Americans have many different conflicting demands on their income, with the need to pay current expenses squaring off against longer-term needs such as retirement or paying for children's college educations. Many financial institutions have chosen May 29 as the day each year on which they emphasize the value of saving for college, both because high-school graduations put the issue front and center for many parents and because the 5/29 date matches up with the 529 plan, which is one of the most popular and useful investment vehicles for college savings.

Why 529 plans are so useful
In many ways, 529 plan accounts are similar to tax-favored retirement accounts such as IRAs and 401(k)s. Once you invest in a 529, the income and gains are generated on a tax-deferred basis. Even better, if you use the money in the 529 for qualifying educational expenses, those profits become tax free, escaping income taxation entirely.

Most 529 plans are tied to individual states, with all 50 states in the nation operating at least one such plan. Other plans are sponsored by educational institutions or financial providers. Yet just because your state offers a 529 plan doesn't mean you have to use it. Most states allow nonresidents to participate in their 529 plans -- and while some plans offer incentives to residents, differences in cost and investment options can make an out-of-state plan more attractive.

Why 529 day is important
Every year, many of the institutions with 529 plans offer special incentives on May 29 to encourage more people to participate. For instance, this year, 529 plans in California will offer a $50 matching contribution to those who sign up today. Similarly, Utah will offer a $25 match if you contribute at least $25 today. Nebraska's 529 plan provided a $100 bonus contribution to the first 200 individuals to open a new account today for a child age 8 or younger.

Other programs are more gimmicky. For instance babies born closest to 5:29 p.m. today at 20 different hospitals across Virginia will receive $529 in contributions to a new college savings account. Similar birth-related programs offer a chance to win even more considerable sums in some areas.

Even if you don't participate in a 5/29-day event, saving for college remains a key priority. With so many students coming out of college with huge loan balances, easing the financial burden of an education is one of the best gifts a parent or grandparent can give.

It can be hard to balance the different financial needs of your family. But at least on this day, consider the role that saving for college education expenses could have on the future of a generation. The payoff is well worth the sacrifice.