Saving Money

Understand The True Cost of College Attendance by Decoding Award Letters

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They’ve waited. They’ve watched the mail for weeks. Finally, the letter arrived: Students are getting notice that they’ve been accepted to the school of their dreams! But after the moment of excitement and congratulations wears off , the realization sets in: it’s going to cost money to go to school.

Even if a family has prepared for years, saving money, investing in 529 plans and being on top of completing their student’s FAFSA, now is a crucial time to pay attention to information from schools and have a clear understanding of the financial aid award letter.

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Financial aid award letters are sent to students in the weeks after receiving their acceptance letter to a school and reflects the cost of attendance as well as the financial options available to families to help pay for their student’s education. As the letters state, a student’s place in the schools incoming class cannot be reserved until a deposit is received based on the financial award letter. But families should take the time to understand their award letter before submitting any form of deposit, as these deposits are not refundable if a student decides not to attend a particular school.

Currently, there is no standard format for schools to report the financial aid being offered to a student. So families should use these tips to better understand what is being offered and make a smart comparison between what different schools will cost. The school with the lowest tuition fees might not always be the best financial choice thanks to financial aid awards. Knowing how to read the financial aid award letter can make all the difference.

  1. Find “free money”
    Many schools offer students institutional scholarships or grants. These types of funding can be seen as “free money” because students and families don’t have to repay this money after graduation. Make sure to look for words such as “scholarship” or “grant” in the name of the financial award. These awards are often given to students based on the information in the Student Aid Report created when completing the FAFSA, based on income or family responsibility. Families may miss these awards because they do not technically apply for them separately.
  1. Consider loans and work study options separately
    To help show families how they can meet the cost of attendance at their school, award letters will also include options that require repayable loans or other options that require further action by the student, such as work study programs. Since there is no standard format for separating these options from other “free money,” families need to recognize that any loans taken out, be they private or federal Stafford loans, will require repayment by either the student or parent (depending on the loan) after graduation. This is not funds being offered by the school, but money that will require repayment.
  1. Know the difference between “direct” and “indirect” costs.
    Attending college features a variety of costs, but not all of them will necessarily be covered the financial aid offered in the award letter. The “cost of attendance” on a financial aid award letter applies to direct school costs, such as tuition, room and board. Indirect costs, such as books for classes or travel to and from school are not considered in an award letter. These costs are those that the student and family will have to bear personally.
  1. Determine if awards are for one year or more.
    Many families fall into the trap of thinking that the financial award letter reflects the costs and awards for all four years of school when, in reality, the letter reflects the cost for one year of school. While many of the loans listed on an award letter will be available to students each year, many of the grants or scholarships listed may require a new application each year or, in some cases, are only available for one year. Determining which of these awards are renewable, or the length of the award, can help families avoid an unpleasant surprise.
  1. Make sure the award letter is final.
    In some cases, an award letter might not reflect the final amount of aid being offered to a student. If any section of the letter uses words such as “estimated,” “tentative” or “pending,” the school may not have all the information from a student’s FAFSA or other document needed to make a final determination of aid. Once this information is provided, it may have an impact on the amount of aid that the student is finally offered.

Understanding the financial award letter that students receive can lead to some difficult decisions about where a student should go to school. By making the best effort to compare award letters from all schools that have accepted a student, families can make an informed choice of which school fits best with a student’s goals while creating a financial plan that will avoid any bad surprises or unexpected debt down the road.

Don’t Let Student Loan Repayment Myths Cost You Time, Money

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The thrill of earning a diploma is often being offset by fears of dealing with student loan repayment. While loan repayment is inevitable, many new grads will start on the wrong foot because of assumptions about their student loan responsibilities and ways to pay back their debt.

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As we conclude #FinancialAidAwarenessMonth, here are four common myths that can be easily avoided to prevent students starting down the wrong path. It’s good advice for not just recent grads, but current students and those considering the impact of student loan debt on their educational plans:

If I need help understanding or dealing with student loans, my former college or university won’t help me. Even though a student may have graduated from a school, their financial aid office is still a great resource to help explain loan repayment options and connect students with loan servicers. Financial aid offices have a vested interest in helping students understand and stay on track with their loan repayment, as high default rates can negatively impact a school. So if a student starts to get confused by paperwork, the financial aid department is a great place to start..

