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

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When it comes to saving for college for their kids, many parents across the country make use of the 529 plan. But what exactly is a 529, and what are the 529 qualified expenses?

The 529 is a state-sponsored college savings plan that comes in two versions: the prepaid tuition plan and the education savings plan:

  • Prepaid tuition plans allow parents to lock in future college credits at current prices at participating schools, typically state universities.
  • The education savings plan is a tax-advantaged investment account designed to save for future college expenses, including tuition, room and board. Withdrawals from these accounts can be used to pay for qualified expenses at any college, or trade or vocational school, and $10,000 per year can go toward expenses at elementary and secondary schools.

A 529 plan can be very helpful, particularly as qualified withdrawals are typically untaxed, but it doesn’t provide a free pass for all college expenses. In fact, if you do use 529 distributions for non-qualified expenses, you could be subject to federal and state income taxes, and even be levied an additional 10% tax penalty on earnings.

Are you the beneficiary of a 529 plan, or a parent who funded one for a child? If so, you may be asking, “What exactly can I use my 529 money for — and what can’t I?”

Which college costs don’t qualify as 529 expenses?

What are qualified expenses for 529 plans? You can use 529 withdrawals to pay for school costs such as tuition, room and board, some supplies (including textbooks that are part of a required reading list, and laptops if your school requires them) and school-related services for special-needs students. The SECURE Act even allows for up to $10,000 in 529 money to be used to repay student loans.

However, there are many costs associated with college that are not 529 qualified expenses. Below are some expenses for which you should avoid using your 529 money:

1. College applications and testing
2. Insurance
3. Transportation
4. Sports and club activity fees
5. Dorm room furniture and decorations
6. Exceeding your ‘cost of attendance’

1. College applications and testing

Before you go to college you have to apply, and this often involves taking standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT. Application and testing costs (not to mention tutoring costs if you need help with test prep) can really add up. So can you use your 529 money to help lessen the financial blow of application season?

Unfortunately, no. While 529 qualified expenses cover college costs, they do not cover pre-college costs such as these.

2. Insurance

Health insurance, car insurance, renters insurance — these are necessary expenses for many students. However, student insurance costs aren’t in the category of 529 qualified expenses. So, for example, while you may use your car to drive to school, you cannot use 529 funds to insure the vehicle.

3. 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 taking the train to campus, you can’t use your 529 distributions to cover the cost of your transport.

4. Sports and club activity fees

When you enroll in college, there are many fees involved. In fact, you might be surprised at how fast these student fees can add up.

Fees required for college enrollment, such as computer lab costs, are typically 529 qualified expenses. If you live in a fraternity or sorority house, your 529 funds may also be used to go toward this housing expense. But they cannot be used to pay for related dues.

Sports and club activity fees are also not qualified 529 expenses. So if you want to join an intramural basketball league or a college chess club, you’ll have to use outside funds, rather than your 529 withdrawal money, to pay for it.

5. Dorm room furniture and decorations

Room and board are covered by 529 withdrawals as long as you have an education savings plan (generally, the prepaid plan cannot be used to cover these expenses) and you are at least a part-time student. However, that doesn’t mean you can use your plan money to decorate your room in the latest trendy style. Room furnishings and decorations are considered personal expenses, and thus aren’t included as qualified 529 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 living costs such as housing and food is based on the cost of attendance at your chosen school. Therefore, you should be careful not to exceed this amount.

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, you must keep the costs within the given cost of attendance at the school. In other words, you can’t pay any more to live and eat off campus than you would to live in the dorms and eat in the dining hall, per the school’s calculations.

If you have questions about your own school’s limit on housing and food costs, ask the financial aid office for the cost of attendance so you have some guidance.

Keep your costs separate

When 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.

Try to avoid putting 529 qualified expenses on the same transaction with ineligible costs. For example, 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 may be less likely to draw the attention of the IRS when you prepare your taxes.

Other ways to pay for college expenses

A 529 plan can be a great way to help pay for college expenses, but it’s important to be aware of the limits on such spending so you don’t end up being penalized.

That said, a 529 plan may not cover everything. If you find you still have a college funding gap after using your 529 or other savings plans, you can make use of federal loans, make money through a work study program and look for scholarships and grants. You can also apply for private student loans, although you should be aware that these loans are often not as flexible and do not offer the same benefits as federal loans.

Alternatively, if you find you have an excess of 529 funds when you are done paying for college expenses, here are ways you can spend that leftover money without incurring penalties.

Rebecca Stropoli contributed to this report.

Need a student loan?

Here are our top student loan lenders of 2020!
LenderVariable APREligibility 
1.24% – 11.98%1Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit College Ave

1.25% – 11.15%*,2Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SallieMae

1.12% – 12.37%3Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Discover

1.24% – 11.44%4Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit Earnest

1.77% – 11.89%5Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SoFi

2.69% – 12.98%6Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Ascent

3.52% – 9.50%7Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit CommonBond

* 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 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. Rates shown are for the College Ave Undergraduate Loan product and include autopay 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. This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a first year graduate student 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 7.10% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $141.66 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $16,699.21. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

Information advertised valid as of 9/24/2020. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation. Lowest advertised rates require selection of full principal and interest payments with the shortest available loan term.


