Consider a Roth IRA to supercharge your college-saving efforts

The popular retirement vehicle has several advantages over a traditional 529 plan in many cases

By Ed Slott

Jul 28, 2015 @ 12:01 am EST

Roth IRAs for college? Why would anyone use a retirement account to save for education expenses when there are accounts specifically designed for that? Roth IRAs add several different education-savings dimensions. Here are three of them to consider.

When a child goes to college, if he or she wants to receive student aid, then the filing of a Free Application for Federal Student Aid is pretty much a must. The form is designed to calculate what's known as the expected family contribution. The EFC is essentially the amount that Uncle Sam thinks a person should pay for their own education and is calculated, in part, based on the assets of a student and his or her parents.

When reporting assets on the FAFSA form, most assets, including 529 plans, are included in the calculation. That means that saving for children's education in a 529 plan — a plan expressly designed for that purpose — could end up increasing students' EFC, reducing or eliminating the amount of financial aid for which they would otherwise qualify.

On the other hand, Roth IRAs (along with other retirement accounts) are not considered assets when determining a family's EFC. In addition, there's no cap to that amount, so you may actually be able to accumulate significant sums in Roth IRAs and still qualify for student aid for a child.


To encourage people to contribute to 529 accounts, Congress created special tax breaks. As long as 529 plan distributions are used to pay qualified higher-education expenses, distributions are 100% tax free (in some states, you may also be entitled to a state income tax deduction). But if for some reason the funds in the 529 plan are not used for qualifying expenses, distributions can go from being tax-free to being taxable, plus a 10% penalty. True, a 529 plan set up for one child's benefit can be transferred to an account for another qualifying family member, but such a person does not always exist.

For obvious reasons, parents are encouraged to start saving for college as early as possible. But how are you supposed to know for sure if your five-year-old child will go to college, or whether the child might receive a scholarship? That could turn a tax-efficient account into a tax nightmare. If, instead of saving money in a 529 plan, you had saved the same money in a Roth IRA and no longer needed those funds for education, then it's an easy and tax-efficient transition to use those funds in retirement, which brings us to our next point.


The primary purpose of contributing funds to a 529 plan is to enjoy tax-free distributions for education purposes, but a Roth IRA often provides the exact same tax benefits. If you are over age 59 1/2 at the time you take a distribution from your Roth IRA and you've had any Roth IRA for five years or longer, then anything you take out of your Roth IRAs will be 100% tax- and penalty-free. That's true whether you use the funds for education-related expenses or for any other purpose. With more people waiting to get married and have children, it is increasingly common for education-related expenses to be incurred after the five years and 59 1/2 requirements are met.

Even if you are not 59 1/2 (or if you have not met the five-year holding period) at the time education-related expenses need to be paid, you may still be able to take funds out of your Roth IRA tax- and penalty-free. Roth IRA contributions can be distributed at any age, and at any time, 100% tax- and penalty-free. So, for instance, if you contribute $5,000 per year to a Roth IRA for the next 10 years before your child goes to college (and take no distributions in the interim), then you'd be able to take $50,000 tax- and penalty-free from your Roth IRA.

In addition to Roth IRA contributions, amounts converted to a Roth IRA may also be distributed tax- and penalty-free. Even if you are under 59 1/2, Roth IRA conversions can be withdrawn tax- and penalty-free as long as the conversion took place five years ago or longer. So, for example, if you convert $100,000 to a Roth IRA today at 50 and need to take that $100,000 out in six years to meet education expenses, then the entire conversion amount will be tax- and penalty-free. And if you wait until you are 59 1/2, then any gains that you earn on that $100,000 while it is in your Roth IRA can be withdrawn tax- and penalty-free.

Ed Slott, a certified public accountant, created the IRA Leadership Program and Ed Slott's Elite IRA Advisor Group. He can be reached at

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