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This Week in Your Wallet: April 17, 2012

As I write this to you on a beautiful April morning, weather.com is telling me that the temperature will reach the 80’s in my neck of the woods today.  And if the throngs of people milling around Central Park this weekend were any indication, New Yorkers are quite happy to see sunnier skies. Spring (and dare I say summer?) is in the air!

However, for the high school senior set, Spring Fever isn’t the only thing going around. With a national decision deadline of May 1, college anxiety is hitting a crescendo for those who are still analyzing their pro/con lists. Some students might be undecided for academic or location reasons, but I’m betting that the largest cause of indecision comes down to financial aid. According to a survey by the Princeton Review, 86 percent of parents and students surveyed said that financial aid will be “very necessary” to fund college costs, and 75 percent say that the state of the economy will affect their decision to enroll at one school over another.

If you and your child fall into these categories — or even if you will fall into these categories in the next few years — here are three resources that I hope will help you digest the numbers a bit better:

  1. Last week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released their very own “Cost Comparison Tool.” I’ve given it a whirl, and I think it’s fantastic. You start by entering the three schools you’re deciding between (say, UMass-Amherst versus Boston University versus Emerson College), after which you will see a basic sticker-price comparison. Then, click the green “enter financial aid” button — this is where you can enter all the scholarships, grants and loans you have been offered from each institution. The tool then does all the math for you, and will show you how much debt you would be taking on as well as the estimated monthly payment upon graduation.
  2. The TODAY show paired with the New York Times’ “The Choice” blog to feature a story of a student who saved herself big bucks by transferring from NYU to a local state school. You can catch that segment here, and below the video is an article containing some great tips on cutting college costs. (Hint: don’t forget about the Hope Scholarship Tax Credit!)
  3. And finally, after hearing some rumors that you can negotiate your financial aid package, I spoke to some experts to see if this is actually true. What I found is that it’s a complicated process — and you should never use the word negotiate, as college aid officers don’t want to feel like car salesmen — but in some situations, it is possible to get the college to recalculate their offering. Keep your eyes peeled for a Daily Finance article I wrote on just this subject, coming out in the next week or so! In the meantime, Mark Kantrowitz over at Finaid.org has some excellent advice you can refer to.

And finally, don’t forget to breathe! It’s a tough decision, but as in any financial situation, a cooler head always prevails.

Now, here’s a look at the other headlines for the week:
Funky frequent flier miles

Are you sick of the run-of-the-mill free upgrades and free trips that come through your frequent flier miles? Itching to turn those miles into a wine membership or beer-tasting tour instead? Believe it or not, doing just that is possible. Courtesy of CBS News and IdeaWorks (a research and brand development company), here are some of the funkier frequent flier rewards you can get. Just note — the mile-to-dollar (or cent) ratio on these rewards isn’t always the best bargain. But they sure are fun, because…

And that wine membership and beer-tasting tour I mentioned? Available through miles with Qantas and American Airlines, respectively. To see the full list of fun rewards, check out the full CBS article here.

Also, since you might be looking to book your summer vacation soon, I wanted to pass along this article from the New York Times about the “sweet spots” in airfare prices. Timing is everything when it comes to airfare, and I found that this article demystifies the process a little bit. Considering a European summer escape? Your best prices can be found 21 to 22 weeks before the trip.


Checking the status of your tax refund

I hope you got your taxes done in time — or filed an extension if you knew you couldn’t meet today’s deadline! Since some of you might be curious as to when you can see that return in your wallet, I wanted to pass along this Huffington Post article about how to check the status of your tax refund. In short, e-filers can expect to see something within ten to 21 days of filing, while paper refunds take longer to process. It can be four weeks before the return comes back to you.

And finally, just for fun: is your tax-time knowledge up to snuff? I gave this quiz to the viewers of Kathie Lee and Hoda’s show — would you win money or Kathie Lee’s CD?

Have a great week!


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