Guide to ESAs and How They Work

By Rebecca Lake · June 25, 2024 · 8 minute read

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Guide to ESAs and How They Work

A Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA) is a tax-advantaged way to set aside money for educational expenses, including those for primary, secondary, and higher education. You can open one in addition to a 529 college savings plan, or in place of one.

Generally speaking, an ESA has similar rules and benefits to a 529 plan, but more stringent income and contribution limits. ESAs offer more investment choices, however.

What Is an Education Savings Account (ESA)?

An Education Savings Account is a type of custodial account that can be established to save money for qualified education expenses for students in grades K-12, as well as in college. ESA funds can be withdrawn to pay for tuition, textbooks, tutoring, and other education-related expenses. Non-qualified withdrawals will be taxed.

Parents, grandparents, and other individuals can open educational savings accounts on behalf of an eligible beneficiary (the student) and make annual contributions. Contributions are limited to $2,000 per year, total, per beneficiary.

ESA Rules

These accounts are different from traditional savings accounts or high-yield savings accounts because they’re designed for a single purpose: funding education expenses. That means you have less flexibility when it comes to withdrawals, but the tax benefits can make up for it.

Setting up a college fund at a bank or brokerage that offers ESAs is usually just a matter of filling out an application and meeting the requirements.

•   The beneficiary must be under 18 when the account is opened (or be a special needs beneficiary, per the IRS).

•   If you make more than $110,000 in income (for single filers), or $220,000 (married filing jointly), you cannot contribute to an ESA. See below for details.

•   It’s possible to contribute to an ESA and a 529 college savings plan for the same student.

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How Do ESAs Work?

Education Savings Accounts work by allowing savers to contribute money for the benefit of an eligible student on a tax-advantaged basis. Contributions are not deductible, but they grow tax-deferred; and withdrawals are tax free when used for qualified education expenses.

Because contributions are made with after-tax dollars (similar to a Roth IRA), you can withdraw the amount of your contributions at any time tax free. But earnings are taxable. Thus the earnings portion of non-qualified withdrawals will be taxed as income, and you may get hit with a 10% penalty on that taxable amount as well.

You might use an ESA to fund future expenses for K-12 tuition, as well as saving for your child’s college tuition. The IRS imposes guidelines on how these plans can be used to pay for education. Unlike 529 plans in some states, you cannot deduct contributions to an ESA.

Income Limits

In addition, your income determines your ability to contribute to an Education Savings Account. You might be eligible to make a full contribution, a partial contribution, or no contribution at all.

For the 2024 tax year, full contributions are allowed for:

•   Single filers with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) below $95,000

•   Married couples filing jointly with a MAGI below $190,0002

Partial contributions are allowed for:

•   Single filers with MAGI between $95,000 and $110,000

•   Married couples filing jointly with MAGI between $190,000 and $220,0002

If you file single and have a MAGI greater than $110,000, or are married with a MAGI greater than $220,000, you can’t contribute to an Education Savings Account.

Contribution Limits

The IRS is very clear about how much you can contribute to an ESA each year, for each student. The annual contribution limit is $2,000.3 That limit applies per beneficiary, no matter how many educational savings accounts they have.

For example, if you open an ESA for your child and contribute $1,400, and the child’s grandparents also open an ESA for the same child, they could only contribute $600 for the same year.

Excess contributions in a given year may face a penalty of 6%, except under certain circumstances. You can find more information at IRS.gov.

ESA Withdrawal Rules

As with any tax-deferred account, whether for retirement (like an IRA) or for education, ESA withdrawals rules are complicated. Withdrawals are tax-free when the money is used for qualified education expenses incurred at an eligible education institution. A qualified education institution is any school that’s eligible to participate in federal student aid programs.

You can use ESA funds to pay for college expenses, secondary school expenses, or elementary school expenses. If you’re using an ESA for college savings, qualified higher education expenses include:

•   Tuition and fees

•   Books, supplies, and equipment

•   Room and board, for students enrolled at least half-time

•   Expenses for special needs services for a special needs beneficiary

A portion of the withdrawals that exceed a student’s qualified education expenses are treated as taxable income by the IRS.

Elementary and Secondary School Expenses

ESA funds can also be used to cover tuition and fees, books, supplies, equipment, academic tutoring, and special needs services at secondary or elementary schools. Room and board, uniforms, transportation, and supplementary items may also be covered if the school requires them as a condition of attendance.

Handling Leftover Funds

Leftover funds must be distributed within 30 days of the designated beneficiary’s 30th birthday, unless they qualify for a special needs exception. Or, if the beneficiary dies before turning 30, you must also withdraw any remaining funds within 30 days of their death.

