Seven Great Gifts for College Graduates

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Last updated on July 23, 2019 Comments: 28

If there is a college graduate in your life, he or she will likely receive a number of gifts. The first gift will be the realization that it can be difficult to find a job in this economy right now — if the goal is to get a job in the same field of study as the degree. Without a job, our graduate might have little choice but to move back in with mom and/or dad and weather through the remainder of the employment recession with curfews as if still in high school.

The next gift will be the shock of the real world in the form of a job. Suddenly the graduate will have to report to work, perhaps at 8:00 in the morning! It might have been easy to blow off early morning classes, and consequences for oversleeping in college were limited to grades. Consequences for tardiness in the real world can be severe. There is the threat of being fired in the first month on the job.

Soon after that, perhaps six months after graduation or after starting the new job, the first student loan payment will be due, shackling the graduate into earning enough money to pay off college debt in ten or more years. Forget the flexibility of taking time to find one’s self once financial responsibilities become a reality.

If there is a college graduate in your life this year, consider these graduation gift suggestions. They might not be fun, but they could go a long way to helping ensure the transition to the real world, full of responsibilities, doesn’t drive the graduate insane.

1. Free room and board

There are a time and place for the “sink or swim” mentality, which comes from the idea that throwing a baby into a pool will force it to instantly learn to swim in order to survive. I’ve never known anyone to take this literal approach, but in the current state of the economy, you could do your graduate a favor by allowing her to start her career without having to worry about the first several rent checks.

Rent-free living should not last forever.

2. Clothing

Every job has expected attire, even if the environment is very casual. Professionals need professional clothing, whether for interviews or in the office. The graduate is going to need to project an image in the workplace, and clothing is important to making that happen. A gift certificate would work well for clothing, allowing the graduate to choose her attire, but some guidance may be necessary because not every graduate has experience in dressing appropriately for professional situations.

3. A computer

Powerful and reliable notebook computers are relatively inexpensive now. Remember to pre-load important software for someone who will be starting their first post-college job: financial management software. I use Quicken 2012, and I still prefer the robustness and flexibility of desktop software like Quicken over web-based financial management like Mint.

4. A gas gift card or monthly commuter pass

Transportation is one of the many expenses new workers have to pay upfront before receiving their first paycheck. If your graduate has a job lined up and a place to live, she should have determined her transportation needs.

5. A car

If you have the means, a used car would make a good gift for the graduate as well. It doesn’t have to be the latest model, but employers expect employees to have reliable transportation; a clunker that breaks down once a week and causes the new employee to be late arriving at the office will not make a good impression and will not do any favors for career advancement.

6. Cash

Money is helpful when wielded for the forces of good. If you trust the graduate to use the money responsibly, to pay down debt, for example, cash can be a good way to go. But don’t give cash if you will be offended if the recipient chooses to use the money for vacation or entertainment. If you cannot give cash with no strings attached, don’t give cash — try a gift card.

7. The gift of mistakes

The last thing a graduate wants is to be told what choices to make. Some guidance is helpful, particularly in choosing the first job out of college, as many graduates do not know the effect this choice can have on earning potential for the rest of the graduate’s life. But let them make mistakes, and when they do, help them interpret them as learning opportunities.

If you are a parent of a graduate this year, what gifts, if any, will you be bestowing upon your graduates?

Students and former students, what gifts have you received or would you have liked to receive?

Article comments

Anonymous says:

One of the best gifts I can think of would be the book Richest Man in Babylon, the old classic by Clason. It’d probably be better to give it before they embarked on their college journey though, to help instil good personal financial skills and a long term outlook on earning, debt, spending and wealth. It’s kind of a gift of knowledge really, although some people aren’t ready to listen at that age.

Anonymous says:

My brother is graduating from college this weekend and he’s getting free room and board with me this summer. (He has to start paying in the fall.)

My favorite graduation gift I got was a hot green cooler, with a card inside with $20 and a roll of duck tape and a bowl with picnic things in it. The card said here is everything you need to get started tailgating or camping!

Anonymous says:

I have a freshman in college and bought her a suit and shoes for interviews for part-time jobs (which she now has). Love the idea about Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace classes; that one’s a keeper. As I recall, I got a few cash gifts when I graduated from HS and college; the lamest one I received was a giant photo album/organizer. Which I never used.

Anonymous says:

I graduated from college 2 years ago. I had a job lined up already, and was getting an apartment with my boyfriend (and future fiance). The best gifts at that time for me were furniture and household things for my new apartment, and cash. My parents were able to give us an old table they had sitting in the attic, and bring up some bookshelves for us. My boyfriend’s parents brought up his old desk, and bought us a tv stand. We had to get a few things, but being given those really helped.

Anonymous says:

I got a mish mash all almost all these things after I graduated college. I had a temp job about 3 minutes away from where my grandmother worked and so we commuted together.She provided the car and gas and gave me a place to stay. Add in that she loved to shop and I got some more fun clothes. 🙂

Anonymous says:

a book on personal finances and understanding/encouragement ofexploring all career options if a graduate can’t find a job in their field.

Anonymous says:

I like the car/computer combo. I got a computer for graduation but having a car would have made it even better. Especially with transitioning to another state for work. I want to do that for my kids someday. Even if it’s an older Corolla, I think it’s great to help your kids start off on the right financial foot.

Anonymous says:

@ Darwin: I like the way your parents structured your incentive. They gave you a great gift, and rewarded you for making the most of your educational opportunity. I would like to do the same for my kids.

I have three kids under 10 years old. I won’t be paying their way through college, but I will be meeting them about half way. I will also be encouraging them to work from the age of 15. It’s so important to teach the value of the dollar, as well as have them learn the academic stuff.

