As the school year draws to a close, eager high school and college students are looking forward to graduation – and their friends and relatives are looking forward with a mixture of pleasure and anxiety to the graduation announcements. Along with pride for the new graduate and pleasure at being invited, the sight of that crisp white envelope can bring a rush of panic as you wonder, “Does this mean I have to get a gift?”
First things first: According to Emily Post, you are under no obligation to send a present if you’re not actually going to the graduation. In that case, all you need to do is write a note congratulating the new grad and wishing them good luck. However, if you’re actually attending the ceremony, a gift is appropriate – and that’s where things get tricky if you’re on a tight budget. You want your present to be truly welcome, but you also don’t want it to break your personal bank.
This pretty much rules out the ever-popular items of cash and gift cards. There’s no way to hide the price tag with these, and while a $100 gift card can look like a generous gesture, a $15 gift card just looks like a cop-out. It also rules out a lot of the items that show up in magazines’ lists of “best gifts for grads,” which tend to focus on high-end items like a new laptop computer or a smart assistant like the Amazon Echo.
Fortunately, you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to show your favorite graduate you care. There’s a wide range of unique gifts for both high school and college grads to fit all budgets – including presents that are useful, sentimental, or simply fun.
Best Gifts Under $20
It’s easy to feel discouraged if you’ve just received a graduation invite and you know you can’t possibly squeeze more than $20 out of your budget for a gift. But don’t give up so easily. Even on this tight a budget, it’s possible to find interesting and thoughtful gifts that graduates will enjoy.
According to Post, flowers are a traditional gift for new graduates. You can give the graduate a corsage or boutonniere to wear during the graduation ceremony, or alternatively, bring a congratulatory bouquet of blooms to present afterward.
Traditional flowers for graduation, such as roses and orchids, can be a bit expensive. Ordering a dozen long-stemmed roses online can cost anywhere from $20 to $65, and an orchid corsage runs about $35. However, there are plenty of less expensive options, such as carnations, daffodils, and tulips. You can also pick up a mixed bouquet from the grocery store for as little as $5.
If you’re a gardener, you can even cut some fresh flowers from your own beds on the day of the graduation and arrange them yourself. Plenty of flowers are in bloom during May and June, including roses, peonies, delphiniums, freesias, lilies, and Gerbera daisies. A nosegay of homegrown blooms will be a far more meaningful sign of your affection than a pricey bouquet you just picked off an online menu.
2. Classy Pen
For a college-bound graduate, a good pen is a gift that’s both tasteful and incredibly useful. According to a 2014 study from the Association for Psychological Science, students who take notes in a lecture by hand understand the subject matter better than those who type their notes on a laptop. Of course, it’s possible to take notes with a cheap ballpoint, but a really good pen both looks better and writes a smoother line – and it also says “I’m an adult” in a way that a Bic with a chewed cap never will. By presenting your favorite high-school graduate with a high-quality pen, you’re getting them off to a promising start on the next stage of their schooling.
True pen aficionados swear by old-fashioned fountain pens, but these aren’t for everyone. To write neatly with a fountain pen, you have to retrain your hand to hold the pen at the proper angle and move your whole arm as you write.
So, unless you know your favorite grad is keen on this type of pen, a better choice is a modern refillable ballpoint or roller-ball pen. These pens are handsome and durable, and because you can replace the ink when it runs out, they often cost less in the long run than a series of cheap disposables. Readers on the Everyday Carry site particularly like the $19 Fisher Space Pen, the $11.50 Parker Jotter, and the stylish and inexpensive $5 Zebra F-701. If none of these strikes your fancy, can find lots of other options for great prices at JetPens.
3. Pocket Notebook
A pocket notebook comes in handy for all sorts of things. Your graduate friend can use it to jot down memos, to-do-lists, spending, journaling, drawings, poems, or just random thoughts. Writing down your ideas in this way is a more visceral experience than taking notes on a smartphone, and it creates an indelible record you can refer to later to remember exactly what you were doing and thinking about at a given time.
A cheap spiral-bound notebook works fine for this kind of daily jotting, but a nicer-looking bound one makes a tasteful, inexpensive present. One popular brand with the artsy set is the 3.5-by-5-inch Moleskine Classic Notebook. It costs $15 and comes in a choice of six colors, ranging from bright to muted. Another option is the $10 Experience Passport diary, which contains daily writing prompts to inspire creative thinking.
A good book makes a suitable gift for any occasion. The best thing about books as a gift is that they’re easy to tailor to fit the recipient’s particular taste. With millions of titles in print, there’s sure to be something that’s appropriate.
For instance, if your favorite graduate has a particular passion, such as photography or fishing, you can choose a book on that topic. Other options include a classic literary work for the literary scholar, a work of popular science for the scientist or mathematician, or a piece of light fiction for the casual reader.
