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Financial decisions in the run-up to college in '14

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sad12008 posted 7/31/2013 11:07 AM

We're a regular family, paying the bills, trying to make what we have last, etc. We have debt and we don't live lavishly, fairly middle class. DD is heading into her Senior year in HS this year, and plans to go to college thereafter. She's a National Merit Scholarship semi-finalist, takes challenging courses, etc., and ultimately wants to go into medicine. Great.

I remember when I was in college, there were kids whose parents seemed to be in MUCH better financial situations than my own, yet they got more financial aid, went on big Spring Break trips, had lots of spending money. Yours truly went home on Spring Break and worked some hours at the local grocery store and had next to no spending money. There seemed to be some gamesmanship or knowledge involved relative to the financial aid process that my family was clearly unaware of.

We do plan to provide as much as we can for DD's college costs, but because I'm the sort that subscribes to the "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" mindset, I see things that make me wonder what choices we should be making now, before filing the FAFSA January 1 (or thereafter). I can't afford a financial planner or some similar wizard to give me pithy advice on how to best position ourselves, so I'm turning to you all in hopes you might have helpful tips.

For instance: we will be needing a new roof. I do plan to get another couple estimates and see if I can get that done before the end of the year...this one's a pretty straightforward decision.

My big dilemma has to do with vehicles. We live in a rural area, and log a lot of miles just taking care of normal things...going to work, grocery shopping, appointments, things at the kids' school. For example, if one of the kids has an appointment in town on a school day, that means a 20+ mile drive from home to the school, then 30+ mile drive to town, plus the return trip to the house...another 15-20 miles. You can see how that'd add up, particularly since the kids have a couple of ongoing medical things that require frequent appointments.

Currently, we have:

'92 Volvo with over 220K that my H drives

'03 Civic that I drive as much as possible's at about 152K now, starting to show real signs of aging

'03 Chrysler minivan that has around 90K on it; we use it for family travel and transporting dogs to vet, lumber or bulky things from town to home, etc., but not for routine trips because it gets poorer m.p.g. and we want it in good shape for long (350 mile +) trips.

'05 Ford Focus sedan, 32K miles, given to me (legally speaking) for my daughter. It's her car, by rights and by my moral compass. It was her grandmother's.

You may go, geez, you have FOUR CARS??! How we got there was the Volvo wasn't working for the longest time, and that's when we got the Civic (also b/c my H's job was in jeopardy, and it seemed like we'd better hurry up and get a car loan before we COULDN'T). It was for his 70 mile RT daily commute. I was driving the van. This was ca. 2005-2006.

After my H changed jobs to where he was going to client's home in some occasionally sketchy neighborhoods, he found a independent Volvo mechanic and the guy did about $2K of work and resurrected the Volvo. Due to where my H was parking the car & the stuff he needed to tote around w/him for his work, that became his primary car and I started driving the Civic.

The Focus is barely driven, only enough to keep it in decent condition, because it's 'in trust' for my DD. However, due to major issues with anxiety disorder, she has YET to get her driving hours required to obtain her license. Meanwhile, said vehicle ages/depreciates. In addition, since being given the car, we've come to feel pretty strongly that it is NOT a good car for DD to take with her given that she wants to attend school in the Northeast; it has rear-wheel drive, its NHTSA safety ratings weren't stellar (I would not have purchased it), there are no rear seat headrests (safety, not comfort issue), it has a peppy engine but peppy + ice + RWD + novice driver = snowbank or worse, I fear. It also has really large blind spots when backing out, IMO. We think something like a Subaru would be much better for her to drive up North.

In additional to general financial tips going into this financial aid vortex, my main conundrum is the car situation. Car rates are ridiculously low; I can get under 1.5% on a used car (which is all I ever get) loan. I'm seriously pondering the wisdom and ethics of selling/trading in both the Civic and the Focus and getting a newer family car (maybe a used Prius for the mileage, but if that's too costly, something else similar like a newer model-year Civic).

Since DD will not have her driver's license in the foreseeable future, I'm thinking this would make more sense than the Focus just sitting there, depreciating and probably otherwise deteriorating (this is the South, land of heat, sun, and mud daubers, etc.). Plus DD's first-choice school does not allow Freshmen to have cars on granted, that may not be where she winds up.

My thought is that once she DOES get her license and needs a vehicle, we'd purchase her a more suitable used car at either the 'retail sale' book value of the Focus now, or the 'retail sale' book value of the Focus when it was transferred to us for her use (higher). Plus we might have to go a little higher in order to get something sound...I haven't checked those numbers really.

What do you all think? (If you've slogged through all the tale to this point, God bless you!)

Any general tips? (Besides planning meals involving Ramen?) I'm trying to avoid that, "augh! I wish WE'D known that!!" feeling after it's too late.


