By 2018, one of her sons pointed out that she’d done more than rack up $110,000 of 529 savings — she’d given them a leg on which to stand.
“He said, ‘Mom, I can’t thank you enough that I’m not strapped with student loans starting out in life; all my friends have ’em,'” Brayfield said. “That made it all worth it, that he recognized that.”
Getting her sons 529 accounts at birth
As one of six kids put through college by her parents, Brayfield set out to do the same for her two sons.
“I always wanted them to know that they could do whatever they wanted, not to worry about money,” she said. “Maybe it was a way to brainwash them [into going to school]. They had this [account] over there for college, so it was theirs to use. I didn’t want money to prevent them from going.”
In 1993, when Brayfield’s elder son Logan was about three months old, she opened her first 529 plan with Kansas-based Learning Quest. She’d learned about it on a college savings website and via her local TV station.
One of the main draws to the 529 plan for Brayfield and her then-husband was a $6,000 tax deduction awarded to married Kansas couples contributing to a 529. Later, according to Brayfield, the 529 plans became reciprocal, meaning her sons could use the money to attend a public or private school in any state.
Fifteen months later in 1995, Keegan was born, and Brayfield opened another 529 plan with Learning Quest.
In those days, Brayfield remembers how she was able to contribute a maximum $2,500 per year, post-tax (like a Roth IRA account) from her paycheck. Whenever she’d receive a bonus from work, she’d increase her contribution.
“It was not easy; it was a sacrifice,” said Brayfield, now the CEO and owner of advertising agency J.Schmid. “I was in my mid-30s, and that couple hundred dollars a month was a big deal.”
Once the money came out of her account, Brayfield learned how to live without it by budgeting what she had left.
Looking back, Brayfield wished she squeezed her family’s budget a little harder and contributed a little more each month to her sons’ accounts. But she didn’t yet have the salary to sock away all the cash they’d need for the rising costs of college.
Avoid this potential 529 plan pitfall
But her real regret about her sons’ 529 plans stems from her divorce about a decade ago.
“I know this sounds fatalistic, but I wouldn’t recommend opening a joint  with anyone because intentions can change,” she said.
Brayfield grew concerned that her ex-husband — the accounts’ co-owner — wouldn’t leave the funds as they were. Her 529 plan administrator set a safeguard forcing both parents to sign documents when one of them sought a withdrawal.
Brayfield added another layer of protection by creating two more Learning Quest accounts, this time as the sole owner. She then switched her monthly contributions to the new accounts to avoid potential arguments down the road.
How to make strategic withdrawals from 529 accounts
With four 529 plan accounts humming along as her sons entered their teens, Brayfield found that they didn’t need all $110,000 or so of savings.
Her younger son, Keegan (a 2016 graduate), earned the Missouri A+ Scholarship Program award, covering his tuition for his two-year program to become an aviation technician.
Instead, Brayfield made withdrawals from Keegan’s 529s for all his other college expenses. Brayfield withdrew more than $50,000 to cover his room and board, books, and other essentials. Brayfield also transferred $5,000 from her elder son Logan’s 529 plans to cover Keegan’s living costs.
“I kept track of every expense, charted it out at the end of the year,” she said.
Brayfield was able to do this because Learning Quest sent her a 1099-Q tax form, which reports withdrawals made during the year. It’s important to file because it tells the IRS that you used the funds for qualified education expenses.
Keegan’s school also sent a receipt listing all paid college expenses, such as tuition and fees. Then Brayfield forwarded everything to the IRS around tax time without a hitch.
Plus, the Brayfield family still has 529 funds to spare. Even though Logan took a hiatus from college, he still has untouched savings in a 529 plan earning interest until he decides to return to campus.
How you should start saving for college
Brayfield knows that 529 plans aren’t for everyone. While she liked a conservative, hands-off approach, you might prefer more investment flexibility, for example.
Similarly, you might struggle to find room in your budget to contribute $100 to $200 or more on a monthly basis for a decade or longer, especially if you have debt.
Still, whether you open a 529 plan or choose alternative ways to save for college, Brayfield’s advice is simple: Get going.
“Start now, don’t wait,” she said. “I like the fact that it’s separated [from your other investments] and you can watch it grow. [It] keeps you from dipping into it if you get the itch.”
By adding to your account balance without interruption, you’ll also reap the interest growth with which your bank can’t possibly compete. You and your child might even be able to avoid federal and private student loans altogether.
Finally, Brayfield recommended asking family members and friends for help if you’re struggling to make ends meet and save for the future simultaneously. Her parents, for example, contributed at least a few thousand dollars to their grandsons’ 529 plans over the years.
“Instead of lavish gifts, invest in 529 plans,” she said.
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1 Important Disclosures for College Ave.
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 11/4/2019. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation.
2 Sallie Mae Disclaimer: Click here for important information. Terms, conditions and limitations apply.
3 Important Disclosures for Discover.
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.
Offered terms are subject to change and state law restrictions. Loans are offered through CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS #1175900).
5 Important Disclosures for Citizens.
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 December 1, 2019, the one-month LIBOR rate is 1.70%. Variable interest rates range from 2.80% – 11.06% (2.80% – 10.91% 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.
Please Note: International Students are not eligible for the multi-year approval feature.
|2.84% – 10.97%1||Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents|
|2.87% – 10.75%*,2||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|2.80% – 11.37%3||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|3.52% – 9.50%4||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|2.80% – 11.06%5||Undergraduate and Graduate|