Hello! Life has been crazy recently as I’m sure it has been for many of you. As some of you know, I recently started my full-time job in Washington D.C. I moved up here with my car full of stuff, and it’s so nice having my own apartment. Fun fact: life is really expensive, especially when you live in an expensive city. I’ve been carefully budgeting for everything, and I realized that balancing my budget would be so much harder if I had student loans hanging over my head ( thankfully, I have none). So today, I wanted to share with you how to understand your financial aid package, so you can understand it, negotiate and end up with fewer loans, too!
Let’s start with some financial aid vocabulary:
Grants: Free money that goes towards education costs. You do not have to pay these back. Usually, these are provided by a governmental organization, through a Pell Grant, or other grant.
Scholarships: More free money that goes towards education costs.You don’t have to pay these back, either. These differ from grants because they’re usually provided by an individual, organization or the educational institution. The only real difference is where the money comes from. Both are free money that you don’t have to pay back, so both are good.
*Grants and scholarships sometimes can only be applied to tuition, or housing, or a specific element of the bill. Make sure that you know what it can be applied to.
Subsidized Loans: These are government loans to pay for undergraduate education, where the government pays the interest while the student is in college. So if you got a $3,500 loan your first year, your loan is still worth that amount when you graduate because the government paid the accrued interest. These are only available to students with need who fill out the FAFSA.
Unsubsidized Loans: These can be government or private loans for educational costs. Whoever signs for the loan is responsible for all interest, that begins accruing once the loan begins. Learn more about the difference between these loans here.
Federal Work Study: This one is tricky. A student may receive a $2,000 Federal Work Study Program (FWSP), but that does not mean you will earn that amount. Basically, this FWSP is the government providing an institution with money to pull from to pay you. However, students still work hourly jobs, you don’t magically make more because you have the FWSP. You’ll still have to find a job (some schools help with this, others don’t), and you’ll still get paid that hourly rate. Some on-campus jobs are only available to FWSP students, so it can help you get a job, but you will not earn this amount, so don’t make the mistake of counting that as a scholarship. It is not. Feel free to email me about this or comment below and I can explain further!
EFC: Your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) was determined by the FAFSA. This is not the amount of money you’ll pay for the year. This is a number that financial aid offices use to determine eligibility for aid, by comparing it to Cost of Attendance.
Cost of Attendance (COA): This is how much the institution costs with everything included (like tuition, housing, meal plan, fees) and then some more (health insurance, transportation, books, etc). Usually the cost of attendance is slightly exaggerated for most people, because some of those extra costs may not apply to you. I lived 45 minutes from Elon University, so transportation was relatively inexpensive. I’d rent used books on Chegg, Bookbyte or Amazon. Financial aid offices take the COA - EFC to determine your need. Some people have an EFC that’s higher than the cost of attendance, which means you have no need.
WARNING: Schools vary on what they consider in the COA total. Some include room and board, some don’t. So please make sure you look at what that number includes. You don’t want to think you have it all figured out and realize you didn’t account for housing or a meal plan.
First, look at one award package at a time. If you have multiple, you’ll eventually want to compare them, but you want to fully understand what each one means before you compare apples to oranges. Some schools have particular scholarships or programs that others don’t have, and each scholarship can have different terms (like being renewable annually or a one-time gift). So for your own sanity, start with one award letter. Once you fully understand it, look at the next one.
Second, read it carefully. Sometimes award letters abbreviate loan to L., so you may not know it’s a loan (award letters are notorious for not differentiating the difference between scholarship aid and loans, so make sure you carefully look at this). I’ve included the questions I’d ask myself about each aid item on my award sheets:
-Is this a scholarship, grant or loan?
-Are there any terms tied to this aid? Do I need to keep a certain GPA, be a full-time student, etc?
-Is this renewable every year, or a one time gift?
-Is this merit or need-based?
These questions are important because if your financial situation changes, your aid can change. My mom got remarried (yay!!) but because I now had two incomes in the household, that changed my need. Similarly, when I became a part-time student my last semester, my total aid was cut to ¾ because I was no longer a full-time student. So make sure you understand the situation and what you need to do so you don’t accidentally lose a scholarship.
