1. Use a net price calculator  

If you're saving for a child's college education, at some point you'll want to familiarize yourself with a college net price calculator, which is an invaluable tool for estimating financial aid and measuring a college's affordability. Available on every college website, a net price calculator gives families an estimate of how much grant aid a student might expect at a particular college based on his or her personal financial and academic profile and the college's specific criteria for awarding grant aid. A college's sticker price minus grant aid equals a family's "net" price, hence the name.

The idea behind a net price calculator is to give families who are researching colleges a more accurate picture of what their out-of-pocket costs are likely to be, rather than having them rely on a college's published sticker price. The figures quoted by a net price calculator aren't guarantees of grant aid, but the estimates are meant to be close, so running the numbers is an excellent way for parents to see what their net price might be at different colleges.

Keep in mind that each college has a different sticker price and formula for determining how much grant aid it distributes, so every calculator result will be different. For example, after entering identical financial and family information on three separate net price calculators, you might find that College A has a net price of $25,000 per year, College B has a net price of $30,000, and College C is $40,000.

A net price calculator typically asks for the following information: parent income and assets, student income and assets, and the number of children in the family, including how many will be in college at the same time. (Generally, the more children in college at the same time, the more grant aid.) It may also ask more detailed questions, such as a student's class rank and/or test scores, how much money parents have saved in employer retirement plans in the most recent tax year, current home equity, and how much parents expect to pay in health-care costs in the coming year.

A net price calculator typically takes about 10-15 minutes to complete and is time well spent. Typing "net price calculator" in the search bar of a college's website should direct you to it.

2. Know when to turn in tax forms

For the 2019-2020 school year, the federal government's financial aid form, the FAFSA, can be filed as early as October 1, 2018. It relies on current asset information and two-year-old income information from your 2017 tax return, which means you'll have the income data you need when you sit down to complete the form. This is a relatively new process. A few years ago, parents had to wait until after January 1 to file the FAFSA and use tax data for the year that had just ended, which forced them to scramble to complete their tax return in order to complete the FAFSA.

If you have a new or returning college student, it's a good idea to file the FAFSA as early as possible in the fall because some aid programs operate on a first-come, first-served basis. The deadline for filing the FAFSA is typically March or April and will vary by college. But don't wait until then. It's a good idea to submit any college aid forms as early as possible, too.

The FAFSA is a prerequisite for federal student loans, grants, and work-study. In addition, colleges typically require the FAFSA before distributing their own need-based aid and, in some cases, merit-based aid. Even in cases when you don't expect your child to qualify for need-based aid, there may be another reason to submit the FAFSA. All students attending college at least half-time are eligible for federal unsubsidized Direct Loans regardless of financial need. ("Unsubsidized" means the borrower, rather than the government, pays the interest that accrues during school, the grace period after graduation, and any deferment periods.) So if you want your child to have some "skin in the game" with a small loan, you'll need to file the FAFSA. (Loan amounts are capped each year: $5,500 freshman year, $6,500 sophomore year, and $7,500 junior and senior years.) What if you file the FAFSA but then change your mind about taking out a loan? Don't worry, you aren't locked in. Your child can always decline the loan after it's offered.

The FAFSA is available online at fafsa.ed.gov. In order to file it, you'll need to create an FSA ID if you haven't done so already (follow the online instructions). You'll need to resubmit the FAFSA each year, but fortunately you can use the built-in IRS Data Retrieval Tool to have your tax data electronically imported, which saves time and minimizes errors.

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