5 Signs You’re Probably Going to Default on Your Student Loans

A newly released New York Federal Reserve analysis sheds some insight on factors that may determine if student loan borrowers are more or less likely to default on their loans.

According to Fed data, 28% of students who left college between 2010 and 2011 defaulted on their student loans within five years. That’s significantly higher than the students who left school five years earlier, between 2005 and 2006, of which only 19% defaulted within five years.

Defaulting on a student loan is big deal. Not only will someone who defaults on a student loan need to deal with collections calls, but a default can seriously harm a borrower’s credit rating, making it difficult to qualify for a personal loan or other large credit purchases like a new home.

The New York Fed’s analysis highlights factors that could determine default rates years after students leave school. They range from things a student can’t necessarily control —  family background and how selective the college they attended was — to things students may have a little more control over, like the degree and major they pursue.

The data show students in these categories are more likely to default on their student loans between ages 20-33:

  1. Dropped out before earning a degree.
  2. Enrolled in an associate’s degree program.
  3. Majored in arts and humanities.
  4. Attended a for-profit institution, community college or nonselective college.
  5. Came from a low-income family.

A few of the factors relate to things a student has some control over, like the kind of school chosen and the degree pursued. Another big factor, family background, depends more heavily on chance.

Here’s what the Fed found about how the factors influence default rates.

The school

For-profit, public, or nonprofit?

If a student attended a private for-profit two-year institution, their chances of default were highest of all — just above 3% were in default at age 22, shooting up to 42% by age 33. Students at private four-year for-profits weren’t far behind, with a default rate of

38.8% by age 33.

On the other hand, students were much less likely to struggle to repay their student loans at nonprofit institutions, both public and private. Private nonprofit four-year student had the lowest default rate at 17.2%. They were followed by students who attended public nonprofit four-year institutions.

Source: FBNY

Selective vs. nonselective

The Fed’s analysis found students who attended colleges that were more selective or competitive defaulted at lower rates that those who attended less-selective colleges. The analysis used Barron’s Profile of American Colleges to classify colleges into selective and nonselective based on competitiveness.

The degree

Graduate versus dropout

Whether or not a borrower graduated was the second-strongest predictor of default among borrowers, according to the Fed analysis. Overall, students who dropped out had higher rates of default versus borrowers who graduated no matter what kind of degree they attempted. The analysis notes that may be attributed to the fact graduates are more likely to find more gainful employment that would give them the ability to pay off their loans after earning a degree.

Source: FBNY

Associate versus bachelor’s degree

No matter what kind of college a graduate attended, students in a two-year degree programs had higher default rates than their peers who enrolled in a four-year college, according to the New York Fed analysis.

But the gap between default rates of two-year and four-year students was widest among students who attended public schools — 21.4% to 36.5%, respectively— a difference of more than 15 percentage points

STEM versus arts and humanities

Students who majored in arts and humanities defaulted on their loans at the highest rates — 26.3% at nonselective schools, 14.6% at selective schools— while STEM majors at selective schools (12%) and business students at selective schools (11.5%) defaulted at the lowest rates.  Overall, default rates among students who majored in business or a vocational programs were closer to STEM students than to arts and humanities majors.

Arts and humanities majors defaulted at higher rates regardless of the college’s selectivity, but if students majored in STEM, business or a vocational program, selectivity may have factored in more. By age 33, the default gap between students who chose a best-performing major and a worst-performing major was three percentage points at selective colleges, while at nonselective schools the gap was eight percentage points.

Source: FBNY

The student

Advantaged vs nonadvantaged

The Fed’s analysis took a look into defaulters’ income and family background, too. The analysis looked at the average income for the ZIP code area at a borrower’s youngest available age based on available loan data. The analysis defined students who came from households earning below the mean income based on ZIP code as nonadvantaged, and students from households earning above the mean income.

The analysis found borrowers who came from less-advantaged backgrounds based on income had higher default rates no matter what type of college they attended.

Taking both a borrower’s background and college into consideration, the widest gap in default rates observed in the analysis were among advantaged students who attended private nonprofit colleges (13% of whom defaulted by age 33) and nonadvantaged students who attended private for profit colleges (42.1% of whom defaulted by age 33).

Source: FBNY

The post 5 Signs You’re Probably Going to Default on Your Student Loans appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

What Is the NSLDS? A Tool to Keep Track of Student Loans

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Over the course of a college career, a student may take out multiple education loans of different amounts and term lengths. Loans are often granted on an annual basis, and by the time you graduate, it’s easy to lose track of your total borrowing.

What’s more, holders of federal loans get a short reprieve from repayment after graduation — up to six or nine months, depending on the loan time — making it can be easy to forget that you’ve got money due. It’s smart to use that grace period to begin planning for repayment, rather than viewing it as a vacation from thinking about your college loans.

One of the best ways to keep track of your federal student loans and payments is through the National Student Loan Data System, a centralized database for federal student loan and grant information managed by the U.S. Department of Education. By checking in regularly on the NSLDS, you can stay on top of how much you owe, the repayment terms of your loans and the monthly payment amounts.

For new graduates making a budget — sometimes for the first time — this student loan information can help them understand how much money they need to set aside for monthly payments, or if they need to look into alternative loan repayment programs.

“It’s a helpful tool, and so often as humans, we’re inclined to denial or procrastination,” says Melinda Opperman, executive vice president with Credit.org, a nonprofit organization focused on personal finance education. “By ignoring that tool, you could have a problem compounding. See what’s in there, and get yourself anchored and prepared.”

What’s the purpose of the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS)?

The NSLDS was authorized as part of the 1986 Higher Education Act (HEA) Amendments and is administered by the Office of Federal Student Aid. It was formed with three purposes:

  • To better the quality of student aid data and its accessibility
  • To decrease the administrative work required for Title IV Aid
  • To decrease fraud and abuse of student aid programs

The NSLDS initially focused on federal loan compliance but eventually expanded to encompass detailed data from federal student loan and grant programs in which students are enrolled.

Where does the NSLDS get its information?

The NSLDS gets information from several government and loan processing services. Here are the sources for NSLDS data:

  • Guaranty agencies, which are state agencies or private, nonprofit organizations that provide information on the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program
  • Department of Education loan servicers
  • Department of Education debt collection services (information about defaults on loans held by the Department of Education)
  • Direct loan servicing (information on federal direct student loans)
  • Common origination disbursement (information on federal grant programs)
  • Conditional disability discharge tracking system (information on disability loans)
  • Central processing system (information on aid applicants)
  • Individual schools (information on federal Perkins loan program, student enrollment and aid overpayments)

When data from these sources are combined, you can get a comprehensive overview of your outstanding loans, repaid loans and repayment schedules.

The NSLDS is updated according to each organization’s loan reporting schedule. Some report monthly, and many report data more frequently.

What you’ll find on the NSLDS

After signing up for an FSA ID (Federal Student Aid ID), you can log into the NSLDS to see the updated status of your federal student loans and grants, as well as your college enrollment status and the effective date of your status.

Loans are listed from newest to oldest, and you can find more information about each, including the loan servicer’s name and contact information, by clicking on the loan number. You also will have access to an array of details about each of your federal loans and grants:

  • Name
  • Disbursed amount
  • Date of disbursement
  • Last-known balance
  • Outstanding interest
  • Status (e.g. repayment, in grace, paid in full)
  • Status effective date
  • Interest rate
  • Progress toward the 120 qualifying payments needed for Public Service Loan Forgiveness
  • Income-driven repayment plan anniversary date

“It gives a centralized, integrated view of the loans and grants under the student’s complete life cycle,” Opperman says. “Everything is there.”

You may see a lot of terms and abbreviations you don’t recognize, but there’s a glossary to help you understand them.

What you won’t find

The NSLDS only provides information about federal loan programs, so you will not see details about private loans. To get that information, you’ll need to contact your private loan’s servicer or your school’s financial aid department. You also can review your credit report (you are entitled to one free credit report annually) to find the information.

You also won’t find:

  • Real-time balance accounts. You should see the outstanding principal balance for each loan, but this number may not include the most recent data. Contact your loan servicer for the most up-to-date numbers.
  • Information about nursing and medical loans. While these are federal loan programs, they are not included in the NSLDS. Contact your school’s financial aid department for information about nursing or medical loans.
  • Loans you are not responsible for paying. Any federal loans your parents took out on your behalf, including federal PLUS loans, will not be listed on your NSLDS account. For information about federal student loans that they are responsible for paying, your parents will need to create their own FSA ID and password to access the NSLDS data.

Even with these gaps in information, the NSLDS is a great place to start when you’re not sure whom to contact with student loan questions or when you’re trying to get on top of your loan payments. It’s also helpful if you’re trying to figure out what type of loans you have, which is necessary when you’re applying for certain loan forgiveness programs.

How to sign up for the NSLDS

As mentioned previously, to use the NSLDS you must have an FSA ID username and password, which serve as your login information and allow you to access data about your federal loans and grants online. The ID and password also provide access to many other Department of Education websites.

To create an FSA username and password, visit this link. Opperman says the certified student loan counselors who work with Credit.org recommend you never give out your FSA number or password, even to credit counselors. This information carries the legal weight of a signature, and it can be used to commit identity theft. Credit counselors can get student loan information from you rather than by directly accessing your NSLDS account.

The FSA ID and password application requires your email address, mailing address, date of birth and Social Security number. A cellphone number can be provided if you’d like to bypass answering security questions to retrieve an FSA ID or password.

To look at your federal loan and grant information, click on “Financial Aid Review” after entering your FSA ID and password into the NSLDS website. You do not have to enter loan information, as agencies that issued your federal grants and loans will be responsible for reporting information to the NSLDS.

Is this site accurate?

While the information on the NSLDS generally is accurate because it is provided by loan servicers, it is usually not up to date. Organizations that provide loan information for the NSLDS report on different schedules..

What if the info is wrong?

The NSLDS is not infallible; it’s important to check your page regularly for errors and inaccuracies. Here are some common issues with the NSLDS and how to remedy them:

An error

Check the NSLDS record for this loan, and contact the data provider listed. You will need to give the data provider information that will help the organization look into the error and remedy it. If the data provider is uncooperative and will not fix the error, contact the NSLDS Customer Service Center at (800) 999-8219.

Missing data

If updated loan information is not available within 45 days of disbursement, contact a guaranty agency, the loan’s servicing center or your school’s financial aid office. Otherwise, allow for typical time lapses in reporting.

