10 Thoughtful Gifts — That Aren’t Cash — for College-Bound Graduates

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Graduation season means graduation gifts — and while we’re rooting for those high school seniors who are heading out into the real(ish) world, we’re also rooting for our wallets and their ability to get us through the month.

Money is a classic (and always appreciated) graduation gift, but if you know more than a few high schoolers who are graduating this spring, you’ll end up dropping some big bucks as you send them all out into the big wide world.

You could bust your budget by slapping serious cash into every cheesy “ConGRADulations!” card you had out, or you could try to be a bit more original.

10 Inexpensive High School Graduation Gift Ideas

Whether you aim to inspire, offer practical help or just provide a small comfort from home, these 10 inexpensive graduation gifts are great for when you want to give something more personalized to a college-bound teen.

1. Books

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Stay away from the cliche (admit it: you know exactly which Dr. Seuss installment I’m talking about).

Instead, gift a book that means something to you — one with important themes or life lessons that will serve your grad well as they head into the next phase of life.

Bonus points if you highlight your favorite sections or write notes in the margins for them to discover.

2. “Open When…” Letters and Gifts

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Create a series of letters or small gifts for your grad to “open when…” they’re sad, stressed, excited, lonely — and everything in between. Anything goes here, but ideas include:

  • Fill a tiny box with confetti and label it “open when you want to celebrate!”
  • Write an encouraging note and label it “open when you think you bombed that final”
  • Put a few dollars in an envelope and label it “open when you need pizza NOW”
  • Write out a list of songs to jam to and label it “open when you need to dance it out”
  • Fill a notebook with inside jokes and funny sayings and label it “open when you need a laugh”

It’s almost as good as being there in person to help them through some big life events.

3. T-Shirt Quilt

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If you’re close enough to the graduate that you have access to their high school club or sports T-shirts (and are handy with a needle and thread), try creating a T-shirt quilt that will provide them with fun memories every time they look at it.

4. A Handy Kit

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Try one of these options for a handy kit you can throw together in case of a dorm “emergency.”

  • Laundry Kit: Load up a laundry bag with detergent packs, dryer sheets, wrinkle-release spray and some quarters for the machines
  • De-Stress Kit: Fill with cozy socks, a mug and tea, a stress ball, an encouraging note and a funny movie
  • Dorm Survival Kit: Earplugs, a sleep mask, a gift card for a local pizza place — anything that will make dorm-life a little easier

5. Gas Station Gift Cards for Visiting Home

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Include a note about how much you’ll miss them, and you’ve suddenly turned gas money into a sweet and thoughtful gift.

6. Hometown-Themed Decor


Give your grad something that reminds them of home, like this cute sharpied mug or a wall hanging (check out number three here!) in the shape of their home state.

7. A Potted Plant

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A hardy plant makes a great gift for a grad: give them something to nurture while brightening up their new space — a win-win!

8. Budgeting Tools

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Unless they were one of the lucky few who actually received some financial guidance in high school, your graduate will need a crash course in making (and sticking to) a budget.

Give them the tools they need to be in charge of their finances — they’ll thank you later.

9. “I Need ______” Postcards


Design your own version of these postcards and gift a stack of pre-stamped and addressed cards for them to mail when they’re craving a taste of home. (If they’re not all that into cookies, you can fill in the blank with whatever they crave.)

After your grad gets to their dorm (and feels a little homesick), they can pop one in the mail and wait for treats to arrive.

10. Signed Photo Book


Sites like Groupon and Shutterfly often have coupon codes for discounted custom photo books.

Put together a book filled with photos of the graduate with their friends and family members and then ask everyone to write notes, stories and jokes inside for the grad to read when they need a fun pick-me-up.

Grace Schweizer is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She wishes someone had given her a book on budgeting when she left for college.