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Creative Gift Ideas for High School Grads and College Students

Updated on October 5, 2016
Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy writes about family, home life, parenting, money-saving tips, and many other topics, as well as essays and occasional humor pieces.

What to Get for Graduates This Year

Graduation time is here!  Here are some gift ideas for your favorite new graduate.
Graduation time is here! Here are some gift ideas for your favorite new graduate.

Gifts Teens, Graduates and College Students Need and Want

It happens every spring. No, not the birds and the bees – the flood of new high school graduates heading off to college, or the latest class of college graduates getting ready to start a new career. But it can be hard to come up with gift ideas for the son or daughter of your friends, or the kid down the street who mows your lawn or babysits!

Here are a few affordable ideas for honoring the graduates in your life:

Store Gift Cards: Yes, we hear kids want money, but whether they’re headed off to college or to a new job, we will say upfront that gift cards truly are appreciated. The only caveat is that they’re not real personal.

However, your grad will enjoy getting cards for places they’ll shop to furnish their dorm room or their new apartment. Get a card from Target, WalMart or another chain store, so they can use it no matter where they go. Be careful of generic cards that require a fee for activation, though.

Ideas and Gifts Graduates Will Love

Kitchen and Cleaning Supplies: If your grad is leaving for a dorm room or will be on their own for the first time, they’ll appreciate a laundry basket full of supplies for cleaning their room, laundry soap, a few kitchen items and other things that will cost a fortune. This is best done when the grad has a way to transport the items to their new digs. If they’re flying to a new campus, it’s not a practical gift.

An Address Book – With Addresses: Yes, they have a cell phone, and it’s full of numbers. But do they have Aunt Kate’s street address (or for that matter, her phone?), or the house number of the church minister, or information on other people they might want to contact? Letter writing isn’t dead yet, and it’s amazing how many people wish they had a few favorite addresses after they leave for college or for their new job. Get a nice address book and spend a week or two having everyone your grad knows fill in their personal information. You can also inscribe it with a personal note. He or she will keep this for many years.

A Kindle or Nook: If your new graduate is headed off to college and doesn't already have one of these reading devices, he or she will love you for getting this gift. Many of the books they will need to read can be downloaded and carted around in these portable devices, which saves aches and pains from hauling books around the campus. It also saves a ton of space in dorm rooms, not to mention the Green benefit of having paperless books!

More Gift Card Ideas

Even if you present them with a gift card, you can show them you know what they'll be needing. Here are some cards they might appreciate:

E-book Gift Cards: If you've presented your grad with a Kindle or Nook, consider adding a gift card to give them a head start in downloading books. Almost all literature books they will read are available electronically, as well as some textbooks and other reading materials they'll be assigned.

Fast Food Gift Cards: Buy a few gift cards to some favorite fast-food places; your grad can have lunch on you and save his or her cash for later.

Restaurant Gift Cards: If there are some decent chain restaurants near their new place, present them with a gift card or two that will pay for a nice evening meal. They will get tired of dorm food and drive-through burgers, but having a card to a favorite restaurant will help them enjoy a splurge dinner without guilt.

Gas or Oil Cards: If your grad is taking a car to college, buy a gift card that will cover a fill-up or an oil change or two. The oil change might be helpful for those grads who have not had to maintain their own car before now; it will remind them to get it changed at the right time, and they’re less likely to put it off due to the cost they’ll incur.

Cameras Make Great Graduation Gifts

If your graduate doesn't have a good camera, now is the time to get one. Graduation is a time when they'll want to capture memories, and they will also want to grab some memorable shots at their new campus or in their new apartment.

Choosing a Camera

Size Matters: Is your grad likely to tuck the camera into his or her backpack or purse, or are they willing to carry a camera bag around? Small (even tiny) cameras are great for grads who don't want to be troubled with a larger model, but if they're really into photography, consider models that have more creative features, even if it's a bit larger.