Frequently asked questions about NSLDS

Usually, no. Typically, only data providers can update information related to your loan when they make their reports to the NSLDS.

The site has an SSL certificate, which means all data passing between your web browser and the site server is encrypted (provided you’re using an SSL-compatible browser, like the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari or Internet Explorer).

The Department of Education does not charge a fee to use the site.

The site is designed to work best with Microsoft Internet Explorer. You can use other browsers, but keep in mind that the NSLDS pages may not function or display properly on other browsers. The NSLDS system requirements page provides help with browsers and a link to contact information for further assistance.

You are strongly advised not to share your FSA password — ever — as your FSA ID and password are for your use only. Anyone else who uses your FSA information is committing a security violation, and your user ID can be terminated. Organizations can lose access to the NSDLS if they share FSA IDs and passwords.

No. FSA ID passwords expire every 90 days. Fifteen days before the password expires, you will see a warning that it must be changed soon. Users can reset their passwords anytime during that 15-day window by clicking on the “change password” link on the FSA login page.

In this situation, call the NSLDS support number: (800) 999-8219.

You can call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at (800) 4FED-AID — 1-800-433-3243 — between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. This helpline is not available on federal holidays. You can also contact the office by email or live chat through the website.

The post What Is the NSLDS? A Tool to Keep Track of Student Loans appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Where the Wealthiest Millennials Stash Their Money

There’s been much talk about millennials being fearful of the stock market. They did, after all, live through the financial crisis, and many are shouldering record levels of student loan debt, while grappling with rising fixed costs.

The truth is that historically, young people have always shied away from investing. A whopping 89% of 25- to 35 year-old heads of household surveyed by the Federal Reserve in 2016 said their families were not invested in stocks. That’s only two percentage points higher than the average response since the Fed began the survey in 1989.

MagnifyMoney analyzed data from the 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances, conducted by the the Federal Reserve, to determine exactly how older millennials — those aged 25 to 35 — are allocating their assets.

In 2016, wealthy millennial households, on average, owned assets totaling more than $1.5 million. That is nearly nine times the assets of the average family in the same age group — $176,400. Included were financial assets (cash, retirement accounts, stocks, bonds, checking and savings deposits), as well as nonfinancial ones (real estate, businesses and cars).

While the wealth of each group was spread across just about every type of asset, the biggest difference was in the proportions for each category.

To add an extra layer of insight, we compared the savings habits of the average millennial household to millennial households in the top 25% of net worth. We also took a look at how the average young adult manages his or her assets to see how they differ in their approach.

Millennials and the stock market

Despite significant differences in income, we found that both sets of older millennial households today (average earners and the top 25% of earners) are investing roughly the same share of their financial assets in the market – about 60%.

Among the top 25% of millennial households, those with brokerage accounts hold more than 37% of their liquid assets, or about $224,000, in stocks and bonds and an additional 26%, or $154,000, in retirement accounts. Meanwhile, just over 14% of their assets are in liquid savings or checking accounts.

By comparison, the average millennial household with a brokerage account invests a little over $10,000 in stocks and bonds, or 22% of their total assets, and they reserve about 21% of their assets in checking or savings accounts.

Millennial households invest most heavily in their retirement accounts, accounting for around 38% of their financial assets, although they have only saved $18,800 on average.

Wealthy millennials carry much less of their wealth in checking and savings, compared with their peers. Although wealthier families carry eight times more in savings and checking than the average family — $84,000 vs. $10,300 — that’s just roughly 14% of their total assets in cash, while for the ordinary young family that figure is around 20%

The Fed data show that those on the top of the earnings pyramid are able to save far more for the future, even though they’re at a relatively early stage of their careers.

Across the board, older millennial families hold the greatest share of their financial assets in their retirement accounts. Although that share of retirement savings is smaller for wealthier millennial families (26% of their financial assets, versus 38% for the average older millennial family), they have saved far more.

When looking at the median amount of retirement savings versus the average, a more disturbing picture emerges, showing just how little the average older millennial family is saving for eventual retirement.

The median amount of money in higher earners’ retirement account is $90,000 (median being the middle point of a number set, with half the available figures above it and half below). But the median amount is $0 for the typical millennial family, meaning that at least half of millennial-run households don’t have any retirement savings at all.

Millennials and their nonfinancial assets

Most of millennial households’ wealth comes from physical assets, such as houses, cars and businesses.

While nearly 60% of young families don’t own houses today, the lowest homeownership rate since 1989, homes make up the largest share of the family’s nonfinancial assets, Fed data show.

For the average-earning older millennial family, housing represents more than two-thirds of the value of its nonfinancial assets — 66.4%. On average, this group’s homes are valued at $84,000.

The homes of rich millennial households are worth 4.6 times more, averaging $470,000 — though they represents a lower share of total nonfinancial assets — 50%.

Cars are the second-largest hard asset for the average young family to own, accounting for about 14% of nonfinancial assets.

While rich millennials drive fancier cars than their peers — prices are 2.4 times that of average millennials’ cars — their $42,000 car accounts for just 4.5% of their nonfinancial asset. In contrast, they stash as much as 31% of their asset in businesses, 20 percentage points higher than the ordinary millennial.

It’s worth noting that young adults in general are not into businesses. A scant 6.3% of young families have businesses, the lowest percentage since 1989, according to the Fed data. (Among those that do have them, the businesses represent just over 11% of their total nonfinancial assets.)

The student debt gap

Possibly the starkest example of how wealthy older millennials and their ordinary peers manage their finances can be seen in the realm of student loan debt.

A significant chunk of the average worker’s household debt comes in the form of student loans, making up close to 20% of total debt and averaging $16,000. In contrast, the wealthiest cohort carries about $2,000 less in student loan debt, on average, and this constitutes just about 4.6% of total debt.

With less student debt to worry about, it’s no surprise wealthier millennial families carry a larger share of mortgage debt. About 76% of their debt comes from their primary home, to the tune of $233,500, on average. This is 4.5 times the housing debt of a typical young homeowner.

In some cases, the top wealthy have another 11% or so of their total debt committed to a second house, something not many of their less-wealthy peers would have to worry about — affording even a first home is more of a struggle.

When is the right time to start investing?

For many millennials the answer isn’t whether or not it’s wise to save for retirement or invest for wealth but when to start. Generally, paying off high interest debts and building up a sufficient emergency fund should come first. Once those boxes are ticked, how much young workers invest depends on their tolerance for risk and their future financial goals.

“It’s never too much as long as you’ve got money for the emergency fund, and as long as they are funding their other goals not through debt,” says Krista Cavalieri, owner and senior advisor at Evolve Capital in Columbus, Ohio.

The biggest mistake that Cavalieri has seen among her young clients is that very few have been able to establish an emergency fund that will cover at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses.

Kelly Metzler, senior financial advisor at the New York-based Altfest Personal Wealth Management, said older millennials may not be able to save outside of retirement accounts yet, which can be a concern if they want to buy a house or have other large purchases or unexpected expenses ahead.

Cavalieri said that’s because young adults’ money is stretched thin by the varies needs in their lives and the lifestyle they keep.

“Their hands are kind of tied at where they are right now,” she said. “Everyone could clearly save more, but millennials are dealing with large amounts of debt. A lot of them are also dealing with the fact that the lack of financial education put that in that personal debt situation.”

The post Where the Wealthiest Millennials Stash Their Money appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Applying for Public Service Student Loan Forgiveness: A Step-By-Step Guide

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Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) is a program designed to attract workers to jobs in the public sector by wiping clean remaining federal student loan debt after 120 qualifying payments.

Those payments represent 10 years’ worth of work with a qualifying public service employer, so because PSLF began in October 2007, the first applicants are just beginning to submit their forgiveness forms.

Qualifying for PSLF means meeting specific requirements for the employer, the loan type and the repayment plan — and the details can be overwhelming.

With that in mind, here’s a step-by-step guide to applying for PSLF.

Step 1: Figure out if you qualify.

First, it helps to understand why PSLF exists.

“It’s meant to be a light at the end of the tunnel for public service jobs, when people know they could make much more money going private,” says Betsy Mayotte, director of consumer outreach and compliance at the nonprofit American Student Assistance. “A lot of the careers — social workers, teachers, public defenders — require advanced degrees. The problem there is that people would accrue all this debt, then find they couldn’t stay in these public sector careers because they didn’t pay well.”

But the definition of public service is strictly defined, and “it’s not your job that matters, but your employer,” Mayotte adds. “It matters who signs your paycheck. You can be a groundskeeper at a state school and qualify. Conversely, you can feel as if your job is public service, but if your employer doesn’t meet the specific definitions, you don’t meet PSLF requirements.”

Employers that qualify for PSLF, per the U.S. Department of Education

  • A government organization (including a federal, state, local, or tribal organization, agency or entity; a public child or family service agency; or a tribal college or university)
  • A nonprofit, tax-exempt organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code
  • A private, nonprofit organization (though not a labor union or a partisan political organization) that provides one or more of the following public services:
    • Emergency management
    • Military service
    • Public safety
    • Law enforcement
    • Public interest law services
    • Early childhood education (including licensed or regulated health care, Head Start and state-funded pre-kindergarten)
    • Public service for individuals with disabilities and the elderly
    • Public health (including nurses, nurse practitioners, nurses in a clinical setting and full-time professionals engaged in health care practitioner and support occupations)
    • Public education
    • Public library services
    • School library or other school-based services

Employers that DO NOT qualify for PSLF

  • For-profit organizations (this includes for-profit government contractors)
  • Nonprofits that are not tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code or that do not provide a qualifying public service as their primary function
  • Labor unions
  • Partisan political organizations

You must work full time (whatever your employer characterizes that to be — though it must be an average of at least 30 hours per week by the PSLF definition) for one of these qualifying employers, or part time for two or more as long as it adds up to 30 hours per week, while you make your 120 on-time payments. You’ll also need to be in qualifying employment when you apply for your loan forgiveness.

Because you won’t be able to apply for PSLF until you have completed qualifying payments, it helps to build up a paper trail over the years. You should fill out and send an employment certification form (ECF) to FedLoan Servicing, which handles PSLF, each year and whenever you change employers. You’ll fill out personal information and have your employer sign the form before sending it in. The form isn’t required, but you’ll receive a response detailing your progress toward your 120 payments and confirming your eligibility — great for peace of mind as well as record-keeping.

