by Lee Binz
Enjoy a Fun and NEW Year's Tradition
Oh my goodness, I have such great news for you! You know how much you LOVE to fill out your tax forms each year? Wouldn't it be just awesome if your federal government asked you to fill out even MORE forms like that each year? But wait, there's more! These forms will help the federal government decide how much the federal government thinks you can afford to pay for college each year.
Wait...I'll give you a minute for that to sink in.
The federal government...
Deciding how much you can afford...
It’s so awesome, and yet hilarious at the same time! And just wait until you see how much they think you can afford! Seriously laughable amounts!
This fabulous financial recording form is called the FAFSA, located online at fafsa.ed.gov. You will be hearing a lot about it, so you may as well start calling it the "fafsa" which rhymes with...well..nothing, because federal forms are never fun in any possible way.
FAFSA stands for "Free Application for Federal Student Aid." It's a form you fill out, much like the 1040 tax forms. Like the tax forms, these are also super-fun and well-written government prose. The US Department of Education requires the FAFSA to receive any government money for college. They mean “Free” because it doesn’t cost money to apply for the money. It does NOT mean hassle-free, however. This form is how the government conducts a “need analysis” with information from your income tax forms. This "need analysis" determines your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) or "how much you can afford" (Yes, insert laugh track here.)
Would you prefer to get ONE year of money for college, or FOUR years of money for college? That's good news! Because you have to fill out the form for every year of college in order to get the money! Thank goodness we love these forms so much! For added fun, your EFC, or "how much you can afford" is based on the income of the entire family, and both parents. This can make it fairly awkward or complicated if you are separated or divorced.
Now correct me if I'm wrong here, but the government is NOT a bottomless pit of money. The government has a limited supply of funds. This money they provide for college is first-come, first served. I humbly suggest that you place yourself first in line. Be first in line each year you want money, too.
The first time you need to fill out these fun forms is during your eldest child's senior year. You must fill out these forms every year until your youngest graduates from college, for as long as you have a child attending college the following year.
You have plenty of time to be completely comfortable with this required paperwork. You're completely confident when you fill out your taxes each year, right? And, sadly, this is no different. They need a new form every year. Every. Single. Year.
To fill out the FAFSA, you need a super-secure, top secret, special PIN number. As you know, the government is a stickler - they are that concerned about secure information. You can request your life-long PIN from www.pin.ed.gov. You'll need a PIN for your child for the parents. To receive a PIN, you will need these basic tools found around your home: your Social Security Number, your Alien Registration Number (if not a citizen), your most recent Federal Income Tax Returns, W-2s, other records of money earned, recent bank statements, records of investments, and records of untaxed income. I’m sure you can tell already how much fun this yearly task will be.
Just as you use your Social Security Number for tax returns, you also have to provide it for federal loans. In this instance, the social security number is important. The information has to be the same for both the FAFSA and your income tax returns. The right hand DOES know what the left hand is doing, so you have to make sure your numbers are exactly the same for your tax forms as for your financial aid forms.
The FAFSA is supposed to tell you how much you can afford to pay for college. Wouldn't it be nice to know how much Uncle Sam thinks you can pay? The government has a fun game you can play, much like the Magic 8 Ball, called the FAFSA Forecaster. If you go to FAFSA4caster.ed.gov you can estimate your eligibility for federal student aid. Please remember this is FEDERAL and it is AID. This is money you could receive directly from the federal government. It does not include scholarship awards that you might get from colleges. This is not how much colleges will give you, or how much you can receive in full tuition scholarships. Those big awards come from colleges who are, frankly, much better at handling their money, so they have more money to give away. The FAFSA is also about financial AID, not a financial windfall. Much of the money will come to you as a loan you have to repay, or as a work study that assumes the student is working for minimum wage. Your estimate will be shown in the "College Cost Worksheet" where you can also provide estimated amounts of other student aid and savings you have that can go towards your college education. Guessing is hard, since you haven't applied yet, and may not even know which colleges you want to attend. The FAFSA )
Efficiency is key, as it is obviously an important component in all areas of the federal government. Unfortunately, you can't plan ahead and gradually ease into the FAFSA. The day you can begin the form is essentially the day that it's due. The website is updated on January 1st, so that's the first day you can see the forms. For some colleges, the due date is just a couple of weeks later. The government suggests the FAFSA be completed immediately after January 1st, even though they don't allow access until January 1st. It’s hard to argue with that logic. Anyway, most of us work best under time pressure anyway, right? They also want you to complete the FAFSA before you have your 1040 forms ready, even though those same forms are necessary to complete the FAFSA. It sort of seems like circular reasoning, much like Dante's Inferno and the nine circles of hell.
Great news, though! The government understands it's unreasonable to ask for your 1040 before you have even received your W-2s! You see, even though you still have to fill out those forms in January, they will allow you to modify those forms again after you have completed your tax returns. Because once isn't enough, I’m sure it will be twice as much fun when you are filling it out the second time! It's like having seconds of dessert, really. The technique is simple: estimate, then amend.
I'm not going to sugar-coat this; I’m not very good filling out government forms. You might say I was even petrified of the FAFSA. Even though I'm the designated tax preparer of my family, I was still completely baffled. I’m sure it will be much, much easier for you, though. Since I filled out the form years ago, I understand that they have vastly improved the entire process. With this new and improved process, the U.S. Secretary of Education says the FAFSA is “still a real pain in the assets.” As you can tell, this is a huge improvement over previous versions which were also declared “a HUGE pain in the assets.”
Many short videos have been made to help you through the process. If you search for How to Fill Out Your FAFSA, you’ll find some assistance. This one made by a college provides a nice overview video in their attempt to make the process more user-friendly: How to Fill Out Your FAFSA by Pace University. The federal government has a series of videos to help as well: FAFSA: Apply for Aid. And my favorite financial guy, Dave Ramsey, has a nice welcome video called FAFSA & Evil Loans.
It's possible that I have a bad attitude about tax-related forms. It's possible that I might have inadvertently shared my dismay, and influenced you in a negative way, causing you to dread the coming task. I encourage you to muscle past the gag reflex and learn to love it. It's part of your destiny! There is no time like the present. Embrace change. Good things come to those who work hard and pull themselves up by the bootstraps. I hope this information has helped you today, or if nothing else, has given you a smirk or a smile as you consider your future.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it:
complete the FAFSA in January of senior year.
Be there, or be square!
- FAFSA: Free Application for Federal Student Aid
- EFC: Expected Family Contribution
- Grants: Money they give you
- Loans: Money you must repay
- Work Study: Money you must work for and earn, usually at minimum wage
- Begin a NEW New Year’s Day Tradition
- Complete the FAFSA on January 1st of senior year
- Complete the FAFSA on January 1st every year until your youngest graduates college
The Carrot: federal grants, loans, and work-study for college or trade schools often worth thousands of dollars.
The Stick: filing deadlines depends on the school, but could be the first weeks in January. Missing deadlines can ruin chances for financial aid.
The Exception: some colleges don't use the FAFSA or accept any federal funding. When you receive great financial aid, it may eclipse federal aid and make filling out those forms unnecessary.
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