I’ll never pay off my loans. Those first payments after graduation may feel a bit overwhelming, and will likely be a large part of any budget as a student gets started in their career. Salary increases, paying extra when budget allows and plain old perseverance will lead to progress. Income-based plans and automatic payments are just two options to “set and forget” loan repayment as a part of monthly budgeting.

Consolidating my student loans into one loan is a good idea. Loan consolidation may offer convenience, but often students will find themselves in situations which either are not eligible for consolidation or can actually negatively impact their repayment. Loan servicers will already use a combined billing for students with Federal loans so that the students have one payment to make and federal loans can’t be combined with private loans in a federal direct consolidation loan. In some cases, consolidating Perkins Loans can lead to students losing repayment benefits that the loan provides.

Filing for bankruptcy means not having to repay student loans. While Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy does help protect against some loans, most borrowers will not be able to discharge their student loans unless it can be proven that the loan repayment will cause an undue financial hardship. Rather than negatively impact a credit record with a bankruptcy, students should consider finding more flexible payment plans that best meet their needs during repayment.

Debunking Two Common Financial Aid Myths

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Financial Aid Awareness Month is dedicated to helping families and students of all ages better understand the options available to them as they look to fund their educational goals and dreams. Iowa College Aid has dedicated a page to discussing some of the common issues facing those looking for financial aid.

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Our staff of financial aid experts have also helped out this month, with advice on how to overcome financial aid issues (see last week’s post). This week they address two of the common myths that students have about applying for grants and scholarships and how to debunk them.

Myth #1: We make too much/my parents make too much – I won’t get anything

Family income is definitely a factor when it comes to handing out financial aid.  The best kind of financial aid is always the “free” kind – the scholarships and grants that are given freely with no expectation of being paid back later.  And often it’s this “free” money that has a “financial need” component to it.  Many scholarship and grant providers want to give their awards to students who show some kind of financial need, and when a student’s/family’s income is high, usually the financial need is low.

Not all scholarships and grants are need-based, however.  If your student is motivated, they can seek out scholarship and grant opportunities that are based on skills, abilities and interests, grades, musical, athletic or dramatic talent, essay-writing, or a number of other merit-based achievements.   The key is looking for them.  You know the saying, “you can’t win if you don’t play”?  That same philosophy applies to scholarship competitions.   Investing some time online searching for “scholarships for high school juniors” or “scholarships for journalism majors” or, if writing essays isn’t a strength for your student, “no essay scholarships” might provide some avenues of funding.

Myth #2: My parents aren’t helping me pay for college so I can’t get financial aid.

Students who are financially independent from their parents can often access additional student loan funds, but a parent’s unwillingness to pay for college doesn’t make you financially independent from them. 

The primary circumstances that cause a student to be financially independent are:

  • Age
  • Orphan/ward of court/foster care/emancipated minor/legal guardianship/homeless status
  • Veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States
  • Graduate or professional student
  • Student’s marriage
  • Student provides support to dependents

Detailed information about these circumstances can be found on the federal Department of Education website https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/filling-out/dependency

 If a student has no contact with their parents, or if the student doesn’t reside with their parents because of an abusive or neglectful situation, the student can approach the financial aid office at their college for special instructions on how to complete the parent section of the FAFSA or to determine if there’s a need for a dependency override.

Filling the Gap Between Award Money and Tuition Costs

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Financial Aid Awareness month encourages students who are getting ready to attend (or are currently attending) college to put together a game plan that helps them achieve their college dreams in the most cost effective way possible. Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step and a vital one. But once that’s done, where do students go to figure out how to get the money they need for college.

Iowa College Aid not only awards and administers state grants and scholarships for Iowa students, but helps students stay on top of all the resources available to help them graduate college with as little debt as possible.

The financial expert team from Iowa College Aid ranked the ways for students to fill that gap between the money awarded to students in a school’s financial aid award package and the cost of attending the school of their dreams. Here are their top picks:

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You filed your FAFSA, you submitted the State’s Financial Aid Application, you met the deadlines and you’ve done the math – your financial aid is just short of covering your tuition bill.  You still need a few more dollars to pay for the semester and buy books, what else can you tap into?

Savings and 529 Plans: The first resource to explore is your own savings account or 529 account.  If you (or your parents) have been saving money for college, now is the time to use it!  Not only has the money been set aside for this purpose, but using savings or college investment accounts could reduce or eliminate the need to borrow additional loans.

