Smart Buying

Affordable Gifts for New Grads

Give high school and college graduates gifts they can use that won't bust your budget.

If you have friends or family members graduating from high school or college this spring, you might be wondering what sort of gift to give them. Of course, cash is always appreciated. But if shoving money into an envelope feels like you’re not putting enough thought into a gift, we’ve come up with several ideas that grads will appreciate and that your budget can handle.

Before you start shopping, though, ask the graduate you’re buying for whether he or she has a gift registry. Some retailers, including Target, offer college gift registries, which can take the guesswork out of gift buying.

Gift cards. While a crisp $50 bill will make any grad grin, you can get more for your money when you purchase gift cards at a discount, says Kendal Perez, a savings expert at mobile coupon site and app Coupon Sherpa. (Or, you can purchase a discount gift card and stretch your budget by using it to buy a graduation gift, she says.) For example, Gift Card Granny currently lists Macy's gift cards for up to 18% off, so you can buy two $25 e-gift cards for a total of just $41. Look for gift cards from retailers that offer a range of items – such as department stores and general-merchandise stores – to ensure the recipient will put the card to use. Another good option is a gas gift card that a new grad can use to save money when fueling up. To learn more about purchasing gift cards for less than face value, see How to Buy Discount Gift Cards.

Dorm room essentials. Students heading off to college will need several things for life in a dormitory. One gift that’s sure to get plenty of use is a nice set of towels. You can find sets of bath towels, hand towels and wash cloths for less than $25 on Amazon. You can spend a little more on monogramming to personalize them and ensure roommates don’t “accidentally” use them. Other dorm essentials: a pitcher with a water filter (about $25) or a reusable water bottle (about $10) so students don’t waste money on bottled water; a coffee maker ($35 or less for a standard drip machine); and a laundry bag (less than $10) and a roll of quarters.

Travel accessories. This sort of gift is great for high school grads who need to haul stuff to school and college grads who plan to do a little traveling after school or will have a job that requires a lot of time on the road. Perez recommends the eBags Web site for affordable luggage (and Coupon Sherpa currently has a coupon code for 20% off at eBags through May 20). Trae Bodge, senior editor of coupon site RetailMeNot, recommends the Timbuk2 Lift Toilertry Dopp Kit ($39) for keeping toothbrushes, razors an other items organized while traveling. And the Brookstone Nap Travel Flight Kit ($35), which comes with a travel neck pillow, eye mask and earbuds, is a great gift for grads who want to get a little shuteye while flying, Bodge says.

Tech gadgets. Way back when I went to college, you needed a boxy CD and cassette player or a stereo system to listen to music in your dorm room. Now all you need is a smartphone or tablet and a speaker. Bodge recommends the pocket-sized Divoom Bluetune Bean portable speaker ($25 on Amazon) that lets you stream tunes via Bluetooth from a phone, tablet or laptop computer. Or you could help grads protect their smartphone with an Eyn phone case ($15-$30), which has a secret compartment with a mirror and a clip for a credit card, ID or cash. The phone cases can be customized with a variety of designs.

Backpack. Not only do college students need a backpack to carry books around campus, but grads entering the workforce need a tote to hold a laptop or work documents. Bodge has two picks: the Ogio Clutch Pack ($50) that has a padded laptop sleeve and is stylish enough to take to work, and the Eagle Creek 2-in-1 Tote/Backpack ($60) that’s lightweight and converts from shoulder bag to backpack.

Emergency kit. You can help grads be prepared if they get stuck on the road with an AAA 42-piece Emergency Road Assistance Kit ($25, Amazon), Bodge says. The kit includes a flashlight with batteries, a booster cable, rain poncho, first aid supplies and more.

Printer. If you have a little more room in your budget, consider getting grads a printer they can use to print résumés for job applications or to outfit a home office. Even undergrads can benefit from a printer to print class assignments. Bodge recommends the HP Envy 4500 e-All-in-One Printer ($100) that prints, copies and scans and has built-in Wi-Fi so you can print from a smartphone, tablet or computer.

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