Third, call the financial aid office and confirm that you understand the award. I’m not kidding. If you’re going to make this huge decision, you’ll want to verify with the office that you have all the right information. If you call and tell them you want to talk through the award letter to make sure you understand it, they’ll go through it with you. If you say each item and ask each question I included above, you’ll have the right information. Personally, I didn’t use these calls to ask for more aid, because they need to know that you’re a great investment before they’ll offer any aid. A random phone call will not prove that to them.
Fourth, repeat this with all the award letters until you have them all done, then compare them. Some private schools may have a higher cost of attendance, but may offer enough scholarships so the COA is cheaper than a public school.
Remember, these award letters are not final. You can always negotiate! Which will be the topic of the next blog post. As always, if you have any advice or questions about the process, feel free to comment them or email me!
I’m so sorry I haven’t posted in awhile! I’ve been busy, because I accepted a full-time job! I’m absolutely thrilled, so all the meetings and work associated with that (which I can talk about in another post) are thrilling. To tie in with my recent employed-ness, I decided to write this post about networking, and how you can use it to help you even as a first-year in college.
I know some people who are terrified of networking. Why? It can be scary to ask people for help. It’s hard randomly calling people for an informational interview when they know nothing about you. Why would they want to help you?
This is the example I always love to use when I explain networking. Think of whatever organization or club you’re most passionate about. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a sport, club, or job as long as you really love it. Imagine if someone younger than you reached out to you and told you that they want to be a part of it too, and that they’re really excited to join, but they want your advice and thoughts first. You’d be honored to help someone become part of something that you love. When people work full-time, they don’t (always) interact with students as much. Plus, when a student takes the initiative to reach out to them, it’s always memorable.
The sad truth is that we really need to be memorable. When most companies post a job, they get so many résumés that they have to sift them through an algorithm-powered system to weed out résumés without keywords and phrases. Often, this means only 2% of applicants get interviews. Especially for larger companies, humans may not even see the first cut of applicants. This is where networking comes in.
Imagine you work at a company, and you’re hiring for an entry-level position. Imagine you get 120 résumés and applications for the one job. Imagine that maybe a few people directly reach out to you, but one person stands so far above the rest by networking like a pro. How can they do it?
Start by identifying your goals. If you want to work at a global public relations firm, if you want to work the front office of a professional sports team, or any other goal, then use that as your motivation. Once you know what you want, it’s just a matter of getting it. I’ll use myself as an example.
I knew I wanted to work at a global PR firm (I knew my first-year in college. It’s okay to not know immediately, but try to apply this knowledge once you do know. Or use it to help you figure it out!). I decided to search online for the top revenue generating firms in the U.S., and find the best rated ones. I found a few who met both criteria. Then I decided to set up some informational interviews.
What is an “informational interview?” It’s an interview that you as a potentially job-seeking person conduct (yes you actually interview them, not the other way around) in hopes to learn more about a company or organization that the interviewee hopes to potentially work at. You can also do these simply to learn more about an industry. Forbes has an excellent article that details the process further. I conducted these by reaching out to people that were one “connection” away. Maybe they knew my parents, or were a professor at my university, or they graduated from Elon. If you have some degree of connection, you can use that to strike up a conversation. The whole point of these interviews is to learn more. So ask questions, about job-hunting advice or about how to transition to working full-time and you’ve just started a relationship!
Also, professors are awesome. They have years of experience, and they’re literally paid to share it with you. Go to their office hours, and ask about their experience or about their advice or connections. You would be so surprised how willing people are to speak with you about their experience and advice.
If you are still in high school, you can use informational interviews, too. If you want to go to a particular university, ask around if anyone has a parent who’s a professor and may be able to tell you about a program you’re interested in. If you’re working, see if anyone knows people at the company you want to work for. If you’re travelling, see if anyone’s done it and can offer advice.
The best part of all of this is that you get interview practice. The stakes are so low because you’re just learning, but it helps you conduct yourself professionally. I think by the time I actually had my first internship interview, I had over a dozen “informational interviews” under my belt, which made me more comfortable and prepared during the interview.
Also there’s me! I love interviews, and I’ve done plenty in college. If you want to interview someone about how to do informational interviews, I will happily do it. I write a blog about this kind of stuff, and I tell my friends about it all the time. Feel free to reach out to me on my contact page. I’m not even kidding. I will talk your ear off about this and you’ll feel so prepared.
