Finance: Save for college with a 529 plan

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By Shawn McLaughlin

Graduation season is here. It’s a time to celebrate milestones for students of all ages, from pre-Kindergarten to graduate school – a true lifetime of learning. As a financial professional for more than 30 years, I make it a habit to regularly remind families that the perfect graduation gift grows along with your child.

On May 29, college savings plans, more commonly known as 529 plans, across the nation celebrated 529 College Savings Day. This day is a way to raise awareness about the importance of saving for a child’s future higher education needs.

Thousands of families every month make the choice to start building their children’s college savings with 529 plans. These flexible and affordable options allow you to prepare for whatever your child’s post-high school education will look like.

For those families who have already begun saving for higher education, consider taking this time to review your savings strategy by checking your 529 accounts to make sure you’ve selected the right investment mix and risk for your current situation.

Why now? It’s prudent for every investor to review their investment portfolio at least once a year. This gives you the chance to see how they have performed and evaluate whether you are in a good position or need to increase your savings.

If you haven’t yet begun saving for your child’s higher education, or you’re using alternative savings methods, such as a traditional bank savings account, there’s no time like the present to get started with a 529 account.

A 529 plan is flexible and can be used at most two- or four-year colleges, vocational or technical schools or graduate schools almost anywhere in the United States. It can even be used at some international schools.

Virginia is home to the largest 529 plan in the country. Year after year, Virginia529’s management approach, strong investments and low fees make it the best option for Virginia families.

Saving through a 529 plan can result in significant tax benefits. Earnings in these accounts grow free from state and federal taxes, and qualified 529 withdrawals are tax-free.

Virginia residents who own Virginia529 accounts also may deduct contributions to 529 accounts – up to $4,000 per account per year – from their Virginia state individual income taxes.

If family members are looking for graduation gift ideas for your child, growing your college savings through social gifting is smart and easy. Virginia529 offers an online, free way to contribute to any Prepaid529 or Invest529 account using a custom gift ID number.

Families can share that ID with friends and family to make gifting easy. The custom ID is also safe to share on social media. The online gifting portal makes it easy to contribute online to a loved one’s education.

Last year, the plan also expanded its gifting options to include Invest529 gift cards, which are available for purchase in participating Target stores in Virginia.

A third option is to print a custom gift certificate that fits any occasion, in this case graduation season, and mail your payment to Virginia529.

Most parents want to give their children the opportunity to go to college. Families who have a plan and are actively saving can save twice as much as those who don’t have a plan. So this graduation season take time to celebrate, and make time to plan and save for your child’s future.

Shawn P. McLaughlin is president & CEO of McLaughlin Ryder Investments, Inc. an Alexandria-based financial services firm. McLaughlin received a gubernatorial appointment to the Board of Directors of the Virginia College Savings Plan in 2009 and served as the board’s chair for nearly nine years.

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