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I have young kids going in preschool. I have already started investing in 529. However, many of my friends mention that if I invest single penny in 529 plan for my kids, they will miss out on any scholarships they may be eligible to in future. Scholarships are good to have during extremely costly college education. Is it true that having 529 (basically money in name of kids) will deprive them of (some or all) scholarships for future education?

I am told that investing in IRA is better option. If my kids end up getting decent scholarship then they many not need financial assistance and I will be able to save for my retirement. And even if the money is in IRA, I can give it to my kids after my retirement if the need arises. Does that make sense? or there is still a case to invest in 529 vs IRA.

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    Your absolute best is a Roth IRA in the child's name, but in order for them to have an IRA or Roth IRA, they need to have earned income of at least as much as is being deposited in the IRA. For preschoolers, this may be difficult. Starting at maybe 8 they can be employed by you if you own your own business and they can do something useful. Otherwise you are limited to when they are teenagers and can get real jobs. Child labor laws strike again. – farnsy Dec 5 '19 at 17:45
  • @farnsy I came here to write that comment. Spot on! Suppose they wake up to the need for retirement savings at age 32, except you funded it at age 4. That 28 years will see their IRA sixteen-tuple, based on a rough armwave. If at all possible find a way to make it Roth. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Dec 5 '19 at 23:24
  • Whoever told you an absolute rule like "a single penny in a 529 plan will make your kid ineligible for scholarships" is an idiot and should stop giving advice. – stannius Dec 10 '19 at 20:37
  • @farnsy If the student withdraws the money to pay for college, won't that count as student income, which is counted most heavily in the EFC calculations? – stannius Dec 10 '19 at 20:48
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First off, we should clarify what you mean by "529 - money in the kid's name". Usually, this means that the parent sets up a 529 account in their name, but puts down their kid as the beneficiary. Therefore the parent is the custodian, or the "owner" of the account. However, if the student is both the beneficiary and the custodian of their own account, that is treated differently when it comes to calculating student aid.

Let's assume you are the custodian, and your kid is the beneficiary. Then, say you have a 529 or IRA account with $100,000 for college and plan to withdraw $25,000 a year. (Note, this also assumes that you are allowed to make withdrawals from the retirement account without penalties.)

For the 529 account, only 5.64% of the balance is used to calculate student financial aid. When you withdraw from the account, it is not reported (since it was already counted as an asset). Therefore, for a $100,000 account balance in year one of college, only $5,640 is counted as an asset, and the withdrawal is "free". For year two, only $4,230 is counted as an asset.

For a parent owned retirement account (IRA or otherwise), it is not counted as an asset, but any withdrawals used to fund education are calculated at 50% for the next year's FAFSA. So if you withdraw $25,000 to cover college in year one, $12,500 would be counted as an asset for year two.

If you use one or the other for all four years, the 529 is definitely the way to go. The amount used to calculate financial aid is much less than the retirement account. The amount would also be much less than the tax-free gains you would see from the investments inside the account.

But, you could also use the 529 account for the first three years, then the retirement account to pay for year four. That way the IRA withdrawal wouldn't matter since the child has already graduated. However, you as a parent may pay more taxes due to having a large lump-sum withdrawal from the retirement account (assuming it is a traditional).

What if my kid gets a scholarship?

In the cases where the student receives a grant/scholarship and you have a 529, you have two choices:

  • Keep the money in the account and later change the beneficiary to a different child. Therefore, you have to contribute less towards kid #2's education.
  • Withdraw an amount equal to the award from the 529. This avoids the 10% tax penalty for unqualified withdrawals, but you would still pay income tax on any investment gains (as well as any contributions that were not taxed by your state).
  • Choice 3: pass the 529 down to your grandkids – LN6595 Dec 5 '19 at 17:45
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    @LN6595: That's subsumed within the first bullet point. "A different child" is very broad, and not restricted to siblings of the first child. – Ben Voigt Dec 5 '19 at 19:16
  • 5.64% is a strange percentage. Has it changed often? Do you have a crystal ball to tell if it will change substantially in the future? – Teepeemm Dec 5 '19 at 22:05
  • Nice, comprehensive answer. Do you happen to have the percent of income they expect a parent to contribute? This is what caught us. – JTP - Apologise to Monica Dec 6 '19 at 10:21
  • @Teepeemm I wish I did... I agree that it's a strange number, but it seems to have been set that way since the beginning. – Nosjack Dec 6 '19 at 13:53
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There are long articles, and full books that address this topic.

In general, the answer is yes. Money available is treated according to how it's owned. And your retirement accounts don't count towards that formula, but money in a child's name does. Keep in mind, your income and other assets also count towards the expected parental contribution. This is why we saved for college from the time our daughter was a baby.

Even though we retired before college started, we still had enough income from our account withdrawal to not qualify for financial aid, and once I understood this, stopped bothering with the FAFSA form.

Also note, there are need-based aid, and scholarships that are merit or interest-related.

Your plan might work, depending on the numbers when the kids start going off to school, but, it seems to me, an IRA may not be enough to store the kind of money you'll need at college time. And it will impact your actual retirement, unless you are also saving an additional 10-15% in 401(k) or other long term savings.

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    But 529 accounts should not be money in the child's name. Normally, the 529 account would be in the name of the parent with the child as the designated beneficiary. – user4556274 Dec 5 '19 at 12:33
  • Yes, the parent is the owner. But parent still must disclose 529 balance when asked. – JTP - Apologise to Monica Dec 5 '19 at 16:43
  • Yes, if applying for financial aid, the balance must be reported (just like all other assets). But parental assets are treated very differently from the child's assets for the purposes of determining funds available for schooling and eligibility for merit-based and need-based aid. – user4556274 Dec 5 '19 at 17:09

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