Fact: College is expensive. 

Fact: You knew that already…

So how do you manage to pay for a very expensive item, when you don’t even know how much it will cost? A good place to start is with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

Step 1: Make sure you’re at the correct website: www.FAFSA.ed.gov and not www.FAFSA.com, which charges you a fee to file your FAFSA…which is free to do, by the way. That’s what the first “F” stands for, remember. FAFSA

Step 2: Instead of actually beginning the process of creating your application, I recommend you spend 9:56 watching four very helpful and brief videos the FAFSA folks have posted on YouTube (follow the link on the bottom right section of the FAFSA homepage).

Step 3: Repeat step 2 until you fully understand the process and can teach it to somebody else. That’s not meant as an insult to financial aid newbies, but merely a recognition that a complex and often unnerving process lies before you — figuring out what college costs and how to pay for it — so it’s worth your time to really get a good handle on each part of the process.

The FAFSA is a good place to start because no matter who you are, no matter where your student wants to attend, and regardless of how much money you made or how much you doubt you’ll receive anything called “student aid”, you absolutely, positively, must complete the FAFSA application to be eligible not only for need-based aid but for many merit-based scholarships. If your child is a senior, you’ll be doing this one year from now. If your kids are younger, why not get some good information now and avoid those “Gosh, I don’t know where to start” anxious moments?

Next up: How to calculate your EFC (Expected Family Contribution) and how to administer smelling salts to Dad when he chokes on the numbers.