First a disclaimer – I DO NOT have any kind of financial degree nor am I a financial person. I am simply a mom who has 3 kids in college (at the SAME time!) who has picked up a few tips here and there and has been asked to share them. I am one of the “older” employees so therefore I have older kids than most of my co-workers. The last few years they have seen me dealing with college costs and paying the bills and one of them asked me if I could do a blog with some of the things I’ve learned since many of them will be going through the same thing in a couple of years. So here are a few things I’ve picked up along the way.
- 1.Attend a Financial Aid workshop at a local high school.
Most high school guidance offices provide them. Just check with your child’s guidance office to ask about it. They are usually in an evening and only last about 2 hours. My husband and I started attending them while my oldest was a sophomore in high school. That actually became very beneficial as we attended every year for 3 years. (Just to give you background – we have an older son and then twins who are 2 years younger – hence 3 kids in college at once!) Each time we went we understood the “lingo” better which enabled us to understand the concepts better. We also learned something new each time we went and we were also able to learn any of the new updates that were in the works. These workshops give you tips on filling out the FAFSA (an online document that every college student (haha – I should say ‘parent’)) must fill out if you want to be eligible for any financial aid or federal loans.
One note on the FAFSA: It seems very overwhelming and difficult to fill out the first time but do not despair, I promise it gets easier each time!
- 1.Do not let your child have too much money in an account in their name.
The government will expect that the student can contribute 50% of their money to college. The number they expect that parents can contribute is 6%. Therefore it is better for most of the money to actually be in the parent’s name. Each of our children have a banking account so that they can have a place for their paycheck to be directly deposited to (as is required by so many employers now) and also so they can learn to manage their money. However, they generally keep only about $1,000 or less in their name. The rest is kept in an account that I have in my name but is actually their money. That way I am the one who has to report that money on the FAFSA, not my child. That “hidden” account needs to happen BEFORE they are a senior because when you fill out this FAFSA it is based on your last year’s financial numbers.
- 1.Get a notebook and folder in order to stay organized.
You will have usernames and pin numbers for so many different things related to your child’s college experience that it is very helpful to have all that information in one place. Your child will also get a college ID number along with a college email. This ID number goes on almost every piece of documentation and needs to be readily available. I found it much easier to have everything in one spot so that I was not searching through the house every time I needed that info for one reason or another.
- 1.Be aware that every college and scholarship does things just a little bit differently.
There are no hard and fast rules to give advice on how to deal with these scholarships and tuition bills. Some scholarships pay the school directly. Some send a check to the student but made out in the college’s name and then the student is responsible for getting it to the school. Some scholarships do not even pay until the semester is half over. In addition to that, some of the colleges will deduct what the scholarship amount is for, while others make you pay up front and then reimburse you once the scholarship money arrives.
I have learned to make copies of every single piece of paper that deals with the scholarship or bill. (Refer to #3 where I said you need a folder!) Often you have to fax letters of proof of the scholarship to the school. I make notes of dates of when it was faxed and who it was faxed to. This may seem like overkill but I have had a couple of occasions of trouble with the bill for one of my children and I was able to get the issue resolved because I had documentation to back up my claims.
Do not be afraid to contact the school if you have questions or problems. They will warn you at orientation that they only want to deal with the student. (Their theory is that they want the student to start acting as adults. While I can appreciate that – I also have the opinion that this stuff is difficult enough for adults who have already been living in the “real world” that I’m not going to make my student take care of all their studies AND deal with the financial end of things on their own!) But I have found that they will communicate with me if I call. (Although take note that your student must designate you as an “authorized payer” or whatever the term is for your particular school for you to be able to have permission to speak with them directly.)
Paying for college is not for the faint of heart but hopefully these tips will help you get started in the right direction! Finding your way through the maze is never easy but it does get EASIER each year that you go through it!