“While you’re not required to submit the ECF at any point, it’s always a great idea to keep records,” says Adam Minsky, a Boston attorney who specializes in student loan and consumer issues. “An employer could go out of business, or lose the records of your employment. Mistakes can be made with paperwork. So if you find yourself having to make a case for yourself later, it helps to have all of this on record.”

FedLoan Servicing says my employer isn’t eligible. Can I appeal?

If the response to your ECF comes back and someone says your employer does not qualify you for PSLF, that’s generally the final decision, says Mayotte. “You can theoretically appeal, but these employer types are all pretty straightforward,” she adds. “The overarching rule is that there’s no wiggle room: You work for the government, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit or another qualifying nonprofit. The exception might be if you work for one of these other qualifying nonprofits, but you’ll need to make a case.”

To appeal, you can resend your ECF to FedLoan Servicing and ask for another review, or contact the Department of Education’s ombudsman unit. In both cases you should include evidence to show why you think your employer should qualify, Mayotte says.

But barring a clerical mistake by FedLoan Servicing, a change in decision is exceedingly rare.

Ensure your loan type and repayment plan qualify

PSLF provides forgiveness only for federal Direct Loans: Direct Subsidized Loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, Direct PLUS Loans and Direct Consolidation Loans. Private loans, including bank loans that are “federally guaranteed,” do not qualify.

Loans made under other federal student loan programs, like Perkins Loans, aren’t eligible for PSLF on their own. They may become eligible, if they’re consolidated into a Direct Consolidation Loan — but it’s important to know that only payments toward that consolidated loan will count toward the 120-payment requirement.

Speaking of consolidation, here’s another thing you should know: If you consolidate qualifying loans, the clock resets to zero payments. A consolidation is considered a new loan, and again, only payments toward the consolidated loan will be counted toward your 120.

Don’t know which types of federal student loans you have? Check the Education Department site My Federal Student Aid. A pro tip from the Education Department: “Generally, if you see a loan type with ‘Direct’ in the name on My Federal Student Aid, then it is a Direct Loan; otherwise, it is a loan made under another federal student loan program.”

Additionally, you must be enrolled in the right type of repayment plan. Qualifying repayment plans include all four of the income-driven repayment plans, which base your monthly payment on your income and family size: Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE), Pay As You Earn (PAYE), income-based repayment (IBR); and income-contingent repayment (ICR).

Payments under the 10-year standard repayment plan qualify, but you’ll want to switch to an income-driven plan as soon as possible. If you stick with that 10-year repayment you’ll have paid off the loan, with nothing left to be forgiven under PSLF when you become eligible for it.

Make 120 qualifying payments

You’ll need to make all of those 120 payments during qualifying employment to apply for PSLF, but you don’t need to provide proof of those payments. Again, Minsky advises that it’s wise to keep your own records just in case there’s a clerical issue later — but generally, FedLoan Servicing will confirm the payments itself.

Note that the 120 payments do not have to be consecutive (nor, then, must be your employment with a qualifying public service employer). If you had periods of deferment or forbearance and stopped paying your loans, the count will pick up where you left off once you begin paying anew. Even defaulting on your loan payments doesn’t disqualify you, but you’ll need to rehabilitate the defaulted loan with your servicer before the payments can count toward your 120 again.

The payments do need to be on time, defined as “those received by your federal loan servicer no later than 15 days after the scheduled payment due date.” If your payment isn’t on time, or you pay less than what you’re required to that month, it won’t count toward your 120. You may make multiple smaller payments, but they must add up to at least the minimum payment amount for that month.

Step 2: Apply for loan forgiveness

After you’ve completed your 120 payments — phew, you did it! — go to the PSLF application here. The form is six pages long, but the actual application is only two. And you, the employee, must fill out only the first page: basic personal information like your date of birth, Social Security number and contact details. You’ll also need to certify under penalty of law that the information you’re submitting is truthful.

The second page is for detailing the employer’s information, and either you or your employer can fill out the top part. Here’s what it requires:

  • Employer’s name
  • Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN, which can be found on your W-2 — or ask your HR department)
  • Your dates of employment
  • Whether you were a full- or part-time worker
  • Which category of public service your employer falls under

At the bottom of the page, there’s a section for your employer to sign, certifying that the information above is accurate.

You’ll need to repeat that process for every qualifying employer. (That’s why it’s smart to keep track of it all by submitting ECF forms annually and whenever you change employers.)

The remaining four pages of the application form reiterate the details of what it takes to qualify for PSLF. They also explain where to send the completed application form:

  • You can mail to

    U.S. Department of Education, FedLoan Servicing
    P.O. Box 69184
    Harrisburg, PA 17106-9184

  • Fax to 717-720-1628; or
  • Upload to MyFedLoan.org/FileUpload, if FedLoan Servicing is already your servicer.

In rare cases, you may not be able to obtain employers’ certification. There’s a checkbox on page 1: “Check this box if you cannot obtain certification from your employer because the organization is closed or because the organization has refused to certify your employment. The Department will follow up to assist you in getting documentation of your employment.”

“That’s another reason it’s prudent to send the ECF forms every year, because you’ll already have a signature on record,” Mayotte says. “I’ve heard of a few cases where employers were not comfortable filling out the form for privacy reasons, but usually if you show them the form and explain a bit, you can change their mind.”

Mayotte added that FedLoan Servicing will likely accept a tax return as proof of employment, but that solution is more of a “last-ditch effort” to satisfy the conditions.

FAQ and other things to know

It’s not yet clear, as the first qualifying borrowers are just now applying for PSLF. Mayotte says American Student Assistance is in touch with an early applicant, to see how the process goes, but no timetables for forgiveness have been confirmed. The Department of Education did not immediately respond to MagnifyMoney’s questions on the topic.

Yes. If you’ve made your 120 payments and are looking to switch to an employer who isn’t eligible, be sure to file your PSLF application first. You must also be employed full time at a qualifying employer or employers at the time the forgiveness is granted, according to the Department of Education.

“No concrete proposal seems imminent, but whenever something happens, there’s a general view among experts that a change to PSLF won’t be retroactive to existing borrowers,” Minsky says.

The payment count restarts, back at zero. The consolidated loan is considered a new loan, and only payments toward it will count.

Here are the employer certification form and the PSLF application.

While studentaid.ed.gov has all of the official information, it’s spread across different pages and can be unwieldy. American Student Assistance offers an excellent guide that breaks down the basics and also links to official webpages and forms.

Alternative loan forgiveness programs

Beyond PSLF, there are other federal programs to forgive or discharge federal student debt. These include:

Industry-specific forgiveness programs

  • Perkins Loan Cancellation and Discharge: This applies to people who perform certain types of public service or are employed in certain occupations. According to the Department of Education, for each complete year of service a percentage of the loan may be forgiven. That percentage varies by job/employer type, and the following workers qualify:
    • Volunteer in the Peace Corps or ACTION program (including VISTA)
    • Teacher
    • Member of the Armed Forces (serving in area of hostilities)
    • Nurse or medical technician
    • Law enforcement or corrections officer
    • Head Start worker
    • Child or family services worker
    • Professional provider of early intervention services
  • Teacher Loan Forgiveness: Teachers who work full time for five complete and consecutive academic years (in certain elementary and secondary schools and educational service agencies that serve low-income families, and meet other qualifications) may be eligible for forgiveness of up to a combined total of $17,500 on Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans and Subsidized and Unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans. (Those who have only PLUS loans are not eligible.) Read more about loan forgiveness programs available to teachers, including TEACH Grants and state forgiveness programs.
  • Programs for lawyers: Lawyers with at least $10,000 in federal student loans may qualify for the Department of Justice Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program (ASLRP). Additionally, the John R. Justice Student Loan repayment program provides assistance for state and federal public defenders and state prosecutors for at least three years and is renewable after 3 years. Benefits cannot exceed $10,000 in a calendar year and cannot exceed $60,000 per attorney total. .) Read more about programs for lawyers, including forgiveness programs through specific law schools and certain states.
  • Programs for doctors and health professions: Several programs are available, including multiple military doctor loan forgiveness options through the Army, Navy and Air Force. Other options include state-specific forgiveness and the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), which can provide up to a $50,000 to repay a health profession student loan in exchange for a two-year commitment to a NHSC site in a high-need area.

Income-based repayment plans

  • This isn’t a traditional cancellation program like what’s above. These four federal income-driven repayment plans base your monthly payment on your income: Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE), Pay As You Earn (PAYE), income-based repayment (IBR) and income-contingent repayment (ICR).The payment terms vary, and your outstanding balance is forgiven after your repayment term of 20 to 25 years is complete. Because the monthly amount you owe will fluctuate based on your income, you could end up repaying your loans before your term is up, or you could have a balance that will be forgiven. However, if you receive student loan forgiveness this way, the canceled debt is taxable. (Only borrowers whose loan forgiveness stems from their employment are exempt from paying taxes on canceled student loan debt.)

Loan discharges for special circumstances

There are a few other times you may be able to get your student loans forgiven, but they’re relatively rare, and they’re generally because of bad circumstances. You can find out more about these discharges on the Department of Education’s website:

The post Applying for Public Service Student Loan Forgiveness: A Step-By-Step Guide appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

3 Reasons to File Your FAFSA Right Now

It’s October, and that means college-bound families can start applying for financial aid for the 2018-19 school year. the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, opened Oct. 1.

Technically, families have until next summer — June 30, 2018 — to submit their FAFSA for 2018-19. But experts recommend filing as soon as possible in order to maximize the amount of aid students can receive. That’s because state, federal and school funding for various types of financial aid is often limited, and can run out.

Don’t leave money on the table. A recent study by social sciences researcher, Michael S. Kofoed at the United States West Point Military Academy found that each year, students who do not file miss out on as much as $9,741.05 in federal grant and student loan money, aggregating to some $24 billion annually.

“To get the most aid, you’re going to want to make sure you are doing it early,” says Jasmine Hicks, national field director with Young Invincibles, a nonprofit advocacy group for young adults.  Hicks has trained college-bound families on what they need to successfully fill out and submit the FAFSA.

Here are a few tips to help you file your FAFSA for the maximum amount of aid available to you.

1) Your state and college FAFSA deadlines might be even earlier than the federal cutoff.

Adding to your list of dates to remember, states and schools have their own FAFSA filing deadlines for grants and scholarships.

For example, for Delaware students to be eligible for state scholarships and grants for  2018-19, they must file their FAFSA by April 15, 2018. But the submission deadline for students who wish to be considered for Delaware State University scholarships and grants is even earlier, on March 15, 2018.

