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529 Qualified Expenses: More Than Just Tuition
Most likely, by this time of year, your child has selected a college or university to attend in the fall, which means that soon it will be time to start paying the bills. If you have a 529 savings plan, you have an advantage: you may withdraw contributions tax-free to pay for “qualified education expenses.” Qualified expenses include not only tuition and fees, but also room and board, books and supplies, computers and software, as well as other materials directly related to school.
Tuition & Fees
Times have changed, and so has the cost of tuition and fees at 4-year colleges and universities. According to US News & World Report, in the past 20 years, the cost of college tuition and fees at a private university has risen by 144%; in-state tuition and fees at a public university have jumped by 212%. No wonder parents flinch when they receive that first bill; but, if you have been contributing regularly to a 529 savings plan, you are ready to go. The tuition and fees required to attend a college or university are considered qualified expenses, so you may withdraw funds tax-free on both the state and federal levels. This includes online classes as well. You may withdraw funds at any time from your plan to cover up to the full amount of tuition and fees.
Room & Board
Living expenses are the second largest expenditure for college, after tuition and fees. The average cost of room and board at 4-year institutions ranges from approximately $10,000 to $12,000. Students may live on-campus or off-campus; however, if your student decides to live off-campus (as 87% of students do), your withdrawal is limited to what you would pay for your student to live on-campus. Any amount above that is considered a non-qualified expense. But, rent in the summer is covered, and so is study abroad – as long as the program is approved for credit by the institution. Note that for all these expenses to be deemed qualified, your student must be currently enrolled at least half-time and working towards a degree.
Books & Supplies
According to the College Board, during the 2023-2024 academic year, the average cost of books and supplies was $1,250 for on-campus undergraduate students at a 4-year university. Books and supplies include textbooks, lab materials, safety equipment, and notebooks – anything that is mandatory for student courses. These too are considered qualified expenses, and money required to pay for all of these materials can be withdrawn from your 529 savings plan without tax and without penalty.
Computers & Internet
Computers and internet access are also considered qualified expenses as is “peripheral equipment.” This includes mouses, speakers, and software required for college courses. They must be used by the beneficiary primarily during their enrollment years. Software for entertainment or amusement is not covered – same for other electronics and smart phones. If your student purchases such items, they will not be considered qualified and will be fully taxed.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was signed into law in December 2017. This federal law allows families to use 529 plans to pay for up to $10,000 in tuition at private K-12 schools. The changes became effective January 1, 2018.
It's important to note that the law only includes tuition at private K-12 schools as a qualified expense. Books, room and board and other expenses for K-12 schools are not included.
Not all states consider K-12 tuition a qualified expense. You should make sure you understand your state’s definition of qualified expenses before deducting money from a 529 for K-12 tuition.
Families can use funds from a 529 plan to repay student loans. The SECURE Act expanded the definition of qualified expenses to allow 529 plans to be used to repay the principal and/or interest on qualified education loans of the beneficiary and the beneficiary’s siblings. You can use a 529 to repay up to $10,000 per borrower. This is a lifetime limit that applies to distributions from all 529 plans. In other words, you can’t take withdrawals from multiple 529 plans in order to bypass the limit.
A traditional four-year college education may not be the right choice for all students. The funds in a 529 plan can be used for a variety of educational needs, including apprenticeship-related costs. These costs include fees, supplies, necessary tools, etc. In order to qualify, the program must be registered with the Secretary of Labor’s National Apprenticeships Act. You can check the U.S. Labor Department’s website to confirm that a program is registered.
Roth IRA Rollovers
Some families worry that they may not use all they have saved in a 529 account. Starting in 2024, families can rollover unused 529 funds in a Roth IRA account for the beneficiary. There are a few rules to keep in mind:
- The 529 account must have been open for more than 15 years and the rollover amount must have been in the 529 account for at least 5 years.
- There is a lifetime rollover limit of $35,000 for each 529 account beneficiary.
- Rollovers can only be made to the Roth IRA account owned by the named 529 account beneficiary.
A 529 plan covers a wide variety of education-related expenses. In addition, this new Roth IRA rollover rule provides an option for unused funds in a 529 account.
Not everything related to college is a qualified expense, including:
- Transportation and travel costs
- Application and testing fees
- Sports expenses & health club dues
- Extracurricular activities
- Health insurance (unless it is charged as part of the tuition fee)
Because they are not qualified, they will be treated like ordinary income: state and federal taxes will apply, with a 10% federal penalty for withdrawals from your 529 plan used to pay for them.
Due to the passage of HB 342, which became effective June 16, 2023, New Mexico will be in alignment with Section 529 of the IRC allowed uses. Until that time, if you are a New Mexico taxpayer, New Mexico and the federal government currently have different definitions for “qualified higher education expenses” for tax purposes. It is best to be aware of these differences before withdrawals, so you are not taxed unknowingly. The federal government considers the following as qualified expenses and allows for tax-free withdrawals:
- Up to $10,000 per year for K-12 tuition
- Transfers up to $17,000 per year to an ABLE account for the beneficiary
- Apprenticeship expenses
- Student loan repayment of up to $10,000 each for the beneficiary or any siblings
New Mexico does allow tax-free withdrawals from 529 plans for expenses for students with special needs or disabilities, such as assistance required to be enrolled or participate in a course.
Peace of Mind
So, now you know: qualified education expenses include much more than tuition. Withdrawals from your 529 savings plan can be used tax-free for books, computers, room and board, study abroad, and much more. Clearly, there are many ways to spend your 529 funds; and, in order to achieve the best outcomes for your student and your family, you get to decide how and when to use them.