Student Aid

By Terry Savage

January 13, 2014 5 min read

Start off the new year right. Forget making resolutions you know you will break. If you're a college student -- or the parent of a high-school senior or college student -- New Year's Day is about more than bowl games. Jan. 1 is the first day you can file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

The forms can be found and filed online at https://fafsa.ed.gov, where you can securely complete the filing process. Even if you filed the form last year, you must refile this year, updating all information about income and assets of both the parent(s) and student.

If you're hoping for almost any form of financial aid or scholarship, FAFSA is essential. Nearly $8 out of every $10 available for student financial aid requires this huge form to be completed, according to CollegeUp.org. This site is filled with advice on how to complete the forms, how to qualify for the most aid and techniques to help you through the process. Here's what you should do right now :

Don't Wait for Tax Returns to File FAFSA

Don't wait to file your FAFSA until your tax return is finished on April 15. Most schools and many scholarships and grants have far earlier deadlines, and you could miss out on big money if you wait until your tax return is finished.

The FAFSA form requires information about your 2013 income -- and if you start the process now, you may not have received the W-2 and W-9 forms detailing your income for the past year. But don't let that delay the filing. You can use the "Will File" option on line 79 to estimate the income figures, and then go back to revise the form when the tax returns are finished.

Get Organized

The most overwhelming part of the FAFSA project is simply getting organized. As a student, you need not only your own information -- but your parents' income and assets, as well. And for children of divorced parents, this can be an especially burdensome task.

But the sooner you start the sooner you finish -- and the more aid you qualify for. Someone has to be "in charge" of this project, because if your family just sits back and waits for everyone to get information together, it will never happen!

To find out exactly what information you need, download the FAFSA worksheet (available at https://fafsa.ed.gov), which will give you information about completing FAFSA on the Web. You'll need to create a PIN to access your partially completed forms as you go through the process. You can even use a handy tool to access last year's tax returns and transfer information securely to your FAFSA.

Your "FAFSA Parent"

If you're the dependent child of married parents, the process is a lot easier than if you are a child of divorced parents or unmarried parents living together or same-sex married parents. And that decision about who is your "FAFSA parent" can make a big difference in your aid award. And it's not always the "custodial" parent whose information is required on the form. Plus, the form has changed for the 2014-15 year to reflect legalized same-sex marriage, which changes some other factors. So before you start hounding the "wrong" parent for info, take the quiz at CollegeUp.org to determine whose information you need.

Those are the first things you must do, just to get ready to file FAFSA. Once you're on the right track, everything is a bit easier. But you can always get help online at https://fafsa.ed.gov, through your college guidance office or by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID (800-433-3243).

Even better, check out the College Goal Sunday national program designed to help students and parents file FAFSA. Use this link to find one of their free, expert, confidential programs near you: http://www.collegegoalsundayusa.org/Pages/default.aspx

Of course, you'll have questions! And now you know where to get answers. So don't procrastinate in filing FAFSA. Much financial aid and many scholarships and grants are handed out on a "first come, first served" basis. The money you receive as a result of FAFSA could make a big difference in your financial future. That's the Savage Truth.

Terry Savage's weekly column, "The Savage Truth on Money," can be found at creators.com.

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