You can check here to see your state’s filing deadline. Be sure to enter your state of legal residence and the school year for which you’re applying for aid to view the cutoff date for your state. Be sure to double-check the deadline, as it could be earlier than the federal filing deadline and some states have different deadlines for different programs.

For example, Alaska’s Education Grant asks applicants to file the financial aid application as early as possible after the Oct 1 open date, since awards are made until the fund is depleted.

But the “official” FAFSA submission deadline for the scholarship is the same as the federal one.

Hicks says families should check a school’s website to check and see if there is a different filing deadline date than June 30, 2018. Some schools may require students to file earlier than June 30 to be considered for institutional scholarships and grants.

2)  The FAFSA is the key to unlocking more than just need-based aid.

If you don’t file the FAFSA, you might also remove yourself from the pool of eligible recipients for state and institutional aid, as well — even if they aren’t income-based. Many aid offerings require a FAFSA.

Here’s a list of all the federal aid for which you need to complete a FAFSA to be eligible:

  • Federal direct student loan
  • Federal work-study program
  • Federal PLUS loan (for parents)
  • Federal PELL grant
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG)
  • Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant

And that’s just federal aid. As we mentioned before, states and schools may use information from your FAFSA to determine if they will award you merit-based grants and scholarships. And they may have their own submission deadlines.

3) Financial aid money may run out.

Students may think they have tons of time to submit their application, but, if you wait to file, you may miss out on “free money” due to limited resources. Let’s put it another way: If the funds run out before you submit your FAFSA form, you could receive less money compared with what you would have gotten had you filed earlier — or you might get nothing at all.

If you know you will need scholarship or grant money to fund your education, you should make filing the FAFSA early your first priority. “There’s really no reason to wait,” says Hicks.

Fortunately, it’s become easier for families to tackle the FAFSA.  The Department of Education moved the application’s from January to October, beginning with the 2017 graduating high school class. Prior to the rule change, families could not submit their FAFSA until January for students attending college in the fall. The rule change allows families to submit the FAFSA form earlier, and use older tax information to fill out the form so they are able to meet early deadlines for financial aid.

Students can now use family tax information dating back as far as two years, so applicants no longer have to wait to file until their parents or guardians file their taxes for the current tax year.

On top of that, FAFSA forms now include a new  IRS data retrieval tool, which will automatically pull in your parent’s tax information from two years ago, so you don’t have to shuffle through a stack of papers looking for letters and numbers corresponding to the information you need to input.

Where to get help to finish up your FAFSA

The tax information may be easy to pull in electronically, but the FAFSA has more than 100 questions and isn’t the easiest form to decipher overall.

“Students often think of the FAFSA as a huge and daunting task,” says Hicks. “They don’t feel like they are able to do it or equipped to do it.”

Get help if you aren’t confident in filling out all the information on your own, so you don’t put off filing the FAFSA any longer. There may also be follow-up requests, like income verification, that, if overlooked or left incomplete, could delay your receiving all or part of your financial aid award.

Up to  40 percent of college-bound students who apply and are accepted to college fall prey to a phenomenon called ‘summer melt.’ They never make to campus their freshman year because of mistakes that trip them up in the process. Many of the mistakes have to do with the financial aid process and can be avoided if you get help early on.

Your high school guidance or college counselor may be able to assist you with your application.

If you feel you need more assistance than your counselor can provide, look to organizations or access programs that focus on helping students complete the forms required to give financial aid, like the College Goal Sunday Program hosted by the National College Action Network, or Reach4Success.

The post 3 Reasons to File Your FAFSA Right Now appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

I Got My First Credit Card One Year Ago – Here’s How I Already Have a Good FICO Score

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When I moved to the U.S. from my hometown, Hangzhou, an eastern Chinese city, in 2012 to pursue my undergraduate degree, the thought of establishing a credit history wasn’t even on my radar. I was, after all, an international student from China, where day-to-day credit card use has only recently caught on.  

It wasn’t until I returned to the U.S. a few years later to pursue my master’s in Chicago that I realized I’d need to establish credit if I planned to launch my career in the States.  

It’s been only a year since I opened my first card last September, and I already have a solid FICO score – 720, the last time I checked.  That’s not a perfect score by any means, but it lands me safely in the “good” credit range, meaning I probably won’t have trouble getting approved for new credit in the future. I still have work to do if I want to get into the “very good” credit category, which starts at 740, according to MyFICO, but for a credit card newbie I’m not disappointed in my progress so far. 

Here’s how I did it:  

I selected the right card for my needs
 

I wish I could say I diligently researched credit cards to choose the best offer and best terms, but honestly, I just got lucky: 

Shortly before graduate school started, I visited friends in Iowa. When we were about to split the bill after dinner at a Japanese restaurant, I noticed that all my friends had a Discover card with a shimmering pink or blue cover. The Discover it for Students card was known for its high approval rate for student applicants, and had been popular among international students. 

I thought, “Oh, maybe I should get this one, too.”  

One of the friends sent me a referral link that very night. I applied and got approved quickly. We both received a $50 cash-back bonus after I made my first purchase — an iPhone — using the card through Discover’s special rewards program. I even received 5 percent cash back from the purchase.  

Besides imposing no annual fee, the card has other perks, like rewarding me with a $20 cash-back bonus when I reported a good GPA, letting me earn 5 percent cash back on purchases in rotating categories, and matching the cash-back bonus I earned over the first 12 months with my account. For me, it was a great starter card, but there are plenty of other options out there.

Check out our guide on the best credit cards for students. 

I also could have explored other options of establishing credit, like opening a secured card, for example, which would have been a smart option if I hadn’t been able to qualify for the Discover it student card.

I never missed a payment

Despite my very limited financial literacy at the time, I attribute my current stellar credit score to the old, deeply ingrained Chinese mentality about saving and not owing. 

I never missed payments, and I always paid off my balance in full each month, instead of just making the $35 minimum payment. I didn’t want to pay a penny of interest. 

Credit cards carry high interest rates across the board, but student credit cards generally have some of the highest APRs. This is because lenders see students like me — consumers without much credit history — to be risky borrowers, and they charge a higher interest rate to offset that  risk. 

Best Student Credit Cards October 2017 

It wasn’t until much later when I learned that payment history is critical to credit establishment. In fact, it is the biggest factor there is. It accounts for as much as 35 percent of my FICO score. Naturally, I felt like I dodged a bullet! 

A Guide to Getting Your Free Credit Score 

I was careful not to use too much of my available credit

My friends with more experience advised me to use as little of my available credit as possible. They warned me that overuse had hurt their credit scores in the past. This didn’t much sense to me, but I followed their advice, for the most part diligently.. 

I later learned this is almost as important as paying bills on time each month. Your utilization rate is another 30 percent of the FICO score. Credit experts urge cardholders to keep their credit utilization ratio below 30 percent.  

That means if you have three credit cards with a total available limit of $10,000, you should try never to carry a total balance exceeding about $3,000. 

A Guide to Build and Maintain Healthy Credit 

I beefed up my score with on-time rent payment 

Keeping in mind the importance of not maxing out my credit card, I never considered paying my rent with the card. In fact, some landlords charge credit card fees for tenants who try to pay with plastic.  

But I did find a way to establish credit by paying rent using my checking account. 

I paid rent to my Chicago landlord through RentPayment, an online service. RentPayment gave me the option of having my payments reported to TransUnion, one of the three major credit-reporting agencies. Because I knew I’d always pay bills on time, I signed up for the program.  

This likely helped me improve my credit mix, another key factor influencing one’s credit score. The more types of accounts you show on your report, the better your score can be — providing you make all your payments on time.  

Yes, I made mistakes. This was my biggest one.

My first foray into the world of credit wasn’t completely blip-free.  

The only thing that hurt my credit, besides my short credit history, was that I had tried signing up for a Chase credit card and other ways to finance my iPhone just a few days before I applied for my Discover card.  

None of the other banks approved my applications, and my score went down from the very beginning due to the number of “hard inquiries” against my report. Hard inquiries occur when lenders check your credit report before they make lending decisions, and having too many inquiries in a short period of time can result in several dings to your credit score. 

I’ve learned my lesson, though. And I haven’t applied for a new credit card since. Today, as I said, my FICO score is a healthy 720, and I am on the lookout for a second credit card now that I’ve graduated and gotten a job. 

The post I Got My First Credit Card One Year Ago – Here’s How I Already Have a Good FICO Score appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

7 Ways for College Students to Build Credit

Ways for students to build credit in college
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College is a great (read: strategic) time to work on building a credit score from scratch. If you work on building credit while in school, you could graduate with a healthy credit score in the high 600s to mid-700s.

Coupled with a solid starting salary, graduating with a good or excellent credit score puts you in a great position to rent your first house or apartment and, eventually, make larger purchases like a new car or a first home. On top of that, you’ll qualify for the best terms when it comes to borrowing personal loans or opening credit cards.

How to build a positive credit history

Here are a few inexpensive things you can do to bulk up your credit report and build your credit score before graduating from college

#1: Learn how to use a credit card — the right way

You can start working on your credit score by opening a student credit card with a bank or credit union. Having a credit card can be risky — there are plenty of stories of students overspending or seeing their credit limit as “free money” — but opening a student card also gives you an opportunity to learn good credit-building habits. Here’s a simple strategy for building credit with a student credit card:

  1. Charge only a recurring bill like a phone bill or monthly streaming subscription to the card.
  2. Set up automatic payments to pay off the credit card bill on time and in full each month.
  3. Rinse and repeat for four years.

When selecting a credit card, you’d ideally choose a credit card that doesn’t charge an annual fee. You shouldn’t use the card for anything other than the recurring bill — and, if absolutely necessary, the occasional emergency. The recurring bill should ideally be less than 30 percent of a your total available credit. (Using as little as possible of your available credit helps you get a good credit score.)

Eventually, your credit score should reflect a history of consistent, on-time payments and will likely be in the good or excellent range. These are some of the best student credit card offers available now.

Con: High interest rates

While credit cards generally carry high interest rates across the board, student credit cards tend to have some of the highest APRs. The rate is high because students don’t usually have much credit history, so lenders see them as risky borrowers and charge a higher interest rate to compensate for the risk.

