It’s back-to-school time, and if you have a child starting or returning to college, no doubt tuition costs are on your mind. But there are many other costs involved in the college experience as well. Hopefully you’ve been saving up for years, but even if you haven’t, here are my top 15 tips and tricks for minimizing costs and avoiding costly mistakes.
Written by Daniel Fan (opens in new tab), the Director of Wealth Planning for First Foundation Advisors (opens in new tab). Mr. Fan is a Certified Financial Planner™ and holds his Juris Doctorate and Master's in taxation from Pepperdine University School of Law and Golden Gate University respectively. He earned his Bachelor's degree from the University of California, Los Angeles.
See also: Quiz: How Well Do You Know 529 College Plans?
1. Paying for School ... FAFSA
If your child is applying for federal loans or grants, a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) must be completed each year of college. Even if you don’t think you’d qualify for federal aid, it’s worth it for college students and their parents to complete the FAFSA, because schools often use the information for other aid.
So, if your child has not done so yet, work together to renew the FAFSA before the following deadlines:
- For attendance from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018, forms can be submitted from Oct. 1, 2016, to June 30, 2018. It’s important to note that many states and colleges have earlier deadlines for applying for state or institutional financial aid. State deadlines can be found at https://fafsa.ed.gov/deadlines.htm (opens in new tab). Check with individual schools for their deadlines.
- For attendance from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019, forms can be submitted from Oct. 1, 2017, to June 30, 2019. But the amount of aid available is limited and it’s given out on a first-come, first-served basis, so it’s best to apply as early as possible.
2. Paying for School ... Free money
Explore grant and scholarship opportunities through the college or affiliation sites (e.g., veteran, firefighter, church organizations).
3. Paying for School ... Don’t despair
Don’t assume you won’t qualify for aid or low-cost loans. Many assets, like homes and retirement accounts, are not counted in the aid/loan calculation. If you have other children in college, that might also lower your expected contribution. It’s worth applying to find out. Make sure to document qualified education expenses if utilizing college saving plans (e.g., 529) plans or Education Savings Accounts) or IRAs to pay for college.
4. Paying for School ... IRAs
Remember that withdrawals from qualified education accounts and IRAs used to pay for qualified expenses must be made in the year the expense is incurred. Withdrawals made in a different year are considered non-qualified withdrawals subject to taxes and penalties.
5. Staying Out of Debt ... Build a budget
Work with your child to set a budget and strongly encourage her to stick with it. Don’t forget to include travel expenses between school and home.
6. Staying Out of Debt ... Credit concern
Instruct your child to avoid on-campus credit card sign-up booths and discuss the negative impact of high-interest debt.
7. Staying Out of Debt ... Control spending
If your child already has credit cards, discuss the importance of controlling usage. When your child uses a credit card for a discretionary expense, have her save the same amount in a savings account.
See also: How to Just Say No to Binge Spending
8. Managing Expenses ... Go used
Purchase used books and classroom materials. Most campuses have online sites for sale/exchange of used books and materials.
9. Managing Expenses ... Go off-campus
Buy school and household supplies off-campus. Such products are usually cheaper at off-campus budget stores or chains.
10. Managing Expenses ... Go car-free
Leave the car at home. This will save on parking fees, gas, maintenance and possibly insurance costs. Uber, Lyft or a bike can be more affordable ways to travel.
11. Managing Expenses ... Be smart about gifts
Have your child request money or campus bookstore gift cards from family/friends for holidays and birthdays.
12. Managing Expenses ... Get cooking
Research school meal plans to save on food. If your child does not know how to cook, help her learn a few quick and healthy recipes.
13. Managing Expenses ... Get a side gig
Have your student consider applying for an on-campus job. Certain jobs, such as note taking for disabled students for classes your child is already enrolled in, can allow your child to earn extra money without affecting her studies.
14. Medical Costs ... Explore nearby options
If your child is covered under your medical plan, make sure to go over the plan to identify in-network doctors and facilities near campus.
See also: 6 Ways to Limit Health Care Costs
15. Medical Costs ... Save those receipts
Have dependent children save receipts for any medical expenses that may be reimbursable through a health Flexible Spending Account (FSA) or deductible on your tax return.
Hopefully these pointers will help you get your college-bound students off on the right financial footing and teach them money-management skills that will extend well beyond their college years.
Daniel Fan serves as the Director of Wealth Planning for First Foundation Advisors (opens in new tab). Mr. Fan is a Certified Financial Planner™ and holds his Juris Doctorate and Master's in taxation from Pepperdine University School of Law and Golden Gate University respectively. He earned his Bachelor's degree from the University of California, Los Angeles.
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