Gifts For Grads

Photo: CarbonNYC

Around springtime last year, as my niece’s university graduation date loomed, I picked out (but waited to buy) what I thought would be an ideal gift: a watch with her alma mater’s insignia emblazoned on its face. I emailed my sister to get my niece’s mailing address and found out, very quickly, that she didn’t need a watch but was ready with alternatives. My niece had created a graduation registry at Crate & Barrel

Though I have become accustomed to online bridal registries (I got married in the days when brides made in-store appointments to create wedding registries), the graduation list was new to me. My niece had selected nice but not so expensive dinnerware and flatware along with a few kitchen items. I loved this idea and here's why: I was able to get a nice gift that the graduate wanted and spend less than I had originally planned.

You may be thinking, why not give cash? Cash is a great gift and my gift of choice for the past 7 high school graduations. Here are a few reasons that some may opt out of cash giving:

  • Desire to buy something memorable, especially for a big event such as a university graduation
  • Hope to increase the value of the gift by giving a wanted item (Will sheds light on the difference between a gift’s price tag and its value to the recipient in a post on why gifts may be inefficient)
  • Don't want to seem cheap but don't have a lot to spend (ideally, a gift registry will include items that are less than $15)
  • Want to make sure that money isn't spent frivolously before the grad settles down

Gift registries available online, in addition to Crate & Barrel, are Target, Kohl's, and Bed Bath & Beyond and Amazon's Wish List. As a gift-giver, I want to be a part of helping someone get established in the real world. If I can give something that may help the grad save money in the long run, such as cookwaredinnerware or a community cookbook (to encourage eating in rather than eating out), that's great also.

My niece had her immediate next step careerwise figured out, and she's working while applying to graduate school. And, thanks to in-state tuition and some planning, she is free of student loan debt so cash wasn't as high a priority as it might be for some grads. For those who are in the job market, Ditch the Flip Flops: Ace Your Job Interview Fresh Out of College offers solid, very detailed advice on positioning oneself for a career and landing a position.

If you've got ideas for useful, not-too-pricey gifts for grads, share them in the comments.


Disclosure: I received a copy of Ditch the Flip Flops in exchange for a book review (pending).

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Guest's picture

I am also a huge fan of gift registries! When you register, you should make sure to include things you would like from a wide variety of price ranges. Most people want to get the best gift they can for you at the cheapest price. You would be surprised, however, how many people are willing to get you really nice gifts that you would never ask for directly. Registries give people the option to choose how much they are willing to spend while also guaranteeing that they are buying something you will enjoy. My favorite registries are Target and Bed Bath and Beyond.

Guest's picture

My favorite gift registry is Get books and other things for less!


Guest's picture

As an extension to the idea of helping someone get established in the real world, what about gifts that help someone who is entering the job market? An interview outfit, for example. A gift certificate for a resume writer...lame examples but you know what I am saying.

As an example that is a little more current, offers an opportunity to incorporate video as a tool in a job search. Prices here start from free - and the grad would also be able to take advantage of the community aspect in refining and sharing their video online. As a gift you could pay for some additional professional help for the grad to enhance their video so that it can be something that sets them apart in the job market.

Guest's picture

Yes-- gift cards!

And here's why: grocery stores offer gift cards. pharmacies offer gift cards. Once you've got food and soap and toilet paper covered, you can handle everything else.

When I graduated from college, the VERY best presents that made me feel the happiest and most loved were Shaw's or Whole Foods gift cards from my mom. The first meant I could eat; the second gave me permission to splurge and eat well.

And even just a $10 card is money that the kid would have spent anyway, and now doesn't have to. With grocery store cards, you never run into the problem of not being able to find something to spend on, or of having an unused/unusable amount on card.

Guest's picture

While I understand the whole idea of effective gift-giving, I hate them--pure and simple.

Guest's picture

Some other great gifts would be items to help them jump start their careers, like nice leatherbound portfolios to use at interviews or even a giftcard to a nice department store so they can purchase a nice suit!

