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Ask the Readers: Inexpensive Graduation Gifts?

Today’s question is from Michelle:

As graduations for both high school and college are quickly approaching, do you have any thoughtful yet inexpensive gift ideas other than cash?

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  • Kris says:

    Having gone through graduation with my daughter last year, please just keep it simple. She received so many towel sets, knick-knacks, and whim-whams that most ended up at Goodwill (except the towels that are now stashed in a closet in my house). If you are on a budget, just give $5. Truly — the grad needs money worse than a set of towels or a photo album or a basket of toiletries that they could be allergic to.

  • jamie says:

    These are great ideas! Love the umbrella & Dave Ramsey ideas especially. I think I will add these to the hand-stamped monogram notecards I am making for my sister who’s graduating high school. She can use them as thank-you notes for graduation gifts or can use them later to correspond with friends and family.

    I am happy to make hand-stamped monogram notecards for purchase, if I’m allowed to say that here? I love hand-made, personalized, and practical gifts! 🙂

  • cheryl says:

    My most memorable gift was one I thought was kinda odd at the time but turned out to be a HUGE help and that was bed raisers. (They’re like jacks for your bed). I could store so much more under my bed without taking up any more room in my dorm! I also got an airpopper with a popcorn bowl and a butter/salt combo shaker which came in VERY handy. My husband and I have sent “surprise boxes” throughout the 1st year of college filled with snacks, fun cash, silly string, etc.

  • Carrie says:

    For high school – I always loved getting a nice, sturdy small laundry basket filled with “goodies” from snacks, mac and cheese, pens, calculator, paper clips, laundry soap, new towel, etc. Whatever you can think of. If it’s a girl – go pink and purples. For boys – blues or greys. With all the savings you find at the stores, you really spend very little on so much stuff. If you’re obnoxious, wrap each gift in tissue paper lol

    Not sure on college. I have two siblings graduating and I’m thinking of just taking each one out. Or get them a bottle of liquor lol

  • Ashli says:

    I apologize if this was already mentioned but I just don’t have time right now to read all the comments. I would suggest a photo book from Snapfish, Shutterfly, or a similar site. You can often get them really inexpensively or free (just pay shipping) and it is a true gift from the heart that will be appreciated for years to come!

  • Megan says:

    I’m a big fan of the “treat of the month” club idea where you promise to send the grad a special item every month. I think this idea was featured on MSM around Christmastime as a gift idea and many Etsy artisans and gourmet stores also offer this option (if you want to get some inspiration!).

  • Kristen says:

    Here are some gifts I received that I really appreciated:

    High School: Someone bought me a really nice, soft large towel with matching washcloth for using in the dorms.

    College: Professional thankyou notes, resume paper with matching envelopes, stamps, professional-looking coffee to-go cup

  • Chelsea says:

    School supplies, laundry supplies (I always add a laundry guide too!), shower/toiletry supplies, the $5 target cards you get from deals! CVS or Wags gift card. A set of plastic dishes. A travel mug with a $5 starbucks gift card. Tote bag for books.

  • Patti says:

    Fred’s has the Ninja blender on sale for $14.75 so I am thinking of stocking up for graduate and wedding gifts. My h.s. son makes a protein drink everyday with mine so I am thinking he and his friends would love one! Thanks for all the other suggestions, too… I will know what to say when someone asks me what to get him.

  • My husband is the youth minister at our church. We have several grad gifts to buy every year. For girls, I typically go to and buy jewelry. Much of their stuff is a little too funky for my taste, but give it time and some very lovely things will cycle through. I try to buy stones in favorite colors. I spend approximately $11/girl.

    We usually give MagLites to the boys. I’ve taken to buying these on Black Friday, as Lowe’s and Home Depot usually run really great deals on these. I don’t know what it is with men and flashlights, but these are ALWAYS well received.

    I also buy the gifts from the church, which we present to the grads in the service. Again, this takes advance planning, as I like to buy leather study bibles. Mardel always has them for $15-$20 on Black Friday. I realize giving Black Friday shopping advice isn’t helpful in April/May, but it can be an idea to tuck away for the future if you know you’ll have graduates to buy for.

  • Emilie says:

    The best thing I remember from being away at college, was when someone came to that town, they took me out to eat. It got me out, gave me quality time with them and allowed me to eat something other than dorm food without having to have the money. It was a great treat!!!!! An IOU for this would be perfect in a card.

