Peer Advice: What to do With Your Student Refund Check

The start of every new school year means a lot of students look forward to their financial aid disbursing – but for all the wrong reasons. The infamous refund check, the check handed over to students after aid is applied to their account, leaves many saying “I can’t wait for school to start again so I’ll get a refund check and actually have some money.” What they don’t always realize is what that refund check really is.

A refund check is money that is directly given to you from your school, but it’s not a gift. It is the excess money left over from your financial aid package after your tuition and fees have been paid. But where is this money coming from – grants? Scholarships? Not quite.

Schools use “gift aid” first to pay your tuition and fees, so grants and scholarships are exhausted first. So for most students, that means a refund check is leftover student loan money… That means the money in that refund check will need to be paid back in the future, and could be accumulating interest from the time that check makes its way into your eager hands. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it if you need it, either. Some students use their refund checks to purchase education-related items like books, laptops, or other program essentials – items your student loans were intended to cover.

However, it can be really tempting to use that extra money to enjoy some non-essentials.  And by that, I mean anything that doesn’t directly contribute to your academic success. Too many students spend their student loan refunds on trips during breaks, new clothes, and dorm decorations. While these costs all might be associated with what you consider the “college experience,” they are not essential for helping you earn that degree.

As an alternative to spending that refund check without care, I offer some suggestions for when you find yourself with more financial aid than you need:

  1. Give it back. Here’s a thought – if you really don’t need the extra cash, don’t take it! It’s not free money when interest and repayment are attached, so if you’ve over-borrowed, you can give the money back and keep that debt balance low. Or maybe you decide you only need half of your refund check to cover the cost of your textbooks, and the rest can be returned. You can pay some or all of your refund right back to your loan servicer as soon as you want and ta-da! You’re rid of a chunk of your student loans before you graduate.
  2. Only accept what you need. Alternatively, you can choose to avoid temptation altogether by only accepting the amount of money you need to cover your tuition and fees. That’s right, YOU get to decide how much financial aid money you want to accept – and it doesn’t have to be every single dollar that’s awarded to you! When your school sends you your award letter, look over your expected costs to determine how much you truly need to borrow, and how much you can decline.
  3. Hold the money in your account. But only for the current semester. Maybe you are expecting to have some additional charges throughout the semester. Holding onto your refund is a good safety net for extra costs, but once the semester is over, give the excess money back to your servicer so you don’t spend it on anything non-school-related (and try to pay any interest that may have accumulated while you were holding onto that money).
  4. Spend it on books or school supplies. Part of the reason you were given extra money in your financial aid package was to cover other school-related costs outside of tuition, so this is a worthwhile expense for your refund if you need some help. Supplies might include notebooks, calculators, or even a computer if you absolutely need one.
  5. Spend it on transportation. If you live off-campus, it might be costing you to get to class. Whether you have to take the bus or drive yourself, this every day travel expense can get pricey, especially if you have to buy a parking pass, too. Calculate how much it will cost you to get to campus and to park there (if necessary). Budget that chunk of your refund and don’t overspend on parking meters and excessive trips.
  6. Spend it on living expenses. This expense can get out of control (think swanky loft in the trendy district), so keep it in check and make sure you’re not wasting your money. Whether you live on or off campus, housing is expensive. Rent, groceries, meal plans, utilities, insurance, and other charges can add up to a big chunk of your monthly payments. Make sure you’re still budgeting and only paying for what you absolutely need, and your housing cost can be justified as school-related, too.

Don’t feel guilty if you have to spend your refund on school-related items. You were offered this amount because your school thought you might need it. Just go into it with eyes wide open, knowing that you every dollar you borrow today is taking away from your future financial independence. Managing your refund checks while in school is a great exercise in learning to live within your means, and remember – don’t keep it if you don’t truly need it.

10 Common Tweets @FAFSA Gets on Twitter

We’ve been answering a lot of your back-to-school comments and questions on Twitter! Here are some of the most popular tweets we get, with our answers:

1. We get this question so many times a day! Your school will disburse (pay out) your financial aid, not the federal government. Since each school has a different timeline for awarding aid, you’ll have to call your school’s financial aid office to find out the specific date.
2. College can be expensive, we know! We provide as much aid as we can based on the information you provided on your FAFSA. There are many factors we take into account, like your year in school and how much it costs to attend your school. If you need more financial aid, here are 7 options you should consider. Make sure you look into applying for local scholarships or talk to your school’s financial aid office for personalized advice.

