11 Cheap or Free Graduation Gifts

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The average cost for graduation gifts is about $50. You don't need to spend nearly that much while still giving a thoughtful, useful gift.

My baby sister is graduating this spring. According to a National Retail Federation survey, consumers were expected to spend an average of $99.94 on graduation gifts last year, buying on average gifts for two new graduates.

Don’t tell her, but I don’t plan to spend much on my sister’s grad gift this year. After all, gifts are better if they come from the heart, not the wallet, and I have a few ideas for inexpensive, personalized gifts.

If you are buying a gift for a new grad this year, check out these inexpensive and free ideas.

1. Starter kit

My go-to gift for extended family, friends of friends and co-workers’ kids: a starter kit for their new apartment or dorm room. The kit usually consists of a laundry basket stuffed with things everyone needs — cleaning products, toilet paper, paper towels, sponges, hand soap, trash bags and other supplies. Because I know it will get used, I feel better about getting it. The money clincher: I only buy what I find on sale and have a coupon for. I once paid less than $30 for an entire basket of goodies.

2. Organizational tools

It may not seem like the most exciting gift, but if your grad is headed to a dorm (or out of one), simple, cheap organizational products can make their new life a lot easier. For example, last year I bought a friend’s kid two large shoe organizers, an over-the-door purse rack and a shower caddie to take to the dorm. I spent less than $50 and she used everything.

3. Nice pair of shoes

Many people recommend buying a college grad their first business suit. Not a bad idea, but suits don’t come cheap and it’s hard to know the perfect size, style and color. Instead, how about a nice pair of shoes? Most college students don’t spend a lot of time buying dress shoes, so they’ll appreciate the gift. Not sure what to buy? Check out 13 Ways to Save on Shoes for tips. Make sure to review the return policy before you make a purchase.

4. Tie

A nice tie also makes a great gift, especially considering that new college grads probably don’t own a lot of ties yet. Online, 6PM.com has several for about $40, and Overstock.com carries ties for less than $10. Offline, check discount stores like T.J. Maxx and Marshalls.

5. Personal finance book

I’ve made my share of financial mistakes. (You can read about them in 5 Dumb Money Moves I’ve Made.) If I could do it all over again, I’d learn the ropes before I started making an income. If you feel the same way, why not give the grad in your life the gift of financial know-how? We have highly recommended books by Michael Lewis, Charles Wheelan and even Stacy Johnson in the Money Talks News store.

6. Mini-fridge

If your grad is headed to the dorm, consider buying a mini-fridge. They get a lot of use because dorm-dwellers often don’t have access to a full kitchen. They go on sale in May, but you can save more by buying a gently used one from a college student. My sister sold her mini-fridge for $40 after she moved out of her dorm at the end of freshman year. Check your local Craigslist for deals.

7. Briefcase

One of the best gifts I ever got was a leather briefcase. It wasn’t anything fancy — just enough to hold my laptop, a notepad and some pens. But it replaced the old cloth messenger bag with a Sex Pistols patch hot-glued to the front I had been dragging around. Much less embarrassing to take to my first office job.

8. Gift cards

For grads you don’t know well enough to buy something personal, gift cards may be your answer. But you don’t have to pay full price for them. Check out gift card discount sites like Plastic Jungle, GiftCards.com or Cardpool.

9. Resume

College grads are going to need all the help they can get to land a job, so why not offer your free expertise? If you’re a good writer or just have a lot of business experience, offer to write the grad’s resume for free. Bonus points if you print copies too.

10. Moving help

How about a “Good for one move” homemade coupon? It may not seem like a gift, but the grad in your life will appreciate your offer when he’s lugging heavy boxes up three flights of stairs to his new apartment.

11. Book of your best advice

A homemade book of practical life advice is a great personal gift to give to a grad. If you love to write, come up with your own ideas. And if you don’t, borrow some from great thinkers you respect. You can make the book with word processing software or write it by hand for a more personal touch.

Have any great ideas for a cheap graduation gift? Sound off on our Facebook page and tell us about them.

Stacy Johnson

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