For background, a 529 is a college savings account where the money can be used for undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees (medical school, dental school etc). The money you deposit is not tax-deductible but the profit is tax-free, just like a Roth IRA. In some states, though, the state gives you a tax deduction as well, for example my state, New York State. However, if you use money from a 529, you cannot use the federal tax credit for the education expenses. A way to get around this, is use money from your 529 for living in the dorms, if you are attending at least half-time. There is a program that allows you to live off-campus, but not all schools are part of the program. Check with your school.
The downsides to a 529, beside not having the federal credit, include higher fees than other brokerage accounts, few choices and the ability to change funds only once a year. Also, similar to 401k, and IRAs, if you remove the money for non-approved expenses, you have to pay a penalty. Personally, because of these downsides, I avoid would prefer to avoid a 529 in many cases. So, what would I normally recommend? Well, do remember that you can remove any money in Roth IRA for tuition and fees for higher education, as well as any deposits, as long as you have had the account for five tax years. I know what you are thinking, but what about retirement savings?! That is where having a 401k comes in. If you are saving 20%, to cap out of your 401k, you need to earn $87,500. The average person does not make that. So, the average person can use their 401k for retirement savings and a Roth IRA for their children's college education. Obviously, the lower income group would want to take advantage of the Roth IRAs for their retirement as well, which is what I am doing but once your income goes up, start using the 401k as well.
So why now am I recommending EVERYONE to get a 529, since I am so opposed to them? Because right now, there is free money associated with it. Bank of America started a website called grad save, which is like a baby registry for college savings which you then transfer the money you were given to a 529. I honestly think it is silly, but here is the free money part. For the next four days, they partnered with living social to give you a $50 gift card for $26. You can only buy one card per beneficiary or owner. However, doing this only took me 20 minutes. What college student/ grad student earns $96/hr, which is what this trick is worth when you compare the amount of time it takes to do this, and what you get for it.
So I opened a Vanguard 529 account with the minimum required ($25) because that is what company holds my state's 529. I, then, opened a grad saving account and then went to living social and bought the gift card. I received the gift card code within hours of ordering it. I added the cash into the grad save account, and once the 529 is finished being set up, I will transfer the $50. Once this happens, I will turn around and remove the money for class expenses for this year and close the account.
If anyone is interested in getting this deal, please feel free to use the link below to do so.