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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Business

529 is the loneliest number

Michael P. Regan Associated Press

NEW YORK — Christine Lawley knew she needed to start a college savings plan for her son as early as possible, but none of the financial planners she consulted seemed to have mastered the intricacies of the various plans.

Without definitive guidance, she settled on a plan offered by her employer, AMR Research in Boston. But although she and her husband are putting $600 a month into the plan for their 2-year-old and another child on the way, they still worry it won’t be enough.

“I just don’t have this warm, fuzzy feeling that this is the best possible place for our money,” she said. “But this is what I have going on, so I’ll stick with it.”

That warm, fuzzy feeling is in short supply as today’s generation of new parents discovers that shopping for college savings plans is much more complicated than picking out a new stroller.

There are Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, which allow parents to invest up to $2,000 a year without being taxed on returns and withdrawals. Then there are prepaid tuition plans and the so-called Section 529 plans, in which every state hires a mutual fund firm to manage its college savings plans. Investment returns on funds in 529 plans also grow tax free, and investors can contribute as much as $11,000 per person per year.

The 529 plans have become popular, currently with more than $54 billion in assets. Yet many parents find the tangled assortment of fees and tax incentives offered by each state make it almost impossible to determine the best one for them.

“I have this maze of paperwork I have to sort through,” said Pamela Thompson, a California mother of two who is struggling to pick out a 529. “And I’m a CPA.”

Adding to the confusion is a series of recent red flags — including investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and other regulators — giving parents cause for concern about where to lay their nest egg.

An April study by Susan Dynarski, professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, warned that 529 and Coverdell plans can be great tax shelters for richer families, but not necessarily for families with lower incomes.

Financial aid can be reduced by 15 cents for every dollar saved in a 529 plan and $1.22 for every dollar in a Coverdell, according to Dynarski. And if the child ends up not needing the money — perhaps by winning a scholarship or skipping college — the tax penalties will hurt some families more than others.

Another study by professors at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington found investors were gravitating toward 529 plans with higher fees rather than plans offering greater state tax breaks, suggesting the mutual fund industry was benefiting more than investors.

Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., has pushed for legislation to lower 529 fees and make the plans more user-friendly. According to him, fees are so high that in many cases they cancel out the tax advantages.

There is so much confusion and uncertainty that investors don’t know where to turn, according to Harold Simansky, founder of Educational Investments LLC in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

“When an adviser tells them ‘I have an education savings solution for you,’ they jump at it,” said Simansky, whose firm was inspired by his own frustration with saving for his son’s education.

For the more sophisticated investor, there is often skepticism that brokers and financial planners recommend plans that earn them a commission, rather than the best returns for clients.

Kent Fleming, a grandfather in Spring Lake, N.J., first heard about 529s from his broker but decided he had to research them himself before picking one for his grandson.

“You’ve really got to look behind the curtain to see who’s got an ax to grind,” he said.

For those doing their own research, a first stop is often Joseph Hurley’s Web site, Hurley has set up 529 plans in 32 states to share his due diligence with his readers.

But advocates of brokers and financial planners warn there are pitfalls for novice investors who go it alone. They can easily get confused, said Chuck Toth, director of education savings at Merrill Lynch & Co.

“And when they get confused, they don’t take any action,” Toth said. “They’re forgetting that the more important issue is ‘lets start saving so the kids can go to school.”’

Toth believes continued improvement in the disclosure of the various plans’ fees will help investors compare them more easily. And he thinks state tax incentives should be applied to investors in every state, not just the home state of a plan, which also could make comparing them easier.

And though a variety of forecasters say today’s infants will face a bill as high as $200,000 for a degree from a public university and $400,000 for a private school, some advisers say don’t let it overwhelm you.

Even if a child needs to take on a debt that seems astronomical in today’s dollars, it may not seem so bad when the paychecks of the future start rolling in.

“If you really look at all the different aspects of a financial plan or a person’s circumstances, it’s generally not as bad as they think,” said Bill Bergstrom, a financial adviser with AIG Retirement Services in St. Paul, Minn.

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