct Fund

If you have more than one 529 plan, be sure you’re not just randomly withdrawing from any of them, or simply withdrawing from the account with the highest balance. Gauge each plan’s growth potential to determine which one has the best investment growth rate, and tap into those savings to receive the best tax breaks.

Involve Extended Family

Relatives have the ability to contribute to or open a 529 plan to help alleviate the burden for parents and students, and the contributor is eligible to take a deduction as long as it’s offered by that state.

Knowing the ins and outs of a 529 plan can be complex, but the simplest way to maximize your plan is to start early, allowing the funds to accumulate over time.

Daniel Kittell, CPA - Accountant Indianapolis