If you’re not sure what type of book would be best for a graduate, consider one that offers helpful advice on learning to be an adult. For example, USA Today recommends “Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps” by Kelly Williams Brown and “Broke Millennial: Stop Scraping By and Get Your Financial Life Together” by Erin Lowry. Both titles are top sellers on Amazon and cost less than $15.
There are lots of places to buy books on a budget. Online booksellers like Amazon and Alibris usually have better prices than brick-and-mortar stores, but you can do even better buying books secondhand. If you can’t find the title you want at your local used bookstore, try online sites like eBay, ThriftBooks, or Paperback Swap. Just make sure to limit your search to books in “Very Good” or “Excellent” condition – a book with loose pages or scribbles in the margin isn’t much of a present.
5. Photo Frame or Stand
No matter where your friend the graduate is heading – off to college, or out into the world – they’re sure to have people and places they’ll be sorry to leave behind. Photos can help them keep those well-loved memories close, so anything that displays photos makes a good present for a graduate. When they’re on their own in a new place, being able to look at a snapshot of last summer’s beach party, a family portrait, or even a photo of a pet will help them feel connected to the ones they love.
Tabletop frames are a good choice for college-bound graduates, who may not be allowed to hang pictures on the walls of their dorm. You can find these at any big-box store at prices ranging from $2 to $20 apiece. For something a little more unusual, try Etsy, which has a large assortment of handcrafted frames made by independent artists. You can also choose cute, inexpensive photo stands that allow snapshots to be switched easily in and out, so your graduate can add new photos to go along with old ones.
To make your gift even more sentimental, choose a special photo and enclose it in the frame before you wrap it. That way, you’re not just giving an accessory – you’re giving a memory.
6. Edible (or Drinkable) Gift
What do you get for the graduate who seems to have everything already? Well, everyone needs to eat – so an edible gift is sure to be useful. Here are a few ideas for tasty treats that won’t cost over $20:
- Candy. Even top-tier chocolates can come in at under $20 if you choose one of the smaller boxes. For instance, an eight-piece assortment from Godiva costs only $16. If you’re not sure what type of candy the graduate likes best, send a “Duet” gift from SugarWish for $18.50. This lets the recipient select two 4-ounce bags of sweets in whatever flavors they prefer.
- Spice Assortments. College graduates who are moving out on their own face the challenge of doing all their own cooking, perhaps for the first time. Help them out by offering them some interesting seasonings to spice up their meals. Penzey’s Spices offers several small gift boxes, each containing a selection of three or four interesting spices or seasoning blends, for $15 to $20.
- Homemade Seasonings. For even less money, you can make a homemade seasoning gift. Classy choices include homemade herb-infused oils, which you can make using these instructions from Bon Appétit, or flavored salt, for which you can find instructions at Food & Wine. Package your offering in a nice bottle or jar with a pretty homemade label and a ribbon.
- Wine. For a college graduate who’s old enough to drink legally, a nice bottle of wine makes a welcome gift. Champagne is traditional for festive occasions, and it doesn’t have to be as pricey as Dom Perignon. Thrillist lists several decent brands of bubbly you can pick up for $7 to $15 a bottle. If your favorite graduate prefers a different variety, check out this Food & Wine article to find recommended vintages of reds, whites, and rosés for $15 or less.
Best Gifts $20 to $50
If you can spare as much as $50 for a graduation gift, you have more options to choose from. For that amount, you can offer the lucky graduate something they’ll find useful for years to come. Or, if you prefer, you can give them a special treat they’ll be able to enjoy right away.
7. Care Package
Both high-school and college grads are starting out on a new phase of their lives. They may be heading off to college to live in a dorm room, or they may be preparing to make a home for themselves. Either way, they’ll need some supplies to get them started on their new life.
Arranging a bunch of useful household items in a gift basket is an easy, inexpensive way to put together a present you know the new graduate can use. For instance, the $21 “new home starter kit” from Brandless comes with seven cleaning and personal care items, including toilet bowl cleaner, hand soap, and tissues. You can buy this bundle ready-made from Brandless, or put together a similar assortment of items you’ve bought yourself. If you’re skilled at stacking sales and coupons, you can probably assemble an even bigger collection of items for the same amount of money.
Household items aren’t the only things you can include in a care package. For college-bound seniors, you could assemble a gift basket of school supplies or snacks to provide fuel for late-night study sessions. For college grads about to move into their first apartment, an assortment of small kitchen tools, such as measuring spoons, a can opener, and a vegetable peeler, will be helpful in setting up their first kitchen.
Wristwatches are less essential these days than they used to be, since many people simply pull out their phones when they want to check the time. However, a nice watch adds a touch of class to an outfit – and it also serves as a symbol of adulthood, when time really starts to matter. A wristwatch serves both a practical purpose, helping the new adult get to work or college classes on time, and a symbolic one, making them look like a real grown-up.