[This message edited by sad12008 at 11:11 AM, July 31st (Wednesday)]

Lionne posted 7/31/2013 13:47 PM

Financial aid is sometimes a shell game. Those who you see getting lots of money are often going to private schools that cost twice as much as public universities, making the out of pocket cost to families equal. Our state university is often overlooked locally, but has an amazing international reputation.
That said, she should apply for any and all scholarship money... EVERYTHING. It all helps.
Good luck!

[This message edited by scaredyKat at 1:48 PM, July 31st (Wednesday)]

Newlease posted 7/31/2013 14:34 PM

I think the days of having a "free ride" to college are long gone. You have to take everything into consideration - my youngest son took all his gen ed classes at a community college before going to the state 4 year college.

He graduated from his preferred state college in 2006 and is still paying off student loans. Thankfully he has a good job and is moving up the company ladder.

We paid off the parent loans with money from the sale of our marital home.

As for the car - do whatever you feel is best. Who will be judging you?


lieshurt posted 7/31/2013 14:37 PM

my youngest son took all his gen ed classes at a community college before going to the state 4 year college.

This will save tons of money if your daughter does this.

I don't know where you daughter's college is, but she may not need a car at all. Check out the local transportation. My friend's son goes to college in Dallas and he has no need for a car at all. The college has a shuttle system and the city has a great bus system. He can get anywhere he needs without any issues, even to the airport when he flies to and from home.

[This message edited by lieshurt at 2:37 PM, July 31st (Wednesday)]

ajsmom posted 7/31/2013 14:42 PM

AJ loaded up on AP classes in HS and started college at a Big 10 university placing in as a second semester sophomore, so yes, the advanced classes make a big difference.

As he is part American Indian on his father's side, he qualified for a 2/3 tuition and fees academic scholarship when he started. After his first year, it because a full ride, saving us thousands of dollars.

One thing I want to point out now is how aggressive she/you need to be right now in looking into all the available scholarships and grants that are out there. He graduated over 10 years ago, and schools have only gotten even more select in accepting students, and even tighter with scholarships and grants.

ETA: If you're worried about your cars being counted as assets (not sure if that was your point), I don't think I'd worry as they are older models with probably low actual value. The number of autos can be easily explained given your rural residence and number of drivers.

Also ETA: Yes, as lieshurt said, check with the university on whether your daughter can have or needs a car. AJ was not allowed to have a car as long as he lived on campus (HUGE parking issues). It was fine because he literally could walk anywhere he needed or take public transportation. Even though he lived off-campus from sophomore year on in his fraternity house, he still didn't need one.


[This message edited by ajsmom at 2:50 PM, July 31st (Wednesday)]

I think I can posted 7/31/2013 15:45 PM

As I understand it, the financial aid people don't care much what you owe. Cars, houses--these are choices on the parent's part. So buying or not buying a car isn't going to affect the FAFSA. They care about INCOME, and about cash on hand. Have you run your EFC? The expected family contribution on the fafsa website? Be prepared for it to be 25 or 30% of your salary. If you make under $60K a year, it may be less.

However, your EFC IS NOT what colleges will expect you to pay. They may very well expect you to pay more. Most private colleges do. Go to the websites of each of the colleges you are considering and run their NPC--net price calculator. Financial aid from colleges can vary widely. Also, if you own a business or rental property, the NPC won't be accurate because the financial aid office will add back in most of your business deductions.

Great that your daughter is NMS semi-finalist! Depending on her SAT/ACT's and grades, she could go to, say, Alabama mostly free. Check out their website.

Remember that if she is going to med school, that will cost at least $100,000 and there is no financial aid for that.

jennie160 posted 7/31/2013 16:04 PM

my youngest son took all his gen ed classes at a community college before going to the state 4 year college.

I wanted to say that depending on the situation this might not be the best option. I qualified for a program my state offers to high school students and got 2 years community college paid for. I also had received several scholarship offers from 4 years colleges. But since I knew I had the community college to fall back on, I didn't try hard to find other scholarships and only ended up with enough to cover 50% of the tuition. I choose going to community college first since the tuition was 100% paid, my only expense was books (I was living at home). The community college system I went to was a joke, basically like 2 more years of high school. When I transferred to a 4 year college my scholarship offers weren't as good and money wise it ended up a wash. The money I saved by going to community college, I ended up having to shell out for my last 2 years. Not to mention I was shell shocked. My first 2 years had been such a joke, they didn't prepare me for 4 year college level course work and I was way behind the other juniors in my class.

I would suggest having DD really focus on scholarships, apply for anything and everything she can. If her high school offers college classes have her enroll in those. I was able to take 5 classes my junior/senior year that transferred once I graduated, I think they were $150-250 a semester.

As for the car, have you discussed it with DD? Is she OK with your plan? If so, there shouldn't be any reason to feel guilty.

sad12008 posted 7/31/2013 16:20 PM

Thanks for your suggestions & words of wisdom!

