On Thursday, families can start submitting the federal student aid form that will determine how much in loans and grants a college student will receive next school year.
Granted, filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, sort of like an extra-long tax return, isn't a fun way to ring in the New Year. But doing so can be the first good financial move you make next year.
"The sooner you get it done, the better," says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid, an online provider of aid information.
That's because states and colleges typically use the FAFSA to decide how to dole out their money, and they can have early deadlines.
In Maryland, students must apply by March 1 to get state aid.
School deadlines vary. Many have two pools of money with different deadlines, with more money available in the pool with the earlier deadline, Kantrowitz says.
If you don't think you'll qualify for need-based aid because of income, fill out the FAFSA anyway. Even a family earning $100,000 can qualify if a student attends a pricey school, Kantrowitz says.
Almost all families now fill out the FAFSA online by going to www.fafsa.ed.gov. Because you may be filling out the form before you prepare your tax return, you will need your last pay stub, a W-2 and last year's tax return.
One advantage to filling out the FAFSA online is that the software program can catch some errors immediately, but not all. Among the common mistakes:
* Reporting adjusted gross income on the line requesting tax liability.
* Using a different spelling of your name than what appears on your Social Security card.
* Forgetting to sign the form. To sign an online application, use a PIN number available at www.pin.ed.gov.
There are consultants who charge a fee, from $50 to thousands of dollars, to fill out the FAFSA form for you. Some promise to maximize your financial aid.
Kantrowitz advises families not to be intimidated by the form. You can end up with more money if you don't have to pay a consultant, he says.
And plenty of free help is available. You can call the Federal Student Aid Information Center, 800-433-3243, if you have a question about filling out the form.
The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators hosts a program through which families around the country can get help with the FAFSA. Check the dates and locations at www.collegegoalsunday.usa.org.
And go to Kantrowitz's site, www.finaid.org, for tips to maximize need-based aid.
The tips include paying off credit cards and other consumer debt; not saving money in the child's name; prepaying a mortgage and reducing cash by buying a car or other necessity before filling out the FAFSA.
Find more Eileen Ambrose columns at baltimoresun.com/ambrose