3. During this time of year, we understand a lot of students get disappointed when they see their financial aid offer and don’t receive the amount or type of aid they were hoping for. Your school calculates the amount of federal student aid you qualify for using a formula established by law and that amount can change every year, depending on a number of factors. Additionally, some states and schools offer financial aid of their own. Some of that aid is need-based, other types are merit-based, and some of that aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. We recommend you talk to your school to find out how you can increase your chances of getting the most aid possible. One simple way is to make sure you fill out the FAFSA and any other financial aid applications required by your school ASAP each year, even before your state or school FAFSA deadline. If you need more aid to fill the gap, look into scholarships, part-time work or one of these options.

4. We definitely understand that free money, like grants and scholarships, are the preferred type of financial aid because they don’t have to be paid back. Many of the grants we offer, including the Federal Pell Grant, are “need-based”, meaning you must have certain level of financial need to qualify. Your school will use your FAFSA information to determine whether you qualify for these grants, and if you do, you’ll get them. If you still have a gap between what your school costs and the amount of grants, scholarships, and out-of-pocket funds you can afford to pay, federal student loans can be a good option. Federal student loans offer several advantages over private student loans and most people qualify. Just make sure to borrow only what you need! If you want more free money, make sure you apply for scholarships. There are tons out there!

5. You’ll see an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) number after completing your FAFSA, but don’t think it’s the amount your family has to pay! It’s not. It’s a measure of your family’s financial strength and a number used by your school to calculate how much aid you can receive. If you need more financial aid, read this.

6. Sorry, living on your own doesn’t make you an independent student for purposes of the FAFSA.  FAFSA dependency guidelines are set by Congress and are different from those of the IRS. This is why even if your parent’s don’t claim you on their taxes, you still won’t be considered independent unless you can answer “yes” to one or more questions on this list.

7. First, know that your FSA ID information and what you typed in your FAFSA demographic page must match 100% in order for you to sign successfully. You should double check both places for any minor typos. For parents, make sure you’re selecting the correct “Parent 1” or “Parent 2” option in the drop-down menu on the signature page. We have detailed instructions in the fourth bullet on the FAFSA trending questions page.
8. The FAFSA asks a lot of questions, but we promise we use each answer to calculate your aid in a fair manner! Even though some questions may sound difficult to answer, we provide help along the way in the sidebar. If you’re really stuck, we have a phone number and live chat options available to help you out. If you want a line-by-line demo, we have an hour-long webinar recording that walks you through the entire application.

9. The upcoming 2017-18 FAFSA (available October 1, 2016) will ask for 2015 income and taxes only. This is beneficial because you’ve already finished those taxes, so you can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool right away to transfer your 2015 info! You will not be asked to log in again to update your info after you file 2016 taxes.


@FAFSA what if our 2015 taxes are completely different than our 2016 earnings?”

— Jazmin (@jazminR14) August 12, 2016

10. We understand that financial circumstances change. If your income has dramatically decreased since the 2015 tax year, you still need to report 2015 information on your FAFSA. However, after filing your FAFSA, you can contact your school’s financial aid office to explain and document your situation. The school has the ability to assess your situation and may make adjustments to your FAFSA.



The article “10 Common Tweets @FAFSA Gets on Twitter” orignally appeared on

Sandra Vuong is a Digital Engagement Strategist at Federal Student Aid. 

FAFSA Available This Week!

Have you heard? Big changes are coming that will forever change the financial aid process! For the first time in FAFSA history, students can now complete the FAFSA in the fall AND use tax information from the previous year. These changes will go into effect on  October 1, 2016, the day that students and parents can start filling out the FAFSA for the 2017-18 academic year (previously, the FAFSA would not become available until January 1).

To compliment this permanent date change, students (and parents, when applicable) will now use tax information from two years ago (referred to as Prior-Prior Year or PPY) to complete the application. This year, FAFSA applicants will use 2015 tax information, next year, 2016 tax information, and so on. This graphic helps to illustrate these new changes:




If you’ve filled out a FAFSA before with estimated tax information, you know it’s frustrating to then complete a FAFSA correction once you’ve completed your taxes. This new change eliminates that problem; you will already have your completed taxes on hand and you might even be able to use the IRS’s Data Retrieval Tool to automatically import your tax information into your FAFSA.

Submitting the FAFSA earlier will also give you more time to consider each school you’re interested in, and decide whether or not each one is an affordable option for you. Keep in mind that first-come, first-served financial aid will still be in effect, and state and school deadlines may change with this update as well.