Pro: Build credit without debt

Using the strategy described above — making a small purchase and paying it off each month — you can establish a healthy credit history without paying a cent of interest. Assuming you pay the bill on time and you’re using the card to buy something you’d purchase anyway, there’s no cost to this approach of building credit.

Con: Low limits

Limits on student credit cards are generally pretty low, as banks want to minimize risk of lending to an inexperienced borrower. A low limit makes it pretty easy to use more than the suggested 30 percent of one’s total credit limit. For example, 30 percent of a $500 limit is $150 — basically the cost of a textbook.

Pro: Access to an unsecured line of credit

Having a credit card gives you a line of credit to borrow from when you need to. This can be helpful if you can’t immediately cover all of your personal costs like books, food or an emergency. The student credit card is also unsecured, meaning the student won’t have to make an initial deposit to open the line of credit.

Con: Easy to make credit mistakes early on

A credit card comes with a lot of responsibility. Having a credit card can make it really tempting to spend more than you can afford (which results in expensive debt) or use a lot of your credit limit (which can hurt your credit score). Be prepared to exercise a lot of self-control if you get a student credit card, because it can take years to undo the damage caused by irresponsible credit card use.

#2: Become an authorized user

If your parent has good credit history, ask them about becoming an authorized user on their credit card. When you become an authorized user, your parent’s behavior with the credit card will be reported like it was your own.

Pro: A passive way to build credit history

If you use this tactic, you can build credit history while never having to actually apply for credit yourself.

Con: It’s not guaranteed to help

Not all credit card issuers report authorized user accounts to the credit bureaus, according to Experian. On top of that, not all credit scores look at authorized users the same. There are dozens of credit scores, each with their own algorithms, and some may not give an authorized user much weight in determining a score, according to Experian.

Con: Could easily backfire

While authorized users are not liable for debts on the account, missed payments or high credit card balances on the account could hurt you. If that happens, you can either file a dispute to have the negative information removed or contact the card issuer and ask to be removed as an authorized user on the card.

#3: Get a co-signer

You can thank the 2009 Credit CARD Act for making it more difficult to get a credit card before you’re 21. The CARD Act stopped companies from marketing credit cards to students on college campuses and made it so people who are younger than 21 must either have a co-signer, such as a parent or a guardian, or have an independent source of income to qualify for a credit card.

Pro: Allows a student who can’t qualify on their own to open a credit card

Lenders generally consider it risky to hand a line of credit to a college student with little or no credit history. By requiring a co-signer, lenders transfer part of this risk to someone else, giving you an opportunity to build your credit you may not have had on your own.

Con: Puts a co-signer at risk

If you go with a co-signer, you need to be very careful to only charge what you can afford to pay off in full each month. Both you and your co-signer’s credit scores will take a hit from any negative behavior like missed payments or high credit card balances. Asking someone to co-sign a credit application is no small request and can affect your relationship with that person. Be sure to set ground rules for the arrangement before agreeing to it.

#4: Get a secured credit card

If you’re unable to get approved for an unsecured credit card, you can try opening a secured credit card instead. A secured card can help prove your responsibility to lenders without a lender taking on much risk. You’ll have to put down an initial deposit in exchange for access to a line of credit on the card. Typically, the line of credit will equal the amount of the deposit. You can check out our roundup of the top secured credit cards for people looking to improve their credit scores.

Pro: A better shot at approval

Because the required deposit lowers a lender’s risk, you have a better shot at getting approved for a secured credit card over an unsecured student credit card.

Con: A required deposit

You will likely have to come up with $100 or more to put down as a deposit before a credit card issuer will approve you for the account. If you miss a payment, the lender can take your deposit. And because the deposit will likely serve as your credit limit, you won’t have much room for spending if you want to reap the credit-score benefits of using little of your available credit.

#5: Get a credit-builder loan

You can get credit-builder loan through banks and credit unions. When approved for a credit-builder loan, your loan is deposited into a savings account, but you can’t access the money until you’ve paid back the loan.

A credit-builder loan is good for students who want to build credit but don’t want to risk overspending on a credit card or using a credit card irresponsibly. Credit-builder loans are secured loans, so they often have lower interest rates than credit cards, too. The loan also gives you the advantage of making equal, periodic payments so you aren’t caught off guard when a bill arrives.

You can find a credit-builder loan account through a variety of lenders. For example, online-only lender Self Lender specializes in credit-builder loans, but they’re common products at credit unions as well. Research a variety of options and compare borrower requirements, as they vary from lender to lender.

Pro: No deposit necessary

You won’t have to come up with any money upfront to open this secured line of credit. You will, however, need to make periodic, on-time payments to effectively build your credit history.

Con: No access to the line of credit

You won’t have access to the funds from a credit-builder loan right away. This could become an issue if you suddenly need money. If you want to access the money, you must first finish paying off the loan to the lender.

Con: Fees

Some credit-builder loans come with fees, making this a potentially costly option for building credit.

#6: Stay on top of student loan payments

If you have student loans, repaying them will be a crucial part of your credit history. After graduation, you can easily hurt your credit score by missing a student loan payment. Many student loans have a grace period of six months after graduation, meaning you won’t have to make payments during that time. If you’re not paying attention to when that grace period ends, you could easily miss your first payment and hurt your credit score.

A missed payment can cause your credit score to drop significantly and stay on your credit report for years, which can be seriously harmful to someone just starting to build a credit history.

Credit-building tip: You don’t have to wait until your loans come due to start making payments. If you can afford to start paying your student loans while you’re in school, you can save money in the long run, and you don’t have to wait until you graduate to establish a positive payment history on your credit report. This could give you a head start on getting out of debt and building your credit before entering “the real world.”

Keep an eye on your email inbox and physical mail for information from your loan servicer (the company to which you make loan payments) regarding your first student loan bill and be sure to make your payment. Continuing to make on-time payments on student loans will help you build a good credit history.

If you can’t afford the student loan payments and have federal loans, you can learn all about how to enroll in an income-driven repayment plan here. Enrolling in an income-driven plan can reduce or eliminate your required student loan payment, making it easier to stay on top of payments and avoid credit damage.

#7: Build credit with a rent payment

If you rent an off-campus apartment, you can build your credit history by simply paying rent on time, if it’s reported to the major credit bureaus. Students should ask their landlord or property manager if their rent payments are reported to Equifax, Experian or TransUnion.

If the rent-taker doesn’t report the payments, you can ask them to sign up for a rent payment service like PayLease or RentTrack that will let you pay rent online and give the landlord the option to report the payments to the bureaus. The rent payment information will be included on a standard credit report and can help students build good credit history without ever opening a line of credit.

Pro: Build credit with money already intended to spend

You’re already spending money paying rent each month, so why not make that payment serve both your housing and credit-building needs?

Con: Some landlords may not agree to report payments

Many landlords check credit scores when a tenant applies, but not many report regular, on-time payments to the big three credit bureaus. Getting your landlord to switch to (and pay for) a payment service they aren’t familiar with might be a long shot, but it’s worth asking.

Con: Not all credit scores factor in rent payments

This isn’t a sure-fire way to build credit, as not all credit scoring models include rent-payment history. The same goes for utility payments: They could help you build credit, but they may not. If you’re looking for a certain way to work on your credit, the other strategies in this article make more sense.

The post 7 Ways for College Students to Build Credit appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

More Than 40% of U.S. Adults Struggle to Make Ends Meet

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You may be struggling to pay bills every month, but so are plenty of other people.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Tuesday reported that 43 percent of American adults struggle to make ends meet, based on the results of a national survey conducted in 2016 on the financial well-being of U.S. consumers.

About 34 percent of all consumers surveyed reported experiencing material hardships —  these include running out of food, not being able to afford a place to live or lacking the money to seek medical treatment — in the past year, the bureau said.  

In the survey, the bureau asked more than 6,000 participants from all walks of life to answer 10 questions about current and future financial security and freedom of choice, and to give a score from 0 to 100 on each question. The average consumer score was 54 in the survey. Not surprisingly, consumers surveyed said that their financial conditions were closely tied to their level of education, income and employment status, according to the bureau. 

Young adults are especially susceptible to financial hardships, the agency found. 

Millennials — those age 34 and below — reported an average score of 51 for their financial well-being, 10 points lower than seniors ages 65 and up and three points lower than the national average. 

The report, what the bureau calls “the first of its kind,” not only provides a view of the the overall state of financial conditions in the U.S., it also sheds light on how individuals from different demographics are faring financially. 

Adults with scores of 50 or below have a high likelihood — more than 50 percent — of struggling to pay bills and of experiencing difficult financial situations, according to the report. 

In contrast, those who reported scores of 61 and above had a much lower probability — less than 10 percent — that they would have trouble paying for basic needs.  

 Savings = stability  

Of all the factors examined, the bureau found that the amount of savings and financial cushions is the most important when it comes to disparities in people’s financial situations. 

The average financial well-being for adults with savings of less than $250 — the lowest level — is 41. That compares with 68 for people with the highest level of savings — $75,000 or more, according to the report. 

Similar differences in scores were seen with the ability to absorb unexpected expenses.  

“These findings highlight the importance of savings and other safety nets in helping people to feel financially secure, one of the basic elements of financial well-being,” the report said. 

Having some sort of financial knowledge appears to benefit financial well-being. 

The survey found that individuals with higher levels of financial confidence, knowledge and day-to-day money management behaviors tend to report better financial conditions. 

Apart from the survey, the bureau initiated  an interactive online tool allowing consumers to measure their own financial well-being.  

 7 tips to improve your financial health: 

  1. Have “rainy day” cash available. Often, people who feel they are broke don’t have the means to absorb unexpected expenses. We’ve ranked the best options for when you need cash fast.  A good rule of thumb is to set aside at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses.   
  2. Save. Save. Save. It’s never too early to start saving for retirement. Financial planners often suggest you stash at least 10 percent of your income every month. 
  3. Focus on paying down high interest debts. Sometime it makes more sense to pay off debt than to save, especially if you have high-interest debt like credit cards.  Here are four fast ways to achieve that goal.
  4. Consider changing your lifestyle. Lifestyle inflation is the ultimate budget-killer — a widespread phenomenon that occurs when people spend more as their incomes increase.
  5. Learn to ignore the Joneses. Focusing on your needs and goals rather than aligning them with the people in your life or in your social media feed is critical to being happy with the state of your finances and your life.
  6. Come up with strategies to help break your negative spending habits. For example, we’ve written about a simple $20 rule that can help break your credit card addiction. Explore other ways to break bad money habits here.
  7. Educate yourself. The more you know about your finances, the better off you’ll be. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply using an app to track your spending or asking your HR department for a review of your retirement savings options are good places to start. The key is to engage in day-to-day money management and establish a habit of saving and budgeting. 

