529 Accounts and Tax Fairness

Tax changesPresident Obama recently announced a series of tax changes he will propose or at least politically push for in the coming year.

Since the US Congress constitutionally controls the power of taxation, and Congress likes Obama as much as I like Pete Carroll’s Seahawks, I understand that Obama’s priorities may not come to pass any time soon.

Still, I got mad when I read this week that Obama proposes ending the tax advantages of 529 education savings accounts.[1]

I like Seattle like Congress likes Obama

My first thought: “That’s not fair!”

My second thought (and one of my favorite family mottos): “’Fair’ is for kids.”[2]

My third, kind of extended, thought: While nobody actually enjoys paying taxes, a key test of the acceptability of a tax is whether it seems ‘fair.’ And tax breaks, just like taxes themselves, also have to seem, and be, basically ‘fair.’

How do we know if something is fair? It depends a tremendous amount on which taxes one pays and which tax breaks one takes advantage of.

In the case of 529 education accounts, I had always considered them an extremely fair tax break, combining one virtue (long-range savings) with another virtue (higher education) with compound interest (the greatest of all possible things in the known universe).

529 accounts

But of course, 529 accounts are fair, to me, because I’ve started them for my young girls. I appreciate and value the tax break on future capital gains because I have a chance to benefit from them when my girls go to college.[3]

For people who haven’t started 529 accounts, or have no chance of investing for their kids this way, the tax breaks may appear targeted at some unattainable upper-middle class, college-bound elite, and therefore the tax break is inherently unfair.

I was interested to read yesterday in the Wall Street Journal the White House’s argument that 70% of benefits of 529 accounts go to households with incomes over $200,000, or the top 4% of tax returns. I hadn’t known that, nor had I imagined the benefits of 529 accounts were enjoyed by so few.

In the light of that data, my fair tax break seems a little less fair. Or at least, it seems like something that could be eliminated and replaced with something that would have a broader benefit.

Not that it’s going to happen anyway, because Obama doesn’t make tax policy, Congress does.


PS – 4 days after I posted this, Obama backtracked and said he won’t push for a change in 529 Accounts, after taking flak from both Dems and Repubs.


Please see previous posts on 529 Savings such as:

Compound Interest and College Savings

The insanely rising cost of college – Interview with a College Advisor

Is the financial model for college broken – Part 2 of Interview with College Advisor

College Savings vs. Retirement Savings


And previous posts on taxation such as:

Shhh…Please don’t talk about my tax loophole

Adult conversation about tax policy


[1] Importantly, on the issue of fairness, Obama proposed eliminating tax breaks for future investment growth obtained on contributions to a 529 account, not for investment growth on past or existing investments in 529 accounts. In other words, there’s a grandfather clause for existing 529 amounts, a common key ‘fairness’ element to taxation changes.

[2] My favorite kid and ‘fairness’ story in my family, which I’ve mentioned in another post: My then-4year-old niece told us all over dinner “It would be fair, to me, if you gave me a bubble bath after dinner.” She knew fairness mattered to adults, and tried to shoehorn her interest in bubble baths into an adult framework. She’s seventeen now and soon off to college. Cool kid. Ever after, I try to use the “It would be fair, to me…” argument with my family as much as possible.

[3] Here my wife and I always add “should they choose that path.” Because they may decide instead to run away with the circus. My older one is pretty good on the rings at the gym.

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2 Replies to “529 Accounts and Tax Fairness”

  1. Suppose the literature used to market 529s included a paragraph which reads, “NOTICE: In the interests of fairness, future politicians may see this program as a redistribution bonanza.” Membership numbers might suffer.

  2. Considering that I have been tempted to endow my grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s higher educations (my kids are now 6 and 2) through 529 accounts, I think I understand where the White House is coming from.

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I founded Bankers Anonymous because, as a recovering banker, I believe that the gap between the financial world as I know it and the public discourse about finance is more than just a problem for a family trying to balance their checkbook, or politicians trying to score points over next year’s budget – it is a weakness of our civil society. For reals. It’s also really fun for me.

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