529 Plans vs. Coverdell ESAs, Prepaid Tuition Plans, Custodial Accounts, and Investment Accounts

529 Plans vs. Coverdell ESAs, Prepaid Tuition Plans, Custodial Accounts, and Investment Accounts

While 529 college savings plans are a popular choice for many families, there are several other options worth considering. Let’s explore how 529 plans compare to Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), pre-paid tuition plans, custodial accounts, and taxable investment accounts.

529 Plans: The Popular Choice

529 college savings plans offer tax-deferred growth and tax-free withdrawals for qualified education expenses. They also provide potential state tax deductions or credits for contributions. Here’s a closer look at the benefits and drawbacks:

Check out epissode #241Which is Better for College Savings? 529 Plans vs. Roth IRAs & Real Estate, where I cover in-depth 529 plans and how you can combine them with Roth IRAs and Real Estate.

Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) formerly  Educational IRA

A Coverdell ESA is a tax-advantaged account allowing up to $2,000 per child per year until the child turns 18. Funds can be used for qualified education expenses from elementary school through college.


– Flexibility in Usage: Funds can be used for a wide range of educational expenses, including elementary and secondary education.

– Broader Range of Investment Options: Unlike many 529 plans, Coverdell ESAs allow investments in individual stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, providing more control over investment strategies.

Expenses that can be covered:

    • Tuition
    • Mandatory fees
    • Books and supplies required for enrollment or attendance
    • Computers, equipment and other technology required for enrollment or attendance


– No Tax Deduction for Contributions: While the earnings grow tax-free, contributions are not tax-deductible.

– Income Caps: Contributions are limited if your MAGI exceeds $110,000 (individual) or $220,000 (married filing jointly), potentially excluding higher-income families.

-Will be counted on FAFSA-  5.64% of EFC (expected family contribution)

Pre-Paid Tuition Plans- aka 529 plans

Pre-paid tuition plans, a type of 529 plan, allow you to pay future college tuition at today’s rates, potentially leading to significant savings.


– Locks in Tuition Rates: Protects against future tuition increases, offering substantial savings.

– State Guarantees: Many state-sponsored pre-paid tuition plans guarantee the investment, reducing financial risk.


– Limited to In-State Colleges: Typically only applies to public colleges in the state offering the plan, which may limit options if your child decides to attend an out-of-state or private college.

– Restricted Usage: Generally covers only tuition and mandatory fees, excluding room, board, and other expenses.

Custodial Accounts

UGMA and UTMA accounts are custodial accounts that provide more flexibility in investment choices and usage.


– Investment Flexibility: Offers a wide range of investment options, including stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and real estate.

– No Usage Restrictions: Funds can be used for any purpose once the child reaches the age of majority (usually 18 or 21).


– No Tax Advantages: Earnings are subject to taxes, and contributions are not tax-deductible.

– Impact on Financial Aid: Assets in these accounts are considered the child’s and can reduce financial aid eligibility, as up to 20% of the account balance is counted in the SAI.

Investment Accounts

Taxable brokerage accounts offer the potential for higher returns with investments in low-cost index funds or ETFs.


– Higher Potential Returns: Over the long term, diversified investment portfolios can offer significant growth.

– Flexibility in Usage: Funds are not restricted to education expenses and can be used for any purpose.


– Market Risks: Investments are subject to market fluctuations, which can affect the value of the account.

– Taxable Gains and Dividends: Earnings are subject to capital gains taxes and dividends are taxable, which can reduce overall returns.

Making the Right Choice

Choosing between a 529 plan and other college savings options depends on your financial situation, risk tolerance, and long-term goals.

529 Plans: Best for families who want a straightforward, tax-advantaged way to save for college.

Coverdell ESAs: Ideal for those seeking flexibility in using funds for various educational expenses and broader investment options.

Pre-Paid Tuition Plans: Suitable for families certain their child will attend an in-state public college.

Custodial Accounts: Good for parents who want flexible investment choices and usage beyond college expenses.

Investment Accounts: For those willing to take on market risks for potentially higher returns and flexibility in fund usage.

Choosing the right college savings option depends on your family’s unique financial situation and goals. Whether you opt for a 529 plan, Coverdell ESA, pre-paid tuition plan, custodial account, or investment account, each has its own benefits and drawbacks.

Consider what best aligns with your needs and don’t hesitate to seek personalized advice from a financial advisor. By thoughtfully selecting and possibly diversifying your savings strategies, you can confidently support your child’s education and secure your family’s financial future.

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Podcast Episodes to Check Out:

Anna Sergunina
Anna Sergunina

I'm Anna Sergunina, CFP®, President & CEO at MainStreet Financial Planning, Inc. My passion lies in serving others through financial planning, helping clients achieve their dreams like buying a home, saving for education, or retiring early. With over two decades in the industry and a CFP designation since 2009, I'm dedicated to excellence and continuous growth. Beyond work, I cherish moments with my son Liam, prioritize self-care, and engage in content creation for my Money Boss Parent Podcast and Money Library blog.

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