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

3 Important Disclosures for Discover.

Discover Disclosures

  1. Aggregate loan limits apply.
  2. 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.
  3. Lowest APRs shown for Discover Student Loans are available for the most creditworthy applicants for undergraduate loans, and include an interest-only repayment discount and Auto Debit Reward. The interest rate ranges represent the lowest and highest interest rates offered on Discover student loans, including undergraduate and graduate 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. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 0.250% as of October 1, 2020. Discover Student Loans may 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. Our lowest APR is only available to customers with the best credit and other factors. Your APR will be determined after you apply. It will be based on your credit history, which repayment option you choose and other factors, including your cosigner’s credit history (if applicable). Learn more about Discover Student Loans interest rates.
  4. Lowest APRs shown for Discover Student Loans are available for the most creditworthy applicants for the Discover Private Consolidation Loan and include an Auto Debit Reward. 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. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 0.250% as of October 1, 2020. Discover Student Loans may 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. Our lowest APR is only available to customers with the best credit and other factors. Your APR will be determined after you apply. It will be based on your credit history, which repayment option you choose and other factors, including your cosigner’s credit history (if applicable). Learn more about Discover Student Loans interest rates.
Lowest APRs shown for Discover Student Loans are available for the most creditworthy applicants for undergraduate loans, and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments.

4 Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

  1. Rates include 0.25% Auto Pay Discount
     
  2. Explanation of Rates “With Autopay” (APD)
    Rates shown include 0.25% APR discount when client agrees to make monthly principal and interest payments by automatic electronic payment. Use of autopay is not required to receive an Earnest loan.

    Available Terms
    For Cosigned loans – 5, 7, 10, 12, 15 years. 
    Primary Only – 10, 12, 15 years

    In school deferred payment is not available in AL, AZ, CA, FL, MA, MD, MI, ND, NY, PA, and WA).


5 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

sofiDisclosures

UNDERGRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.23% to 11.83% annual percentage rate (“APR”) (with autopay), variable rates from 1.87% to 11.66% APR (with autopay). GRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.13% to 11.83% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.77% to 11.73% APR (with autopay). MBA AND LAW SCHOOL LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.30% to 11.98% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.94% to 11.89% APR (with autopay). PARENT LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.60% to 11.26% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.87% to 11.16% APR (with autopay). For variable rate loans, the variable interest rate is derived from the one-month LIBOR rate plus a margin and your APR may increase after origination if the LIBOR increases. Changes in the one-month LIBOR rate may cause your monthly payment to increase or decrease. Interest rates for variable rate loans are capped at 13.95%, unless required to be lower to comply with applicable law. Lowest rates are reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. If approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your creditworthiness, the repayment option you select, the term and amount of the loan and other factors, and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. The SoFi 0.25% autopay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. Information current as of 10/02/2020. Enrolling in autopay is not required to receive a loan from SoFi. SoFi Lending Corp., licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. NMLS #1121636 (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org).


6 Important Disclosures for Ascent.

Ascent Disclosures

Before taking out private student loans, you should explore and compare all financial aid alternatives, including grants, scholarships, and federal student loans and consider your future monthly payments and income. Applying with a cosigner may improve your chance of getting approved and could help you qualify for a lower interest rate. Ascent Student Loans may be funded by Richland State Bank (RSB). Ascent Student Loan products are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application, verification of application information and certification of loan amount by a participating school. Loan products may not be available in certain jurisdictions, and certain restrictions, limitations; and terms and conditions may apply. Ascent is a federally registered trademark of Turnstile Capital Management (TCM) and may be used by RSB under limited license. Richland State Bank is a federally registered service mark of Richland State Bank.

