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How To

Before College: Creating a Personal Financial Plan

Attending college can be one of the best choices you make. It's also one of the biggest investments.

If you’re an aspiring college student who’s concerned about making smart financial moves (and avoiding unwise ones), you're not alone in wanting to get off on the right foot.

College can be an effective tool to help you achieve your dreams, but it’s also a big investment. And like any other investment, it should benefit you — not burden you — in the future.

So how do you know if you’re planning for college responsibly? Create a personal financial plan. This takes some time and research, but there are many resources to help you along the way.

Start with the FAFSA.

“The absolute starting point in determining eligibility for financial aid,” says Cameron Neal, Senior Financial Aid Manager at Full Sail, “is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It is a free application that determine a student’s eligibility for federal grants and loans. There is no obligation or commitment by simply filling one out, and you can list multiple schools as recipients if you’re ‘shopping around.’”

Look for supplementary financial aid.

“Search for ways to save on tuition,” says Cameron. “Don’t be afraid – or forget – to apply for scholarships! Extracurricular activities and good grades will make you eligible for more opportunities to apply. It is best to always balance the options that the university may offer with independent research for any and all external options. There are free scholarship search engines that let students explore options based on location, demographic, and course of study.”

Make a list of non-tuition expenses.

Many students are understandably focused on the exact, per-credit-hour costs for the schools they’re interested in. However, it’s easy to overlook the costs of books, supplies, housing, and transportation — which are key factors in building out an accurate college financial plan.

Research whether your desired university has on-campus or off-campus housing. What are the costs of living in the city where this school is located? Will you need to purchase a car or pay for public transportation?

Also consider groceries and other living expenses. Will you purchase a food plan? How much can you afford to spend on other groceries and personal care items? Will you need to pay for a phone or car insurance?

Use an online calculator to double-check your math.

There are a variety of online costs and savings calculators — like this one from BigFuture — that are great for double-checking your financial plan, or for beginning one if you still need help getting started.

Determine how you’ll finance your expenses.

“Whether you’re paying for college expenses out of pocket, with financial aid, or a combination of both,” Cameron says. “Always examine the ratio of your own prepared finances in relation to the costs of the degree. The financial aid office is always a source for students to learn about their options, discuss current and future costs, and examine repayment options.”

Savings help, too. And as the adage goes, the best time to start saving is yesterday. If you haven’t started yet, though, today is the next best time to begin. By developing a habit of saving money — and accumulating savings to provide yourself with a financial cushion — you can create a solid, stable foundation upon which to build your life and career.

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