This post was originally published on April 5, 2018, and updated on August 1, 2019
I’ve written a lot about opening a Vanguard 529 because even before Henry was born, college costs were weighing heavily on my mind. And for good reason: costs are skyrocketing while salaries aren’t able to keep pace.
In a nutshell, it’s getting more expensive and it’s getting more difficult to keep up.
Though I had figured out that a 529 plan was the right move for us, I still had a question:
What 529 plan should I choose?
(related article: what is a 529?)
In this article I wanted to share what we chose, why, and how much we’re contributing. Not because we’ve done this 100% right, but because we’ve found a process we’re comfortable with. And, transparency, you know?
After spending too long debating the pros and cons of a few different 529 plans, we decided to go with the Nevada 529 through Vanguard. Here’s how we came to our decision:
Why We Chose Our Vanguard 529
There were a few things that went into our decision to pick the Nevada 529 plan through Vanguard:
California doesn’t give a tax break
As I mentioned in this article and video, some states let you deduct contributions to a state 529 from your taxable income. This gives residents of a state an extra incentive to invest in a plan in that state. For example, if you live in New York and invest in a New York 529 plan, you can deduct your contribution on your state income tax return.
We are currently living in London but we will likely move back to California eventually, so I still consider it our home state. Since they don’t give that tax incentive, we were open to looking at 529 plans in other states.
Nevada 529 Review: Nevada is one of the highest-rated plans
Morningstar publishes rankings of 529 plans each year and the Vanguard 529 for Nevada is consistently ranked as a top plan. This is based on different factors including fees and historical performance. Vanguard provides a quick 4 point summary on comparing 529 plans that was helpful.
We know and trust Vanguard
Since Nevada uses Vanguard to manage their 529 plan and we already have investment accounts with Vanguard, it was an easy choice. We don’t have to open another account with a random financial institution and we already have all of our bank accounts connected. While ease shouldn’t be the primary driver of your choice, it was the icing on the cake for us. It took less than 10 minutes to set up and fund our Nevada 529.
I first set up the 529 before Henry was born, so it was initially set up under my name. When I did that, I called Vanguard to be sure I was setting things up correctly. They helped me through the process and gave me information about how to transfer the 529 to Henry, once he was born.
The Vanguard customer service was fantastic. Had I wanted her to, the customer service agent would have walked us through all of our investment 529 options. It really couldn’t have been easier.
Wealthfront, another investing favorite of ours, also offers the ability to invest with them in a 529 plan. They use the Nevada 529 Vanguard plan as well. They do charge an advisory fee on top of the fee that Vanguard charges, so we opted to just go directly to the source (Vanguard) to invest. But if you use and love Wealthfront and want to keep all of your investments in one place, it might be worth the extra cost to you.
Low Vanguard Nevada 529 plan fees, a lot of options
We decided to go with an age-based option, which means that as our child gets older (and closer to college-age), Vanguard automatically adjusts how the money is invested. When the child is young, the investments go into riskier stock funds. As they get older, it moves to less-risky bond funds.
I like money, but I would hate to have to balance that risk myself over the next 18 years. I like having it done automatically for me. Within their age-based option, you can choose between conservative risk, moderate risk, and aggressive risk.
On top of that, the fees for the age-based option are incredibly low. The Vanguard 529 fee (expense ratio) for the plan that we picked is 0.16%.
Drawbacks to the Nevada 529 plan
There were two drawbacks we saw when looking at the Vanguard Nevada 529 Plan:
- We needed to start off with an initial 529 investment of $3,000, whereas other plans, like CA, have minimum initial investments of $25
- The max amount that can be contributed to a 529 is $370k, compared to CA’s limit of $425k
We had a windfall from earlier in 2018 that we used to fund our Vanguard 529, so meeting the initial investment amount wasn’t an issue. And I can’t imagine in any situation where we would contribute more than $370k to our child’s 529. I know college is expensive, but at some point, we just have to know our own limits.
Which brings me to…
How much we are contributing to our Vanguard 529 college savings plan
This is 100% personal and I truly believe this is no right or wrong answer when deciding how much you should support your child’s education financially. You do you.
But I do want to share the questions we asked ourselves to figure out what was right for our situation. This comes with a caveat: our financial situation might change in the future. What we’ve decided to today will probably change as we continue to reassess priorities in our life.
Before we got into the numbers, we asked – and answered – these questions:
Are we “on track” with our retirement and other financial plans?
To figure this out, we turned to Personal Capital for help. Before using Personal Capital, I would use random calculators, spreadsheets, and my “gut feeling” to help us see if we were on track with our retirement goals and other goals. Before starting Henry’s 529 plan, we looked at the retirement calculator to make sure we were on track with our money. It was peace of mind.
What level of support do we feel comfortable providing?
