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Ask a Fool: What's the Best Way to Invest Money I Might Need to Pay for College?

By Matthew Frankel, CFP® – Aug 2, 2019 at 12:00PM

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A 529 plan isn't the best option for everyone.

Q: I recently came into some money and want to set a portion of it aside for my child's college education. The problem is that I'm not sure if I'll need to use the money for their education, and don't want to get hit with a penalty. What's the best option for me?

For most college savings, a 529 savings plan is the way to go -- especially if it gets you a break on your state taxes. The downside is that you'll get hit with a 10% penalty for any withdrawals that aren't used for qualified educational purposes.

One smart alternative is using a Roth IRA, if you qualify for one based on your income. While these accounts are designed for retirement, they have a lot of features that make them good choices for college savings.

For one thing, Roth IRAs have the same general tax structure as 529 savings plans. There's no federal tax break for contributions, but qualifying withdrawals will be 100% tax-free. And while you generally have to wait until 59 1/2 years of age to withdraw from an IRA penalty-free, there's a specific exemption for withdrawals used for college expenses.

Plus, a Roth IRA gives you more flexibility than a 529 savings plan or a traditional IRA. You are allowed to withdraw your contributions (but not any investment gains) at any time and for any reason, which makes them a great choice if you don't want to commit to using the money for education or leaving it alone until retirement.

The biggest potential drawback to using a Roth IRA to save for college is that contributions are capped at $6,000 in 2019, while savers over 50 can contribute an additional $1,000. So if you have $20,000 to invest for your kids' education, you won't be able to put it in a Roth IRA all at once. Even so, a Roth IRA can be a great alternative for parents who want flexibility.

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