Every Parent’s Guide to FAFSA

It may seem like bureaucratic paperwork, but you can’t afford to skip it.

You may just be settling into your child’s senior year, but college will be here before you know it. Sending a kid off to college isn’t just a huge emotional milestone, it’s a pretty big financial one, as well.

With the average cost of one year at a public university ringing in at $20,090 and the cost of one year at a private college reaching $45,370, you need a solid plan to responsibly foot those kinds of bills.

A big part of that plan should definitely include the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which determines your child’s eligibility for both federal grants and student loans. As of last year, some big changes have taken place in FAFSA filing.

Students can now file their FAFSAs starting October 1 (as opposed to waiting until January 1), and they can use their parents’ tax information from the previous year to determine their eligibility instead of requiring current year’s tax info. So, this means you can file your child’s FAFSA right now.

This change was designed to give families more time to make their college decisions. Instead of receiving information about FAFSA aid in the spring, when college choices are likely locked in, families who file their FAFSA early will now be able to decide which college makes the most financial sense before it’s too late.

Also, relying on prior year’s taxes allows families to not have to scramble to have their taxes sorted on the first possible day of the year. (Not to mention it gives you less to stress about on your New Year’s Day holiday.)

In theory, it should be easy to have your affairs in order as soon as FAFSA opens for filing — a major plus since many grants, like the Pell grant, are doled out on a first-come, first-served basis.

But what exactly do you need to have prepared to apply for the FAFSA? We’ve compiled a checklist for you, so you can secure the best financial outcome for yourself — and your future college grad.

Get Your FSA ID

The first step in filling out your FAFSA is applying for your FSA ID. You can do so by visiting the Federal Student Aid website. You’ll need to enter your email address, date of birth, full name, and Social Security number, as well as choose a username and password. You don’t have to wait until filing, so get this step out of the way in advance!

Gather Your Documents

There’s a long list of paperwork you’ll want to have handy as soon as you start filling out the FAFSA. Keep everything together in a folder prior to starting your application, and double check the list to make sure nothing is missing.

For the Student:

  • Social Security number
  • Driver’s license
  • 2016 W-2
  • 2016 tax return
  • 2016 untaxed income records (if applicable)
  • Current bank statement(s) and any investments (if applicable)
  • List of the schools the student is interested in attending

If your child doesn’t file taxes, have a driver’s license, or have a checking account, don’t sweat it! It just means less paperwork to gather.

For the Parents:

  • 2016 W-2
  • 2016 tax return
  • 2016 untaxed income records (if applicable)
  • Current business and investment records
  • Current bank statement(s)

Check Your Family Circumstances

Filling out the FAFSA isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. Whether you’re divorced, widowed, in a same-sex marriage, or a legal guardian, lots of situations fall outside of the standard application guidelines. If you have a nontraditional family, you can find out how to proceed on your FAFSA with this handy guide.

Complete the Application

Once you have your ducks in a row, make sure you fill out the application as soon as possible. Write it on your calendar, set a reminder on your phone, and put a post-it note on your mirror. You want to give your student the best chance at getting all the financial aid they are eligible for.

Even if you think your income might bar your student from receiving aid, don’t skip out on the FAFSA. Many scholarships and grants require you to fill it out, even those not based on income. Plus, the FAFSA gives your student a chance to access cheap (and sometimes forgivable) federal student loans. No matter what your situation, the FAFSA is a must, so fill it out as soon as you can.