We all know college is expensive. In 2019, the average sticker price of an in-state public college education was $10,116, while private colleges average a whopping $36,801. With the ever-increasing price of sending kids to college, more parents than ever feel the need to find ways to save for their children's college expenses.

529 college savings plans' popularity and growth have continued to rise since their creation under the Small Business Protection Act of 1996, but studies still show that most Americans still don't know what a 529 savings plan is. We break down the basic pros and cons of 529 plans, giving you a better understanding of how they work and if they may be the right college savings vehicle for your kids.

What Is a 529 College Savings Plan?

529 plans are tax-advantaged investment accounts that are state or state agency run to save for college expenses.

There are no income, age, or contribution limits to 529 savings plans. You don't have to worry if the account beneficiary doesn't go to college right away; they can use it whenever! Additionally, the beneficiary of the plan can be changed to another family member. This means that, as the account owner, you can transfer it to another family member, including yourself! Parents can feel better about staying in control of the money, too. Unlike UGMA (Uniform Gift to Minors Act) and UTMA (Uniform Transfer to Minors Act) accounts, the custodian of a 529 savings plan always stays the owner; it will never switch over to the control of the beneficiary. This means parents can rest assured that their child can't withdraw the money to purchase the Mustang they've been eyeing!

The most obvious disadvantage to 529 plans is that you are limited to withdrawing the money only for college expenses. If withdrawn for any other reason, you may be subject to income tax along with penalty expenses on the earning portions of the account. Luckily, the list of qualified college expenses is vast, including the most recent addition to the list: student loan payments.Since 529 plans are run by states and institutional agencies, a big concern is whether or not the plan that is opened will transfer easily if the beneficiary ends up going to college out of state. In most 529 plans, your choice of college is not affected by the state in which it was opened.


Tax Benefits

Most states offer a full or partial tax deduction for 529 contributions. Some states even allow a tax credit for the contributions. Account owners can also feel better knowing that the earnings grow tax-free and will never be taxed as long as the money is used for qualified expenses.

Investments

Most plans are low maintenance and have automatic investment management options, which means less work and worry on your end. Many 529 plans use target-date funds, which change based on the beneficiary's age and become more conservative the closer they get to college age. These types of funds can be great for the account owner, who wants to be able to "set it and forget it." but it can also be troublesome for those more involved with managing their own investments. Account owners can only make investment changes twice a year in 529 accounts (there is a loophole for this if you switch the beneficiary; then the investment change limit is reset)

529 Plans' Effect on Financial Aid

There is much debate over how a 529 plan can affect a college applicant's ability to receive financial aid. A lot of factors go into the decision-making on FASFA (free application for federal student aid) forms, so it's important to look into each individual case. Since student assets are assessed at higher rates than parents', in most cases it is best to keep the account in the parent's name. However, 529 accounts owned by a grandparent will be counted on the FASFA application as the student's assets, so it will be assessed at a higher percentage.

In my personal opinion, as a former personal banker and mother of two, 529 plans are the best way to save for college, as long as you start early– it doesn't make much sense to open one if your child will be attending college in just a few short years. The best advice I can give people is to act early, set clear goals for the future, and meet with a financial professional to discuss your exact situation.

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The Federal Reserve sets the guardrails for the federal funds rate, and through that helps control the money supply for the nation.

When you take out a loan for a car, charge something to your credit card, or get a personal line of credit, there is going to be an interest rate that applies to your loan.

A lot of different factors go into what you will be charged, including your own personal credit score. But even those with flawless credit still see a minimum charge that they can't get around. That all goes back to the Federal Funds Rate.

One thing consumers rarely realize is that all of our banks are lending money to each other every night. Banks are legally required to maintain a certain percentage of their deposits in non-interest-bearing accounts at the Federal Reserve to ensure they have enough money to cover any withdrawals that may unexpectedly come up. However, deposits can fluctuate and it's very common for some banks to exceed the requirement on certain days while some fall short. In cases like this, banks actually lend each other money to ensure they meet the minimum balance. It's a bit hard to imagine these multibillion-dollar financial institutions needing to borrow money to tide them over for a bit, but it happens every single night at the Federal Reserve. It's also a nice deal for those with balances above the reserve balance requirement to earn a bit of money with cash that would normally just be sitting there.

The Federal Reserve The Federal Reserve


The exact interest rate the banks will charge each other is a matter of negotiation between them, but the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) (the arm of the Federal Reserve that sets monetary policy) meets eight times a year to set a target rate. They evaluate a multitude of economic indicators including unemployment, inflation, and consumer confidence to decide the best rate to keep the country in business. The weighted average of all interest rates across these interbank loans is the effective federal funds rate.

This rate has a huge impact on the economy overall as well as your personal finances. The federal funds rate is essentially the cheapest money available to a bank and that feeds into all of the other loans they make. Banks will add a slight upcharge to the rate set by the Fed to determine what is the lowest interest that they will announce for their most creditworthy customers, also known as the prime rate. If you have a variable interest rate loan (very common with credit cards and some student loans), it's likely that the interest rate you pay is a set percentage on top of that prime rate that your lender is paying. That's why in times of low interest rates (it was set at 0% during the Great Recession), a lot of borrowers should go for fixed interest rate loans that won't increase. However, if the federal funds rate was relatively high (it went up to 20% in the early 1980's), a variable interest rate loan may be a better decision as you would be charged less interest should the rate drop without the need to refinance.

The federal funds rate also has a major impact on your investment portfolio. The stock market reacts very strongly to any changes in interest rates from the Federal Reserve, as a lower rate makes it cheaper for companies to borrow and reinvest while a higher rate may restrict capital and slow short-term growth. If you have a significant portion of your investments in equities, a small change in the federal funds rate can have a large impact on your net worth.

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