If you want to legitimately get the most FAFSA money for your college education, follow these tips and tricks. You’ll get maximum federal student aid in Pell Grants from following our research when you fill out your FAFSA application.
Debt Free College Series # 4 – FAFSA and Financial Aid
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We have 5 kids who have attended college, and we have filled out FAFSA applications with every single one of them. As a matter of fact, several times with each of them. We’ve learned a few tips from our own experience and from financial aid experts. We would like to share them with you, and show you how to maximize the FAFSA money process and receive more Pell Grant awards.
FAFSA or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid can earn your student as much as $5920 in Pell Grant money from the Federal government. Plus the information from the FAFSA is used by most institutions of higher education for determining other types of financial aid.
Note: Just to clarify where the money comes from. You don’t receive FAFSA money – You fill out the FAFSA and are awarded Pell Grant money.
As nice as it is to get grant money, it’s not all “free:” There is some work to be done and deadlines to be met. But if you do invest your time (between 4 and 8 hours), the payback can be substantial. Even if you’re not sure that you qualify for Pell Grant money, we recommend filling out the FAFSA the first year to find out.
FAFSA Money Filing Deadline
You have until June 30 of the current school year to file your FAFSA, but most schools distribute their allocated Pell Grant and other financial aid on a first come basis, so the earlier you file, the better your chances are to receive the maximum amount of aid.
In the past, we focused on filing FAFSA around February 1st. Now the filing starts in October each year (read about this change below). After you’ve filed for your child the first time, reapplying for financial aid gets easier because the FAFSA website pulls forward your previous information and allows you to simply adjust it for the current year.
Documentation Needed to Maximize FAFSA Money
You’ll need some time to gather recent bank statements, tax returns and other sizable, non-retirement assets you may have.
What you do need to declare:
- Bank balances (savings / checking) Parents & Student
- Cash on hand: Parents & Student
- Filed Income Tax Returns (Parents & Student)
- Non-retirement assets (including college savings 529 plans) Caution: Set up ownership of 529 plans carefully as it can greatly affect the amount of financial aid received. This Reuters article explains this in depth.
What you don’t need to declare:
- Retirement Assets including 401(k), 403(b), SEP-IRA, IRA, Pension plans
- Home Equity
- Life Insurance policies cash value
- Settlements received from a life insurance policy would be counted as an asset.
- A Family controlled small Business, provided you have 50% ownership and fewer than 100 employees. Assets usually don’t have to be declared.
- Family Farms are excluded also.
- Net worth of investments – not including your home.
- The total value of cars, furniture, and clothing.
Evaluating Student Assets
If your child has money in savings or has been given money by a generous relative, you may want to consider putting the money in your name or giving it back to the relative to hold as a “scholarship.” Student assets are more heavily weighted than parents’ assets in the calculation for Pell Grant money.
Evaluating Parents Assets
The Federal Government has calculated that 5.6% of a parent’s assets should be available to pay for college costs. They call this calculation the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). It’s a great idea if you move assets into non-reported categories, like retirement plans, paying down debt, and making other large purchases that you have cash for. This way you will increase the amount of Pell Grant your student could be eligible for, and also reduce your expected EFC.
Make sure you go to this website. In the past FAFSA.com was a website that posed as the official FAFSA website, charging for some services. Thankfully it appears that they have been shut down. The Fafsa.org website now forwards to FinAid.org. This is an informative website started by Mark Kantrowitz, founder of the scholarship website FastWeb.com. It is a great resource for expert information on college funding options. And FAFSA.edu now forwards to Bing.com. You want Fafsa.ed.gov.
Get an FSA ID ASAP
Your first step is to apply for FSA ID so you can electronically sign your FAFSA application. Basically, it’s an independent username and password for both you and your student. Keep these in a safe place as you will need it each year you file / update your FAFSA information.
Filing the FAFSA
If you haven’t filed your taxes yet, it’s ok to initially file the FAFSA with estimated income information based on your 1099 and/or W-2 forms, or use the last paycheck stub of the tax year.
If you have filed your taxes already you can import the information from the IRS website – we know, it’s a little scary that they allow all of this personal information to fly around in cyberspace. Once you’ve filled out all of the information, you and your student will be asked to electronically sign your FAFSA with your FSA ID.
