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Find Sales, Contests for College Savings Accounts

Essay contests and sales are a few ways 529 plans offer incentives to save for college.

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Ohio parent Beth Cousino didn't know what to think when she saw a Facebook post for a cash contest to celebrate 529 Day on May 29. She has 529 plans, tax-advantaged college savings accounts, for each of her three children, but she had never heard of the event, now in its fifth year.

"The posting asked me to like the Facebook page," she says. Following that prompt, Cousino entered the College Savings Plans Network's Facebook sweepstakes.

"I completely forgot I entered the contest," she says. Fortunately for her, Cousino won $529 that she put in her 15-year-old's 529 plan account.

When parents think about shopping sales for their children, they're probably not thinking about college savings plans. But 529 plans run specials and contests throughout the year.

[Learn how to earn high interest with 529 plans.]

May 29 and College Savings Month, in September, tend to be popular times for states to offer incentives like waived fees, says Mike Fitzgerald, chairman of the College Savings Plans Network. "We have seen as many as 40 states do promotions during College Savings Month in the past."

On 529 Day, Missouri, Nevada and Oklahoma were among the states that gave out $529 cash prizes for college savings. An interactive map on the national nonprofit's website showed parents what promotions were offered in different states.

Parents interested in boosting their college savings should look for the following year-round promotions.

[Learn when to save with another state's 529 plan.]

1. Sales and specials: States run a variety of sales for different kinds of 529 plans. In Washington and Pennsylvania, prepaid tuition plans, a type of 529 plan that allows parents to buy a set amount of tuition in advance, waived program enrollment fees in May.

In Pennsylvania, the $50 program enrollment fee for the PA 529 Guaranteed Savings Plan is waived in May, August, September and December, says Doug Rohanna, a Pennsylvania deputy state treasurer.

In August, Pennsylvania also runs a Beat the Rate special. During the month, parents can purchase tuition credits before the rates rise each September. The difference between buying a community college credit in August versus September last year was more than 5 percent.

2. Drawings: States such as Indiana, Nevada and Oklahoma give away money in random drawings. In Indiana, drawings for 529 certificate of deposit accounts worth $1,529 were held for 529 Day in certain bank branches.

"In September we'll give away two $2,500 529 plan accounts to winners of a random drawing" of people who register on the organization's website, says Jodi Golden, executive director of the Indiana Education Savings Authority, which oversees the state's CollegeChoice 529 plans.

"When we look at our budget and see we have money available from partnerships or sponsorships, we offer a promotion," she says. "Parents should check our website year-round for special offers."

[Employ workplace benefits to maximize 529 plan savings.]

3. Essay contests: In Nebraska, various contests are run throughout the year to give families a college savings boost.

One unusual contest asks grandparents to write a letter to their grandchildren about the importance of education. Grandparents can win between $1,000 and $1,500 for a grandchild's education.

Nebraska isn't the only state that asks 529 plan savers to write for a prize. Last September, California gave $1,529 to two parents for sharing their college savings stories on Facebook.

In February, the state chose 10 winners at random from parents who had written about how they loved their child's school.

Contests and specials aren't the only kinds of promotions run by college savings plans that can help parents. In Missouri, a $500 matching grant program is available during June on a first-come, first-served basis.

The hope of all who run these programs is that more parents will consider saving for their children's college education. In Pennsylvania, more than 50 percent of accounts are opened during the plan's four promotional months.