DD's #1 choice is a school that meets 100% of demonstrated financial need with no loans. Of course, the devil will be in the will be how "demonstrated financial need" is defined that'll be the kicker. In addition to the FAFSA, which is generally pretty easy, there will be the CSS Profile...that's the one where they get into home equity, banking account balances, investments, retirement accounts, vehicles, mortgage payments, and whatnot.

On campus she will not be likely to need a car if she winds up at Dream College; most everyone lives on campus and it's located with a very cool large town/small city within walking distance. I think as a student it's actually better to not have a car, because the people with cars become "the ride"...or at least often get a lot of pressure to be "the ride".

It's getting there and back, breaks, and potential jobs* where a car could become important. The school is 1200 miles or so from our residence...aka where the military left us. Dream College is in my home region, and I have good friends who've very genuinely invited her to stay with them on breaks during the academic year and otherwise be my boots on the ground. This makes the transportation costs much more reasonable, and the financial aid office did say some travel expenses are taken into consideration with the aid packages.

In terms of basic cost-savings, such as public vs. private, community college, etc., I'm pretty up to speed on that information due to working in higher ed for quite a number of years beyond my own educational adventures. Unfortunately, local education options here are not good from many angles: cost, availability, quality (accreditation in one case), transferability, etc. More than even that, though, is that DD is a fish out of water here. For her overall well-being, she needs to get (the h*ll) out of this area.

My sense of right and wrong is what comes into play with her me it'd be like stealing her inheritance. So I'd judge me if I felt it was not an equitable and fair handling of the car or its comparable value. I guess my hesitation on lunging forward with the sell-now-replace-later plan is that the bottom has dropped out from under me so many times in life that I fear something would happen and we'd be unable to make good on our promise to replace the Focus with a comparable vehicle.

ajsmom, my roommate's heritage was similar to your son's, and it was wonderful for her. I know DD's been going after scholarships; I'll encourage her to keep it up (maybe accelerate).

*She'll have CNA certification (right term?) upon her graduation from HS, so might be able to make more doing that than a work-study job, or perhaps do that during breaks PRN?

I think I can posted 7/31/2013 17:06 PM


sounds like you have a great start. I'd encourage your DD to find a good safety that she would be happy to go to if Dream College either doesn't accept her or accepts her but doesn't give enough money. A safety where she knows she'll get in, and you know you can afford it. I totally understand if your big state u doesn't fit the bill for that--but a NMF has other options!

Dreamboat posted 7/31/2013 18:19 PM

You are only 1 year ahead of me on this -- my DD graduates HS in 2015 and her dream college is out of state (but only about 120 miles away). Her fall-back plan is an in state school where she will get most or all of her tuition paid with a guaranteed scholarship (you know the one in our state). My sister (former HS counselor) suggested that DD use the guaranteed in-state scholarship to get a few classes at a community college during summers. I don't know if that is allowed, but you may want to look into it.

As far as the cars, look at the blue book value for the ones you want to trade in and decide if it is worth it. You may not get much for a 10 yr old Civic with 150+ miles on it. As far as "stealing her inheritance", you could 1) sell the car and use it to pay for her college thus reducing her potential need for student loans; or 2) trade in the car now instead of letting it sit, with the understanding that you will get her a car of equal value in the future when she needs it. You could even draw up a contract with her to make sure everyone if good with the plan.

Good luck!!

Catwoman posted 7/31/2013 20:58 PM

My girls did not need a car at school. They attend/attended a Big 10 school where everything (even nightlife) is within walking distance. Cars on campus can be a liability.

With regards to transport home, check out local bus service to airports and such. My daughter's school had a local shuttle that ran the 1.25 hour drive to the nearest commercial airport.


kernel posted 7/31/2013 21:27 PM

Congrats to your DD on being a National Merit semifinalist! Winning one of those will open a lot of doors.

Does she have other schools that she is applying to? It only makes sense to have back-up plans in case she doesn't get admitted or you can't swing it financially. I also had my youngest DD apply to a state school as the back-up to the back-up. Luckily, she got into what eventually became her first choice of college and thanks to her brains (she was a national merit winner) and really terrific financial aid, she was able to attend. Interestingly, her choice of colleges changed over the first half of her senior year of high school as she learned more about the different schools through intensive online research and reading all of their materials cover to cover.

I will echo others that recommend applying for any and all scholarships possible. is a free service - never pay for a scholarship service when you can do it yourself for free. You/she should also check for local scholarships - Rotary, Lions, etc. In my area, the local credit union and even the electrical co-op have scholarships. They are usually one-time only for $500 or $1000, but every dollar helps.

Another piece of advice for her - study up for taking SAT or ACT exams. The higher the score, the higher the scholarship money. Same goes for her grades in school.

Regarding the AP courses, check with her future colleges on how they transfer those in - some schools will not award credit or only award it if you score a 5 on the AP test. A 5 is very difficult to achieve!

Good luck to her and to you. Exciting times!

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