Busted: You Can’t Use 529 Money for These 6 College Expenses

Advertiser Disclosure

Student Loan Hero Advertiser Disclosure

Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time.

Editorial Note: This content is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the financial institution.

529 plan
Logo

We’ve got your back! Student Loan Hero is a completely free website 100% focused on helping student loan borrowers get the answers they need. Read more

How do we make money? It’s actually pretty simple. If you choose to check out and become a customer of any of the loan providers featured on our site, we get compensated for sending you their way. This helps pay for our amazing staff of writers (many of which are paying back student loans of their own!).

Bottom line: We’re here for you. So please learn all you can, email us with any questions, and feel free to visit or not visit any of the loan providers on our site. Read less

One of the best ways to save for college is by using a 529 plan.

With the help of long-term college savings, you can reduce your need for student loans by covering 529 qualified expenses like tuition, room and board, and some regular student fees.

However, a 529 plan isn’t a free pass for all the things you need to pay for when you attend college. There are some expenses that can’t be covered by using money from your 529.

How does a 529 plan work?

The whole point of a 529 plan is to provide you with tax advantages when you withdraw money to pay for college expenses. Essentially, distributions are not subject to federal tax. And, they’re generally not subject to state tax when used for qualified higher education expenses by the beneficiary.

However, if the amount distributed is greater than the beneficiary’s adjusted qualified education expenses, taxes may be owed. And, keep in mind however that all contributions to a 529 plan are not deductible.

What’s more, if you use money in your 529 plan for unqualified expenses, those tax advantages disappear. If you’re misusing 529 money for ineligible expenses, contact a knowledgeable financial expert to determine your options.

And if you need to rollover money from one 529 plan into another or change beneficiaries, you have 60 days to do so. Just make sure you haven’t rolled that person’s account in the prior 12 months.

If you aren’t inside the 60-day rollover period but are still in the same calendar year as the distribution, you could potentially pre-pay some of next year’s 529 qualified expenses with that money instead.

Which college costs don’t qualify as 529 expenses?

Most of us don’t set out to misuse our 529 money. But, it can happen. You can avoid a great deal of unpleasantness by understanding which costs aren’t qualified 529 expenses.

1. Insurance

We all need insurance when we go away to school. Car insurance, renters insurance, and other types of insurance can protect your assets.

However, insurance costs aren’t 529 qualified expenses, so watch out. Just because you’re driving your car to school, doesn’t mean you can deduct the cost of insuring it.

2. Transportation

Speaking of driving your car to school, none of your transportation costs are 529 eligible expenses.

Whether you’re taking the bus, fueling your car, or getting to campus some other way, you can’t use your 529 distributions to cover the cost of your transport.

3. Student loan repayment

It would be great to pay off your student loans a little early, right? Just take some of that money from your 529 and put it towards what you owe.

Sadly, this isn’t an acceptable use of your funds. You aren’t allowed to take money out of a 529 and use it to pay down student loans.

4. Sports and club activity fees

When you enroll in college, there are fees you’ll need to pay. In fact, you might be surprised at how fast student fees add up.

Fees required for enrollment, such as computer lab fees, are usually 529 qualified expenses. However, sports and club activity fees paid as a result of extracurricular activities don’t qualify.

So if you want to join an intramural basketball league, you’ll have to use “regular” money to pay for it.

5. Lifestyle

Where you live can be covered by your 529 money. However, that doesn’t mean that you can use your plan money to trick out your dorm room. Room furnishings aren’t included as qualified 529 expenses.

The same principle applies when it comes to food. You can buy some groceries with your money, but entertainment and dining out aren’t 529 qualified expenses.

6. Exceeding your “cost of attendance”

Every school estimates attendance costs.  These costs provide an idea of what you can expect to pay when you attend a specific school.

How much money you can withdraw from your 529 to pay for your living costs are based on the cost of attendance at your chosen school. Therefore, you should do your best to avoid exceeding it.

It’s easy to stay within estimated costs of attendance when you live on campus and buy a meal plan from the cafeteria. But when you live off campus and buy your own food, keep the costs within the cost of attendance at the school.

If you don’t know where to find it, ask the financial aid office for the cost of attendance so you have some guidance.

Keep your costs separate

When you’re using your 529 money to pay for college costs, keep a record of all your purchases. When tax season arrives, you’ll need receipts to back up your claims.

Avoid putting 529 qualified expenses on the same transaction with ineligible costs. If you’re buying groceries for the week, don’t toss shampoo and soap on the same transaction as your food purchases.

While it may seem awkward to divide your purchases and complete two transactions, it could make record-keeping easier. And, you’re less likely to draw the attention of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) when you prepare your taxes.

Your 529 plan is a great resource for helping you pay for college and reducing your need for student loans. But, it’s not a free-for-all. By planning ahead and knowing which expenses are eligible you can stay within all guidelines listed without issue.

Need a student loan?

Here are our top student loan lenders of 2019!
LenderVariable APREligibility 
* The Sallie Mae partner referenced is not the creditor for these loans and is compensated by Sallie Mae for the referral of Smart Option Student Loan customers.

1 = Sallie Mae Disclaimer: Click here for important information. Terms, conditions and limitations apply.

