There’s a common complaint I hear from some parents who have sacrificed and saved for their children to attend college debt-free.

They bemoan the fact that other students get need-based aid when it appears — from the outside looking in — that their parents could have spent less and saved more.

The penny-pinching parents wonder where’s their reward for driving their cars until the vehicles have to be pushed off the road. What do they get for forgoing expensive vacations so that they could put money in a 529 college savings plan, thereby eliminating or greatly reducing the need for them or their children to take out student loans?

The parents argue that they didn’t try to keep up with the Joneses. Yet, they complain, the Joneses’ children get financial assistance for college whereas the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) indicates that their children don’t qualify for work study, grants or scholarships.


They ask me: Was my labor in vain?

I wasn’t there, but given my experience, I can imagine what some parents at the recent Morehouse College commencement in Atlanta might have been thinking when billionaire Robert F. Smith said his family would create a grant to pay off all the student loans for the 2019 graduates of the all-male historically black college.

Those not on the receiving end of this amazing gift might have thought to themselves, even for just a second: What about us? What do we get for doing the right thing and saving for our kids to go to college debt-free?


“The Robert F. Smith/Morehouse gift has resonated with me and not in a completely positive way,” wrote Gerald Baughman from Virginia. “Of course I’m happy for the students and am very appreciative of a rich person who contributes from his success to others. However, my immediate thought was: ‘What about the classmates who struggled and sacrificed to pay the cost of their education without going into debt?’ There must be many feeling left out, unlucky, or even resentful. I feel conflicted without being smart enough to guarantee some better conclusion, but I think in Smith’s place I would have put the generous contribution into a permanent scholarship fund.”


Several other readers echo this same sentiment.

“There are others who racked up debt with no idea of how they could minimize it or how they would pay it off and are being rewarded for irresponsible financial behavior,” one reader wrote.


Although the response to Smith’s generosity has been overwhelmingly positive, there are those who wondered too about the families that didn’t borrow heavily, or at all.

“In a way it’s a slap in the face to the people who had work-study, multiple scholarships, or whose family took the burden of paying the tuition without loans,” one reader said. “It makes their efforts look like they were in vain, if only they had taken loans. And those who took way more loans than they should have are getting off, while those who only took the bare minimum loans are getting less. Sorry if I’m not jumping for joy over this stunt.”


Another reader wrote: “Pity the poor putz who saved for the college expenses and gets nothing. Loser.”

In response to this last comment, one reader wrote, “That’s a choice they took and their gamble did not pay off, but at least they can say they did it themselves. Or do you want Mr. Smith to reimburse these students the money [they paid]”?

I did get a laugh from this observation: “Raise your hand if you think the Class of 2020 is going to vote to invite him back as commencement speaker.”

Three days after Smith’s magnanimous gift, #CancelMyDebt was trending on Twitter.

People were responding to presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) call for the cancellation of borrowers’ student loans, while others were commenting on Smith’s gift announcement.


I’m happy for the for the Morehouse graduates who received a gift that will free them from decades of servicing debt. There were 396 graduates in the 2019 class and most have loans.


Smith saw an immediate need and acted in a magnanimous way. He had been told that a lot of students don’t finish getting their degree at Morehouse because of the cost. When including tuition, room and board, and other expenses the cost of attendance at Morehouse is about $48,000 per year.

Throughout my years writing about the cost of college, I’ve heard from a lot of parents who feel duped when their saving results in a reduction of the financial aid their children receive. Some even suggest that maybe the shouldn’t save for college at all so that their children could qualify for need-based financial aid. During one of my weekly online chats, I received the following question:


Q: Am I bitter to think that because I have always lived within my means, saved, saved for retirement and saved a little for my kids’ college, I will get no financial help to pay for college while my friends who have the big houses, new cars, travel and a mountain of debt will get the help? It’s not that I think someone else should pay for my kids’ education, but why does it seem like the responsible people don’t get the help, while the irresponsible do?


Here’s my take feeling on this way of thinking: I understand the anxieties about paying for college. It’s also part of human nature to always want things to be fair. Except life isn’t fair — not even close.

There’s also this: You really don’t know what’s happening in the financial lives of the people you see living large. They may appear happy, but the strain of living above their means could be creating disharmony in their home.


And even if their children qualify for financial assistance, you’re still better off having saved for your child’s education. Because the financial aid offered to many families is often in the form of subsidized loans. Only a small percentage of students receive enough scholarships and grants to cover the full cost of college.


Those students at the Morehouse graduation had no idea their loans would be paid off, and many were probably worried about how they would handle their debt load.

All day, every day, I would opt for a worry-free financial life, which is why my husband and I have no regrets saving enough to send all three of our children to in-state colleges with no debt.


When you save — or save as much as you can — you eliminate or reduce the need to borrow and this means less financial stress.

Your saving and sacrificing doesn’t make you a putz or loser. It makes you responsible and fortunate. There’s so much reward in living within your means, including setting a good example for your children. Whether it’s a surprise gift from a billionaire or need-based aid given to some other’s person’s child, don’t resent what others get.


Financially and generally in life, doing the right thing has to be its own reward. It allows you to better control your fate just in case you don’t meet a generous billionaire.

Read more:

Color of Money Question of the Week

How do you feel about Smith’s gift and the fact that some students won’t benefit from his generosity? Send your comments to Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line put “Smith’s Graduation Gift.”

Live Chat Today

I’m live at noon (Eastern time) today and taking your personal finance questions. My guest will be Jeni Rogers, author of “200+ Ways to Protect Your Privacy,” the Color of Money Book Club pick for this month.


Rogers will join me to answer security questions.

It’s also “Testimony Thursday.” Share your financial success stories. Have you paid off debt? Do you finally have an emergency fund?

You can join the discussion by clicking this link.

Investing fears and frustrations

With the recent turmoil in the stock market, largely due to failed trade negotiations with China, I asked: What’s your greatest fear about investing?

Jane C. from New York wrote: “I am 72. I manage my own finances. I chose in 2018 to reduce my stock holdings from 60 percent to 30 percent and put the difference into cash. The reason is that I feel there is gasoline all over the floor and the only thing missing is the match. To me the ‘gasoline’ is the highest federal debt ever, the high corporate debt ever and the high personal debt. There are always ups and downs in the market but it’s our ability to recover that to me is in severe jeopardy.”

“When you look at stock market charts for 1970 to 1975, it was not a good time to ‘stay the course,’ ” wrote Bill Marshall, of Chatham, N.J. “This time may be different (how many times have we heard that line before), but my greatest fear is that it won’t. I’m 67 and recently retired, and a repeat of 1974 would be a disaster. So, the only question is whether to bail out now, or to hold on and ride the irrational exuberance a little further. I cut back to 50 percent of normal stock asset allocation, and plan to be out before the 2020 elections.”

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