It Works! $8,000 saved on university

Vagabond Finances received an email this month with the subject line of “It works!” The father of a soon-to-be-college freshman had just made his first attempt at using our “FAR game-plan” and walked away with an extra $2,000 per year (worth a minimum of $8,000 if his daughter graduates in four years) plus an extra $1,000 per year in work-study hours.

Here is how our conversation progressed…

The problem: Finances

I first met this US expat, we’ll call him Jeff, after a talk I gave in 2018 at the SHARE conference in Hungary. [Note: I’m going to change some details here for privacy.] As a missionary in Belgium with a limited income and multiple children wanting to get a college education in the USA, the problem was obviously funding. Jeff contacted us through this blog, writing:

I just found the blog after going through my notes from a talk I heard from Michael Carlson last year. My oldest child is a HS senior, and we are navigating financial aid and our family contribution with the goal of him going to and finishing university debt free.

This is a common problem for Vagabond Finances’ readers, and one I’ve faced personally for three children of my own. Is there any hope?

The Response: Make an Appeal

My first reply to Jeff was to point him to some of my articles on the college search, posted here on VF. In particular, I wanted him to consider using our “FAR game-plan.” As that article states:

We developed a game-plan that I’m going to nickname FAR because you want this plan to take you a long way…. The plan included:
> Finding a comparison college,
> Annotating the family’s special circumstances and
> Relating to the financial aid office.

With time being short, we needed to focus on “Annotating the family’s special circumstances.” If anyone has special financial circumstances, they are allowed to make an appeal for professional judgment. Basically, you communicate to the college(s) that you believe your FAFSA numbers do not adequately explain your family’s financial situation. Using a form provided by each university or a letter written by you, you’ll want to carefully delineate why your daughter or son’s circumstances are special. What amounts to “special”? Mark Kantrowitz writes for

Special circumstances include any financial circumstances that have changed in the last two years or anything that differentiates the student from typical students.

How to Appeal for More Financial Aid for College

For the US resident and perhaps for you, special circumstances are things like job loss, death or divorce of a parent, and so forth. When I suggested that Jeff annotate his son’s special circumstances, however, we honed in on some expat-specific ideas that “differentiate” his son financially “from typical students.”


The Particulars: The Expat Appeal

When we fill out the cold, hard numbers required by the FAFSA, many US expats feel misunderstood. In fact, we often are! Your son or daughter doesn’t have a “typical” life. There are a huge number of positives to growing up abroad and sometimes there are financial benefits too, but that’s not always the case.

Cost of living overseas

Imagine, for example, someone like Jeff who earns a pretty modest missionary wage, whose wife might not be able to work due to visa restrictions in Belgium, who lives in an expensive overseas economy and so forth. Their family income is limited due to circumstances outside of their control and their income doesn’t stretch as far as it would appear due to the high cost of living in their host country.

Conversely, someone living in a developing country might be living in a hut, living off locally-sourced food, and travel mostly by car or bus. Jeff’s income would go a long way in that situation. The problem is that many charity workers earn a wage commensurate with their cost of living in the host country without giving any regard to the costs of college or retirement in the USA. Thus, the cost of living is modest but the wage is even more limited and truly insufficient to cover college costs.

Owning a home

Home ownership may also be a special circumstance for a US expat. The FAFSA doesn’t consider the value of your primary residence as part of your net worth. However, what if you don’t own a house because it seems unsafe in your current host country or you are a vagabond who moves from one international school to another every couple of years. Hopefully, you are saving aggressively as if you were building up a downpayment or paying a monthly mortgage, but ten years of saved funds are going to look like wealth while those same saved funds put into a mortgage would be invisible to the FAFSA.

Similarly, if you own a home in the USA but are actually living abroad, it is possible that the FAFSA will be almost punitive. Seek some advice on this, but it is quite likely that the home value would be considered an asset (because it’s not your personal residence) and the income from renters will add to your wage.

And many more…

These sorts of factors, plus expenses such as costs for international schooling for your children, travel expenses, health care costs, international taxes paid, and so forth need to be explained clearly to the financial aid office of each college in question. Taking our “FAR game-plan” seriously, that’s exactly what Jeff did.

The Results: More than $8,000

As mentioned at the beginning, Jeff wrote me an “It Works!” email. In fact, he wrote:

Hi Michael, I did what you said and it worked. I annotated our circumstances and explained [our son’s financial] challenges to attend university in the USA. They wrote back yesterday with an updated financial aid package. It included two new scholarships totaling $2000 a year! They also added another $1000 per year in work study. Thanks again for your thoughts, Jeff

While we talked about some other possible steps to take, I hope you’ll see how easy it can sometimes be to explain your special circumstances and possibly be rewarded because of it.

Even Better Results!

While we here at Vagabond Finances are extremely gratified with this result, it should be said that this could have gone even better. Jeff did a great job of “R” (Relating to the financial aid office) and “A” (Annotating the family’s special circumstances).

A lot more could’ve been done in terms of “F” – Finding a comparison college. However, that’s not the most simple step, because it takes months of preparation, extra applications, and isn’t easy to know which other colleges your college of choice will consider to be in competition to them. That’s why I wrote Jeff:

Now you see why I work with College Assistance Plus. They know a lot more tricks and can help find “leverage schools” to use as negotiating points. It’s expensive, but it easily pays for itself if it scores you just one extra thousand per year.

I realize this probably sounds an advertisement. I guess it is. I could give you a personal testimonial of how College Assistance Plus worked with me and each of my three daughters to find a great university experience at a price I could afford. One went to a huge state school, the second to a small Christian school in the South, and the third to a mid-sized Christian school in the Midwest.

The common denominator is that all three of my daughters will graduate from college debt free. Even at their young age they are beginning to see what a gift this is to them. Having no debt helps them make their future plans without that huge weight tied around their waists. They are much more free to wait for the best job offer, to rent the apartment that best suits them and begin planning for a family and saving for retirement.

College Assistance Plus began helping my children years before they started college and sticks with them through finding a job. Sifting through their enormous database, they’ll find colleges that meet your requirements (attendance, private or public, location, etc.) and that are considered comparison or leverage schools.

If you sign up with College Assistance Plus, they’ll give Vagabond Finances a referral fee that will help us pay for our domain and web hosting. What can they do for you? Well their promise is: “Invest in your child’s future and set your student up for success.” My experience suggests it would work for you and for Jeff, as it did for me!

This could be you

While we believe this could have gone even better, we are thrilled to have been able to help Jeff and his expat family. It’s not every day that someone thanks you for helping them save $8,000!

Perhaps this article and/or College Assistance Plus can help you do the same for you, your child or someone you love. I’ll be waiting for your email to tell me that “It Works!” for you as well.

College Assistance Plus

Michael A. Carlson

I have a passion for introducing Europeans to Jesus, starting churches of any shape or size, teaching, writing, and training. I also love to equip Europeans and missionaries through my websites such as and