FAFSA then asks you which schools you want FAFSA information to be distributed to. You can select up to 10 different institutions. Pick at least 5 schools, and see what happens. You can add more later if you want to.
You’ll also want to save a copy of the FAFSA by visiting the summary page. We kept a .pdf on our computer in each of our kid’s college folders. You’ll receive an email confirmation that your FAFSA has been submitted. You can go in and update the FAFSA at any time, but the changes will take some time to process.
FAFSA: Grant Money and Marriage
Our daughter Abbey was married in June 2014 before her Junior year of college to Collin (also a Junior). Had we filed her FAFSA in February, she would have received about $2500 in Pell Grant funds.
But because we learned that you cannot change your filing status from a single dependent to married in the same year, we waited until a week after they were married to fill out FAFSA.
As a result, they both received $5500 in FAFSA money, the maximum Pell Grant amount given for that year.
Appeal: Get a Professional Judgment Review
What if you had a financial hardship, major change in income (greater or lesser income) or some other extenuating financial circumstance? You can request a meeting with a Financial Aid officer at your school of choice and ask for a Professional Judgment Review.
Here’s what we’ve done. When our third book was released several years ago, we received two sizable book advances from our publisher in one year. This created an abnormal spike in our income and caused the amount of aid our kids would receive to plummet. We met with a financial aid advisor at our son Joe’s college and brought in previous years income statements. We explained that these advances needed to cover several years of living expenses (you know how we stretch money, right?) and in a matter of days he was awarded more Pell Grant money. Local financial aid professionals have been given authority to override standard distributions.
As your student enters their Junior year of high school it would be a “MoneySmart” move to meet with an accountant or other college / FAFSA savvy tax person to adjust your assets so that you can maximize your access to grants and credits and minimize your students out of pocket cost for college.
Maximum Pell Grant
For the 2018 – 2019 school year (July 1, 2018 – June 30, 2019), the maximum Pell Grant available is $5,920 (unchanged from the previous year).
FAFSA Filing Deadline for 2019 School Year
There was a major shift in the earliest dates you could file your FAFSA application in 2015.
In the past, you could apply for FAFSA in January of the year your child would start college (usually in the Fall). This meant that you had to rush to file your taxes as early in January as you possibly could, so you had accurate financials to input on the FAFSA application.
In 2015 the early filing date was pushed back to the previous October. This reduced the pressure to file current year taxes – whew, what a relief. To understand the details of this change, read this article from Kiplinger.
What does this mean for the 2019 School Year? As a parent, you’ll use your 2017 tax return’s (filed by April 15, 2018) AGI (adjusted gross income) when you apply for FAFSA in October of 2018. That application will be for your child’s Fall 2019 semester of college studies. Remember that this is the EARLIEST date that you can file. Of course, you can file later, but filing earlier means that there is more money available and the likelihood of receiving the maximum amount of Pell Grant money increases.
FAFSA.ed.gov has a page built to help you see filing deadlines for several upcoming school years.
Filling out FAFSA to get a maximum Pell Grant award isn’t impossible, but it does take planning and careful preparations. And if you are “fortunate enough” to have several kids going to college, you’ll become an expert at minimizing how much FAFSA money you’ll need to pay for your child’s education.
Do you have any other tricks or tips for filling out FAFSA? If so, please let us know in the comments below.
We cover FAFSA money and many more tips for getting through college without borrowing in our audio seminar: Debt Free College: Fantasy or Reality
Our 3rd book The MoneySmart Family System: Teaching Financial Independence to Children or Every Age, has an entire chapter on college. It is the largest chapter in the book!
Read all of the Debt Free College Blog Series Here:
- 6 Ways High Schoolers can Crush College Costs
- How to Get Your Student Loans Forgiven
- Is There Gold at the End of the Scholarship Rainbow? Hack!
- How to Maximize FAFSA and Pell Grant Money!
- 10 Out of the Box Ideas for Big Time College Savings
- How to Eliminate College Debt
- How one kid got a college degree in 22 months for $3100 (you could too)