Again, this change is coming in five days – now is the time to educate yourself! For further information regarding dates and FAFSA changes, you can check out our previous posts:

What You Need to Know About the 2017-18 FAFSA

FAFSA Updates Coming Soon

7 Myths About the 2017-18 FAFSA Debunked

You might have heard that the next FAFSA® will be available on October 1, 2016 as opposed to January 1, 2017. Well, it’s not a myth! If you (or your child) are planning to go to college during the 2017–18 academic year, you’ll want to make sure you have your facts straight. Check out the 7 myths about the FAFSA below.

I used 2015 tax information last year and didn’t get any aid, so it’s pointless to fill out the FAFSA again.

FACT: Not pointless! Your aid award could be different this year.
If you filed a 2016–17 FAFSA and received an award letter from your school, don’t assume that next year’s financial aid award will be the same. We ask you to complete the FAFSA annually because the factors used to calculate your aid could change each year. Things like your year in school, family income, and cost of attendance at your school are just a few factors used to determine your aid. You never know what aid you may get if you don’t complete the FAFSA, so don’t let last year’s award deter you from potential aid you may receive this year. Even if you did not get the Federal Pell Grant last year, you could still be eligible for other types of aid this year. This includes work-study and low-interest loans. Also, many states, schools, and private scholarships require you to submit the FAFSA to be considered for their aid as well.

I have to update my 2017–18 FAFSA with 2016 data after I file taxes.

FACT: Nope! You won’t need to update your FAFSA since you will be using your 2015 tax information.
Unlike the FAFSA in the past, you won’t have to use estimates or make updates after filing taxes. The 2017–18 FAFSA will ask for 2015 income and tax information which you should already have. Moving forward, the FAFSA will always ask for older tax information. For instance, the 2018–19 FAFSA will ask for 2016 income and tax info.

I can choose which year’s tax information I provide on the FAFSA.

FACT: No, you won’t be able to choose.
The FAFSA has always asked for one specific tax year to be reported. The 2017–18 FAFSA will ask for 2015 tax information, and that’s what you have to provide. You can’t choose to provide 2016 information if you feel it’ll benefit you in some way. If your income was lower in 2016 than in 2015, you still need to provide 2015 tax information, and then you can contact the financial aid office at the school you plan to attend and let them know your situation has changed. They have the ability to review your situation and consider making adjustments to your FAFSA.

I will get an award letter from my school earlier.

FACT: That’s really up to the school.
Some schools may send you an award letter earlier, while other schools may stick to the timeline they have used in the past. Remember that your school disburses your aid, not FAFSA, and each school has a different schedule. Contact your school for details.

I can re-use my 2016–17 FAFSA since my 2015 income and tax information will be the same.

FACT: No, you still need to submit a renewal or a new 2017–18 FAFSA.
But, there’s a bonus this year! You will be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to electronically import your 2015 taxes right away. If you’re eligible to use the IRS DRT, this will speed up your FAFSA completion process.

Doesn’t matter to me that the FAFSA is available in October, I still have plenty of time to file.

FACT:  States, schools, and the federal government each have their own financial aid deadlines.
While the 2017–18 FAFSA deadline for federal aid is June 30, 2018, your state and school probably have earlier deadlines to receive their aid. For some states, their deadline won’t be a date, but it’ll be “as soon as possible after October 1” which means they have a limited pool of funds that may run out if you wait until the last minute to apply! If you want to maximize your potential aid, you should submit a FAFSA as early as possible after October 1.

I can’t file my FAFSA in October because I haven’t applied to any schools.

FACT: You can still file as long as you list at least one school on your FAFSA.
It’s OK to complete your FAFSA before turning in college applications. On the FAFSA, add every school you’re considering, even if you haven’t applied or been accepted yet. If you’re on the fence about a particular school, add it anyway. Doing so will hold your place in line for financial aid in case you end up applying for that school. You can also add or remove schools to your FAFSA later.

Sandra Vuong is a Digital Engagement Strategist at Federal Student Aid.

This article was originally found on

Great Advice for Students & Parents

At Inceptia, the heart of our nonprofit mission is to arm you with the knowledge necessary to make informed financial decisions – and that includes helping high school students navigate the college planning process.

As a high school junior or senior, you and your families have some pretty big choices to make over the next year or two. Because these choices can make a big impact on your financial future, we created a guide to help you and all of the people who make a difference in your life every day: parents, family members, counselors, teachers, and every other mentor and educator that is committed to your success as a student. We have teamed up with the personal finance site NerdWallet to release our first edition of “Great Advice for Parents.” This free eGuide offers timely advice on what you and your families should know leading up to and during the college enrollment process, as well as steps you can take now to become financially prepared. Here’s a sneak peek at just some of what you’ll find in this eGuide.

