Beef up retirement accounts. Balances in qualified retirement plans, including 401(k) plans, pensions and IRAs, aren't reported as assets on the FAFSA. Stepping up contributions in the years before filing, instead of putting money in a reportable asset like a brokerage or savings account, can lower your expected family contribution under the formula, said Meehan.
But proceed with caution. Retirement contributions in a given year get added back as income in the FAFSA — so an 11th-hour contribution won't help. Putting too much into retirement plans can mean you have less that's accessible for other financial goals without early-withdraw penalties, said Meehan. It can also hurt you in retirement.
"If you shove everything into qualified plans … you may have all this money that's tax-deferred for retirement," he warned. "Then when you go to take those monies out in retirement, you have a much higher tax outcome than otherwise."
Shelter your kid's money. The FAFSA weights assets in the child's name more heavily than those in a parent's name. That's as much as 20 percent, versus a maximum of 5.64 percent for parental assets. The exception: 529 college savings accounts are assessed at the parent rate, even if they are in the child's name.
If your child has money in a savings account or CD he or she has earmarked for college, discuss transferring those to a 529 to get that lower inclusion rate, Zohlen said. (Or, if it's earned income from a summer job, your child might make an IRA contribution so the money won't be counted.)
And if those savings are earmarked for something else, like a car or computer? Try to make that purchase before filing the FAFSA, so the cash won't have to be reported, she said.