This was a bit longer than most posts. Can you tell I love networking? It’s amazing, because you learn more for yourself, and you stick out as a passionate candidate to companies. You’d be surprised how few people actually write handwritten thank-you cards after an interview, or how few people reach out as a first-year in college. Plus, when I wrote my final cover letter for my job, I could honestly say that I’ve been so interested in this company that I did informational interviews there three years ago, and I’m confident that not many applicants could say that.
I promise it’s not as scary as it seems. If you start sooner rather than later, you’ll be able to feel more comfortable by the time you actually apply for internships and jobs. If you have any questions for me, please feel free to comment! I’d love to answer any questions. Or if you have any informational interview advice, please share it!
$25,218 of debt is a lot.
You’d have to work a minimum wage job for 3,478 hours, 20 minutes and 38 seconds to pay that off. Actually minus taxes it’s even more than that. Unfortunately, $25,218 is the average student loan debt in North Carolina.
But there’s no need to despair. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is here! Most students ignore the application and just have their parents or guardians apply. But you, or your kids, aren’t like most students. I know I took a big part in the FAFSA process, and I felt so much more comfortable with my aid negotiations because I understood the process. I’ve included some tidbits of information that will hopefully help you feel confident, too!
1. Here’s The Lowdown On The FAFSA
First, it’s pronounced like “Phaf-sah.” Second, it’s a long application that can take over an hour to complete if you put every number in line by line. You will need your income information and tax forms, and you’ll need those from your parents/guardians, too. If your family owns a business, or has investments, that information is necessary as well. There are many lists online of what you may need.
2. If You Don’t Have That Kind Of Time
You can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool on the FAFSA to automatically input most of your information on the application. You can only use this if you/your family already filed taxes for that year and the IRS has received all the documents it needs. This definitely saves time, but make sure you still double-check the data.
3. Why You Should Care
After you finish the application, you submit it and it’ll spit out an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) number. This EFC is super important. It’s basically the government saying it can confidently expect your family to pay that much (per year) for your college expenses.
4. Why That’s Not As Great As It Sounds
That doesn’t mean the government will cover all costs above that number. They send that number (and your FAFSA application) to a university’s financial aid office, and that office will determine your aid based on that number.
5. What Formula They Use
It changes on each university/college. But here’s an example. Let’s pretend your EFC is $10,000, and annual tuition and fees for college is $25,000. The difference is $15,000, which your institution would consider “need.” Some institutions guarantee that they will cover 100% of need, and some cover less.
6. Why That’s Still Not Great
Your “need” is not covered by aid and scholarships alone. There is no publicly known formula for what percentage of that “need coverage” is loans and how much is scholarships/aid. Even an institution that covers 100% of need could only offer you lots of loans, or an institution that covers 10% may give you a $1,500 scholarship.
7. Why You Should Still Care About The EFC
The lower your EFC, the more scholarships, aid and loans you will qualify for. You want to (legally) do what you can to minimize your EFC as much as you can. Because the formula is so complex, your EFC can be significantly impacted by a bunch of different factors. Knowing these factors can be crucial to maximizing your aid package.
8. Why You Want To Qualify For Loans
Usually, federal loans have better interest rates and more long-term benefits than private loans. Also, federal loans come in two types: unsubsidized and subsidized.
9. Your EFC Is Not Set In Stone
Fun fact: financial aid officers can adjust your FAFSA numbers if you have any new information, or corrected information. They can also adjust it to change your aid. So don’t feel like finishing the application is final and there’s nothing you can do about asking for more aid. You and a financial aid officer can talk about your situation and can adjust things, if possible.
10. Don’t Do It Alone
Just like you go to a mechanic to solve your complex car issues, you should look for help and resources to help you with your FAFSA process. You want to make sure you've input all of the information correctly and you want to make sure you've made financial choices so you'll get the most financial aid that you can get. College Funding Consultants understands the complexities of this college maze. They help families with the process to maximize any aid you can receive and pay for college as comfortably as you can.
Personally, I earned most of my financial aid through FAFSA adjustments and negotiations with the financial aid office. To me, being able to understand the FAFSA is absolutely necessary to getting as much aid as possible. I definitely recommend working with College Funding Consultants, because their team knows the formula and how it changes each year. Since you have to fill out the FAFSA each year you’re in college, you can either take the time to learn the formula yourself, or find people who can help. If you have any questions for me, please feel free to comment! I’d love to hear your FAFSA organization tips.