    I agree that cash is always useful. Gift cards are hard unless you know the town they live in.

    The umbrella is a great idea. I had other students ask to borrow mine.

    I also think the IOU for care packages is a great idea, especially if the student is going far from home!!! I am stealing that idea!!!!

    I think tools (wrench, screwdriver and hammer) and command strips are a wonderful idea for apt or dorms. I still have my multi-tool that I used in the dorms to fix my bed.

    I have written poems for grads about the keys to success or traveling on the road of life and given a blank key to go with it as a momento.

    I also thinking shipping them whatever the gift is after school starts is a great idea. EVERYONE loved to get packages!!!!

    My aunt made each of her nieces and nephews crocheted blankets. That is one gift I remember and still use 18 years later. My future mother-in-law made me a patchwork quilt, that I also still use.

  • Erin says:

    ONe of my favorite gifts was a keychain quarter dispenser- probably from a dollar store. Very practical for a lot of people and you could make a basket with detergent, etc as well.

  • Lisa says:

    I bought a portable flashdrive for $12 (it had a graphic picture on it). You can find them at Staples,Walmart, etc at a great price! I also added a travel calculator with built in dictionary/thesaurus for $12 at Walmart.

  • michelle says:

    I received a stretchy sheet set that fit my dorm bed and it was very useful. I think it had been purchased at Family Dollar or Dollar General for under $10.

  • Sharon says:

    I gave my nephew a bouquet of money roses. I went to the florist and got a box for long stemmed roses, made roses out of paper bills and attached them to artificial flower stems, and put a big bow on it. Needless to say, he opened mine last as he thought it was a bunch of flowers from his crazy aunt. My gift turned out to be his favorite!

  • Kristen Marshall says:

    I am a high school teacher so I get a lot of invitations to graduation parties. I give “I need cookies” cards. When they get settled at college they can send the card back to me and I will mail them cookies. I sent one just the other night and it cost me $5.10 to send them a dozen cookies plus we have the rest of the batch at home. I usually send out anywhere from 15-20 and usually get a handful of them back. The kids and parents still appreciate the idea.

  • Audrey says:

    My husband and I were on a very very tight budget for a long time. Up until about 6-9 months ago, we couldn’t afford to get anyone graduation gifts. We could barely afford to even put gas in our car. So we came up with a tradition. We’re youth leaders at our church, so we know a lot of people who graduate every year, and when we were trying to come up with SOME sort of gift for at least someone who was graduating, we decided to give every kid a dollar bill. Just one. My husband would explain to them, “This is the dollar that will buy the candy bar, coffee, or Mountain Dew that will give you the last boost of energy to finish the most important paper of your entire college career. Use it wisely.” Everyone always laughed at the gift, but now everyone we know expects it and looks forward to “the chat” at their graduations! Now that we have a little bit of wiggle room in our budget (not a lot, but our graduation budget will be more than $5!), we might give them 10 $1 bills or a roll of quarters (and something a little more personal for family) instead.

  • Savannah says:

    My sister-in-law will be graduating soon, and I am making her a quilt out of all the t-shirts she’s accumulated from high school (which is a TON!) And this is going to cost me about 10.00 total when its all said and done!

  • Bridgette says:

    If a student is going to college food and hygiene items are great (budget friendly) gifts. The price of things like toothpaste, laundry soap and toilet paper (TP depends on type of housing) can create unexpected expenses. These are things that students may be buying for the first time. Food is good because it can be expensive if you have not learned to shop sales and use coupons. If you’re all about deals you could probably put together a small stockpile by shopping out of your own pantry of free or cheap finds (cereals, Lysol wipes, toothpaste, Brita pitcher (if they have a fridge), snacks, Ziploc bags, 3m hanging strips, sponges, dish soap, and batteries) . I would put in recycled shopping bags. It can be a headache to receive laundry baskets that don’t match or stack correctly.

  • Tammy E says:

    I got friends of ours son a gift card to WaWa They can use it for gas a quick soda a cup of coffee in the am or any quick small need. I got the same thing for my nephew but the amount was larger, it all depends on the relationship and the amount you can afford to spend.

