Canada & U.S. Education Savings Options

“The Simpsons” is a funny show, and that’s despite—or maybe because of—the fact that it often tackles the issues that make us most anxious.

Take the episode in which Bart terrifies Homer with a campfire story about college costs for Maggie. The scene ends with Homer shrieking, “No! No! Noooo!”

I suspect that Homer speaks for many of us parents. We may not howl like the Simpsons patriarch, but the price tag for higher education definitely does nothing for the quality of our sleep.

  • The average undergraduate tuition for a full time Canadian student in 2015 is $5,959. That more than doubles—to $12,959 per year—for medical studies. And it more than triples, to $18,187 annually, for dentistry school. Between 2011 and 2015, tuition increased an average of 4% annually.
  • In the United States, a public two-year college tuition now costs $3,347 per year, a public four-year college tuiton costs $9,139 per year and a private, four-year college program costs $31,231 annually.
  • In addition to those figures you can add $800 to $1,000 per year for books and $10,000 or more forpossible room and board.

Still, there’s wide agreement that college is worth it. Nine in 10 American parents believe a college education is an important investment in their child’s future, according to a recent national study conducted by Sallie Mae and the research firm Ipsos. Interestingly, just 48% of respondents are actively saving for that education.

Assuming that you’re part of the 90% who value college education, and that you’re committed to saving to fund at least part of your child’s education, what are the options?



By far, the Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP) and associated grants available for contributions make this savings plan the best option for Canadians. That explains why a 2009 survey found that 66% of Canadians saving for a child’s education contributed to a RESP. (The second most-common approach, used by 28% of respondents, was to contribute to a dedicated savings plan or account).

RESPs’ benefitsinclude:

  • A minimum of 20% Canada Education Savings Grant on annual deposits of $2,500 from the year the child is born until December 31 of the year the child turns 17.Accountholders can earn up to $7,200 in these grants per child.
  • Additional Grant and deposits for low-income families.
  • Saskatchewan and Quebec residents receive additional Grants.
  • Deposit up to $5,000 annually per child and receive Grants if you have not deposited in the past.
  • Set up a family plan, and if one child does not attend post-secondary schooling, the Grant can be used by the other children named on the account.
  • Choose your own investments.
  • Tax advantaged investing. You can invest in a variety of vehicles and your deposits and Grants grow tax deferred until withdrawn. Contributions are withdrawn tax free. And Grant and investment income is taxable to the child on withdrawal;factor in credits and personal exemptions, and the withdrawal could be tax-free.

Bear in mind that withdrawals can only be made while the child is attending post-secondary education.

Unfortunately, the IRS does not yet recognize the tax-deferred status of RESP accounts for Americans. For this reason it is not advisable for American citizens or green card holders living in Canada to be a subscriber of an RESP account.  In this case, or if you have maximized your Grant room, an In Trust For Account may be a second option for saving.


“Informal trusts” are created at financial institutions and used to invest funds on behalf a minor.

This type of account is particularly useful if you deposit Canada Child Tax Benefits, Universal Child Care Benefits or a child’s inheritance, as the growth and income on these deposits will be attributed to the child rather than the account owner. If contributions are made from other income sources, secondary income (income earned on income that has already been taxed to the account holder) can be moved to a separate account that will be taxed in the hands of the child.

The child may take control of the account once he or she reaches the age of majority. ( Thisdoes not occur automatically).At that point, the account can be moved into the child’s name for education funding, or it can be left intact, with the accountholder responsible for additional deposits or disbursements for schooling or other expenses.

With either option, be aware of fund management and commission costs, which can erode your college savings.Your investment advisor can help you choose quality investments that will meet your savings objectives.


College and State 529 “Qualified Tuition” Plans

Unlike RESP accounts in Canada, the U.S.-based 529 plan varies on both the state and college level.  These plans number in the thousands, making research essential.

There are two types of 529: the pre-paid tuition plan and the college savings plan. Here are a few facts about each:

Pre-paid tuition plans

  • Enable us to purchase credits for future education (and at times room and board) at a specific college or university.
  • Lock in prices, covering tuition and mandatory fees. Some plans allow a room and board option.
  • Invest in a lump sum or by installments based on the child’s age and years of tuition purchased.
  • Most offer a state guarantee.
  • Most require state residency.

 College Savings Plans

  • Do not lock in college costs.
  • Cover all expenses related to education (tuition, room and board, books and computers).
  • Feature high contribution limits.
  • Deposits are subject to investment market fluctuations.
  • Have no age limit; open to adults and children.
  • Do not have a residency requirement.

In both cases, the earnings in the 529 are free from federal tax and in most cases, as long as withdrawalsare for eligible college expenses, state tax as well.

Unlike the Canadian RESP, where withdrawals can be used for any expense, 529 withdrawals must be used for eligible college expenses. If they are not, you will generally be subject to income tax on the withdrawal and an additional 10% federal tax penalty on the earnings.

Nearly every state offers a 529 plan (or plans), and it is up to each state to set the tax break or grant offered.Morningstar has surveyed 529 plans each year since 2004 and provides rankings based on costs, tax benefit and investment options. Whether to invest in a plan run thorough your home state or look elsewhere depends on a number of factors,including deposit limits and residency, as well as how highly your state’s plans are rated.Morningstar advises that, for those contributing around $1,000 annually, with savings of $25,000 or less, it usually best to stay in state.  At present, residents of Arizona, Kansas, Maine, Missouri and Pennsylvania can invest out of state and still receive a tax deduction on their contributions (they may forgo other benefits if going out of state, though).However, the more you plan to invest, the less consideration should be given to state tax benefits and the more you should consider the quality and type of investments offered.

You can purchase 529 plans through a financial advisor or directly from the providers. Some direct-purchase plans, such as CollegeAdvantage 529 Savings Plan of Ohio,use passive and active investment options run by a variety of firms at a reasonable price, and are thus rated highly among direct investment options. Virginia’s CollegeAmerica Plan is the nation’s largest 529 plan, and is typically available through your investment advisor. With its high state tax deductions, it is consistently ranked by Morningstar as one of the best plans.A wealth of additional information can be found at

Given the complexities of the 529 arena, it is understandable that many families choose the general savings account option for college savings.  A general savings account, managed through your investment professional, can include a wide variety of investments and can be used for expenses other than college.  For perspective, nearly half of college-saving families rely on general savings accounts, while 27% use tax-advantaged accounts such as 529 plans.

Whether those you are saving for are American or Canadian, the key is to get advice before deciding which savings vehicle to use. A professional can assist you in navigating government grants and available credits with an eye on reducing the overall cost of education and helping your savings last through to graduation day.

Source:, Statistics Canada, Canada Revenue Agency

About the Author: Terry Ritchie is the Director of Cross-Border Wealth Services at the Cardinal Point, a cross-border wealth management organization with offices in the United States and Canada.  Terry has been providing Canada-U.S. cross-border financial, investment, tax, transition, and estate planning services to affluent families for over 25 years.  He is active as an author, speaker and educator on international tax and financial planning matters.

Tags: cross border wealth management, cross border tax planning, college planning, 529 college savings plan

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