The Federal Student Aid Estimator, once known as the FAFSA4caster, is a tool that can help students determine how much financial aid they may receive. While the tool can’t predict your exact financial aid package, it usually takes less than 10 minutes to use and could help prepare you before you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

What is the Federal Student Aid Estimator?

The Federal Student Aid Estimator is an online tool that calculates an estimated expected family contribution (EFC) for students entering college — essentially an abridged version of the FAFSA. This can help students determine whether they may be eligible for Pell Grants and other federal financial aid.

Keep in mind that it’s only an estimator. You won’t know your family’s exact EFC until you complete the FAFSA, which uses a more comprehensive look at your family’s finances and household details.

Who should use the Federal Student Aid Estimator?

Anyone who plans on using federal financial aid to pay for college should consider using the Federal Student Aid Estimator. Even if you’re a few years out from your first college tuition bill, you can use the estimator to see what you can expect to pay, giving you a chance to stash away money if necessary or make more informed decisions about the colleges you consider. Nothing you input is saved or reported to the government, and it takes much less time than the FAFSA — five to 10 minutes on average.

How to fill out the Federal Student Aid Estimator

You can find the Federal Student Aid Estimator on the Federal Student Aid website. The tool will guide you through several steps of the process:

  1. Fill out personal information (date of birth, marital status, state of residence and grade level).
  2. Fill out household information (number of people in your household, number of college students in your household).
  3. Fill out income and asset details (household income in latest tax year, total value of household assets).

At the end of the process, you’ll receive a breakdown of your estimated EFC, as well as potential dollar amounts for Pell Grants, federal student loans and federal work-study.

Is the Federal Student Aid Estimator accurate?

The Federal Student Aid Estimator is an estimation based on self-reported information. There’s a chance that you might not have all the right information, and the actual FAFSA includes much more detailed questions that may impact your EFC. However, the simulation can give you a starting point in determining your financial need.

The only way to find out your accurate EFC is to complete the FAFSA when it opens Oct. 1 every year. The sooner you complete the FAFSA, the more need-based aid you can expect to receive. Applying sooner also gives you the chance to look for other types of free money in private scholarships and grants.