Maximizing financial aid

As students head off to college, dealing with the costs of education can be overwhelming. Add in the cost of living like food, books, and basic accommodations like furnishing a college room and the cost can grow quickly. Good news, financial aid has taken these things into account when calculating their cost of attendance. So, if you choose, you can maximize your financial aid to cover college-related costs. That means taking advantage of all your options, like scholarships, grants, work studies, on-campus jobs, and even student loans.

The best solution is to get the most "free money" first. Here are some quick tips for getting more free money.

  • Apply early, apply often - apply for every scholarship and grant you can find, even if it may not seem like a perfect fit for your major or field of study. If you don't apply, you can't get it. You may not get everything you apply for, but getting your name out there is the only way to get ahead.
  • Search local - many local companies are looking for talented local students to help out. It gives them a good connection with you and the community and gives you the free money you need. Start by calling reputable local companies and asking them if they have a scholarship program.
  • Look for work study programs - these programs can be hard to come by since most of them are need-based, but apply yourself early and get your name in the running for these positions and you've got a better chance at money that doesn't have to be paid back.

Think about college as a full-time job. Colleges figure in the additional costs of living, including things like computers and transportation. That means that your financial aid, including loans can cover some of these costs. Now, make sure you don't borrow too much, or try to live beyond your means, but using some of your financial aid to cover the basics is okay. Never borrow more than you need and always try to get as much free and cheap money from grants, scholarships and federal aid as possible. If you've exhausted your other options student loans can help you get by while you're in school. Here are some tips for using them wisely.

  • Seek free money first - always look for money you don't have to pay back. Don't be lazy here; a little work up front pays off huge in the long run. Some great places to start are your college financial aid office, your local library, or use the U.S. Department of Labor’s FREE scholarship search tool
  • Look for alternative resources - check out the campus and community library for books. Online resources often sell books at a discount. Buy used. Shop at thrift stores or discount groceries to reduce your costs. Clip coupons. There are lots of creative ways to reduce your costs so you don't have to use student loans to get by.
  • Look for work - working at least part time is a great way to offset the costs of college. Many employers are looking for talented college students, and they like the flexible hours that students are able to work. Check into part-time jobs that work around your schedule to help with the costs of college.
  • Use your financial aid wisely - never borrow too much or use your student loans for purchases that aren't for college. That doesn't mean taking your extra student loan money and getting a big TV for your dorm room. That means being smart with your purchasing and realizing that a refund is still part of the loan, and you're required to pay it back with interest.
  • If you don't need it, pay it back - It's as simple as that. If you use the money, you're taking a loan, so if you can offset your loans with work or other money, you're better off in the long run. If you don't need the money from your loan, pay it back immediately and save yourself long-term interest costs.

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