Do you do your own taxes? Yes? Then you have pretty good records and can lay your hands on all your financial information. You’ve got plenty of experience in working through financial forms. So, you probably can complete college financial aid applications on your own. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (10 pages) is available at www.fafsa.gov, and there’s a ton of information, FAQs, and brochures available on the site to help you. In fact, they have a special warning on the site not to allow yourself to be fleeced by unscrupulous “financial advisors”. Similarly, if your student’s college uses the CSS/Profile, it’s available online at https://profileonline.collegeboard.com. If you can make it through the FAFSA, you can probably do the Profile, too.
Every year I, too, think about doing my own taxes. Cheapskate that I am, I think about what else I could be doing with several hundred dollars (okay, it’s waving at 4 figures now). But then the questions start to come up—how should I treat this? Should this be on Schedule A or could I put it on Schedule C? Most important, did I miss anything that could have saved me money? And all those changes from last year…Pretty soon, even though I’m pretty savvy about this stuff and my bookkeeping and records are well organized, I conclude that I do need an accountant who will do, expertly, accurately, and in a short time what will take me a long weekend to do ineptly and inaccurately.
I never want an accountant who cheats or does anything that might come under the heading of funny business. Thankfully, I’ve never had an audit and I don’t expect to have one, but if I ever do, I plan to go into it confident that everything I did was on the up and up. However, I do want my accountant to take me up to the legal limit—to get me every break I’m entitled to. That’s my philosophy on college financial aid, too.
Good college financial planning takes you up to the legal limit. (And it is a LEGAL limit—the feds can prosecute you for fraud on the FAFSA just as they can on your income taxes.) There is nothing illegal about restructuring your assets, paying off debt, or running your business in such a way as to maximize your eligibility or take advantage of legal tax strategies. Of course we should pay our fair share, but I don’t think we are obligated to subsidize others by our ignorance.
So, go ahead and take a crack at the FAFSA. It’ll get you started and you’ll have a lot better idea of what questions to ask. You know where to find us.