  • Picking the right college to avoid student debt
  • Financial Aid secrets
  • 8 Things High School Grads Need to Do Before Leaving College

If you want to use this as your guidebook, go for it! We want you and your family to feel confident as you transition into a college student with a solid foundation on the ins and outs of all things finance. Whether tackling budget development or discussing ways to avoid student debt – we’ve got you covered.

Visit to download our eGuide. With the tips and advice you’ll gain, we hope you’ll go into the year ahead well-informed and confident about your college planning process.

What’s Up Next?

Imagine: You’re about to transition from high school to college. You’re secretly not sure what you’re going to do now that mom or dad won’t wake you up for school or force you to do your homework, but you refuse to admit that out loud…

Imagine: You’re leaving college – no more studying! But that means you now owe $20k+ in student loans, you just moved to a new city for your new gig, and you have to pay your own rent. Your planner isn’t big enough to fill in all your due dates for bills and work deadlines. And you thought college was hard…

NOW Imagine: You get a text to remind you of everything that might not be right in the front of your brain – like reminders to fill out the FAFSA, or to sign up for college entrance exams, or to pay back your student loans. You know, kind of like that one friend who actually remembers to remind you about stuff. Okay, now stop imagining – these reminder texts really do exist!

Up Next is a free texting service, provided by the nonprofit Civic Nation, that sends you text reminders to help navigate college admissions, financial aid, and student loan repayment. It’s pretty cool. And did we mention that it’s free? Yeah – learn more about it here.

FAFSA Updates Coming Soon

Change is coming – and this change can make the financial aid process a lot more simple! On October 1st, you can submit your FAFSA for the 2017-18 school year using your 2015 tax information. Does this update sound familiar? You may have heard of this referred to as PPY (Prior-Prior Year). Simply put, PPY means you’re using tax information from two years prior to the school year for which you’re submitting a FAFSA. Make sense? If you’re not quite following, this infographic from the U.S. Department of Education/s Federal Student Aid Office makes it VERY easy to see which tax year matches up with a corresponding FAFSA year. The bottom line: PPY means no more having to scramble to complete your taxes so you can complete your FAFSA – your taxes will have already been completed well in advance!


For more information on changes to the 2017-18 FAFSA process, be sure to check our previous post.


15 Extreme Money-Saving Tips

If you’re like me, you know that every single cent counts – even the pennies you find under the couch. But saving doesn’t have to mean being cheap or skipping things you love. Here are 15 creative ways I love using to make my savings pile up.

  1. BOGO Discounts

Gum is my favorite guilty pleasure. But buying pack after pack really adds up. That’s why I only buy when there is a special discount like “buy-one-get-one-free” (BOGO). This can be applied to so many of the regular purchases you make. Wait till they are on sale!

  1.  Texting/Mailing Lists

Some of my favorite stores and restaurants text me their deals and coupons right to my phone. I can then decide on the best options. I also sign up for mailing lists for my favorite stores and let the deals come to me. Plus, most coupons are digital, so they’re always right in my email!

  1.  Thrift Shops

At stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army, you can score incredible deals, like designer shoes and video games for just a few bucks. So many of the clothes are as good as new or brand new with the tags still on them!

  1.  Shopping The Back Of The Store

It seems like the most expensive clothing and trendy items are always placed in the front. So I keep my blinders on and shop the back, where most stores have their sale racks. Try not to even look at the full-price stuff up front! Some of my favorite stores are places like Old Navy and Maurice’s – or any store having a huge clearance sale.

  1.  Research Really Pays Off

When I know exactly what I need, I get on my laptop and start looking. It just takes a simple Google search to compare deals and pick what suits your budget.

  1.  Banning the Mall

Unless there is a huge sale or tons of clearance racks, just stay away from the mall. Typically, the prices are super high. You can find great deals at discount stores like Ross or TJ Maxx if you are willing to spend a little time looking around.

  1.  Dollar Store Finds

You’d be amazed at what one dollar can buy. This summer, I scored super-cute sunglasses for a buck that would’ve cost at least $10 at even a budget-priced store.

15 Ways To Save Your Money

  1.  Turn It Off

Did you know that those who watch live TV actually spend more money? It’s because of all the commercials they watch. Don’t be fooled by the commercials and spend money you don’t have for things you really don’t want and don’t need in the first place.

  1.  Stream Or Rent

Renting or streaming is always less expensive than going to see a movie in the theater. If you stick to streaming services, you can save $20 or more a month. Renting movies with Redbox is perfect if you want to have a movie night with friends.