Our kids will each get a silver eagle, our never ending love, the emotional support to follow their passion, and our doors will always be open.

Anonymous says:

I agree with Ceecee I would have like a great book on personal finances, a computer, and some software to track expenses. I graduated in debt and it only got worse until the economy sent me a wake up call. Of course, I could have bought one with the many gift cards I received but back then being responsible was the last thing on my mind I just wanted to party.

Anonymous says:

Other than cash, I think a great personal finance book would be very valuable. The one thing that many schools don’t teach is how to manage money. I’m still amazed even many older adults have no clue as to how credit works and how cd interest is calculated and such. I was lucky—my first real job was at a bank where I learned the basics.

Anonymous says:

YES YES YES. Or even better–set the graduate up with an affordable financial adviser. The best thing that happened to me after graduation was hooking up with Community Ladders.

Anonymous says:

I like the idea of a business suit. Kind of tracks right along the lines of… Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime. A business suit, some interviewing tips, maybe even a couple of courses on investing or a subscription to money magazine. Getting the grad off on the right foot will help out immensely.

Anonymous says:

When my children graduated college, we gave them cash. Each spent it something that was important to them. One used it to fund a 4 week trip to Europe, and the other used it fund a new car purchase.

Anonymous says:

When I graduated I got cash in gift. I wish I had got something like #3, instead of computer I do prefer smart phone. Just to keep track! If you have an iPhone, there are some great free apps like moneyStrands that let you track expenses.

Anonymous says:

When I was a student so many years ago, the best gift was when my mom took me out for lunch.
Restaurant food was such a treat after eating residence food for so long.
I never really cared too much for clothing, although a car would have been nice.

Anonymous says:


That is a great idea to send them to a personal finance course to get them off on the right foot.


Your first suggestion is a huge one. Allowing someone a few months to build up some savings before they are on their can really make a huge difference in the long term. They are less likely to use credit cards for unexpected expenses and begin that cycle if they have a little cash in the bank.

Anonymous says:

I have a cool one. When I embarked on my college tour, I did so with the full knowledge that I was on the hook for 50% of all costs from tuition to room and board. I went through a pretty rigorous Chemical Engineering program that took 5 years to complete and even at a state school, as you can imagine, the bill at the end was staggering.

As a really neat graduation gift, my dad said, OK, so your total share of the bill comes to X. But, as a graduation gift, since you did such a great job, etc. let’s take half off of that. This was an incedible surprise, not sure if it was planned all along or perhaps my parents’ financial situation had improved over the years, but boy, what a relief. I went from owing well, something higher in the 5 figures to lower in the 5 figures and it was something I could live with a pay back as an interest free loan over 5 years.

It taught me a few things early on about living within moderate means while in college and not trying to use my parents as a piggybank (since I was partially on the hook), and subsequently, about paying back debt (since I had no credit card debt to speak of and never have…and hope never to). I faithfully paid it back as agreed instead of leasing a new car I couldn’t afford like many of my friends were doing in their early 20s.

So, if you want to make your kid’s decade and still teach them some accountability/budgeting skills in the process, this is a neat trick to play on them!

Anonymous says:

Along the lines of valuable lessons, it’s important to teach kids that debt incurred for college should be on par with expected pay during the first few years of the job.

Anonymous says:

this was some very good planning by your parents, on so many levels, no doubt; however, let’s not forget the role you played as well. working hard, doing well in school, and living within your means. so many today would not have done what you did and expected something anyway.

Anonymous says:

@Flexo A suit is more understandable, but to be honest, that is something you should have before graduating. Odds are you will need a suit at some point in college, whether for job interviews, formals, presentations, etc. So I based my comment on assuming you already have a suit and other clothes are just additional clothes.

Luke Landes says:

Well, look at it this way. A college student going on interviews requires no more than one suit, but certain jobs require suits to be everyday attire. You could wear the same suit every day to the office, but I would advise against it. I can’t rule out work attire from the possibility of being a good gift just because it doesn’t apply to everyone in all situations.

You could make similar arguments for everything else on the list because they don’t apply to everyone, except perhaps cash.

Anonymous says:

My oldest is graduating high school next month, and these tips are applicable to him, too. I’m sure he would prefer #6, in copious amounts.

Anonymous says:

I disagree with #2 clothes. Being a recent grad, clothes is the last thing I would want. Grads want things they need or can help them post grad. Computer is great, car, great. Cash the best thing possible. Anything that can really help them out, especially if they don’t have a job yet.

Luke Landes says:

I don’t know, Craig. If I were a graduate about to embark on the first job requiring a suit, not only would I need that first suit, but I may not even know *how* to correctly purchase one. Not all jobs require a suit of course, so whether clothing, advice about clothing, and/or money for clothing is a good gift depends on a few factors.

Anonymous says:

Clothes is definitely a good one, for all the reasons Flexo outlines below. I happened to have a campus job in college that required I wear a shirt-and-tie (no jacket), so I had a bunch of “work-appropriate” if not exactly stylish or well-matched clothes when I graduated. But many people do not have a wardrobe like that, and for them it can be difficult to even dress for an interview at a job.

Anyway, Craig, a computer or car is great except for someone who already has a usable computer or car. Clothes are great for someone who doesn’t have a work-appropriate wardrobe.

Anonymous says:

Here’s an idea: pay to send your graduate through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University.

Anonymous says:

When I graduated college, I got a supposedly expensive pen set. I would have rather had a new computer. To this day I haven’t used the pen and honestly have no clue where it is.

Anonymous says:

I got cash for graduation, which I used to buy a car. If your graduate already has decent employment lined up, I think clothes and/or rent for a few months would be a great and creative gift. It would really help make the transition.