The post More Than 40% of U.S. Adults Struggle to Make Ends Meet appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Is It OK to Spend Your Financial Aid Refund?

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Just a few weeks into their college education, many students receive funds totaling hundreds or possibly thousands of dollars — the “extra” money from the student’s financial aid package. Usually, the money comes with little to no information on how students should spend it, or how to return any funds they may not immediately need.What many students may not realize immediately is, the majority of the time, taking any extra money not truly needed to pay for educational expenses results in them owing even more student loan money and making payments over a longer period of time after graduation.

Simply learning about the money and creating a budget could prevent many students from adding to the average $34,144 student loan balance they are already expected to pay back.

What Is A Financial Aid Refund?

Your refund is the amount of money left over after all of your scholarships, grants, and federal and private student loans are applied toward tuition, fees and other direct educational expenses for the semester. The refund could come as a lump-sum direct deposit to your bank account, as cash or as a check.

The school legally has to disburse any leftover Federal Student Aid money you are awarded. “[Schools] cannot hold onto that credit balance unless the student gives written consent,” says Karen McCarthy, Director of Policy Analysis at National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA). In the case of a PLUS loan, the parent must give consent for the school to hold the credit balance.

Most refunds most likely come from leftover federal student loans, but recipients of some grants may receive a refund for unused funds as well.

In fall 2009, Brooklyn, N.Y., resident Crystal Chery, was just beginning an associate’s degree program at Kingsborough Community College. She qualified for the Pell Grant, which covered $5,350 of her tuition and expenses for the school year. After tuition and fees totaling $1,550 were paid, Chery received a credit for about $1,125 to her bank account each semester.

While there is no official record of exactly how many college students end up with a positive balance on their account after all of their financial aid package is applied, each semester possibly thousands of U.S. college students in the United States find themselves in a similar position as Chery did her freshman year.

The total amount of financial aid that a student is able to receive is up to the institution’s calculated cost of attendance, which is a big part of the math that goes into calculating a student’s financial aid award. Sometimes colleges pad their total cost of attendance estimates to include things that aren’t directly paid to the school, like books, housing, transportation or child care. The idea is that the student will use any leftover funds for other things they need in order to go to school.

“Kids going to a $4,000 community college can walk away with about $5,000 of refunded money,” says college aid expert Joe Orsolini, especially if they find ways to save on expenses like housing. In Chery’s case, she lived at home, which meant she didn’t need any funds for housing.

If you received a refund from a mix of loans, scholarships and grants, carefully examine your refund to understand where it came from and if you’ll have to pay back that money.

Grant and Scholarship refunds

Grants and scholarships — truly “free money” — are usually applied to your institutional bills first. There may be restrictions on how you can use money from these sources, as rules vary widely by state, institution and scholarship program regarding how students are allowed to spend the funds they receive.

Usually the amount of “free money” a student gets is smaller compared to loans they receive and is depleted by direct institutional bills, so most students don’t get that money refunded to them. However, it’s possible for some students who received a large amount of scholarships to be refunded “free” money.

Chery isn’t required to repay the leftover Pell grant money she received for her education, as she doesn’t fall under any special circumstances like students who may have withdrawn early from their program, or dropped to part-time enrollment during the payment period. In addition, the school was legally required to issue her a refund credit for the excess federal funds.

Student loan refunds

If you receive a refund from unused federal student loan money, you’re free to keep it, but remember you’re still borrowing that money. You will need to pay any federal loan money refunded to you, with interest, starting six to nine months after you graduate.

Generally speaking, you should return any unused loan money that you don’t need right away to avoid taking out more in loans than you really need. But if you need to keep it, make sure you spend the money wisely.

Whatever you do, “don’t go buy a car or go on spring break with [your student loan refund],” says Orsolini. If you’re spending federal loan money, a $10 pizza today at 6.5% APR will cost close to $20 to pay off in 20 years.

Do that math for thousands of dollars in student loans. Make your best effort to limit any flexible, frivolous or impulsive spending to money you don’t have to pay back with interest.

How you handle your student loan refund may also depend on what kind of loan it is — unsubsidized or subsidized.

Subsidized student loans

Interest won’t begin to accrue on subsidized student loan money until six months after you have graduated. So, if you keep your refund, you don’t have to worry about racking up interest charges on the debt you owe while you’re in school.

For that reason Orsolini argues students shouldn’t give back any “extra” subsidized loan money until they are in their last semester of college.

“Until you know for sure that you’ve made it to the finish line, hang on to that money because you never know what is going to happen,” says Orsolini. He recommends placing excess financial aid funds into a 529 college savings account, where it can grow, and you can use the money if you plan to attend graduate school.

If students don’t want to open a 529 account, Orsolini recommends they stash unused subsidized loan money in an emergency savings fund, to help maintain as much flexibility as possible in paying for college.

Orsolini says this method provides a financial safety net for students, as you never know what can happen to your income. If you choose to do this, you should pay back any unused subsidized loan money the month before your graduation to avoid paying interest.

Warning: Orsolini’s method takes a lot of self-restraint.

Unsubsidized student loans

Students shouldn’t pocket any unsubsidized student loan money, as interest will begin to accrue immediately, and keeping the money won’t be worth it.

“Even if you put it in a savings account for a few months, it’s going to accrue more interest as a loan than it would in the savings account,” says Ashley Norwood, Consumer and Regulatory Adviser at American Student Assistance (ASA), a nonprofit student loan advocacy group that helps students finance and repay their student loans.

Avoid keeping unneeded unsubsidized loan money at all costs if you can.

If you find yourself keeping the loan because you need to live off of it, Betsy Mayotte, Director of Consumer Outreach and Compliance at ASA, suggests you do your best to reduce your cost of attendance.

You could make up some or all of the maximum $2,000 a student can receive in unsubsidized loans by getting a part-time job or a work-study job, for example. If cost of living is too high at the school you’re attending, look at a cheaper school or consider moving home if the school is close enough

Should You Spend Your Refund — or Return It?

Unless you have restrictions on how you can use it, what you decide to do with your refund money as a college student is really up to you.

“The assumption is that the student is using that credit balance to pay for those [indirectly billed] expenses,” says McCarthy.

But students don’t always do that.

“When I was in college, I remember all of my friends getting True Religions and all of this stuff [with their refund money] … I did not,” says Chery. “I was focused on other things.”

Chery used her fall semester “refund” to buy equipment to launch a DJ career, starting with a $1,350 MacBook, which she used to create her own mixes and to use at gigs she booked while in school. With the following semester’s refund, Chery purchased a Canon 60D DSLR camera for another $1,200 because she wanted to “dabble in photography and promote [her business].”

Chery says the investment paid off. After booking larger, professional gigs and gaining some experience, she was able to present work that helped her land an internship with Hollywood, Calif.-based media company, REVOLT TV, where she got to work with big-name music artists like Sean “Diddy” Combs and Damon Dash.

“When I started making these investments, I didn’t know that they were going to alter my career like that,” says Chery, who now hosts and books events with hundreds or thousands in attendance throughout the northeast United States.

After you’ve allocated funds to different areas of your budget, you need to figure out what to do with any extra funds. If the money is “free,” meaning you don’t have to pay it back later, you can keep it, but you may need to look into what you are allowed to spend it on, says McCarthy, as there may be restrictions on how you can use scholarship or grant money.

If you think you have enough money for your needs, the experts at ASA and NASFAA agree students should immediately send back any money they don’t think they need, since students can always ask for that disbursement again later on.

Giving money back or canceling a federal student loan won’t affect how much financial aid you are offered the following semester and if you need the money later on in the current semester, Mayotte tells Magnify Money.

“Let’s say you refused all of the loans. You can go back to the financial aid office and ask for part or all of that loan money up to 180 days after the last day of classes,” adds Mayotte.

As long as you were eligible to receive the student loan funds during that pay period, you can receive a federal loan for a prior or the current payment period without penalty if you ask for it within the 180-day period.

For example, you can technically still receive loan money you denied during the fall semester if you request a late disbursement for that money during your spring semester as long as it’s within 180 days after the end of the payment period.

Ask Yourself These 3 Questions Before Spending (Or Returning) Your Refund

Have you paid for all of your non-negotiable expenses for the semester?

Certain non-negotiable expenses (read: tuition and fees) are usually billed at the beginning of the semester, but the school won’t send you a bill for everything you can’t succeed without, like technology for classes, a working laptop, or sheets for your dorm bed. Here are a few possible spending categories you may or may not include in your budget:

  • Living expenses not billed by the institution
  • Books and other educational supplies you’re going to need over the course of the whole term
  • Transportation (gas, on- and off-campus parking)
  • Child care, if you need this so that you can attend school
  • Miscellaneous personal expenses

Do you need the money to cover other college-related expenses?

There are a host of hidden college costs college-bound families fail to consider for one reason or another, and they can dry an unsuspecting student’s checking account. They are all the little things families don’t think about during move-in, like organization membership fees and paying for food outside of a prepaid student meal plan. If you can’t cover those things with part-time income during the school year, tally up an estimate and keep what loan money you need.

Do you have an emergency fund?

You should have every reason to have savings, especially if you’re paying for school on your own. You won’t get many opportunities to stash away $1,000 in cash working for minimum wage as a barista in school. Pocketing some of the money now will help you steer clear of rainy days and expensive borrowing options in the future when those hidden costs creep up on you. Set one up ASAP.

How to return your refund to the Department of Education

The rule is simple: Return the loan within 120 days of disbursement, and it will be like you never took it out in the first place.

The rule is found in the text of the Master Promissory Note, which all FSA borrowers are required to sign promising to pay the loans back before they can receive any federal aid funds. The following information is found under “Canceling Your Loan”:

You may return all or part of your loan to us. Within 120 days of the date your school disbursed your loan money (by crediting the loan money to your account at the school, by paying it directly to you, or both), you may cancel all or part of your loan by returning all or part of the loan money to us. Contact your servicer for guidance on how and where to return your loan money.

You do not have to pay interest or the loan fee on the part of your loan that is cancelled or returned within the timeframes described above. We will adjust your loan amount to eliminate any interest and loan fee that applies to the amount of the loan that is cancelled or returned.