  • Ruth says:

    When our 4 kids were graduating, some times we would be invited to 12 or 15 parties. I gave beach towels–I prayed, and God always sent along a super deal (often at Target) that made it reasonable to buy so many. I’d roll each one up, tie ribbon around it, and put a name tag on it. No wrapping!
    Kids always can use another towel.

  • Julie says:

    I always struggled with this too, but I found a good idea reading “My Antonia” this spring, one of the characters receives an umbrella for a graduation gift. It is one of those things you never quite get around to buying for yourself, until you really need it!

  • Allison R says:

    My mom always gave the graduating kids nice beach towels — you can get some on sale at TJMaxx and places like that. She sometimes got hers at Sams’ Club. I saw a lady at Marshall’s the other day buying some CUTE inexpensive tote bags and beach towels…you could throw in sunscreen or SPF chapstick that you get with coupons. My mom always thought it was nice to have something to enjoy right away before college. But I STILL have one of those beach towels she gave me over 10 years ago and love it to this day!

  • Kim says:

    I love my digital picture frame. And I think a college student would too! Fewer frames in their dorm space!

    I actually bought one for my Realtor as a thank you gift with a name plate that said “Without You, We’d be Homeless” and she can load photos of her homes for sale on there and stick it in her office.

    I bought on Amazon for $25, another from Staples for $25. You have to watch for them to go on sale for the price though. If your budget isn’t too tight you can include the name plate and a memory card. Or they can use their camera’s memory card.

  • Jennifer says:

    For the college bound high school grad: Shower caddy for the dorm w/ flip flops (no foot fungus!) Fill it up w/ your drug store deals and steals! Maybe even a robe if you can splurge! Also if you live in the same town of the college the grad would be attending how about vouchers for you to do their laundry or for a home cooked meal? Laundry idea, how about a kit for the laundry mat too? Roll of quarters, soap, basket, crossword or wordfind books, paper back books!

  • Nicole says:

    As a high school teacher, I regularly get invited to at least 12-15 graduation parties a year. That’s a lot of gifts, even at $20 a pop. So throughout the year, I stock up on copies of “Oh the Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss. Perfect grad present. I write each grad a note and call it a day.

    I pick these up at Sam’s Club, book fairs (we have BOGO ones at my school each spring), publisher’s warehouse sales, anywhere I can find copies at a good price (I think the most I ever paid was $10 and that was when I was in a pinch.)

    Even though the kids all know what they’re getting, since it’s been the same every year, they all talk about it for years afterward.

  • Vanessa says:

    My husband & I are both high school teachers, so we get invited to lots of grad parties every year. Trying to buy a gift for each one is NOT in our budget! So, we got this idea from another teacher:
    Give the congrats card, with another card including a self-addressed, stamped envelope inside. Tell them to send you the card once they get settled at college, giving you an update on life, and include THEIR new address so you can send them a batch of homemade cookies! 🙂 College kids love anything homemade and love getting mail from home. It’s been fun to hear about their new lives and my kids like helping me bake cookies.

  • Liz says:

    My Mom has always been a huge fan of giving someone some of their “favorite things” packaged in a nice basket or something. This worked especially well for me when I left home.

    She’s the best 🙂

  • Joyce says:

    As a high school graduation gift, I like to make the graduate a basket filled with a slim Brita pitcher, extra filters, re-usable water bottles, and some water flavor packets. My daughter fills her Brita from the bathroom each night, pours the water into her bottles and puts them in her small fridge. The next day she has free water bottles to take to the gym, ect. Her only complaint is that everybody on her floor wants to use her Brita to refill their water bottles! An inexpensive, practical gift that develops green habits early!

  • stee says:

    the cookbook How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman – it’s the only cookbook they’ll ever need. Easy to follow, lots of advice for how to make variations on a meal

  • Jeannette says:

    What I did last year and may do again this year is to take all the books I no longer need to my favorite used book store which gives me trade bucks. The trade bucks are a great grad gift. My daughter’s friends are all frugal and hate buying something new if they can get it used. A gift of store bucks to a popular used book store really goes a long way. This may not work for out of town grads but the local grads have all loved this gift.

  • Jocelyn says:

    I go to Walmart and get a plastic popcorn bowl, set of bowls, cups, and plates – they have brightly colored ones that are very inexpensive ($1/item), so it’s a very inexpensive but very useful gift. I’ve had many kids tell me they got a lot of use out of them at college!

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