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529 Plans: Fees More Important than Deductions

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529 Plans: Maryland vs. Nevada PlansUsually. :)

My friend just had their first child and began researching 529 plans. A 529 plan is an education savings plan run by a state or an educational institution, it’s named after Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code. The plan offers tax benefits to individuals saving for future education. In his case, he was looking at a savings plan, rather than a prepaid plan*.

And now he had a choice: an in-state plan with a tax deduction or an out-of-state plan with potentially cheaper funds. Specifically, he wondered if he should open a Maryland 529, which offers a tax deduction to Maryland residents, or a state plan offering Vanguard funds, which is known for lower mutual fund fees. The state plan he found was Nevada’s, which is run by Upromise but offers Vanguard funds. (Plan data provided by Saving For College, run by Bankrate)

College Investment Plan (Maryland)

  • Program Manager: T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc.
  • Residency Requirement: No.
  • Maximum Contributions: No annual limit until account balance for beneficiary reaches $320,000.
  • Account Maintenance Fee: $25 / yr, waived with automatic investments or balance greater than $25,000.
  • Management Fees: 0.28% manager fee, 0.25% once program assets reach $2 billion.
  • Tax Deductions: $2,500 per beneficiary per year by account owner is deductible with a 10 year carryforward on excess contributions.

The Vanguard 529 Savings Plan (Nevada)

  • Program Manager: Upromise Investments, Inc. and Vanguard Group, Inc.
  • Residency Requirement: No.
  • Maximum Contributions: No annual limit until account balance for beneficiary reaches $310,000.
  • Account Maintenance Fee: $20 / yr, waived if account owner or beneficiary is a Nevada resident or assets in account exceed $3,000.
  • Management Fees: 0.65% manager fee, include underlying fund expenses.
  • Tax Deductions: None.

Comparing just the Nevada plan against the Maryland plan, it appears that the Maryland plan is superior. What you’re trading off is the tax deduction versus the mutual fund fees, but the tax deduction is only available the year you contribute. In Maryland, the $2,500 deduction is worth $125 (5% state income tax) making it nearly a wash between the slightly higher account fees in Nevada.

It’s really a choice between T. Rowe funds vs. Vanguard funds. If you’re an index fund type of investor, the T. Rowe Price Equity Index 500 (PREIX) has an expense ratio of 0.35%. Vanguard’s 500 Index (VFINX) expense ratio is 0.15%, meaning T. Rowe’s ratio is more expensive by 0.20%. On a balance of $10,000, that’s a difference of $20 being whisked out of the account each year for nothing. While $20 doesn’t seem like much, that’s a fee taken out each year and one that will erode your investment’s growing potential.

If it were me, I think the Nevada plan is superior of the two because it offers access to cheaper Vanguard funds.

Five Best 529 Plans

Liz Pulliam Weston of MSN money recently looked at the 5 best college savings plans and listed Nevada as one of the top five. The other states included were Alaska, Nebraska, Rhode Island and Virginia. The Virginia plan offers access to some Vanguard funds too.

* A prepaid plan is an option where you “lock in” the price of an in-state public college education right now. You can always convert it to a private or out of state school later on based on some conversion tables.

(Photo: lednew)

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5 Responses to “529 Plans: Fees More Important than Deductions”

  1. CK says:

    I’m actually looking into opening a 529 for my son. Our state has a deduction for the contribution, a matching program (basically $200 free dollars) which we just squeak under the income wire for, and low cost TIAA-CREF funds.

  2. Monkey Monk says:

    I’m not sure I’m completely following your thought process here. The Maryland Plan as you’ve described appears to have three major advantages over the Nevada plan:

    1) It should be fairly easy to get the $25 annual fee waived for Maryland. I cannot be waived in Nevada since your friend is not a resident.

    2) The annual management fee for Maryland is considerably cheaper (.37%) than Nevada.

    3) They’ll get a $2500 tax break from Maryland (as you say, equal to about $150)

    The only advantage I can see to the Nevada plan is the cheaper fees of the Vanguard funds but don’t see how that comes close to offsetting the advantages of the Maryland plan. The difference in the cheaper funds doesn’t even offset the higher NV management fees, not to mention the potential of an additional $175 savings using the MD plan.

    Am I interpreting this incorrectly?

  3. jim says:

    Money Monk: The management fee in Maryland doesn’t include the underlying fees, the figure for Nevada does (I couldn’t find the Nevada fees broken out), so it’s really not an apples to apples comparison in that case. I should’ve made it clearer.

  4. Monkey Monk says:

    Ok . . . that gets the two plans closer but isn’t the MD plan still cheaper when you look at the combined management and fund fees (.28% + .35% = .63% vs .65%)?

    Once you add in the other sizable tax advantages of being a MD resident in addition to a waived annual fee the Maryland plan still clearly looks like the better choice.

  5. jim says:

    Yeah it definitely does, at first I was discounting the value of the tax deduction but it appears as though that’s really the kicker. If you’re an MD resident, the MD plan may be better as long as you’re going strictly with the cheapest (expense ratio wise) index funds. The fund expense ratio differences at more active funds is significantly larger.

    Oh, and to make it even closer, I had enough error, it turns out Nevada waives the $20 account fee if you have over $3000 in assets.


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