Explore private scholarships: There are many scholarship search websites that allow you to create a profile and search for scholarships that fit your skills, abilities and interests and often scholarship essays can be tweaked and customized allowing you to use the same essay multiple times.  Make sure to read directions carefully and pay attention to deadlines.  And don’t rule out “fun” scholarships like those found on unigo.com – who knows, maybe your creative 250 word essay on what flavor of ice cream would you be could score you a $1,500 scholarship?

Payment plans and paychecks: Since colleges bill you for the entire semester at once, it can be overwhelming to get a bill in the mail for the whole semester.  But what if the amount you owe could be divided into 4 or 5 monthly payments?  If you’re working part-time, maybe it becomes more manageable to think about making monthly payments to your college when you know you have a paycheck coming.

Parent PLUS and other student loan options: If borrowing more money becomes an option, talk to your Financial Aid Office about which loans are available to you (and your parents) and which loans have the best repayment terms and interest.  Your student loan options will differ depending on if you have a co-signer, or if you want to start repayment after you graduate (versus starting repayment while you’re still in school), or if you want a fixed or a variable interest rate.  Your Financial Aid Office can help you sort through options and pick the loan that works best for you.

Scholarship Resources:

fastweb.com

collegegreenlight.com

https://iowacollegeaid.gov/content/helpful-websites#scholarship

https://www.unigo.com/scholarships/our-scholarships

Being Smart About Money Helps Get More Out of Financial Aid

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Since November is Financial Aid Awareness Month, we’re providing students and families with tips and information for helping pay for college at all ages: high school senior, current college student, adult learner and more. While finding ways to get financial help with your college education is important, making sure students use that money wisely is possibly even more important.

Getting the most of your money in school is vital to keeping your finances under control. Scholarships and grants might only be allowed for specific school costs, while student loans will have to be paid back (with interest) after graduation. So having a good game plan when it comes to finances in college can pay off not only in school, but for years after graduation.

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  1. Make a budget. Commit to creating a monthly budget AND live within your budget each month.
  2. Utilize a calendar. A calendar is not just for plotting your class schedule, campus organizational meetings, and social events. A calendar can be an effective tool for managing the due dates for your monthly bills—rent, cell phone bill, car payment, utility bill, etc. Making note of due dates helps to ensure that you will not miss a payment and potentially harm your credit history.
  3. Shop around for text books. Many bookstores, as well as online retailers, offer used textbooks for much cheaper than buying a “new” textbook. If you won’t want to keep your textbook for future reference after a class has concluded, consider renting a textbook for the semester.
  4. File the FAFSA on-time, every year. If you plan on attending college in the upcoming school year, be sure to file your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) prior to your college’s priority deadline. Doing so will ensure you are considered for all financial aid opportunities the school has to offer.
  5. Get a part-time job. A part-time job can allow you to meet your basic needs, as well as reducing the amount of student loans you need to borrow. Working 15 hours per week at a part-time job can dramatically reduce your need for student loans to cover living expenses. Additionally, most colleges have numerous on-campus employment opportunities for students.
  6. Plan early for a summer internship. During the first week of the spring semester, visit your college’s career placement office and discuss your desire for an internship during the upcoming summer with a career advisor. Career advisors can provide information about companies looking for interns, as well as information regarding career fairs on campus. Many internships  pay a stipend or salary which can help pay for expenses while you’re in college and can lead to a job after graduation.
  7. Know your financial aid options. Visit the Financial Aid office on your campus during the first three weeks of the spring semester to discuss your current year’s financial aid and to check into scholarships and grants available for next year.
  8. Be a savvy shopper. At the grocery store, opt for the store-brand product. It is often significantly cheaper than its name-brand counterpart, and the money you save can be used to pay interest on your student loans or keep you from having to borrow more loans next year.
  9. Protect your Personal Information. If you aren’t already, start safeguarding your Social Security Number, credit card and bank account numbers, along with any other non-public personal information. Shredding sensitive information will ensure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands and can help protect you from identity theft.
  10. Separate Needs from Wants. Although it may seem like you need that morning latte from the local coffee house to start your day; at $3.50 per day, that adds up to $1,277.50 per year! Make your financial choices based on what is necessary to meet your basic needs, and avoid wasting money and borrowing more to satisfy your wants.

Even implementing some of these tips into your regular routine will turn you into a smarter consumer when it comes to money and help set you up for a bright financial future.

Enjoy The Holidays Without The Financial Stress With These Tips for College Students

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Black Friday has come and gone, leaving us in the middle of the prime holiday shopping season. Studies show that consumers will spend an average of $749.51 on gifts, decorations and other holiday items this year¹. Are you prepared? The following pre-holiday shopping tips can help to keep you out of debt, reduce stress, and ensure a merrier holiday season.