Jordan and I both went to UC Santa Barbara for undergrad (a public university) and then went to Duke for our MBA programs (a private university). I can completely see the merits in both private and public schools. We were also both very fortunate to have family support to pay for our undergrad education. As we looked at the different costs, we decided that we would aim to pay for an in-state public university. If Henry wants to attend a private university, we may have a discussion when he’s in high school about whether or not we can help with additional funds, or if he’ll be expected to find scholarships and contribute himself.
How much do we want them to contribute?
This is something fun that we talk about – a lot. Because our parents were so generous in paying for our college, I don’t know how much we understood the costs or the sacrifice they made to do so. We’d both like Henry to have a stake in the game and contribute to his education. We’re not 100% sure what that looks like now, but we fully have the expectation that he will need to contribute something financially.
Do we still feel like college is the best use of money?
This is a tough one that we don’t have an answer for. College is expensive. And college isn’t right for everyone. Will college be right for Henry? Who knows. Will a college degree still be worth it in the future? I have no idea. But for now, we want to save for it and give him options. We tried our best to answer these questions now, but we’ll continue to reassess in the future.
How much do we need to save? The 529 Calculator
Once we talked about all of this, we got right down to business. We used Personal Capital’s education estimate tool because we wanted to see how much we needed to save. We also wanted to know how much paying for a college education would disrupt our other plans for our money.
We were able to input how much we opened the account with, which university we were saving for, and then how much we wanted to contribute monthly. We used UC Berkeley as our estimate, as it’s the most expensive in-state public school.
The calculator came back and told us that we’d be a little short. We should kick up our contributions just a little if we wanted to fund it 100%.
College is EXPENSIVE.
You do not have to use Personal Capital to figure this out. Savingforcollege.com also has a calculator, though it’s less thorough than what we used with Personal Capital. We already use Personal Capital’s free tool, so we kept it going.
How We Estimate & Track Our Vanguard 529 Plan
We were able to connect our current 529 account to Personal Capital so we can get more accurate estimates of whether we’re on or off track.
Using their education tool takes a few minutes to figure out, so I shortcut that process for you with the video. If you just want to see how we use the education planner within Personal Capital, you can see it in this video clip.
As I mentioned, the Personal Capital tool originally showed us slightly off track with our college savings goal. Rather than saving $400 per month, as we have planned, it suggests that we save $450 per month.
If we don’t start contributing the extra $50 a month now, we’ll be short $14,600 by the time Henry starts college. That’s a bummer, but it’s good to know now and not be surprised when our he’s 18 and applying to schools.
The tool also shows that we’re going to save over $18,000 by putting our money in a 529 plan, rather than saving through a regular investment account.
I really like that I’ve been able to link our Vanguard 529 account with Personal Capital so that when I check in on our money monthly, I’m able to see whether we’re on or off track with our savings goal. It sees the contributions that we’re making to the Vanguard 529 fund and is a nice check to see that we’re working toward our goal.
(related article: how we manage our money in 15 minutes per month)
The other thing that I really like about using this is I’m able to put in a school and get an estimate of what the cost will be for that university.
California is a big state with a wide range of public school options. While the average public school is $23k per year, a school in the University of California system is $38k per year. That’s a huge difference and it’s nice to get that estimate broken down.
I’m sure this will become even more helpful as Henry gets older and we begin to know what his school preferences might be.
There are pros and cons to using Personal Capital’s free tools and it’s not right for everyone. I break down a tutorial as well as my review in this post. If you don’t already use their tools, I’d give this a quick read before deciding whether it’s right for you.
Our update: 1.5 years since opening a Vanguard 529 Plan
When I first published this article, we were only a few months into our college savings process. A year and a half later, we’re still very happy with our choice. We decided to increase our savings to $500 per month, knowing that when Jordan left his job this year, we’d likely pull back significantly.
We put our contributions to Henry’s college fund on auto — meaning contributions are made automatically when we’re paid. This has honestly taken any thought out of the process. We didn’t find ourselves questioning whether we should still make contributions during the rocky period the stock market had in Q4 2018.
(Related article: here’s how and why you should put your money on auto-pilot)
We still use Personal Capital to track our progress, but we really only run the education planning tool every 6 months or so. It doesn’t feel necessary to continually monitor it like that, especially as college is still 17 years away. We’re still on-track to have enough saved to send him to an in-state public university if that’s what he chooses. It feels really nice to know that we’re setting ourselves up to give him this option.
Ultimately, we are really comfortable with our choice for a Vanguard 529 plan – the Nevada 529. We feel completely knowledgeable about the process, how it works, and what we need to be aware of as we save for education.
(note: this post may include affiliate links. For more information on affiliate links, see this disclaimer.)
Erica Gellerman, CPA
Erica Gellerman is a CPA, MBA, personal finance writer, and founder of The Worth Project: a weekly money newsletter you actually want to read. Her work has been featured on Forbes, Money, Business Insider, The Everygirl, The Everymom, and Lifehacker. When she's not writing about personal finance you can find Erica exploring Europe from her temporary home base in London.
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