Financial Focus/529 Plan Can Help You Cope With College Costs

n a few weeks, the school year will be coming to an end. If you have young children, youíre that much closer to the day when they head off to college. And if you want to help them pay for their schooling, the time to start saving is now, because college costs are moving in only one direction - up.

Just how high are the costs of higher education? Consider these figures from the College Board: In 2003-2004, the average annual charges (tuition, fees, room and board) at a four-year public institution total $10,636, while the corresponding figure for a four-year private school is $26,854. And if college expenses continue to rise faster than the general inflation rate, you can expect much higher costs in the future.

Fortunately, youíve got some attractive college savings vehicles available - and one of the best of these is the Section 529 plan, named after that part of the Internal Revenue Code authorizing these accounts.

You can choose from two types of Section 529 plans: a pre-paid tuition program or a savings plan. In a pre-paid tuition plan, you buy future tuition credit - at todayís prices - at an in-state, public school. If your child or grandchild decides not to attend your state college, you can transfer the value of your contract to private and out-of-state schools.

In a Section 529 savings plan, you put money in specific investments. All withdrawals will be free from federal income taxes, as long as the money is used for a qualified college or graduate school expense of the beneficiary youíve named - typically, your child or grandchild. (However, the money will appear as income on the childís tax return.) Withdrawals for expenses other than qualified education expenditures may be subject to federal, state and penalty taxes. This tax benefit is effective through 2010, unless extended by the U.S. Congress.

Section 529 Plan Benefits

Of the two types of 529 plans, the savings plan is far more popular. In many ways, it offers more freedom than the pre-paid tuition plan, and, of course, it has tax advantages. But the 529 savings plan also offers other key benefits, including the following:

* High contribution limits - Section 529 plan contribution limits are typically quite high - more than $200,000 per beneficiary in many state plans. Special gifting provisions apply. As with many investments, before investing in a 529, you should consult your tax professional.

* No residency requirements - You can generally contribute to the Section 529 plan of any state you choose, even if you donít live there. However, if you participate in your own stateís plan, you may receive additional tax benefits.

* Investment flexibility - If you want to move your investment around, you can generally change to a different option in a 529 savings plan once a year. You also can transfer your account to a different stateís program as often as once every 12 months.

* Estate-planning advantages - If youíre a grandparent, you may be especially interested in the 529 savings plan. Because you can contribute large amounts of money to the plan, youíll be able to reduce the size of your taxable estate. Plus, even though the assets are out of your estate, you retain control of them. You decide who will get the money and when he or she will get it. You can even change the beneficiary to another family member.

So, there you have it - some reasons to consider investing in a Section 529 plan. If this plan is appropriate for your individual needs, it can be a great way to help boost your college savings. As for your childrenís grades - well, thatís up to them.

This article was submitted by the financial representatives of Edward Jones in Hagerstown: Greg Garner, AAMS, 301-733-9465; Dave Walker, 301-766-7300; Joan Bowers, 240-420-8514; John R. Pullaro, 301-824-7726; and Todd Streett, 717-762-0911.