  1. Competitive variable rates calculated monthly at the time of loan approval based on a margin plus the 1-Month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) rounded to the nearest 1/100th of a percent. The current LIBOR is 0.152%, which may adjust monthly. Your interest rate may increase or decrease, based on LIBOR monthly changes. Rates are effective as of 10/01/2020 and reflect an Automatic Payment Discount. Automatic Payment Discount is available if the borrower is enrolled in automatic payments from their personal checking account and the amount is successfully withdrawn from the authorized bank account each month.(See Automatic Payment Discount Terms & Conditions.)
    1. Undergraduate Loans: Your variable interest rate may increase or decrease, based on LIBOR monthly changes, resulting in an APR range between 2.69% and 12.98%. Fixed rate loans will not increase or decrease over the life of the loan and have an APR range between 3.53% and 14.50%. Rates reflect an Automatic Payment Discount of 0.25% on the lowest offered rate and a 2.00% discount on the highest offered rate. The following table shows a 48 month in-school period plus 9 months of grace prior to a full repayment term of either: 60-months (lowest fixed/variable rate), 144-months (highest fixed rate) or 180-months (highest variable rate) with examples of (i) Interest Only payments, (ii) $25 Minimum payments, and (iii) Deferred repayment options.(See Undergraduate Loan repayment examples.)
    2. Graduate Loans (Graduate, MBA & Law): Your variable interest rate may increase or decrease, based on LIBOR monthly changes, resulting in an APR range between 3.65% and 12.40%. Fixed rate loans will not increase or decrease over the life of the loan and have an APR range between 4.56% and 13.42%. Rates reflect an Automatic Payment Discount of 0.25%. The following table shows a 36 month in-school period plus 9 months of grace prior to a full repayment term of either: 84-months (lowest fixed/variable rate), 144-months (highest fixed rate), or 180-months (highest variable rate) with examples of (i) Interest Only payments, (ii) $25 Minimum payments, and (iii) Deferred repayment options. (See Graduate Loan repayment examples.)
    3. Medical: Your variable interest rate may increase or decrease, based on LIBOR monthly changes, resulting in an APR range between 3.67% and 12.42%. Fixed rate loans will not increase or decrease over the life of the loan and have an APR range between 4.57% and 13.44%. Rates reflect an Automatic Payment Discount of 0.25%. The following table shows a 48 month in-school period plus 36 months of grace prior to a full repayment term of either: 84-months (lowest fixed/variable rate), 144-months (highest fixed rate), or 240-months (highest variable rate) with examples of (i) Interest Only payments, (ii) $25 Minimum payments, and (iii) Deferred repayment options. (See Medical Loan repayment examples.)
  2. Payments may be deferred. Subject to lender discretion, forbearance and/or deferment options may be available for borrowers who are encountering financial distress.
  3. Making interest only or partial interest payments while in school will not reduce the principal balance of the loan. There are three (3) flexible in-school repayment options that include fully deferred, interest only and $25 minimum repayment. (See Undergraduate Loan repayment examples.)
  4. Flexible repayment plans may be offered up to a fifteen (15) year repayment term for a variable rate loan and ten (10) year repayment term for a fixed rate loan. Students must be enrolled at least half-time at an eligible school. Minimum loan amount is $2,000.
  5. Interest rate reduction of either 0.25% (for Credit-Based Loans) or 2.00% (for Undergraduate Future Income-Based Loans) applies only when the borrower and/or cosigner sign up for automatic payments and the payment amount is successfully deducted from the designated bank account each month. The amount of the discount is dependent upon the loan product and credit history of the borrower at the time of application. Interest rate reduction(s) will not apply during periods when no payment is due, including periods of in-school, deferment, grace or forbearance, unless a regular payment amount has been arranged with the servicer. If you have two (2) consecutive returned payments for Nonsufficient Funds, we may cancel your automatic debit enrollment and you will lose the interest rate reduction. You will then need to re-qualify and re-enroll in automatic debit payments to receive the interest rate reduction.(See Automatic Payment Discount Terms & Conditions.)
  6. All applicants (individual and cosigner) are required to complete a brief online financial literacy course as part of the application process to be eligible for funding.
  7. Eligibility, loan amount and other loan terms are dependent on several factors, which may include: loan product, other financial aid, creditworthiness, school, program, graduation date, major, cost of attendance and other factors. Aggregate loan limits may apply. The cost of attendance is determined and certified by the educational institution.
  8. The legal age for entering into contracts is eighteen (18) years of age in every state except Alabama where it is nineteen (19) years old, Nebraska where it is nineteen (19) years old (only for wards of the state), and Mississippi and Puerto Rico where it is twenty-one (21) years old.
  9. 1% Cash Back Graduation Reward subject to terms and conditions. Click here for details. In order to be eligible for the 1% Cash Back Graduation Reward, borrower must meet the following criteria after graduation:
    • The student borrower has graduated from the degree program that the loan was used to fund.
    • The student borrower may change majors and/or transfer to a different school, but must obtain the same level of degree (e.g. – undergraduate or graduate)
    • The graduation date is more than 90 days and less than five (5) years after the date of the loan’s first disbursement.
    • Any loan that the student has borrowed under the Ascent loan is not more than 30-days delinquent or in a default status as of the graduation date and until any Graduation Reward is paid.
  10. Students can apply to release their cosigner and continue with the loan in only their name after making the first 24 consecutive regularly scheduled full principal and interest payments on-time and meeting the other eligibility criteria to qualify for the loan without a cosigner.

* Application times vary depending on the applicant’s ability to supply the necessary information for submission.


7 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change and state law restriction. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900), NMLS Consumer Access. If you are approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your credit profile, your application, the loan term selected and will be within the ranges of rates shown. All Annual Percentage Rates (APRs) displayed assume borrowers enroll in auto pay and account for the 0.25% reduction in interest rate. All variable rates are based on a 1-month LIBOR assumption of 0.17% effective Sep 1, 2020 and may increase after consummation.


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.