2 Important Disclosures for College Ave.

CollegeAve Disclosures

College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust Bank, member FDIC or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.

(1)All rates shown include the auto-pay discount.  The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as a valid bank account is designated for required monthly payments. Variable rates may increase after consummation.

(2)This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a freshman borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 8.35% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $179.18 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $21,501.54. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

(3)As certified by your school and less any other financial aid you might receive. Minimum $1,000.

Information advertised valid as of 9/3/2019. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation.


3 Important Disclosures for Discover.

Discover Disclosures

  1. Students who get at least a 3.0 GPA (or equivalent) qualify for a one-time cash reward on each new Discover undergraduate and graduate student loan. Reward redemption period is limited. Please visit DiscoverStudentLoans.com/Reward for any applicable reward terms and conditions.
  2. View Auto Reward Debit Reward Terms and Conditions at DiscoverStudentLoans.com/AutoDebitReward.
  3. Aggregate loan limits apply.
  4. Lowest rates shown are for the undergraduate loan and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments. The interest rate ranges represent the lowest interest rate offered on the Discover Undergraduate Loan and highest interest rates offered on Discover student loans, including Undergraduate, Graduate, Health Professions, Law and MBA Loans. The fixed interest rate is set at the time of application and does not change during the life of the loan. The variable interest rate is calculated based on the 3-Month LIBOR index plus the applicable Margin percentage. The margin is based on your credit evaluation at the time of application and does not change. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 2.50% as of July 1, 2019. Discover Student Loans will adjust the rate quarterly on each January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1 (the “interest rate change date”), based on the 3-Month LIBOR Index, published in the Money Rates section of the Wall Street Journal 15 days prior to the interest rate change date, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of one percent (0.125% or 0.00125). This may cause the monthly payments to increase, the number of payments to increase or both. Please visit discover.com/student-loans/interest-rates for more information about interest rates.
Discover's lowest rates shown are for the undergraduate loan and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments.

4 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change and state law restrictions. Loans are offered through CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS #1175900).

  1.  Rates are as of July 1, 2019 and include auto-pay discount. All loans are eligible for a 0.25% reduction in interest rate by agreeing to automatic payment withdrawals once in repayment. Variable rates may increase after consummation.

5 Important Disclosures for Citizens.

Citizens Disclosures

  1. Undergraduate Rate Disclosure: Variable rate, based on the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) published in The Wall Street Journal on the twenty-fifth day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month. As of September 1, 2019, the one-month LIBOR rate is 2.14%. Variable interest rates range from 3.24% – 11.50% (3.24% – 11.35% APR) and will fluctuate over the term of the loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a co-signer. Fixed interest rates range from 4.72% – 12.19% (4.72% – 12.04% APR) based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a co-signer. Lowest rates shown requires application with a co-signer, are for eligible applicants, require a 5-year repayment term, borrower making scheduled payments while in school and include our Loyalty and Automatic Payment discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty Discount and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. Subject to additional terms and conditions, and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change. Please note: Due to federal regulations, Citizens Bank is required to provide every potential borrower with disclosure information before they apply for a private student loan. The borrower will be presented with an Application Disclosure and an Approval Disclosure within the application process before they accept the terms and conditions of the loan.
  2. Citizens Bank Student Loan Eligibility: Borrowers must be enrolled at least half-time in a degree-granting program at an eligible institution. Borrowers must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident or an international borrower/eligible non-citizen with a creditworthy U.S. citizen or permanent resident co-signer. For borrowers who have not attained the age of majority in their state of residence, a co-signer is required. Citizens Bank reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at anytime. Interest rate ranges subject to change. Citizens Bank private student loans are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application/consumer credit agreement, verification of application information, and if applicable, self-certification form, school certification of the loan amount, and student’s enrollment at a Citizens Bank- participating school. 

    Please Note: International Students are not eligible for the multi-year approval feature.

  3. Co-signer Release: Borrowers may apply for co-signer release after making 36 consecutive on-time payments of principal and interest. For the purpose of the application for co-signer release, on-time payments are defined as payments received within 15 days of the due date. Interest only payments do not qualify. The borrower must meet certain credit and eligibility guidelines when applying for the co-signer release. Borrowers must complete an application for release and provide income verification documents as part of the review. Borrowers who use deferment or forbearance will need to make 36 consecutive on-time payments after reentering repayment to qualify for release. The borrower applying for co-signer release must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. If an application for co-signer release is denied, the borrower may not reapply for co-signer release until at least one year from the date the application for co-signer release was received. Terms and conditions apply. Borrowers whose loans were funded prior to reaching the age of majority may not be eligible for co-signer release. Note: co-signer release is not available on the Student Loan for Parents or Education Refinance Loan for Parents.
3.25% – 10.65%*,1Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SallieMae

3.70%
11.98%
2
Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit College Ave

3.37%
11.87%
3
Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Discover

3.52% – 9.50%4Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit CommonBond

3.24% – 11.50%5Undergraduate and Graduate

VISIT CITIZENS

Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time.

You're on your way...

We'll take you to Lendingtree.com where you'll be able to fill out one form to get multiple personal loan offers, based on your creditworthiness.