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How 529 as an Employee Benefit helps Families avoid Student Loan Debt

Friday, May 22, 2020

With National "529 Day" approaching later this week on 5/29, it’s rewarding to reflect on the many creative efforts undertaken this time of year to raise both local and national awareness of the existence and usefulness of 529 college savings plans to help families prepare for the cost of higher education.

One of my many memories was from May 29, 2011, when I appeared with others in the audience of the CBS Early Show. As audience members, we were asked to bring homemade signs to catch the attention of one of the anchors for a potential opportunity to speak on-air about the cause that brought us there. The sign I created contained the words “Working 9-2- 5 to Save in his 529” and as you can see from the photo, it caught the attention of CBS weatherman Lonnie Quinn.

While we’ll never know exactly how much awareness of 529 college savings plans was raised during that morning show or on other “529 Days” through the years, we do know that far too many families are still unfamiliar with 529 plans and how easy they are to use. Time and time again, I hear from families that they only wish they had known about these plans, about how little it would have taken to get started (some 529 plans have an initial minimum of $25 or less) and about the ease with which friends and extended family could have contributed to a child's account for holidays and special occasions through the years. Unfortunately for so many families, failing to plan ahead for the cost of post-secondary education leads to tremendous stress and crushing amounts of student loan debt.

So, why draw a connection between 9 to 5 and 529? Beginning to save a little at a time directly from my pay into a 529 plan was one of the best decisions I made as a new mom returning to work from maternity leave. In each of the 18 years that followed, I found it to be a convenient way to contribute to my 529 plan account without having to think much about it.  Not having money pass first through my hands assured it wasn’t spent for other purposes and having an account earmarked specifically for education made all the difference. The workplace proved to be the perfect place to begin to save and to stay on track.

In a blink of an eye, that young man standing to the left of me nine years ago is now completing his third year of college and we are so relieved to have saved for the education he is pursuing. Creating a plan for future expenses when he was young not only helped us to get him to where he is today, but also provided him with priceless knowledge that will accompany him throughout his life. The funding of his college savings account through automated contributions enabled him to see first hand how working hard and committing to small, consistent steps over time make long-term goals achievable.

As my own understanding of 529 plans began in the workplace, my hope is that more and more employers will continue to recognize what a priceless and easy-to-administer voluntary benefit 529 plans can be. Providing employees with much-needed information about 529 plans and giving them a convenient way to contribute directly from their pay can go a very long way in helping to relieve the stress associated with one of their top financial concerns. Employers can even choose to go a step further by matching employee contributions or by making one-time contributions to an employee's 529 account to celebrate a new baby, work anniversary or other milestone.

This coming 529 Day, let’s give a special shout out to the employers who are currently offering 529 as a voluntary benefit and let's offer some encouragement to those who may not be aware of how easy it is to get started and how impactful a benefit 529 can be. Employees will appreciate being empowered with a valuable tool to create brighter financial futures for their families and employers will feel great about helping to change the student debt trajectory. Now that's something we can all celebrate well beyond 529 Day!
About the author:
Patricia Roberts is the Chief Operating Officer of Gift of College, Inc. She has been part of the 529 college savings arena for more than 20 years, serving as an attorney, product manager, and is the past chair of the CSPN Corporate Affiliate Committee.


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