Video: Your graduate probably already shoots video on a smartphone. But nothing can beat the high-definition features of recent cameras. Even some tiny models will shoot HD (beautifully, as a matter of fact). You can find good quality, fixed-lens cameras by Canon and Nikon, as well as other manufacturers, for reasonable prices. Your gift will last them for many years.

How about a DIgital SLR? If your graduate plans to earn some extra money, why not get him or her a starter kit for their own photography business. Many college students who have artistic or technical skills and an aptitude or interest in photography offset their tuition and living expenses through photography. There's always somebody getting engaged, married, getting an award, competing in sports or appearing at an event who needs good photos.

Start your grad's new career with a good camera body (preferably one that shoots video, too) and one or entry-level lenses. Canon and Nikon both offer great bodies and lenses, and many professional photographers have started their careers with kits from these manufacturers.

Gifts That Pamper

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Unique Things to Give College Students

Gift Certificates for a Spa Day or Massages: When exam time comes around, your grad might appreciate a massage or a day of pampering. Do a search for a nearby facility and contact them about a gift certificate (even small firms will create a certificate on request). Wrap it with an inexpensive bottle of soothing lotion for clever presentation.

Gift Certificates for Personal Care: Hair still grows, nails still need polished and toes need pedicures. Find out where there’s a reasonably priced salon near the campus or in the new city, and get a gift certificate for a haircut or other services. These occasional expenses add up, and even if your grad eventually picks another hairdresser, she will appreciate having a place to go that first time she needs a trim.

Deposit Money in their Meal Account: Most colleges have debit accounts for cafeteria expenses (and some can be used at the campus bookstore). Inquire about depositing funds into their campus account to help defray the cost of lunches or supplies.

Phone Cards: This may not apply to those students with cell phones and unlimited minutes, but students going overseas will appreciate cards that can be used for international calls. Find out the rates and cover at least an hour, if you can afford it.

Clever Wrapping and Packaging Tips: If you're tired of the same old bags with tissue or boxes with paper, try these creative ideas for a change.

  • Wrap it in something useful! Small items can be wrapped in a dish towel; larger ones in a bath or hand towel.
  • Will it be shipped? Frame it! Your grad probably has tons of photos from senior parties and the day they wore their cap and gown. If you're shipping a larger item to their dorm, print out an online photo and stick it into a cute frame. They'll love seeing what's waiting for them when they arrive, and the frame can easily be tucked into their suitcase.
  • Use a laundry bag, reusable 'green' grocery bag, a tote or even a backpack to 'wrap' the gift. All can be used many times over after they're settled in their new digs.

These are just a few ideas for creative gifts that graduates might need or appreciate. Remember, they’re starting out from scratch!

Gifts to Help Furnish a Dorm Room or Small Apartment

If your graduate is headed off to a college dorm, he or she will need several things to make life more comfortable.

Microwave or Toaster Oven: Depending on the rules in the dorm, or the set-up in a rented room or apartment, your grad might appreciate a personal-sized microwave or toaster oven. Many nutritious meals can be cooked in one of these two appliances, and they're the perfect size for one- or two-person mealtimes. Arm them with some idea for easy dorm food, and they'll be set for the semester.

Storage Containers: In case you don't remember, dorm rooms are small. Actually, that first apartment is, um, petite, too. Storage is at a premium, so your grad will appreciate some gift cards to a place that sells bins and containers designed to maximize space. Or, you can pack a gift in one of the zippered sweater boxes or other containers and give a double-duty present to send them off.

Newlywed Graduates? Is your grad getting married (this is often the time when couples start life together). Think of wedding or bridal gifts that will help them start out their new life, but will have a personalized stamp of your thoughtfulness. They might appreciate gift cards for a dinner out after the honeymoon, or help in paying the deposit on utility or cable start-ups. Those are practical gifts, but oh-so-thoughtful for kids on a tight budget.

Digital Frames: They already have a camera? Then they're bound to have hundreds of shots they'd like to view. Digital frames will hold tons of photos, and the changing views are entertaining to watch. Even if they already have one, they will appreciate a second or third frame so they can dedicate one for the graduation or wedding, one for their sports and activities, and one for friends and family.


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