The Best Way to Save for College: UGMA vs 529 Plan

If you’ve seen the news lately, you’re probably aware that there is a student loan crisis happening in this country. Student loan debt is now estimated at over $1.3 trillion, with more than 40 million Americans carrying student loan debt. While the government tries to relieve some of the stress, there’s an even better way to pay for college – save heavily and avoid student loan debt all together.

UGMA vs. 529 Plans landscape

Of course, not everybody is able to pay for their children’s college expenses without the use of loans. But, just like with other financial plans, you (and your child) will be far better off if you save often and early.

With college costs on the rise, it’s not enough to stash your money in a savings account and pray you have enough for college. You’ve got to find a way to earn some decent interest. And, when we talk about earning a return, investing in the markets is usually the best place to look.

There are several ways to get the most out of your college savings dollars. Two of the most popular are 529 college savings plans and UGMA (Uniformed Gift to Minors Act) accounts. Let’s examine what these accounts offer and compare their benefits and disadvantages.

What is a 529 College Savings Plan?

529 college savings plans are specifically designed to save and invest money for future educational expenditures. Often referred to as a 529 plan, these tax-advantaged savings plans are operated by the state. There are actually two types of 529 plans, but this article will focus specifically on the “college savings plans.” (Families also have the option of using “prepaid tuition” plans.)

Every state and the District of Columbia offers at least one 529 plan. Money contributed to these accounts grows federal income tax free. Withdrawals are also tax-free when used for qualified expenses.

Since 529 plans are operated by the states, that means that the rules vary. Furthermore, some states offer more income tax benefits to plan participants than others. For instance, my home state of Indiana offers a 20% tax credit per household on the first $5,000 saved in 529 plans each year. So, if I fully fund my daughters’ 529 plans, I receive $1,000 back on my state taxes. Residents of many other states are not as lucky. You can find a detailed list of your state’s plans and benefits here.

Benefits of 529 Plans

The tax benefits of 529 plans can be excellent, but that isn’t all to like. Here are a few more reasons to love 529 plans:

  • Tax-free growth on contributions.
  • Tax-free withdrawals on qualified educational expenses.
  • Most states offer state income tax deductions or credits.
  • Beneficiaries my be changed to another family member.
  • No federal tax reporting requirements.
  • No income or age restrictions.
  • Account stays under control of the participant (typically a parent) not the named beneficiary (typically a child).

Of course, there are a few drawbacks to using a 529 plan as well.

  • Money must be used for qualified educational expenses or is subject to federal income tax and a 10% penalty upon withdrawal.
  • Investment options are limited.
  • No guarantee of return.
  • Subject to account management fees.

What is a UGMA Account?

UGMA vs. 529 plans pinA UGMA account is a special account which essentially allows minors to own financial securities through the use of a trust. Funds placed into the account are irrevocably gifted to the minor. The account is operated by a custodian until the minor comes of age, which is typically 18 or 21 and determined by the state in which the account is created. At that time, they have full control over the account and can spend the money in whatever way they see fit.

Accounts are created under the minor’s social security number, and gains on the money are taxable to the child at the “Kiddie Tax Rate.”  Parents are responsible for filing and reporting the income on their child’s income tax return. However, funds in a UGMA account are not required to be used for qualified educational purposes. Thus, if your child decides not to attend college, they are able to use the money for other pursuits.

Benefits of a UGMA

Using a UGMA account as a vehicle for funding a child’s educational expenses does have some advantages:

  • Funds do not have to be used on educational expenses.
  • No income restrictions or contribution limits.
  • Variety of investment options available.

As with 529 plans, UGMA accounts have some disadvantages as well:

  • Growth on the funds is taxed at child’s income tax rate.
  • Funds may be used for any purpose by child when they come of age.
  • Beneficiaries are not allowed to be changed.
  • Counted as an asset of the child when applying for student aid, making it harder to receive funding.
  • Subject to gift tax if donations exceed annual gift tax limits.

Comparing 529 Plans vs. UGMA

Now that you’ve seen what each of these plans have to offer, take a look at the chart below for a side-by-side comparison of these plans.

Rules529 PlansUGMA
Federal tax advantages?Yes. Gains are not taxed; withdrawals not taxed, provided they are used for qualified educational expenses.No. Minor is responsible for taxes on earnings and gains.
State tax advantages?Yes. Most states offer income tax credits or deductions.No.
Restrictions on use?Yes. Funds must be used for qualified educational expenses or be subject to federal income taxes plus 10% penalty.No. Must be used for minor's benefit prior to coming of age.
Who controls funds?Plan participant, not beneficiary.Custodian controls funds prior to minor coming of age; child gains full control of funds once they are an adult.
Can change beneficiaries?Yes.No.
Variety of investment options?Limited.Yes.

Should You Use a 529 Plan or a UGMA for College Savings?

In the past UGMA accounts were particularly popular because parents were able to move some of their investment income into these accounts and save money on their taxes. However, with the expanded Kiddie Tax rules now in play, that option looks far less attractive.

Personally, I love the tax savings available with the 529 plan. In addition to the funds growing tax free, my kids will be able to use the money on qualified educational costs without incurring any tax penalty. Additionally, my home state provides a generous tax credit for using the 529 plan – which, in my case, is 20% cash back on my money.

So, what’s the best college savings option for you? As always, the choice depends on your personal situation and individual goals. If you want to ensure the money you save can only be used for educational expenses, a 529 plan may be the way to go. However, if you are concerned about your child not attending college or you want a wider variety of investment options, a UGMA account could be your best bet. No matter how you decide to save, having something is always better than having nothing.

Published or Updated: February 4, 2016
About Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a writer and entrepreneur who leveraged his online business to quit his 9-5 job, spend more time with his family, and travel the world. As a money nerd, he focuses most of his writing on topics that relate to budgeting, frugality, and investing. With his wife Holly, Greg co-owns two websites – Club Thrifty and Travel Blue Book. Find him on Pinterest and Twitter @ClubThrifty.


  1. Nancy Farmer says:

    Greg, good analysis of advantages/disadvantages of 529s and UGMAs. There is one key error, though, and I know you were not focusing on prepaid plans., But your description said prepaid 529 plans are only operated by individual schools. In fact, 11 states operate prepaid tuition 529 plans. The ONLY OTHER prepaid 529 plan authorized by section 529 and in operation is Private College 529 Plan, of which I am president. It is owned by more than 280 private colleges and universities nationwide. (Princeton to Stanford and everything in between) It enjoys the same federal tax advantages as state 529 plans. The member schools bear all investment risk and pay all fees, so every dollar a family contributes to an account buys tomorrow’s tuition at today’s prices. Families pay NO FEES. It is a good option for families to think about if their children might consider private higher education.

    • Greg Johnson says:

      Thanks for pointing that out Nancy. I will make the correction.

  2. Silas Knight says:

    I have to thank you for the article. I had no idea what the best way was to fund college, as I really don’t have that much money. I didn’t know what a 529 plan was until I read through this. After doing some more research, this plan has helped me a lot. Thanks for the help!

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