I have read so many articles on how to do a personal budget, and I’ve learned a lot of great (and not so great) tips on how to do it. I’ve written about how I actually do my own budget, because I don’t want to waste your time with a system or tips that are too time consuming to actually use. So here’s how I budget my money!
Slight disclaimer: This budget is my personal budget, and does not include tuition. But this is a great guide for how to organize your spending money.
How Much Do You Spend?
I actually didn’t know how much I spent when I set out to make a budget. So I chose one month where I would put my money on checking account, and only use my debit card for purchases. This way, I could check the transaction history and I’d have a convenient log of everything I bought that month. If I had to use cash, I would write it down separately. At the end of the month, I added together how much I spent on gas, groceries, entertainment and whatever else, and figured out if that was a reasonable amount. My car gets okay mileage and my internship isn’t far away for me, so I only spend about $100 on gas a month. But when I realized I was spending too much on food, I was able to scale it back to a more reasonable budget.
What About The Next Month?
I like the debit card system, because the writing-every-single-purchase down was too much even for an organized person like me. At the beginning of the month I chose how much I would spend on the following categories:
Shopping (thrift stores are my weakness)
Car "Just In Case" (JIC)
Since I live at home in the summers, I don’t pay rent (thanks Mom) and my grocery budget is smaller because I cook with my family. The Car JIC is because I have a car from 1999, and sometimes it needs to be fixed. If I budget monthly for it and don’t need it, I’m basically saving for when it needs a $400 ignition coil replaced. The emergency is really any weird cost I may need and can’t predict: it’s been used for medicine during a cold, birthday gifts or a really good deal online. My entertainment is larger because I have a boyfriend, but we typically switch off who pays for dates or dinners. So I’ll pay one night and he’ll pay the next, so it basically evens out.
How Do You Afford It?
I work a few jobs, and I am lucky that I have some savings in case I need them for a real emergency. I looked at my debit card (I love that thing) and I could see how much I earned in one month from each of my jobs. I added it up, and could see exactly how much I made after taxes. Since my hours were regular at my jobs, I could count on that amount every month. I also like to always budget to spend less than I make, as a cushion for if any categories go over budget, and so I can hopefully add the extra in the ‘Savings’ category.
Typically I’ll aim to do a check-in on myself halfway through the month, so I can see if I’m on-track or overspending. I always try to come in under-budget because I’m basically paying myself for a job well done with any extra I save during the month.
I hope you can utilize the system I use. I’ve found it to be very helpful, and I really like using my debit card to keep track of spending without my needing to write everything down.
Feel free to comment any tips of your own or if you have any questions!
Everyone thought I was crazy.
My senior year in high school, I learned about Elon University, and how it had everything I was looking for in my college experience. Well, everything except the price tag. As a private institution, it cost about $35,000 more each year than the $5,000 my family was able to contribute to my tuition.
I called my uncle to talk about his opinion on what I should do. He told me about how awful debt can be, and how having debt after I graduate could interfere with my goals and plans. After that call, when I was about to go to sleep, I had this crazy idea. I was going to go to Elon, and I would graduate debt-free.
That is where the crazy started.
I won’t lie, I was incredibly lucky to have family who supported me. My mom drove me to countless financial aid meetings (I had to pay car insurance myself and couldn’t afford it at the time, so I didn’t get my license until I was 18). I met an amazing woman who specializes in college funding, and she was willing to mentor me and gave me the knowledge to succeed. My family and friends were there for me when I would have emotional breakdowns about how Elon would never happen for me.
But it did happen.
Looking back, I almost can’t believe it. After countless financial aid negotiations and scholarship applications and stress, I earned over $105,000 in scholarships and aid, and I will have paid off the one subsidized loan I have before my 21st birthday. I have learned so much about FAFSA and how to maximize financial aid and minimize college costs, and I want to share that knowledge with you.
I’ve already spoken to multiple Elon classes and friends about how to maximize aid. I will talk your ear off about financial aid applications and the best places to find scholarships. I’d love to use this blog to share what I’ve learned, and hopefully help other people.
If you ever have a question you want me to address in a post, send it to me on my Contact Page. I love answering questions, and I’d really love to answer yours.
Thank you for reading, and welcome to my Student Saver blog!
Hi, I'm Riley! I graduated from college in December 2016, after working to earn over $105,000 in scholarships and aid.