If you make the 120-day deadline, you’re in the clear. You won’t be required to pay loan fees or any interest already accrued on unsubsidized loans in that time. Sometimes, your university can send it back on your behalf, so your first point of contact should be the financial aid office at your institution. Check with them to see if they can send the unused federal student loan funds back on your behalf, or if you will need to send the money back to your loan servicer on your own.

After the deadline, you’ll need to simply make a loan payment back to your loan servicer. You can begin to pay your loans back while still in college. If you do, you won’t pay any interest on subsidized student loan money (it doesn’t begin to accrue until six months after you graduate), but you will pay any loan fees charged to your account.

When will I get my financial aid refund?

If you’re expecting a refund, you aren’t likely to see that money until after the add/drop period for classes — the grace period during which you can change your choices without penalty — ends. That can be about three to four weeks into the semester, although some schools may disburse funds earlier. According to the Department of Education, schools must pay a credit balance directly to a student or parent no more than 14 days after the first day of class or when the balance occurred if it occurred after the first day of class.

Until then, you’ll have to cover your costs out of pocket.

“Students who are expecting refunds are very anxious for them,” says Norwood.

Norwood adds the anxiety may be because many students who see a refund check are lower income — they may see the money because they qualified for more aid. They may depend on the funds from the refund to pay for important costs related to their education such as rent for off-campus housing or educational supplies for classes.

If you missed something on your financial checklist — like signing the Master Promissory Note or completing Loan Entrance Counseling — over the summer, you may see funds even later than four weeks. Overall, if you’re hoping to use refund money to cover your rent or other school expenses, you may need to come up with the cash by other means.

“If [students] don’t budget well for the whole year, it’ll be the same thing in January,” says Mayotte.

There is a silver lining for you if you received Federal Student Aid (FSA). As of July 1, 2016, Title IV schools are required to provide a way for FSA recipients to purchase books and supplies required for the semester by the seventh day of the semester if:

  • The school was able to disburse FSA funds 10 days before the semester began, or
  • The student would have a credit balance after all FSA funds are applied.

The school doesn’t have to write you a check outright for books. Institutions can award the funds in school credit or bookstore credit, too, but must grant you the amount you are expected to spend on educational supplies according to the institution’s calculated cost of attendance by the end of the first week of classes.

The post Is It OK to Spend Your Financial Aid Refund? appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Guide to Paying for College in 2017

According to CollegeBoard, the cost of tuition, fees, and room and board has gone up about 162 percent at private nonprofit four-year colleges since 1971 when adjusted for inflation. Public schools have seen an increase of 142 percent in in-state tuition, fees, and room and board over the same time period.

College is an expensive endeavor, yet we know that those who hold bachelor’s degrees make an average of $1 million more over the course of their lives than those who do not. Higher education is still worth investing in, even if prices have increased astronomically.

Today we’ll look at how to evaluate the costs of college and how to get your education funded.

Part I: How Much Does College Really Cost?

When you first look at the cost of tuition and fees, room and board, and meal plans, most colleges appear oppressively expensive. Appearances are sometimes deceiving. The first number most people find is the advertised sticker price, and it isn’t what you end up shelling out for your education.

The number you actually end up paying — the net price — is usually lower for most students. Net price is how much the school charges minus the amount of financial aid you are awarded.

Net price vs. sticker price

If you already know how much financial aid you will be receiving, you can subtract that number from your school’s sticker price. The difference will be your net price.

If you want to get an estimate of the net price prior to applying, you can search for your school’s calculator via the U.S. Department of Education. There are some things to keep in mind as you use these calculators:

  • The numbers they produce will be estimates only, and are not guaranteed.
  • Some calculators base all calculations on in-state tuition. If you’re an out-of-state student, be mindful that your costs may be higher unless explicitly stated otherwise.
  • Some calculators base their numbers on financial aid opportunities available to first-year students. There is usually more funding for freshmen, so you can expect the subsequent three years to be more expensive.

Nonprofit vs. for-profit schools

Nonprofit schools tend to cost a good deal less than for-profit institutions. And, when you look at the net price of for-profit schools, they can cost even more than private nonprofit schools.

This is because for-profit schools offer less institutional aid — or financial aid through the college itself. Instead, they rely heavily on federal financial aid for the funding of their students’ education.

As a result, students who attend for-profit schools generally wind up with far more student loan debt after graduation. With 59 percent of students enrolled in a certificate or associate’s degree program, average student borrowing per year was at $6,179 for the 2011-12 school year compared to an average of just $953 at comparable public, nonprofit two-year institutions, according to a recent analysis by the Brookings Institution.

Because of this, the bulk of their advertising efforts are focused on low-income students who qualify for maximum federal financial aid. These students should be careful to weigh net prices at nonprofit institutions before agreeing to attend a for-profit school based on the sticker price.

Nonprofit institutions will offer more scholarships and grants, reducing the number of loans — and therefore debt — they have to take on.

Public vs. private school tuition

The sticker price on a public college is undoubtedly lower than that of private institutions. However, many private schools have large endowments providing substantial student aid at the institutional level. This aid is often extended to middle-income families even if they don’t qualify for a large amount of aid through federal programs.

For example, Cornell University offers significant grants to students from families with under $60,000 in annual income as long as their assets are under $100,000. In an example generated by the university, a traditional student from a household with $51,000 in annual income can qualify for over $64,000 in institutional grants — even when they hold personal assets of $3,000.

In this example, the student’s net price is a whopping $3,450 for one year at an Ivy League university.

What college expenses should I be prepared for?

Part II: How to Pay for College

There are several different ways to find money for college expenses. If you stay on top of financial aid application deadlines and have a high GPA and high test scores, you can easily shave tens of thousands of dollars off your cost of attendance.

In this section, we’ll cover the most common sources of college funding.

Understanding the FAFSA: The key to financial aid

Source: iStock

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the single most important document you will likely fill out as a college student.

Why?

Because without the FAFSA, you won’t be able to access the majority of the best financial aid options we are going to cover in this guide. Those include:

  • Grants
  • Work-study opportunities
  • Federal student loans
  • Direct PLUS Loans for parents

Not only will the FAFSA tell you how much aid you are eligible for through the federal government, but it is also a required step to getting institutional financial aid from your college or university.

How to fill out the FAFSA

It’s important to note that you do not have to pay to file the FAFSA. It is entirely free.

Go to https://fafsa.gov/ to create a Federal Student Aid account and start your application.

Important: You must fill out a FAFSA every year that you attend college.

Learn more with our in-depth FAFSA Guide >

Expected Family Contribution

The Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is how much the federal government determines you or your parents should be able to contribute to your education costs. This number is then used to figure out how much aid the government is willing to extend to you.

For example, to qualify for a full Pell Grant in the 2017-18 school year, your family’s expected family contribution can’t be higher than $5,328.

Collage-cost-2017-table

Some states have stricter deadlines than the federal government. Check your state’s deadline to be sure you get your application in on time.

It should be noted that students interested in FSEOG Grants and Perkins Loans should apply as soon as possible, as these funds are doled out on a first-come, first-served basis and actually do run out.

Student Loans: Explained

The final form of aid distributed by the federal government is student loans. You will know which federal student loans you qualify for after you fill out your FAFSA.

Because student loans will have to be repaid with interest, they should only be pursued after you have exhausted all grant, scholarship and work-study options.

Types of federal student loans

As an undergraduate student, there are a variety of federal student loans you may be offered.

Direct Loans, both subsidized and unsubsidized, come with the advantage of income-driven repayment options. There are also generous deferment, forgiveness and cancellation programs offered.

Important: You should be absolutely sure that you have maxed out your federal student loan eligibility before turning to private loans. Federal student debt often has better rates than private loans and a range of flexible repayment options.

Private student loans

If federal student loans aren’t enough, you can turn to private student loans as a last resort for college financing. These loans from banks, credit unions and online marketplace lenders do not have the same generous repayment programs, though some may have deferment options in some situations, such as unemployment.

Private loans come with variable or fixed interest rates. At this moment in time, interest rates are low. If you take out a variable interest rate loan, the rate is likely to go up over the course of your loan. Fixed interest rates start higher, but remain stable throughout the course of your repayment.

Should I get a co-signer?

If you haven’t yet established credit, you will likely need a co-signer in order to qualify for private student loans. If you’re a nontraditional student and have a less-than-stellar credit history, you’ll likely also benefit from having a co-signer.

If you have a good credit score, you can skip the co-signer. But if you do need some help, look for loan options with a co-signer release. This lets the co-signer off the hook after a certain period of time — generally once your payment history has allowed you to establish a better credit history yourself.

How much should I borrow?

You don’t want to borrow more than you can reasonably afford to pay back. Certain professions that require extensive education, like doctors and lawyers, will have considerably more student loan debt than other professions.

However, some professions, such as teaching, may require a master’s degree in some regions. Four years of undergrad plus grad school isn’t cheap, but a teacher’s entry salary typically doesn’t make up for all of your education expenses.

In these situations, talk to professionals in the field you want to enter to find a reasonable expectation for entry salary and potential salary growth over the course of a career. While using online sources to find this information is great, it’s not going to replace the regional knowledge of a professional working in the field.

You can then plug that number into CollegeBoard’s Student Loan Calculator, along with how much money you intend to borrow. It will analyze and tell you if your monthly payments will exceed 10 to 15 percent of your monthly income — which is generally considered to be the absolute maximum you should allot to student loan payments.

If you take out federal student loans, you may be able to borrow more as most loan options allow you to pay based on your income level. Just be careful not to bury yourself in debt — you don’t want to be paying student loans into your seventies.

Scholarships

You won’t find scholarships on the FAFSA, but they’re a great alternative to student loans. When you are awarded a scholarship, you receive free money for school that you never have to pay back.

Merit-based vs. need-based scholarships

While the majority of grants are need-based, the majority of scholarships are merit-based. There may be maximum income levels or priority given to those in dire financial straits, but for most scholarships, you’re going to have to do a little bit of work beyond filling out an application.

Most scholarships will require you to maintain a certain GPA, though standards vary wildly. Almost all scholarships will require some type of essay. Traditionally, this is done in written format, but in 2017 some scholarship essays can be done via multimedia such as video.

If your family’s income doesn’t help you establish a strong financial need, don’t lose hope. There are plenty of scholarships out there that have no financial requirements and are completely based on your essay — on rare occasion, they won’t even ask about grades.