Popular watch brands like Shinola can cost hundreds of dollars, but there are plenty of less expensive alternatives. For instance, Primer Magazine describes the practical Timex Weekender, which costs around $30, as a “classic” that’s appropriate for both men and women. Improb also recommends this style, along with several other men’s watches under $50 from respected brands like Seiko and Nixon.
For a female graduate, consider something a little cuter or dressier. Popular styles at Amazon include a $25 Etevon watch in rose gold and the $40 Timex Essex Avenue, with a range of materials for both the face and the band. Buzzfeed lists some more inexpensive and unique styles that are appropriate for young women.
Another item most people need to carry and use every day is a wallet. It holds all the essentials of day-to-day life – ID, credit cards, cash, and other documents that you’re likely to need at a moment’s notice. However, many recent graduates aren’t used to carrying all this stuff around with them every day, so they can use a good wallet to keep it all organized.
Wallets come in a variety of styles, materials, and price ranges. Classy leather models can cost $100 or more, but there are also sturdy nylon ones available for $20 or less. For instance, the highly-rated Timberland Men’s Trifold costs only $15, while a stylish model in leather from Fossil costs around $50.
At college parties, drinks tend to be served in plastic cups. After you graduate, upgrading to nicer glassware for your libations is a way to show that you’ve moved on. Classier glasses show that you’re an adult now, but you still like to have fun – just the right message for young adults.
To help the recent college grad with this message, pick out a tasteful set of glasses suitable for their drink of choice. At IKEA, both wineglasses and tumblers cost as little as $3 for a set of six, while World Market offers some fancier choices costing $12 to $36 per set. You can also pick out special glasses for particular drinks, such as tall beer glasses, champagne flutes, or angular martini glasses.
For the whiskey drinker, a nice decanter would round out the set nicely. You can buy a cut-glass decanter, and even get it personalized with a monogram, for $30 to $40. Or, for the cocktail drinker, consider a stainless-steel cocktail shaker, which you can pick up for as little as $10 at World Market.
11. Board Game
College-bound seniors can look forward to four years of hanging out with people their own age. When they’re not busy writing papers, they’ll have plenty of time for recreation, and board games and other tabletop games can provide hours of fun.
If the only board games you know are old chestnuts like Monopoly and Clue, go visit a big bookstore and you’ll be surprised at the wide range of choices out there these days. Grown and Flown offers a list of games that are popular with college students, including:
- Catan. This game of building, settlement, and resource management is great for players of all ages. It accommodates three to four players and costs around $40.
- Dominion. In this deck-building game, you compete to build the most impressive kingdom by buying and using cards. It costs about $35 and is good for two to four players.
- Exploding Kittens. This fast-paced card game is for two to five players with a slightly twisted sense of humor. Players take turns drawing cards and trying to avoid – or defuse – the deadly exploding kittens. It costs $20 for the base game, and adding more sets can expand it to include more players.
- Codenames. This game is played in two teams of two to four players each. Using clues from a player called the Spymaster, teams compete to guess which cards on the table belong to their team and avoid cards belonging to the other team. Available at most stores, the game costs around $20.
- Cards Against Humanity. In this adults-only game, players take turns trying to come up with the funniest – or grossest – way to complete a sentence. It can be played with any number of players, as long as they aren’t easily offended. The basic game costs $25, and there are lots of expansions available – including a special “College Pack.”
12. Gift of an Experience
Studies in the field of happiness economics have shown that spending money on experiences tends to bring more happiness than spending it on physical objects. So, if you really want to make the new graduate happy, giving them an experience to remember is a great way to do it. It will offer them a chance to relax after the stress of finals and reward themselves for all their hard work. Gifts of experience can include:
- Tickets to an Event. Sites like SeatGeek and StubHub offer discounted tickets to concerts, plays, and sporting events. The most popular events are still pricey – you’ll pay over $500 to see “Hamilton” on Broadway – but a recent search also turned up tickets to see acts like Logic and Lorde for as little as $29 a seat.
- A Spa Treatment. Most girls, and even some guys, will enjoy being pampered with saunas, a massage, and professional skin care. A full spa day usually costs hundreds of dollars, but you can often buy a specific service – such as a facial or a half-hour massage – for $50.
- An Escape Room. An escape room is a live-action immersive puzzle. You’re locked in a room with a group of other people and have a fixed amount of time – usually one hour – to solve all the puzzles that show you how to get out. Prices are usually around $30 per person.
Best Gifts $50 to $100
Going up to a budget of $100 for a graduation gift opens up still more possibilities. For this price, you can afford a wide assortment of practical items grads can use in their day-to-day life – or a slightly higher-end item that’s purely sentimental.
