Finding free (or low-interest) money for college

No doubt about it. Going to college is exciting. But paying for it? Not so much. More like stressful, overwhelming and even panic inducing.

Whoa, there -- take a deep breath. Learn the basics of financial aid (and finding the cheapest colleges) and you're on the path to paying for college without tearing your hair out.

How to think about financial aid
First, let's learn a basic formula that will help you think about college financing.

Net costs equals total costs minus gift aid.

What does that mean? What you actually pay for college equals the sticker price of attending, minus any free money you get.

"It's pretty rare that someone pays the actual sticker price," says Haley Chitty, spokesperson for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. "Before becoming discouraged, figure out the net costs." To do that, you've got to find out what kind of free aid is available.

Aid Basics
There are four different types of student aid:

1. Grants and scholarships. Grants usually come from the state or federal government, and scholarships can come from your college or private sources, like individuals, business and foundations. They're the best kind of financial aid because they're completely free.