Recurring vs. one-time scholarships

Most scholarships only last one semester or one school year. However, there are some you can apply for that will cover your entire tenure as an undergrad. Keep in mind that these options are likely to require you to maintain a certain GPA throughout your studies.

How do I find scholarships?

The first place you can look is your financial aid office. Many schools have endowments not just for grants but for scholarships as well.

After you have exhausted scholarship options at your school, look in places such as:

  • Professional organizations in the field you want to enter
  • Professional organizations or unions your parents may belong to
  • National student organizations related to your major
  • Potential future employers — especially if they’re a larger company
  • Within the community you grew up in
  • Organizations based on your ethnicity or heritage
  • Religious organizations
  • Organizations related to any extracurricular activities or hobbies

You can look for scholarships on major search engines, like Fastweb, CollegeBoard and Scholarships.com, but you’ll find a ton of competition. If you can look for scholarships focused on what makes you unique, you’re likely to find a dramatically smaller applicant pool, boosting your chances of winning an award.

How soon should I start applying?

Start applying for scholarships as soon as possible. It is possible to fund your education this way in its entirety, though you will have to fill out a lot of applications and write a lot of essays. The sooner you get started, the better.

Each scholarship has a window, which is typically opened annually or once a semester, in which you can file an application. While high school sophomores will be able to apply for some scholarships, opportunities really start opening up in your junior year.

Grants

Grants are money you never have to pay back unless you drop out of school or in some other way violate the terms of agreement. In undergraduate studies, they are typically need-based.

In order to qualify for federal grant programs, you must fill out the FAFSA and meet eligibility requirements. There are four types of federal grants:

Pell Grants

Federal Pell Grants are distributed based on income-eligibility only. They can be granted to full-time, three-quarter-time, half-time or less-than-half-time students.

For the 2017-18 school year, the maximum Pell Grant awards are:

  • $5,920 for full-time students
  • $4,440 for three-quarter-time students
  • $2,960 for half-time students
  • $1,480 for less-than-half-time students

These awards are distributed in two parts over two semesters.

During the summer of 2017, Summer Pell Grants were awarded for the first time since 2011. These grants gave you an additional 50 percent of the full award to spend on summer studies — particularly helpful to community college students whose course of study typically runs through the summer.

The 2017 expansion was part of a budget deal passed by Congress in May affecting only one school year. Whether Summer Pell Grants will be available for the 2018-19 school year or any other future years still remains up in the air. Legislation for the permanent reinstatement of Summer Pell Grants was introduced in the Senate in April, but received no vote.

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOGs) are available to students with financial needs in excess of what the Pell Grant can address. These funds are distributed to schools up front, and then awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

The maximum award is between $100 and $4,000, depending on your personal financial situation.

Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants

If you lost a parent while they were serving in the military in Iraq or Afghanistan post-9/11, you may be able to get a full Pell Grant regardless of your family income through the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant.

In order to qualify, you must:

  • Meet all Pell Grant requirements save EFC requirements.
  • Have lost your parent before the age of 24 — or while you were enrolled in college at least part time at the time of your parent or guardian’s death.

Over the next couple of years, the maximum award for this grant will be reduced thanks to budget sequestration. If your grant is distributed prior to Oct. 1, 2017, you will receive a maximum award of $5,511.52.

If your grant is distributed between Oct. 1, 2017, and Oct. 1, 2018, you will receive a maximum award of $5,529.28.

TEACH Grants

If you are planning on becoming a teacher, you may be interested in a Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant. In order to qualify, you must be enrolled in a TEACH-eligible program. Not all schools participate, and the ones that do determine which of their programs qualify for TEACH Grants, so be sure to sit down with your financial aid counselor to determine your potential eligibility.

When you accept a TEACH Grant, you are agreeing to serve four out of your first eight years in the workforce in a high-need specialization in a low-income area. You can also meet this obligation by teaching at a Bureau of Indian Education school.

High-need specializations include:

If you do not keep your promise to serve in this capacity, your grant will turn into a Direct Unsubsidized Loan, which will have to be repaid.

The maximum grant amount is $3,724 if disbursed prior to Oct. 1, 2017. If disbursed between Oct. 1, 2017, and Oct. 1, 2018, the maximum award is $3,736.

State grants

Your state may also issue need-based grants. Generally you will be redirected to your state’s application page at the end of your FAFSA application, but if you want to check out your options beforehand, you can find information from your state’s department of higher education here.

Institutional grants

Your college or university may also issue need-based grants. While your EFC is not likely to be measured in the same way, a FAFSA application is still required in order to be considered.

Some colleges, though typically not Ivy League schools, will offer merit-based grants, as well. Your grades will be a factor here.

Work-Study Programs

Work-study programs are another form of aid that will not be accessible unless you complete your FAFSA.

Many schools participate in federally backed work-study programs for students with a financial need. You are assigned a set amount of hours dependent on your financial need. You may find yourself working for the school, in a community service role, or in a field relevant to your course of study.

Work-study programs pay at least minimum wage and pay at least once per month. You can choose to receive a monthly paycheck or have your pay directly counted against any money you may owe the school.

Your eligibility for work-study will be determined by your FAFSA application.

529 college savings plans

529 accounts are tax-advantaged accounts to help you save for future college expenses. Contributions go in after you’ve paid taxes on your income. That money is invested and grows tax-free — as long as you spend the money on qualified educational expenses.

Types of 529 accounts

Not all 529 accounts are created equal. They are issued by state, and each state has specific rules on how their 529 accounts can be used. However, many states will let you purchase their 529 accounts even if you are not a state resident.

There are two basic kinds of 529 accounts.

College Savings Plans

The College Savings Plan structure allows your money to grow in traditional investments as made available by your state. You can use this money to pay for school at almost any U.S. institution — and even some schools abroad.

When you take money out, it will be based on the real dollar value your investments have grown to. For example, if you have $20,000 in your account, you would be able to take $20,000 out. If school cost $25,000, you would still have to find $5,000 to fund the additional tuition and fees not covered by your 529.

Utah’s 529 plan is a College Savings Plan, and commonly cited as one of the best in the nation.

Prepaid Tuition Plans

Prepaid Tuition Plans allow you to save for tomorrow’s college at today’s rates. There may be different tiers of saving for different types of schools.

For example, Pennsylvania’s Guaranteed Savings Plan 529 option currently allows you to buy credits at 2016-17 rates. These credits will be valid when your child goes to school in the future — even if tuition rates have skyrocketed.

One thing to be careful of with Prepaid Tuition Plans is that if you save at the state school level, and your child ends up not wanting to attend a state school when they graduate from high school, you could run into some funding problems. Pennsylvania allows you to change your investment tier at any time, but this is a potential point of friction you should consider at the outset of your 529 decision.

What can I use my 529 account for?

You can only use the money in your 529 account for qualified educational expenses. If you use the money for anything else, you will have to pay taxes on the withdrawal.

Qualified educational expenses include:

  • Tuition and fees*
  • Room and board — though you must be enrolled at least half-time to claim this expense
  • Books
  • Technology required for school — including internet access
  • Required equipment and materials as dictated by your professor

*Some Prepaid Tuition Plans cover tuition and fees only.

How to make a 529 withdrawal

Most programs allow you to make a withdrawal online or via postal mail. Your 529 account issuer will not keep records of how that money was spent. Producing documentation to show that the money was spent on educational expenses falls squarely on your shoulders.

Pros of 529 accounts:

  • Studies show that regardless of how much you save, the fact that you are saving for college makes your child more likely to attend college.
  • If you have a high enough income level, your child may not qualify for need-based financial aid. Saving in a 529 plan is a generous investment in their future given that they won’t have as many funding opportunities available to them.
  • Because you are investing, your money is likely to grow — and grow federally tax-free at that. This means you won’t have to save as much in a College Savings Plan in order to meet your goals.

Cons of 529 accounts:

  • The amount you have saved could reduce institutional aid — especially if you open the account in your child’s name. Open the account in your name and list your child as a beneficiary instead.
  • When saving in a Prepaid Tuition Plan, do your best to ensure you’re saving at a level your child will actually be able to use. If they don’t end up going to school in state, you could hit a bump in the road if you’ve been saving at state school tuition levels.
  • Because you are investing, there’s no guarantee of growth. You could conceivably lose money in a 529 account.

FAQ

To figure out if your college degree is worth the cost, you need to figure out the net price of your education and your expected salary. A good tool to figure this out is College Reality Check.

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, College Reality Check helps you estimate the net price of your school based on a number of different factors. Then it shows you how much you can expect to make upon graduation.

Technically, you’re only allowed to spend federal student loans on educational expenses. These can include:

  • Tuition and fees.
  • Room and board
  • Books, supplies and equipment
  • Transportation while at school
  • Dependent child care expenses

No one will be monitoring your bank account. However, if you end up having the money to go on shopping sprees after you’ve paid for all of the above expenses, you’re probably borrowing too much. Consider returning the money rather than paying interest on it after you graduate.
Check your loan agreement with non-federal lenders for specific restrictions on private student loans.

Most of the time, no, you do not. However, some colleges and universities require their traditional freshmen to live on campus. Even these stipulations can sometimes be worked around if you are commuting from your parents’ home.

If at all possible, yes. Make an effort to make at least interest-only payments. This will keep interest from accruing while you’re in school and deferment, which costs you more money in the long run.

The only time it doesn’t matter as much is when you have Direct Subsidized Loans — which will not accrue interest while you’re in school. Even then, making principal payments early isn’t a bad thing if you can swing it.

If you take out a Direct Loan, you will be assigned one of nine loan servicers. You will make payments through your assigned loan servicer.

Those who take out Perkins Loans will repay directly through their school or a loan servicer designated by their school.

You can repay private loans through your lender.

If you miss one payment on your federal student loans, you will have to make it up before 90 days — otherwise you get reported to the credit bureaus.

If you miss several payments on your Direct Loans and don’t make payments for 270 days, you will be in default, which puts you at risk of not only being reported to the credit bureaus but also losing all benefits of federal student loans like income-driven repayment options. You could also end up in court.

Consequences for Perkins Loans and private student loans depend on the agreement you sign prior to disbursement, but they can report you to the credit bureaus as soon as you are 30 days late with a payment.

If you have Direct Loans, get on an income-driven repayment plan. These plans tie your maximum payment to a percentage of your disposable income.

If you have a private loan, you may want to look into refinancing for lower monthly payments.

If you have a Perkins Loan, set up an appointment with your financial aid office or loan servicer to discuss your options.

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