13. Travel Bag
The college year includes a lot of breaks. For those frequent trips home over fall break, Thanksgiving, winter break, and spring break, incoming students will need a sturdy travel bag. Students who are leaving college and entering the work world will also find a travel bag handy for business trips – or weekends away to visit their college friends.
The ideal travel bag is sturdy and easy to carry. For maximum flexibility, it should also be a size that’s small enough to carry on board a plane. And, of course, nice looks are always a plus.
The L.L.Bean Adventure Duffle ticks all these boxes. It’s made of tough, lightweight nylon in a choice of around a dozen colors, including bright shades that are easy to spot on a luggage carousel. The small size, which costs $50, meets the carry-on requirements for most airlines.
If you’re looking for something a little fancier, the “Lacie” faux-leather duffel, priced at $85, gets good reviews at Nordstrom. Or, if you prefer a bag with wheels, this lightweight spinner from Rockland Luggage is one of the top picks on Amazon. You can also find a vast assortment of other choices in all sorts of materials, styles, and price ranges at eBags.com.
14. Portable Charger
Another great choice for graduates who are always on the go is a portable charger. It keeps those all-important devices – phones, tablets, and e-readers – charged up whenever they’re away from an outlet, so they can stay connected wherever they go.
For around $30, you can pick up the tiny TravelCard, a wallet-sized charger that can restore a smartphone to half its full charge. Or, for the same price, choose the slightly larger Jackery Bolt, a device the size of a bar of soap that can charge the average smartphone twice. If your grad has lots of devices to charge, upgrade to the 65 Anker PowerCore 26800, which can charge two devices at the same time.
15. Fitness Tracker
Starting college or a new job means adapting to a new, busy schedule – and exercise is one of the things that often gets dropped for lack of time. Treating your favorite grad to a fitness tracker is a great way to make sure they get in those daily steps they need to stay healthy.
While some of the most popular fitness trackers cost over $100, there are also modest budget picks that get good ratings. For example, the Fitbit Flex 2 costs around $60, is waterproof, and has a slim, unobtrusive profile. However, it also requires a separate smartphone app to actually see your results. If you’d rather give your grad an all-in-one device that shows the data right on its own screen, the $60 Fitbit Zip clips onto a belt and shows steps taken, miles traveled, and calories burned.
16. Coffee Maker
Both college students and office workers rely on coffee to get them through the working day. However, stopping by Starbucks for that daily caffeine fix can be a costly habit. A Venti (30-ounce) brewed coffee costs around $2.50, so loading up your Thermos with one of those every weekday morning would cost $12.50 a week – over $600 over the course of a year.
That’s why a good coffee maker makes a great graduation present. It gives the graduate access to fresh coffee at any hour of the day or night, while also saving them money.
Prices for coffee makers vary based on brand and type. A basic auto-drip model can cost less than $30, while a fancier programmable model like the highly rated Cuisinart DCC-3200 runs around $65. Pod-style coffee makers, such as the popular Keurig line, start at around $65. They’re easier to use, but also cost more for each cup brewed.
17. Instant Pot
One of the biggest challenges recent graduates face when they move out on their own is cooking for themselves. Cooking at home is a lot cheaper than dining out: You can prepare a dish that would cost you $10 in a café with around $2 or $3 worth of ingredients. However, for those new to cooking, it’s a struggle to find the time and the energy to cook all their own meals every day.
An Instant Pot makes the job a lot easier. This versatile kitchen tool combines the functions of a slow cooker and pressure cooker. You can make practically anything in it: pot roasts, steamed veggies, perfectly cooked rice – even cakes. It costs about $80 for the 6-quart model and $60 for the smaller 3-quart version.
This kitchen tool will allow the recent graduate to start a meal in the morning and have it ready and waiting at dinnertime – or cook something up in a hurry when they get home after a long day. Plus, having so many different functions in one device makes it a great choice for someone living in a first apartment with a tiny kitchen. Even college students can use it to cook in their dorms, rather than eating on the college’s meal plan all the time.
Jewelry is a traditional gift for marking major milestones, and a graduation certainly qualifies. For women, a pendant or charm bracelet makes an appropriate memento of the occasion. For men, a piece like an engraved tie pin or key chain can mark their entry into the adult world.
Of course, fine jewelry can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, but there are plenty of modest, tasteful items you can buy for $100 or less. Etsy is a good place to find interesting handmade pieces to fit all budgets. You can also find unique pieces for bargain prices at estate sales, pawn shops, or on eBay.
No matter what kind of gift you choose to give your favorite graduate, it’s important to include a card or note as well. Adding that personal touch will make the gift much more special than an anonymous package.
Not sure what to write in that a graduation card? Just say what’s in your heart. You can draw a little picture, write a poem, quote a favorite song, or just use your own words to tell your favorite grad how much they mean to you. Chances are, the graduate will remember and treasure your words even longer than the gift itself.
Can you think of any more interesting gifts for graduates?