Here’s one important thing to know:

A portion of withdrawals (i.e. earnings) from an Education Savings Account that aren’t for a qualified education expense, including required distributions at age 30, may be taxed as income and subject to a 10% penalty. You can avoid these tax penalties by rolling the balance over to another ESA for another member of the original beneficiary’s family.

ESA Pros and Cons

Is an Education Savings Account a good way to save for education? There are advantages and drawbacks to consider if you’re trying to decide how to pay your child’s college tuition.

Here are some of the pros:

•   Earnings grow tax-deferred, and you can open an ESA as a supplement to other college savings plans.

•   Qualified withdrawals are 100% tax-free and can be used for elementary, secondary, or higher education expenses.

•   Should your student decide not to go to college, you can transfer their ESA to another beneficiary (similar to a 529 plan), but they must be under 30.

•   Most ESA plans offer a wide array of investment choices.

Now for the cons:

•   With a $2,000 annual contribution limit per child, you can only save so much with an ESA.

•   Distributions for anything other than education expenses are subject to tax and penalties (including funds left over when the child’s education is complete).

•   Excess contributions may face a 6% penalty.

•   High-income earners may be ineligible to contribute to an Education Savings Account.

The deadline for withdrawals at age 30 can also be a disadvantage. With a 529 savings plan, you’re not required to take money out by a specific date or age, and you’re permitted to rollover unused funds to a Roth IRA for the beneficiary.

ESA vs 529 Savings Plan

A 529 savings plan is another tax-advantaged way to save for college. Thanks to a recent rule change, parents can also withdraw funds from a 529 to pay for qualified K-12 tuition expenses.

So, how does a 529 compare to an ESA? Here’s a quick rundown.

Education Savings Account

529 College Savings Plan

Who Can Contribute Individuals whose MAGI is within IRS limits Anyone, regardless of income
Annual Contribution Limit $2,000 per child None, though contributions above the annual gift tax exclusion limit may trigger the gift tax

Lifetimes contributions (typically between $235,000-$575,000) are determined by each state

Eligible Beneficiaries Students under the age of 18, or special needs students of any age (you cannot contribute after the student turns 18) Any future student, including oneself, one’s spouse, children, grandchildren, or other relatives, regardless of age
Investment Options Typically a wide array of investment choices Typically limited or pre-set by the plan provider
Taxes on Withdrawals Withdrawals for qualified education expenses are tax free; all other withdrawals are subject to tax and penalties Withdrawals for qualified education expenses are tax-free; all other withdrawals are subject to tax and penalties
Eligible Expenses Withdrawals can be used to pay for elementary, secondary, and higher education expenses, including tuition, fees, books, and equipment Withdrawals can be used to pay for qualified higher education expenses, including tuition, fees, books, and equipment, as well as K-12 tuition, eligible apprenticeship expenses, and qualified education loan repayments
Mandatory Distributions All funds must be withdrawn by age 30, excluding special needs beneficiaries Funds can remain in the account indefinitely or be rolled over to another beneficiary
FAFSA Impact Treated as parental assets Treated as parental assets

The benefits of a 529 savings plan may outweigh the advantages of an Education Savings Account. Aggregate contribution limits for 529 plans are much higher and there’s no hard cutoff for using the money.

The Takeaway

Saving up for college can reduce the need for students to take out federal or private loans to pay for school. An Education Savings Account is one option for saving; a 529 plan is another. You can also consider opening a Roth IRA for yourself or your child, as it’s possible to access the amount you contribute for expenses like education.

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FAQ

How does an education savings account work?

An Education Savings Account works by allowing you to set aside $2,000 per year on behalf of an eligible student to cover education expenses, from elementary school through college. Your earnings grow tax-deferred, and you pay no taxes on withdrawals when they’re used for qualified expenses.

Is an ESA the same as a 529?

An ESA is not the same as a 529 plan. If you’re starting college savings late, you may get more benefits from contributing to a 529 plan versus an Education Savings Account. The annual contribution limits for 529 plans are much higher than they are for an ESA, meaning you could save quite a bit more — and you’re not required to stop making contributions once your child turns 18.

What is the income limit for an ESA?

The income limit for making a full contribution to an ESA is $95,000 for single filers and $190,000 for married couples filing jointly. You’ll need to have a modified adjusted gross income below those thresholds to contribute the $2,000 maximum; if you earn up to $110,000 (single) and $220,000 (joint) you can make a partial contribution.


Photo credit: iStock/RyanJLane

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