Best Budget-Friendly Graduation Gifts of 2016

Advertising Disclosure: When you buy something by clicking links on our site, we may earn a small commission, but it never affects the products or services we recommend.

Finding gift ideas for the graduates in your life isn’t the hard part, since they need just about everything — pots and pans, thumb drives, transit passes, cash and you name it. The trick is finding something that both delights your grad and fits your budget.

We’ve got you covered. This guide compiles the gift ideas from Money Talks News and around the web. Most of these gifts cost $100 or less. Plenty are less than $50, and some can be assembled or given for little to no cost at all.


Image Not Available

Books and magazines, music, entertainment and gourmet foods are a few of the many possible subscription gifts that can delight a grad month after month.

  • Netflix: Starting at $8 a month
  • Season tickets: For the local symphony, museum, theater or sports team
  • Kindle Unlimited: For $9.99 a month, as many books as you can read from 1 million+ titles
  • Good magazine: Inspired reading for “global citizens” and “doers” is $40 for four quarterly issues
  • Audible: $15 a month for access to one recorded book per month
  • Amazon Prime: $100 a year covers two-day shipping of purchases and free streaming of designated movies, TV and music
  • Wired magazine: $20 a year, $30 for two years
  • Gift-box subscriptions. Regular deliveries of craft kits, coffee, gourmet foods, dog toys and treats, beauty products, craft beer and more

Money and gift cards, with imagination

Image Not Available

Cash and gift cards are welcome graduation gifts (Read “The Best Grad Gift Is Money — and Lots of It.”) Load up a prepaid debit card or a card from your grads’ favorite stores or gas stations.

Make sure the store you choose is one the graduate uses, or choose merchants with a wide selection, like Amazon or Target. Or select a merchant that sells something that everyone needs, like music, gas, books or household supplies.

Even a modest gift card or cash gift becomes memorable when you invest it with love and imagination.

For example, try money balloons: Roll up bills, work them into clear balloons, inflate with helium and present them in a balloon bouquet. Sugar and Charm recommends using clear, 16-inch balloons for best results:

[H]ave them done at an actual balloon shop, which is what I did for our niece. … I would suggest only putting about 5-6 rolled-up bills in each 16-inch balloon with a handful of confetti.

Tip: Give the money balloons immediately so they’ll stay airborne; the cash adds weight, pulling them down as they lose air.

Christian Personal Finance has many other money-delivery ideas, including a money lei and folding cash into a box of chocolates.


Image Not Available

Kits are a great choice. You’ll find plenty of ingenious kits for sale, or you can make one inexpensively and customize it for your recipient, giving something they won’t get from anyone else. A few ideas:

Kitchen supplies: Shop a big box store, Goodwill or IKEA for the essential implements and equipment for starting a kitchen. Add a few treats from the grocery store for variety. I spent $100 on an enormous load of pots, pans, dishes, glassware, dish towels and kitchen implements from IKEA recently for a well-received holiday gift.

House-cleaning tools and other life essentials: In this Money Talks News’ piece, “Happy Graduation! Here’s a Toilet Brush,” Donna Freedman describes scouring dollar stores, discount stores and yard sales to put together kits of life’s essentials — brooms, scrub brushes, dish towels and shelf liners are a few examples. She says:

If you’re going in with a group of people, place the items in a big laundry basket. You could put cleaning supplies in a bucket, group kitchen items inside a large pot, or fill a reusable shopping bag with pantry staples.

Toolbox: Find or buy a tool box and stock it. Lifehacker lists supplies for a basic toolbox and an enhanced toolbox. Or go basic: If you take a tip from Clint Eastwood in the 2008 movie “Gran Torino,” all you really need to tackle most household jobs is a can of WD-40, vice grips and a roll of duct tape.

DIY food kits: Food & Wine magazine lists 10 specialty food kits for homemade treats including hot sauce, cocktail bitters, gin, hard cider, ale, kimchi and jerk chicken with coconut spice. But you don’t need to buy kits. Assemble your own ingredients and a recipe for something you know your grad loves — muffins, cookies, banana bread, toffee or peanut brittle, for example.

Container vegetable garden: A number of companies sell reasonably priced vegetable garden kits. I’ve used Earthbox ($33) with success. The kit includes a 2-cubic-foot, lightweight plastic container, low-tech watering system and instructions. You provide peat-based growing media, plant starts and water. Or, make your own kit for practically nothing. All kinds of containers, including recycled tires and old toy wagons can be adapted to grow vegetables.

Organizing tools: In 10 Cheap or Free Graduation Gifts, Angela Colley writes:

[I]f 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.


Image Not Available

Backblaze online backup: I received a subscription ($5 a month or $50 a year) to this online backup service for Christmas one year. By March I was singing its praises. I’d accidentally corrupted a work file, making it, as a Microsoft Word tech-support person told me, unusable and unrecoverable. I started to freak out, and then realized I was covered. Retrieving the file was easy, and it took just minutes. Backblaze automatically and constantly copies all the data on your PC or Mac to the cloud. Caveat: It stores your hard drive’s current data, overwriting yesterday’s data with today’s. In other words, there is no historical record of what was on your computer two weeks ago or two months ago.

Headphones: You can find decent sound on a low budget by reading reviews. CNET’s 2016 Best Tech Gifts Under $50 calls the $25 JVC HA-S400 Carbon Nanotubes headphones “a nice budget alternative.” CNET also likes the lightweight Panasonic RP-HTX7 ($38 and up), in black, white, red, pink and green.