I do think cash is sometimes an easy cop out when people do not want to spend time, but in actuality, good gift ideas usually smack us right in the face rather quickly when walking around the mall on browsing the internet!

Guest's picture

Gift registries are tacky, as far as I'm concerned. It's pretty presumptuous to assume that just because you're having a life event people should buy you gifts.

Gifts are supposed to be spontaneous -- not an expected exchange.

I'm graduating from college in a few months, and it would never even occur to me to sign up for a gift registry. I hope people come to graduation and then eat lots of cake with me afterwards to celebrate. That's it. I don't need people to buy me crap or give me money to celebrate or feel good about graduating college.

Guest's picture

I basically give only cash gifts and I really only want cash for gifts. This lets me decide what 'stuff' I will have in my home; I can buy what *I* want-not what someone thinks/hopes I want-and I can buy it when I want it. Say I want or need a watch. I'd rather pick out my own than have someone pick one they hope I will like. Also, I can buy a watch when I find one on sale rather than just going straight out and paying full price. I also enjoy just depositing cash and padding my savings account. Or I might decide to use a cash gift to pay a bill; this also makes me happy.

Guest's picture

I only think gift registeries are tacky if they're forced on guests/relatives/etc. They are useful, just not "traditional", but what is tradition anyway except what we continue to do?

Guest's picture

I love the idea of giving practical "real world" gifts for grads!!!

At my own graduation last year, I asked friends and family to give me their old gently used household items that they no longer needed. Sure, my CrocPot is burnt orange and is fairly ugly, but it works wonderfully! Some people have problems with using used items as gifts, but it's better than your old things collecting dust in a cabinet and it saves the gift givers money as well!

Guest's picture

As a future grad, I am only expecting a gift from my parents, and that is because they gave one to my sister last year. Honestly, I would prefer cash as I really don't NEED anything right now, and I could invest it in an RRSP or something. So that's my suggestion, help them get started on their retirement savings.

Guest's picture

Last year, I was freshly into CVS and excited enough about working their ExtraBucks program that I was piling up TONS of extra free stuff. Shampoo, body wash, razors, toothpaste, etc.
I threw in a couple things I'd actually paid for (after a hefty coupon/sale discount, of course) like laundry detergent, added a roll of quarters, and put it all in a laundry basket. Viola! My cousin's kid was set for dorm life.

Guest's picture

"As a gift-giver, I want to be a part of helping someone get established in the real world."

Kudos, Julie! I couldn't agree more.

One thing I'd like to suggest if you're a parent pr grandparent is to do something with your grad -- like take them to see a show or go on a short trip.

My parents took me on a road trip for a long weekend as my graduation present and those memories mean far more to me than any material thing could.

Fred Lee's picture
Fred Lee

I think gift-giving is a personal gig, and to each his own. And as much as I think cash is a great thing, it's hard to know when you're giving too little or going overboard. I acknowledge that it's the thought that counts, but it can be hard to determine the right amount - too little can give the wrong impression, as can too much. Perhaps it's best left to the immediate family.

A gift has more personal and sentimental value, and can say a lot more than cold hard cash, though it takes more thought and effort. If it's something practical, then over the course of it's lifetime, think of how much it will remind the receiver of your thoughtfulness.

Besides, practical gifts can be fun and whimsical, they just get more use and don't end up at the thrift store or by curbside on trash day.

Thanks for the info, Julie, and nice job on the post.

Guest's picture

A simple, but very useful gift idea: an assortment of extension cords, power adapters, power strips and surge protectors. Include at least one that's ridiculously long. Include at least one rated to protect a computer. I'm also throwing in one really long (100') LAN cable.

Dorm rooms and cheap apartments aren't always well designed on the electricity front, and you always need just one more place to plug something in and that one place is on the other side of the room. This is what I'm doing for my sister-in-law as she graduates this year, and I'm pretty excited about the idea.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for all the ideas -- helping with the day-to-day transition sounds really helpful and thoughtful.