  1.  Library Trips

Most public libraries have loads of resources for free. Why buy books (or movies, or music) when you can get them for free at your library?

  1.  Split a Meal

I can never seem to finish an entire meal at a restaurant. I usually ask a friend to share with me so we can both save. This is a super simple way to save money and still enjoy a night out!

12.   Drink Water

Soda may be tasty, but $2 to $3 per bottle can really add up. By sticking to water, you can save a few bucks every time – and be healthier, too!

  1.  Local Deals

Discount sites like Groupon are perfect if you’re looking to do something unique. I learned how to paddle board for $40 less than if I had bought it without the discount.

  1.  Clothing Swap

I used to throw away clothing that no longer fitted me. Now my friends and I save our clothing, jewelry, shoes, etc. and have a big swap. It makes for a really fun anti-shopping party.

  1.  Leave The Wallet At Home

Sometimes I leave my wallet at home. This reminds me not to blow through my money just because I’m bored or have nothing to do.

These steps may seem extreme, but they’re necessary if you are really having a hard time getting your spending under control.


This article was originally published on and can be found here.

Weighing a Job Offer? Look Beyond the Salary

You’ve been job hunting for months, and you finally receive a job offer. You’re desperate to get out of your current job, and the salary they’re offering looks decent enough, so you should just go for it, right?

Eh, maybe.

If you think of a job offer as a pie, the salary is but a mere slice or two. There are so many other factors to consider than would have a real effect on your happiness at this new job.

Money is important, of course, but it’s part of a bigger picture. If you ignore everything else in pursuit of a certain salary, you might end up more miserable than you were at the job you left.

What’s Your New Salary?

Obviously you don’t want to ignore their salary offer. But is what they’re willing to pay you enough? Hopefully before you interviewed, you did some research on salary ranges for your field and geographic area (if not, tools like Glassdoor can help).

Factor in cost of living in your area, or in the cities you’re willing to move to. A $50,000 offer is generous in some cities — and laughable in others.

If you are able to negotiate a higher salary, that could have a huge long term effect on your earnings over the long term. Not negotiating a $5,000 increase could end up costing you more than $600,000 over a 40 year career. The best to negotiate is when you accept a position at a new company.

What Are the Other Incentives?

If the offered salary is lower than you would have liked, are there other benefits that make up for it? Maybe an annual bonus would sweeten the deal. Does the company pay those? What are the bonus amounts based on? Are there years where no bonuses are offered?

Some companies offer their employees shares in the company stock, or have a profit sharing system where employees get a portion of the profits. And find out if the company offers a retirement plan — if they match your contributions to a retirement account, that’s a great benefit too!

How Does It Affect Your Quality of Life?

Never underestimate how soul-sucking a long commute or regular 12-hour workdays can be. What will you have to give up to make time for those long days? Will you have the flexibility to deal with doctors appointments, home repairs, or a sick kid needing to be picked up early from school?

Find out how much paid time off the company offers. Are employees encouraged to use it, or made to feel guilty for going on vacation or calling in sick?

Commute time has one of the biggest effects on your level of happiness. Some studies even estimate that a shorter commute is equivalent to a $40,000 raise! Before you agree to a new job, really consider how much time you’ll be in the car and how that could affect other areas of your life.

Everyone needs time to attend to their personal life, and if you’re spending half the day at work (or getting to and from work), that’s less time you have to tend to yourself, family, friends, and hobbies.

What About Company Benefits?

Benefits are part of your overall compensation package. When you don’t take advantage of them, you’re leaving money on the table. One of the most powerful ways I can help save my clients money is by helping themmaximize their company benefits. (Think you might want to become a client? Apply here.)

Read all the information you get about your options for health, disability, and life insurance. Would you be eligible for corporate discounts at area companies? Would you be able to go back to school on the company’s dime? Would your commuting costs, like parking or train fare, be subsidized? Are new parents granted paid or unpaid parental leave?

Do You Like the Company Culture?

It’s important to find a job for a company that fits who you are and how you do your best work. Maybe you need structure and strict scheduling to be productive. Maybe you like to wear suits!

You might be more casual, preferring a relaxed dress code and a results-oriented environment with less structure. Or maybe you’re like me — you just want to work from your couch in yoga pants. There are options for everyone!

But if you try to make it work in a company whose culture totally mismatches your own, you’re not going to enjoy your job. Look for opportunities that fit your style. In the long run, you’ll be happier and more successful.


This article was originally published on and can be found here.