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

Three women graduate.
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Graduation season means graduation gifts — and while we’re rooting for those high school seniors heading out into the real(ish) world, we’re also rooting for our wallets and their ability to get us through the month. So we came up with high school graduation gift ideas.

Money is a classic (and always appreciated) graduation gift, but if you know more than a few high schoolers graduating this spring, you’ll end up dropping some big bucks.

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

11 High School Graduation Gift Ideas

Whether you aim to inspire, offer practical help or provide a small comfort from home, these 11 graduation gifts are great for when you want to give something unique — and easy on your wallet — to a college-bound teen.

1. A Gift of Stock

Wait, hear me out. Instead of shooting for instant gratification, you could give your grad something that’s going to increase in value over the years.

Did you know you can buy gift cards for stocks now? A gift card from Stockpile will allow your grad to easily and affordably purchase shares of household-name companies like Google, Amazon, Tesla, Disney or hundreds of others.

You can buy gift cards on Stockpile’s website or app; or at Target, Kmart or a number of other stores.

2. Books (No, Not That One)

Stay away from the cliché. (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.

3. ‘Open When…’ Letters and Gifts

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.

4. T-Shirt Quilt

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.

5. A Handy Kit

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.

6. Gas Station Gift Cards for Visiting Home

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

7. Hometown-Themed Decor

Give your grad something that reminds them of home, like a cute mug from a local souvenir shop or a wall hanging in the shape of their home state.

8. A Potted Plant

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

9. Budgeting Tools

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 manage a budget — they’ll thank you later

10. ‘I Need ______’ Postcards

Design postcards with themes like “I’m missing homemade cookies,” and gift a stack of pre-stamped and addressed cards for them to mail when they’re craving a taste of home. Here’s a cute example from Zazzle.

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.

11. 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 ask everyone to write notes, stories and jokes inside for the grad to read when they need a fun pick-me-up.

And if you still think your favorite soon-to-be college student needs a little help in the financial department, check out our best money tips for college students for info on everything from paying tuition to making a little extra on the side (because pizza budget).

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