Portable speakers: CNET recommends the hockey puck-shaped Logitech X100 Bluetooth speakers as ideal for music lovers who use a smartphone or tablet as a primary music source. It travels well and “delivers good sound for its size and price” (about $20).

Mobile Chargers and batteries: Grads are moving fast, making mobile chargers a welcome, inexpensive gift. I use and give the MyCharge Amp mini (around $20).

Google Chromecast video streamer: Insert this thumb-sized stick into an HDMI port on a TV to “cast” your streaming subscriptions services like Hulu, Netflix, HBO Go, and Pandora from your Android phone, iPhone, tablet, iPad or laptop to the TV, mirroring on the TV what’s on your small screen ($35).


Image Not Available

Grads are busy and constantly on the move. Help them get where they need to be by giving:

  • A transit pass
  • A refurbished used bicycle: You can pick one up for around $50 to $100, writes the Chicago Tribune in this article on how to make a used bike roadworthy.
  • Miles from your frequent-flyer account: See your program’s website for rules on transferring miles.
  • A roadside-assistance plan like AAA: Be sure to check first to find out if your grad already is covered through auto insurance.
  • Make a payment: Help your grad cover car insurance or an auto loan.
  • Gas money: It’s so nice to whip out a gift card at the pump.

Help them get on solid financial footing

Image Not Available

These gifts help a young person along the path toward financial freedom:

Books:Life or Debt 2010: A New Path to Financial Freedom,” Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson’s timeless book helps readers get started with chapters on how to save, invest, budget and avoid debt. “The Little Book of Common Sense Investing: The Only Way to Guarantee Your Fair Share of Stock Market Returns,” by John Bogle, is regarded by many as a bible for getting started investing.

Budgeting help: YouNeedaBudget ($50 a year or $5 a month). This budgeting program gets top marks from reviewers. “The best tool out there for assembling a budget and helping you to stick with it,” says U.S. News. Or, gift your grad with a session of help to become acquainted with a free online service from Money Talks News partner PowerWallet.

Cooking instructions: “How to Cook Everything” ($23). A cookbook among financial aids? You bet. As U.S. News says, learning to cook at home is “one of the smartest money skills a person can master.” Food writer Mark Bittman explains the basics in an easy-going style with less emphasis on recipes and more on simple how-to.

Gifts that make a difference

Image Not Available

Making a donation in your grad’s name, or buying from a company that donates part of its profits to help others, lets your gift do double duty. Here are a few examples:

  • The Sold Project: This nonprofit focuses on preventing child prostitution in northern Thailand by keeping children in school. You can fund a scholarships for $45, $60 or $100 a month. Just $16 a month provides “after-school programs, classes, mentorship, and other tools our kids need to succeed in life and avoid the path to exploitation,” according to the program.
  • A farm animal, or share in the purchase of one: With offerings for as little as $10, Heifer International’s catalog lets you choose a gift that fits your budget and donate in your grad’s name to help a family sustain themselves.
  • The Truman Set: ($15). This shaving set includes foaming gel or shave cream, an ergonomically designed hand razor, precision-angled blades and free shipping. In addition to selling shaving products, Harry’s sends shaving supplies to your home. Subscriptions start at $3 a month. The company gives 1 percent of its net revenue to the New York chapter of City Year, a national education nonprofit. Harry’s employees spend 1 percent of their work time volunteering.

Get them launched

Image Not Available

Grads, whether they’re going on to more schooling or into the work world, appreciate gifts that help with the transition.

  • Business cards: Purchase a small number, just enough to get your grads through job hunting, with their name and basic contact info.
  • Electric tea kettle: These are the fastest, most-convenient way imaginable to boil water. No home should be without one.
  • Handheld vacuum: Your grad will get a lot of mileage from this useful gift.
  • Meals by mail: Three meals for two cost $60 (free shipping) from Blue Apron, which delivers fresh ingredients and step-by-step cooking instructions to your recipient’s home.
  • Microwave popcorn cooker: No dorm room should be without it, and Uncommon Goods has one for $15.
  • Must-have emergency kit: This $15 kit from Sephora has a makeup bag with 17 items she’ll need for coping with emergencies, from earring backs and stain remover pads to lip balm and clear nail polish.

No-cost gift

Image Not Available

Gifting your labor, time and expertise lets you spend time with the graduate, bringing you a little closer, while giving your grad a leg up in life. Present them with a gift certificate for:

  • Moving help: This works especially well if you’ve got a truck and can help load and unload it. If not, offer to bring boxes and help with packing and unpacking.
  • Financial lessons: If you are known for your financial acumen, offer to help your graduate set up a budget, balance accounts, apply for a loan or get started investing.
  • Baking or cooking: Make a gift certificate good for several dozen cookies or a couple dozen muffins, deliverable upon request. You can also make and freeze soups, stews or casseroles with which to stock the graduate’s freezer.
  • Resume assistance: Brainstorm, type, write, edit or rewrite to help get a graduate’s resume ready for prime time.

What are your favorite graduation gifts to give, or the best you have received? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Get smarter with your money!

Want the best money-news and tips to help you make more and spend less? Then sign up for the free Money Talks Newsletter to receive daily updates of personal finance news and advice, delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for our free newsletter today.