If you, or someone you know, is going to college, or starting at a university, then chances are you need to apply for financial aid. Even if you don’t think you’ll qualify, there are often partial grants, federal loans, and various work-study programs that can help pay for college. To apply for any federal financial aid, you’ll need to fill out a form called the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This form requires you to submit detailed financial information which is verified against IRS records, and requires you to sign that all information is true under penalty of perjury. This is better than anyone else can really do as far as verifying your financial status, so many other financial aid grantors, including the universities themselves, rely on your submitted FAFSA.
You have to fill out a FAFSA every year you are in college to continue to qualify for need-based financial aid. This is not one of those programs where you fill something out once. The easiest way to submit your FAFSA is online at fafsa.gov
Note: That is GOV, not COM!
The real free FAFSA website is: fafsa.gov – Do NOT use fafsa.com.
(Do be aware that fafsa.gov may redirect — automatically switch you — to fafsa.ed.gov which is the Department of Education’s website — ed.gov — this is OK.)
Unfortunately, where there is a government program, there are scammers looking to take money from unsuspecting citizens. In this case, the most important tip off for you should be that the first F in FAFSA stands for FREE. If someone is charging you money to fill out, or submit, your FAFSA, you are getting scammed, close your browser and start over. Do NOT enter any credit card or banking information.
The real website for submitting your FAFSA is fafsa.gov. It is a federal government website and it uses the .gov extension. Unfortunately, someone has decided to make some money by using the domain fafsa.com, taking advantage of the fact that most people are more familiar with the common .com extension. Google gets it right, but if you “remember” the website and type in FAFSA.com, you won’t end up on the real FAFSA website.
Now, in all fairness, the company does mention in several places on its homepage that it is not affiliated with the Department of Education, and that you can fill out your FAFSA for free. However, the colored button that attracts the most attention says simply, “File Online Now”, and more than a few unsuspecting folks have clicked there thinking they are filling out the form the standard way on the on the government’s website.
Technically, FAFSA.com is a company that “aids” you in filling out your form. They charge you $80 to do so. However, the FAFSA form is not complicated and most people should be more than capable of filling it out on their own, thus saving $80. Plus, the FAFSA form asks for pretty much every single piece of identifying information you can have. When you use FAFSA.gov you are giving your social security number and tax information to the people that already have it, the Federal Government. When you use FAFSA.com you are giving your social security number and tax information to a third-party.
Once you’ve clicked past that front page, you will fill in everything, they’ll ask you for your $80 payment and then they’ll submit your information. If you figure our your mistake somewhere along the line, most people I’ve talked to say they’ll only give you half of your money back, making using FAFSA.com an expensive $40 mistake for something that should be free.
Pro tip: Even if you are already going to school, you can still contribute money to your 529 plan and then use it to pay for your costs. You may still be eligible for a state tax deduction on the contributions. You can get detailed instructions for opening a 529 plan online here.