Saving for College: Life Insurance or a 529 Plan?
Updated: Oct 10
How 529 Plans Work A 529 plan is designed specifically to help parents save for education, including grades K-12, apprenticeships, undergraduate school, and graduate school. There are two types of 529 plans: education savings and prepaid tuition. A 529 savings plan (the more popular option) grows tax-deferred. If you withdraw funds from the plan to pay for qualified education purposes, you dont pay taxes on the withdrawal. The contributions you make are invested in mutual fund or exchange-traded fund portfolios. A prepaid tuition plan allows you to pay tuition in advance, which has the benefit of locking in the current rate (assuming costs will rise in the future). These plans also have tax advantages, but they are only offered in a handful of states. In most cases, the funds dont cover room and board, which is something to keep in mind.
What Are the Pros of a 529 Plan? Like every investment vehicle, a 529 plan has pros and cons. Since only 10 states offer a prepaid tuition 529 plan, we will focus on the pros of education savings plans.
No annual contribution limits - There are no limits to how much you can contribute to your plan each year. While some states limit how much you can contribute in total, the ceiling is quite high, ranging between $235,000 and $529,000.
Tax advantages - Your earnings from your 529 investments are exempt from both federal and state income taxes (as long as you use the money to pay for education). More than 30 states offer tax deductions or credits for 529 contributions as well.
Flexibility - If you have money left in your 529 plan after college tuition has been paid or if your child decides not to go to college, you have several options.
Change the name of the beneficiary (without changing accounts)
Leave the money there in case the current beneficiary decides to use it in the future
Withdraw the funds and use them for something else (and face a 10% penaltysee more about that below.)
Anyone can open a 529 plan - You dont need to fall into a certain tax bracket to open up a 529 plan. You can open up a plan regardless of your income.
What Are the Cons of a 529 Plan? While a 529 plan has several benefits, there are also some disadvantages. These include:
Strict rules about usage - The savings that you accumulate must be used to pay for qualified education expenses. If you use the funds for something else, youll be charged a 10% penalty.
Laws vary by state - Each state has its own laws about 529 plans. If you move to a different state, its possible that income tax deductions and credits will be subject to recapture in the new state.
Fees - Like most investments, 529 plans have fees. The fees are taken from your contributions, so the higher the fees, the less funds will go to your actual savings account. Its important to take a little time and search for a 529 plan with low fees.
Financial aid - The savings in a 529 plan count as an asset when your child applies for financial aid for college. The actual impact is greater if your child is the owner of the account, and a little less if you own the account. Either way, 529 ownership has the potential to detract from the financial aid your child qualifies for.
529 Plans: Limited investment options Since the goal of a 529 plan is to accumulate enough money to pay for college tuition, the investments on the table are relatively low-risk. Some states even offer target-date funds that adjust your investments as your child gets closer to college-age to ensure that there are enough funds. If youre someone who has investment experience, you may look at the 529 options and feel limited. In fact, you might even prefer to choose a different type of investment that has the potential to yield more, even if it means forgoing the tax benefits of the 529 plan. On the other hand, if youre someone whos not that financially savvy and prefers to open up a savings account and forget about it, a 529 plan can be the perfect solution. Its a low-maintenance, straightforward way to accumulate savings. For this reason, having limited investment options is both a pro and a con.
How Permanent Life Insurance Works Permanent life insurance is another good option for saving for college. Unlike term life insurance, which pays out a death benefit when the beneficiary dies, permanent life insurance offers both a death benefit AND a savings component. When you pay premiums for permanent life insurance, a portion goes toward the death benefit, another portion goes toward the savings component, and yet another portion is used to pay for administrative fees. There are several types of permanent life insurance, but whole life insurance is the most popular one.
Pros of Using Life Insurance for College There are many benefits of using permanent life insurance as an investment, but in this article, were zooming in on using the cash value to save for college. Pros of using life insurance to save for college include:
Financial aid - When your child applies for financial aid for college, the savings in your life insurance account are not considered.
Tax advantages - Funds in your permanent life insurance account grow tax-deferred, like those in a 529 plan.
Savings can be used for anything - Unlike a 529 plan, the savings in your life insurance account can be used for anything (beyond college costs). If your child decides not to go to college, you can still use the accumulated cash during your lifetime without being penalized. For example, many people use permanent life insurance to supplement their retirement savings.
Flexibility - There are several ways you can use your savings to pay for your childs college tuition:
Borrow against the cash value (which is easier than taking out a traditional loan, plus the interest rates are usually lower)
Withdraw a portion of the cash value
Surrender the policy and receive the entire cash value (though you will be charged a surrender fee in this case)
Cons of Using Life Insurance for College While using permanent life insurance as a way to save for college has several advantages, there are also several drawbacks. The main ones include:
It can be expensive - Permanent life insurance is expensive, significantly more so than term. If youre looking for affordable life insurance, term is your best option. If youre looking for a savings account, permanent life insurance is a relatively expensive one to maintain. Its fees can often be more expensive than those of a 529 plan.
Takes time to accumulate cash value - While its always best to start a college savings fund as early as possible, with permanent life insurance, its essential. It usually takes 10 years for the amount in your cash value savings to surpass the amount paid in premiums, which means youll need to buy this type of life insurance before your child is born or immediately after in order for it to be worthwhile as a savings vehicle.
Is Life Insurance a Good Way to Save for College? Life insurance can be a good way to save for collegefor certain people, in certain situations. While there are several benefits of using the cash value of a permanent life insurance policy to fund college tuition, there are also other investment tools, like a 529 plan, that offer their own set of benefits. The best way to decide if life insurance is the right savings tool for you is to consult with a financial advisor, someone you can trust to guide you in the creation of a solid financial plan. If youre interested in buying permanent life insurance as a way to save for college AND a way to ensure that your loved ones are covered in case you die, the insurance advisors at Sproutt can give you advice about which type of permanent policy is best.
How Does Permanent Life Insurance Work? Permanent life insurance is an umbrella category that includes different types of policies, including whole and universal. Whole life insurance is often chosen to pay for college. Most permanent policies accumulate a cash value and last the policyholders entire lifetime. Term life insurance, on the other hand, is a completely different type of policy. It only lasts for a certain number of years, called a term, and doesnt come with a cash value. Due to the lack of cash value, it shouldnt be considered if saving for college is your main goal. (However, its a good type of life insurance for college students themselves discussed at length further on.) The way permanent life insurance works is that a portion of your monthly premium goes toward paying for death benefit coverage and another portion gets deposited into a separate cash value account. The money in the account grows tax-deferred and isnt considered an asset when applying for financial aid for college.
Accessing the Cash Value of a Permanent Policy There are several ways to access the cash value of your policy to pay for your childs college education. You can:
Take a loan against the value of your policy, which you must pay back in full. (If you die before the loan is paid back, the outstanding debt will be taken off the policys death benefit.)
Withdraw the cash value, so you dont need to pay back the loan but you know from the get-go that the death benefit will be reduced.
Surrender the policy and receive the entire cash value. A universal life policy will also have a surrender fee charged by insurers. This is the least ideal option, since your entire policy will be liquidated.