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Create a budget.

If you already have a monthly budget, then you have an idea of what you can afford to spend. If not, you can easily create a budget by subtracting your monthly bills such as rent or mortgage payments, car payments, utilities, etc. from your monthly income. The remainder of your income gives you an idea of your holiday budget, plus any money that you had stored away throughout the year. Why stop there! This is a great opportunity to initiate a budget for next year, setting aside money each month for holiday spending. Another idea for budgeting money: if you are paid every other week, create a monthly budget based on two paychecks. This will leave two months out of the year with three paychecks! Put these “extra” paychecks away for savings or retirement, or save them for special events such as the holidays or family trips and large purchases.

Make a list and check it twice.

This statement is relevant for the holidays in more ways than one! Make a list of all the people you need or want to give a gift to, including family, friends, co workers, etc. Write down an estimate of what you plan to spend on each person, also including money that you plan to spend on holiday wrappings, decorations and holiday food and parties, and then add it up. How does this compare to your budgeted amount? Rework your list, spending less on things that you don’t really need, until your list number matches your budget number. Now stick to the list!

Look for holiday deals and be creative.

Holiday sales are everywhere. Do your research and shop around for that perfect gift at the best price. Also, remember that the perfect gift is not always sold in stores; putting together a gift basket of goodies or making something by hand demonstrates that it truly is the thought that matters! Pinterest.com is a great place to find creative holiday gift and goodie ideas.

Track your spending.

Most experts advise to pay with cash to help prevent you from over spending. Whether you use cash or plastic, keep your receipts and track what you spend. If you do use a credit card for holiday purchases, sticking to your list will ensure that you have the cash to pay the credit card bill entirely, avoiding high interest rates while possibly earning cash back points on certain types of cards.

¹Survey conducted by BIGinsight, for the National Retail Foundation. www.reuters.com

529 Plans: Iowa’s College Savings Secret Weapon

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The State Fair, the Cyclones and Hawkeyes, Blue Bunny Ice Cream, the Bridges of Madison County and the Field of Dreams. Everyone has their list of favorite things that make Iowa a uniquely great place to live. For any Iowan saving for education after high school, though, three numbers make hearts thrill: 529.

While it only makes sense to celebrate the 529 Savings Plan on the date that shares its name, 529 plans benefit Iowans saving for education 365 days a year.

Named after the section of the IRS code that allows their use, Section 529 plans come in two flavors: savings accounts and prepaid tuition plans. 529 Savings plans allow for after-tax contributions to be made on behalf of a designated beneficiary, not just a child, which means a parent or family member going back to school can also benefit.

Contributions to 529 plans grow tax-deferred (think of it like a education-focused 401(K)) and can be withdrawn tax-free to pay for qualified educational expenses. Iowans get further tax advantages, as all earnings on a 529 account are fully exempt from Iowa state income tax. Iowa taxpayers can also deduct up to $3,163 in contributions per beneficiary account from their adjusted gross income.

A Section 529 savings plan is ideal for parents or grandparents who have some combination of the following factors:

  • They would like to save more than $2,000 per year.
  • They live in a state that offers a state income tax deduction for contributing to a Section 529 plan.
  • They make enough money to be disqualified from using a Coverdell ESA.
  • They have multiple children with the hope that all will attend college.
  • They are starting their college planning late in their children’s lives.
  • They are planning on saving large amounts towards college costs.
  • They expect their children to attend expensive graduate programs.
  • They want the freedom to reclaim the assets for any reason they choose.
  • They would like to fund a loved one’s college, while significantly reducing the size of their estate.

And while a Iowa family’s 529 plan may be based in Iowa, money can be used for qualified expenses at any public or private institution, regardless of where you set up the account or where the beneficiary attends school. Out-of-state relatives can also invest in an Iowa plan regardless of where the parent or beneficiary lives. So if a grandparent lives in Florida, they can still fund their grandchild’s Iowa plan.

Iowa 529 Plans are great savings options for all families. Plans can be opened with a minimum of $25 and each additional contribution can be as little as $25 ($15 when contributing through an employer’s payroll deduction plan), deposited regularly or whenever convenient.

Iowans can set up an account, review a wide variety of investment choices and learn more about the details of a 529 Savings Plan at College Savings Iowa’s website, provided by the State Treasurer’s office.