I'll mention that as an RA in college some items (in-room microwaves for example) would blow fuses in older buildings and possibly incur charges for the offending resident (I don't think I ever charged anyone though; on the upside, I learned to check fuses (in fuse boxes, which were typically not locked though they should have been) for looseness and flip appropriate switches.

Guest's picture

I actually prefer cash. My wife is graduating this year, and we're starting to get a ton of cash in the mail. I love it. She loves it. :)

Guest's picture

I don't really care for registries either, but when we had our wedding, enough people asked that I caved and did it. It was discreet, as we only mentioned it if we were asked. I think some people want to give you something they know you'd like to have (you picked it out) and others would like to give you something they'd like you to have. It also let people choose from a wide range of items, and we didn't end up with something we didn't need, like pots and pans. I STILL ended up with two toasters, though!

Maggie Wells's picture

that I received, I've since given myself to other grads. At the time, I didn't even realize how great these were.

1) Father gave me a solid piece of travel on luggage that I still use to this day. Now, I'm a fan of giving a decent piece of luggage.

2) Grandmother bought a new laundry basket and loaded it up with laundry detergent, dryer sheets, new set of sheets for the dorms, cleaning supplies, napkins, bottled water, first aid kit, etc. At the very bottom was an enevelope with $500 bucks too. Go grandma! She knew it would take me awhile to get to the bottom of the laundry basket of supplies and by the time I got to the end, I really needed the $500.

3) The godmothers bought me a blender and a cooler full of  drink mixes and concentrated juice mixes along with a bottle of vodka and a bottle of tequila.

4) An aunt gave me a 'gift certificate' for whatever would be my most expensive book come my first fall semester at college.


All of these were much appreciated and I've done my best to follow in their footsteps in doing the same for other graduates.


Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture

I like giving "oh the Places You will Go" by DR. Suess to graduates. I write something encouraging in the front as well.

It's a great story for starting a new phase!!

Guest's picture

Yet another confirmation that I'm living on the wrong planet or in the wrong century. Gift registries for graduation?!?!?

Guest's picture

For my high school graduation, I got a wonderful 5 piece Samsonite luggage set. At the time, I wasn't really over enthusiastic about it. But it has since seen me through countless hops between states (I went out of state for my undergraduate) and a handful of hops across the Atlantic (study abroad and now doing my postgrad overseas). It is expensive, but it's held up beautifully and is the only graduation gift I have with me all the time.

Julie Rains's picture

I love both of these -- really nice luggage can be expensive but a great gift from parents or a generous friend. I hate to see kids with paper or plastic bags for luggage, not necessarily b/c they can't afford the luggage but hadn't gotten around to buying any when the need arose. LL Bean and Lands' End carry some nice pieces at decent prices.

"Oh, the places you'll go" is a great for recent grads but also for not-so-recent ones. 

Guest's picture

The gift I remember most and used the most in college wasn't expensive. The mother of a friend bought me a box of individual laundry detergent tabs and a jar of quarters. Totally useful!

My mother also bought me my vanity url of my first and last name. That has become more useful as I've started establishing myself in business and online.

Guest's picture

There's a part of me that LOVES the idea of grad gift registries, mostly because it's so very practical. Most college grads are setting up apartments, so what a great idea to help them. On the other hand, I can find out that information, usually, from the parents, if I'm close enough to send a gift.

We're going to a college grad party Sunday. I have one part of the gift, a great career search book and workbook, "Job Coach for Young Professionals." It looks just fabulous for helping get that job, even in a tight market. Everything that someone looking for a job needs to know is right there. Great stuff. And I'm also going to get a housewares item -- but I don't know what my friend's daughter needs yet. See? A registry would help!

I do not like cash, though. I want to give a real gift.

(As for high school students, for the kids to whom we're really close, I've created what I think is a great gift: a pop-up laundry hamper, filled with useful stuff for college: dry erase board, stapler, scissors -- go for Fiskar! -- post it notes, Fabreze, maybe a roll of quarters for the laundry, thumb tacks, hooks (over the door are best), etc. etc. etc. It is well received and highly useful!)