College Savings Plans -- so-called 529 Plans -- were all the rage a decade ago. A tax-advantaged, low-cost vehicle to save money for college.

Then, the bottom fell out of the economy, and suddenly, or so it would seem, folks stopped saving for college. And now, they're paying the price -- literally and figuratively.

That's too bad, because those who started saving, and those who have continued to save, have, in most instances, even in a fluctuating and sometimes volatile market, seen their investment for college not only maintain value, but grow. [Check out the Performance of New York's 529 Plan.] Not a bad place to have stashed the cash for college!

New York's 529 College Savings Program Direct Plan offers many unique benefits.

Flexible use of savings
  • Save for a child, grandchild, friend--or even yourself.
  • Use at an eligible 2- or 4-year college, vocational/technical school, or graduate school anywhere in the U.S. or abroad.
  • Use for tuition, certain room-and-board expenses, books, supplies, etc.
Tax benefits
  • Earnings grow federally tax deferred.
  • Qualified withdrawals are federally tax-free.
  • You can contribute up to $65,000 in a single year ($130,000 for a married couple filing jointly) for each beneficiary without incurring federal gift tax as long as you don't make any other gifts to that child for five years.
Additional tax benefits for New York taxpayers
  • New York taxpayers can deduct up to $5,000 ($10,000 for a married couple filing jointly) in contributions to the Direct Plan on their state income tax return each year.
Easy to get started
  • Open an account with just $25 ($15 if contributing through payroll deduction).
If it seems like a no-brainer to open and save money for college through a 529 Plan -- especially now, as the markets make a comeback and the costs of attending college continue to rise -- well, you got that right.

No, you can't use that money you've saved through a college savings plan to buy junior that Vette or for the down payment on a beach house (a stretch for inclusion as off-campus housing), nonqualified expenses losing the tax-advantaged benefits and subjecting investors to penalties. Still, you can make a dent -- often a significant one -- in that college bill, particularly if you've saved prudently, consistently and with a view toward the long haul.

Already have a 529 Plan? Keep feeding it! Even $25 a month can make a difference. Kids now starting or already in college? If they've got a year or more to go (think grad school, as well), the dividends -- not to mention the interest -- still pay off. Haven't opened a 529 Plan? What the heck are you waiting for? Get started today!

NOTE: Past performance is no guarantee of future result. One thing is guaranteed, however: That tuition bill will show up in your mailbox like clockwork, and, ready or not, it will have to be paid. Open and regularly contribute to a 529 Plan. Search and apply for those grants and scholarships. "Borrow money from your parents, if you have to!" [Bad idea. Forget I ever repeated such patently foolish advice.] Complete that FAFSA form come January 1.

College is expensive. Doing nothing to help save and pay for it is not an option!

Plan. Prepare. Prevail!

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of The College Whisperer.

Who knows what peril lurks in the college application and admissions process? The College Whisperer knows. . .

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