2014 Gift Guide for High School and College Grads

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It’s May! Caps, gowns and the annual dilemma: What to give graduates? You want to give something she’ll find truly useful, or delight him with something very cool. But what? Add a tight budget to the equation and many of us procrastinate until there’s no solution but a gift card.

There’s nothing wrong with a gift card. But Money Talks News money expert Stacy Johnson, in the video below, has loads of other imaginative ideas. After watching, read on for more gift ideas — many under $50.

Cash and gift cards

If you give a gift card, be sure the store you choose is one the graduate uses. Or use merchants with a wide selection, like Amazon or Target. Alternatively, choose a store that carries universally needed items, like household supplies, books, music or gas.


  • Load money onto a Rocket Card. A recipient redeems the card online, transferring your funds to her bank account, credit card or PayPal account – or choosing to receive a check in the mail.
  • Dress up your card or cash gift. Wrap it and find the perfect greeting card to accompany it. The Internet is full of wrapping ideas. For instance, bury the gift card in a gift-wrapped Mason jar full of M&Ms, or make an origami gift card holder (instructions here).

Transportation help

Getting there is everything, especially for job seekers. Here are seven gifts to smooth the ride:

  • A car payment.
  • An auto insurance payment.
  • Roadside assistance. The lowest-tier AAA plan is $89 in my state. Other companies have plans that cost less. But find out first whether the recipient’s car insurance already covers this.
  • A public transit pass.
  • Frequent-flier miles transferred from your account to the grad’s. Your miles program will explain how to do it.
  • Taxis and car services. Call local companies to learn about their gift options.
  • Reloadable gas gift cards. Major oil companies offer them.


Laptops, tablets and smartphones are among the most coveted gifts. Here are a few relatively lower-cost ideas:

  • IPad minis, starting at $300.
  • E-book readers, starting at $65.
  • Unlocked phones can be used with any carrier and with no obligation to join a phone company plan.
  • Koss Porta Pro on-ear headphones for about $50. They’re strange-looking, but Gizmodo says they’re terrific.

Gifts with heart

  • A photo book. Touch a grad’s heartstrings with a handmade book that memorializes the student or your relationship or a shared trip or event. Make it with materials from crafts and scrapbooking stores. Or make an e-book. Several e-book options are: iPhoto, free for Apple’s Mac iOS products, Google’s Picasa 3 (free download) or Shutterfly (upload photos and print a book for $13 and up).
  • Scribble your favorite poems, thoughts and advice. Compile them in a blank book you’ve made or bought. Barebooks has blank books starting at $2.50 for a small book set. Barnes & Noble carries blank notebooks and diaries starting at $10.
  • Family treasures. Now’s the moment to give a pocket watch, Bible, book, piece of furniture or piece of jewelry that’s been handed down through your family. Include a note you’ve written that tells something about the item’s history and meaning.
  • Donations. Make a gift in the graduate’s name to his or her favorite cause or nonprofit. Have the organization send a note or card letting the grad know of the gift.


Assembling a kit is one of the most fun gifts to give and to get. You can spend a lot or a little on these four ideas:

  • Kitchen starter kit. Furnish an entire kitchen — from pots and pans to glassware, dishes and dish towels — for about $100 at Ikea. Set a budget, load up one of those huge shopping bags and fill it with kitchen equipment. Tie a big bow on the bag.
  • First aid kit. Make one (Pensieve.me suggests bandages, anti-bacterial cleansing wipes, Advil, Neosporin, Benedryl, matches, tape, gauze and scissors, or consult the American Red Cross’ list.) Or buy one – probably cheaper if you’re giving just one.
  • Cocktails kit. For college grads only: Include a recipe book or mixology guide (see recommendations at Goodreads) and other fun items like cocktail nuts, wacky napkins, a jar of martini onions, fancy bitters, cocktail glasses and bar implements — for instance, a zester, strainer or drink shaker.
  • Picnic basket. Make one for a small outlay by finding a thrift store basket, lining it with a couple of inexpensive dish towels and filling it with beverages, foods and special treats. Include disposable plates, napkins and tableware.

Help with money management

Great numbers of Americans of all ages and education levels lack even basic knowledge of how to manage money. Don’t let your grad be among them. Give:

  • A savings account. Offer to match one or two of the grad’s first deposits.
  • Stock shares. One or two shares of a stock you believe in.
  • Cover a payment or two. Making one or two of the grad’s student loan or health insurance payments, personal finance writer Donna Freedman suggests.

Another good idea is a personal finance or money management book. Four solid bets:

Help with the job search

  • Resume help. Offer to help the graduate craft a resume.
  • Networking. Introduce the grad to people whom you know in the field in which the grad wants to work, or help grads track down internships.
  • Business attire. Perhaps a no-iron oxford shirt.
  • A session with a career coach. Find certified coaches in your area here, through the National Career Development Association.
  • A plane or train ticket. Cover transportation for the grad to attend a networking event or job hunt in another city.
  • Electric shaver and trimmer. Job interviews demand great grooming.

Memberships and subscriptions

  • Subscriptions. Subscribe to a magazine for a grad. Make sure the subscription includes access to the publication’s online site. Choose from local or national newspapers, entertaining reading, and professional journals or publications in a college grad’s academic field.
  • Food deliveries. Food-of-the-month gifts are enjoyed year-round.
  • Gift box subscriptions. Real Simple magazine has eight suggestions for monthly gifts, from craft coffee ($25 per month for three months) to BarkBoxes, loaded with goodies for dogs ($19 per month for six months).
  • Memberships. Buy a museum membership (for example, $45 buys an individual membership at Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History). Season tickets for performances of a symphony, theater company, dance troupe or sports team are great gifts. Can’t afford the big leagues? Buy two tickets for one performance. Or buy a subscription to a concert series by a small ensemble or smaller theater or dance company.

Utterly cool gifts

  • Guitar glasses and coaster. A set of four drinking glasses screen-printed with guitars from four music genres, plus four chipboard coasters with images of musicians’ hairstyles from each featured genre ($35 at uncommongoods).
  • Tintin key rings. Awesome. And cheap.
  • Tiles. “Never lose anything again” is the motto of this about-to-be-launched product, a small square embedded with an electronic location transmitter. Pin, dangle or drop it on anything you want to keep track of – electronically (pre-order $20, Tileapp.com).
  • Bluetooth folding keyboard. It works with iPhones, iPads and Android devices.
  • Anker Astro Mini 3000mAh portable lipstick-sized external battery backup charger. This little backup charger works for most smartphones. (Not girly, despite the name, unless you choose pink over the black, blue or silver options.)
  • Smartphone camera lenses. A kit of three attachable lenses (fisheye, polarizer and wide-to-macro) for iPhones or Android phones.

What’s the best gift you received as a grad? Tell us in a comment below or at Money Talks News’ Facebook page.

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