Two of the largest expenses in many families’ budgets are housing and higher education. If you have college age children, it may make sense to ease your overall budget burden by checking your eligibility for student financial aid using the “FAFSA,” the government’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
FAFSA is a multi-page form used by Federal Student Aid (a part of the U.S. Department of Education or DOE) to calculate eligibility for federal grants and loans as well as resources from states and institutions of higher education.
The FAFSA application for academic year 2013-14 was posted January 1, 2013, on the FAFSA website . You can complete and submit the FAFSA application online or print and mail. If you need a paper FAFSA application in English or Spanish sent to you, call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 800-433-3243.
FAFSA deadlines vary by state but are approaching fast. The earliest deadline is Connecticut’s on February 15, quickly followed by California, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland and Michigan in early March. (All state deadlines are available on the FAFSA website .)
Find out your state’s deadline, advises Joe DePaulo, executive vice president at Sallie Mae, a financial services company in Reston, Virginia, and check your college’s deadlines and additional financial aid application requirements so you don’t miss out.
At CollegeAnswer.com , Sallie Mae offers free how-to videos and checklists to help make the FAFSA process easier for first-timers, including these tips:
- Gather necessary information—Collect the documents with the information you’ll need to complete the FAFSA application, such as student and parent driver’s licenses, latest federal income tax returns, W-2 forms, bank statements, investment information and Social Security numbers.
- Print a FAFSA Worksheet—This worksheet  provides a preview of the questions you will be asked on the FAFSA so you can double check that you have everything you’ll need.
- Apply for a PIN—Your PIN (link on CollegeAnswer.com ) can be used each year to apply online for federal student aid and access your Federal Student Aid records.
- Don’t let income tax filings slow you down—the FAFSA requires students and parents to use 2012 tax information, but don’t panic: families can use their 2011 taxes or another best estimate to get started. Once 2012 taxes have been filed, the FAFSA can be updated.
He Who Hesitates
Federal Student Aid processes more than 21 million FAFSA applications annually. De Paulo advises submitting yours as soon as possible to improve your chances of receiving aid. (Use this DOE online tool to get an estimate  of what you might qualify for.)