College Savings Account: Coverdell Education Savings Account (CESA) vs. 529 Plan

Coverdell vs 529

January 15, 2021

Mat Sorensen


Kids are going back to school after the break and it’s a great time to think about college and to make financial plans for your children or grandchildren’s education. As you consider the different plan options, you’ll want to make sure you know the two most common tax-favored college savings tools.

There are two types of accounts that you can establish to save for higher-education expenses in a tax-favorable manner. These two types of accounts are Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (CESA) and 529 Plan accounts.

The first type of account is known as a Coverdell Education Savings Account. A Coverdell account is typically set up for the higher education expenses of a child. The contributed funds grow in the account tax-deferred and the money comes out for education expenses tax-free. There is no tax deduction for amounts contributed to a Coverdell but you do have significant investment options including self-directed investment options (similar to IRA rules). A Coverdell has the following rules and benefits.


  • $2,000 annual contribution limit per beneficiary (e.g. child or grandchild).
  • Parents (or grandparents) can contribute without limitations to a Coverdell until a beneficiary reaches age 18 if the contributor has an income of less than $190,000 (married joint) or $110,000 (single).  For high-income earners, keep in mind that the child can always contribute to their own account with gifted funds (no need to have earned income) so you can always get around the income limitation by having the child contribute themselves.
  • Funds can be used for tuition, fees, books, and equipment for college as well as certain K-12 expenses too.
  • There are zero federal or state income tax deductions on Coverdell accounts.


  • Accounts can be invested into stocks, mutual funds, and can even be self-directed. They operate similar to an IRA. Self-directed Coverdell accounts can be opened at Directed IRA.
  • Contributions grow tax-free and can be withdrawn for education expenses until the account beneficiary reaches age 30. Unused amounts can be transferred to another family member beneficiary.

529 PLAN

The second type of account is a 529 Plan account. Contributions to 529 Plan accounts can be eligible for a state income tax deduction (depending on the state). Money contributed to a 529 Plan account is invested in a state-managed fund. A 529 has the following rules and benefits.


  • Amounts are invested into a state-run program.
  • Amounts can be withdrawn for tuition, fees, books, supplies, equipment, special needs, room, and board.
  • Up to a few hundred thousand dollars can be invested per beneficiary by any person.
  • There are no federal tax deductions or credits for contributions.


  • Many states offer tax deductions for contributions to 529 Plan accounts. For example, Arizona offers a $4,000 tax deduction for married tax filers and a $2,000 deduction for single filers. Thirty-five states offer some type of state income tax deduction for 529 Plan contributions. However, there are some states, like California, that offer no tax deduction for contributions to 529 Plan accounts. Click here to see a comprehensive list that outlines the different state funds and tax deductions (or credits for some states).
  • The downside invested amounts must be invested solely in state-run programs. There are no other investment options.

In summary, Coverdell accounts have the benefit of allowing account owner’s to decide how the money will be invested with zero tax deductions available on contributions while 529 Plan accounts give you zero investment options (all funds go to state-run fund) but offer state income tax deductions in most states.

If you live in a state that offers a tax deduction on contributions, such as Arizona or New York, then the 529 Plan account is a great option if you can stomach having the money go into a state-run fund. On the other hand, if you live in a state with zero income tax (e.g. Texas or Florida) or if you live in a state with zero 529 Plan deductions (e.g. California) then you might as well use a Coverdell account because you’re not trading any tax deductions for investment options. For those who can’t make up their mind and who have the funds, consider doing both but do the Coverdell first. There is no restriction against doing a Coverdell account (no tax deductions, but investment options) and a 529 Plan account (possible state tax deductions but no investment options).

Self-Directed Coverdell Education Savings Account

Many Directed IRA account holders self-direct their Coverdell ESAs into real estate, private notes, and private companies. You cannot self-direct a 529 account though so for those who want to self-direct a college savings account the Coverdell ESA is the best option.


Mat Sorensen

Mat Sorensen

Mat has been at the forefront of the self-directed IRA industry since 2006. He is the CEO of Directed IRA & Directed Trust Company where they handle all types of self-directed retirement accounts, which are typically invested into real estate, private company/private equity, IRA/LLCs, notes, precious metals, and cryptocurrency. Mat is also a partner at KKOS Lawyers. He is published regularly on retirement, tax, and business topics, and is a VIP Contributor at Mat is the best-selling author of The Self-Directed IRA Handbook, the most widely used book in the self-directed IRA industry.