“...How can I be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes? First.. get a million dollars...” -- Steve Martin

The financial aid “gurus” love to tell you that they can lower college costs, get you more money for college, and find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Everything from shifting assets to Aunt Dottie and Uncle Moe, to deferring contributions to your retirement accounts, in the collegiate equivalent of the street corner shell game. Now you see money for college. Now you don’t!

While some strategies can, in fact, save you money and/or increase the financial aid awarded by a college, many so-called “cost saving” manipulations -- or “tricks” -- are simply not worth either the short term gain or the long term impact on your pocket book. In almost every instance, time spent trying to exact another 0.025% in financial aid from a school is time taken away from that which could actually help you pay for college.

Whether one thinks any particular financial game changer is a good bet or not --the financial aid award is not likely to be impacted greatly, one way or the other, by a “strategy” that endeavors to work the system. The “percentage” effect on the bottom line (the Expected Family Contribution or EFC) is typically so small as to have a negligible impact upon financial aid awards. And, more often than not, students, and parents, end up hurting themselves financially by over-strategizing. [Like the folks who say, “Maybe I shouldn’t contribute to a 529 Plan because it will effect financial aid.” WHAAAAAAAAAT?]

In reality, students (and their parents) can pay for college without doing financial contortions, deferring retirement, or going broke. Here are just a few simple ways to get the biggest bang for your college buck:

-Choose colleges (to apply to, and, ultimately, to attend) that are affordable;

-Know the cost of attending any particular college (use the Net Cost Calculators on college websites);

-Open, and fund, a 529 Plan;

-Work during the summer and part-time during the school year;

-Submit FAFSA and, where required, the CSS Profile and the schools’ own financial aid forms;

-Save money for college (and yes, saving in anyone’s name is much better than not saving at all);

-Compare and contrast financial aid awards from every college you’ve been accepted to (and do this BEFORE you say “Yes” to any college);

-Never be afraid to negotiate your award. The worst they can do is say, “No”;

-Do not borrow more for college (if you borrow at all) than you can afford to pay back. [SEE, Choose colleges that are affordable];

-Search and apply, apply, apply for outside scholarships. [Free money = financial freedom. Which is a whole lot better than a lifetime of student debt!]

More to it than this? Of course. The process of paying for college, much like the process of applying to college and actually getting in, has become so convoluted and unnecessarily complicated as to spin the head of a J. P. Morgan. Still, keeping these basics in mind, and putting them into play as part and parcel of your college plan, will serve you, and your wallet, well.

There is no magic bullet when it comes to college affordability and actually paying for college. There does, however, need to be a whole lot more common sense.

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Plan. Prepare. Prevail!

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