What is the secret to getting the most money possible to pay for school when you are a military spouse? Getting your FAFSA in right away.
On January 1, the annual free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) will be released and with it will come a deluge of applications seeking help paying for school.
The earlier you get your application in, the more likely you are to receive the maximum financial help you deserve. Want that maximum money? Start now.
We cannot say that strongly enough: START NOW.
Step One: Get a FAFSA PIN -- Today.
In order to start your FAFSA application, you have to establish an online identity with the FAFSA website. They call this process "applying for a PIN."
It is a lot like how you need a PIN (Personal Identification Number) to sign your taxes if you use TurboTax or another online app. This verifies that you really are who you say you are, and you cannot get aid without it.
Step Two: Get Your Tax Information Ready
To complete your FAFSA, you will need to be able to report your assets as of the day of the application.
For many of us, that means we need to get our hands on our own tax information from the last fiscal year.
If you were unemployed or did the mighty work of a mom at home last year, go ahead and get your FAFSA filled out on the morning of January 1. What are you waiting for?
For those employed, your most recent pay-stub will probably have your year-to-date pay, but if it doesn't, you will need to get your tax information from your employer.
Since most companies begin to issue W-2s and other tax documents to their employees as soon as the New Year begins, they might be able to rush yours or provide it to you immediately -- it's worth asking.
Once you have your income and asset information in hand, it is time to fill out the FAFSA.
Step Three: Figure Out Your Top Ten Schools
Contrary to popular belief, you do not need an acceptance letter in hand to apply for financial aid. Little known secret: You can actually apply for the aid first.
Even if you do not know where you are applying to school, you probably have a good idea of where you hope to be -- and FAFSA understands that. So they let you list the top ten schools where you think you will be using the aid.
Should misfortune (or a PCS) strike again, you can change your FAFSA when the time comes.
Generally speaking, your school will ask you during the application process if you re applying for aid, and with your acceptance letter or soon after you will receive a summary of financial options available to you.
If you end up having to change schools midterm, your FAFSA allotment might also change, but you should work with your financial aid administrators on this directly.
There are resources on base to help you navigate this too. Check your branch’s education offices -- we have guides for resources available in your branch here-- and ask them to assist you in the process.
Step Four: Apply As Early As Possible -- and No Later Than March 1
While June 1 is the official cutoff date for any application for the 2013-2014 school year, March 1 is actually the magical date by which you will need your application in if you are going back to school this fall.
March 1 is what you will frequently see referred to as the "priority deadline." Applications that are sent in by the beginning of March are given priority consideration for low-interest loans (like Federal Direct and Perkins loans), work-study funding, and many grants.
If you apply after March 1, you are probably only going to get Stafford Loans and Pell Grants (if you qualify).
So if you think there is even a chance that you might want to go back to school this year, get your FAFSA filed and done -- and change it later if need be.
Step Five: Be Your Best Advocate
Hooray, your FAFSA is filed! Now you can kick back and cool your heels and wait until school starts ... if you want to lose out on your best shot at funding.
Instead, let your school know right away that your FAFSA is filed, and ask if there are any school-funded programs for which you are eligible.
Many schools determine who is most in need of the grants they have to offer (separate of what the federal government will assist you with) by the information you disclose in your FAFSA -- yet another reason you will be glad you have it done early.
FAFSA in hand, you can now also appeal to the myriad scholarship and grant organizations that try to help military spouses pursue higher education.
Many bases have spouses' organizations that sponsor scholarships, from the NCO Spouses Club to the Officers' Spouses Club.
To learn more about the many other scholarships for which you might be eligible, look at the National Resources Directory. Programs and scholarships for spouses include the Air Force Association Spouse's Scholarship, American Freedom Foundation/Kaplan University Scholarship, the American Legion Auxiliary program, Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Education Foundation, and many, many others.
Even if you decide not to take funding -- even if you decide not to go back to school -- fill out your FAFSA. Fill out your FAFSA and do it as soon after January 1 as you possibly can. Getting into school should be the tough part; financing it doesn't have to be.