12 Frugal Graduation Gift Ideas for High School and College Graduates

It’s hard to believe graduation season is here already! I was driving past a local high school the other day with my window rolled down and I swore I could smell the Senioritis. Graduation season is officially in the air! All of that hard work is coming to an end for many young men and women. In just a few short weeks, they will sit in their acetate robes in the blazing sun on football fields all across this land and pretend to listen to a variety of long speeches. I have sat through four myself, from junior high school all the way up to my graduate degree I received last year.

We have a couple high school graduations to attend this year and it got me thinking about some of the gifts I have received that meant a lot to me and did not cost a lot of money. Since this is BeingFrugal.net, I thought I would share a few and also give some related coupons that may be helpful.

Gifts for High School Graduates

  1. Homemade “Life Hurts” First-Aid Kit. I was given one when I graduated and I used it all the way through college. I remember I used all the Ibuprofen, band aids, and Neosporin first, so it may be worth stuffing the kit with extra.
  2. A Gift From The Heart. Write a journal full of advice you wish you had received when you went away to college. Or perhaps a personalized scrap book so they can chronicle their college experience.
  3. Pre-Paid Calling Card. With the popularity of cell phones, this one may be a dying breed. But I still think it is a very useful gift in case the kid either doesn’t have a cell phone, or their car breaks down and they are not in cell phone range.
  4. Dollar Bill Wrapping Paper. My Aunt actually wrapped a book with dollar bills. It still sticks out in my head as one of the more creative and fun gifts I have ever received. I just wish the book had been an Atlas!
  5. Movie Passes. Many movie theaters offer discounts this time of year on gift cards. Always a popular gift.
  6. Book Bag / Backpack. After 4 years of high school, most student’s backpacks are pretty much shot, at least mine was. My parents gave me a nice JanSport backpack that lasted me all the way through college and graduate school. They only cost around $25.
  7. College Spirit Gift. If the student already has their college picked out, a clock or poster from that college makes a fun and inexpensive gift.
  8. Bathroom Kit. Stock it with shampoo, soap, hand towels, deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving cream, etc. As a receiver of one of these, it was a not only very convenient but saved me so much time when I was trying to get ready to go off to college.
  9. Funny, Yet Useful Gifts. A case of Top Ramen or microwave popcorn comes to mind.

Gifts for College Graduates

  1. Organizer/Planner. Any 22-year old entering the “real’ world is going to have to get organized real quick! A nice touch is to have it engraved with the date of the graduation ceremony.
  2. Inspirational Book. My parents gave me “Oh the Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss, and wrote a nice personal note on the inside front cover. I still take a look at that book, and what they wrote to me, when I need a little pick-me up.
  3. Engraved Pocket Watch. Not necessarily a frugal gift, but certainly one that I cherish and will become a family heirloom when I pass it down to my son.

What thoughtful, but relatively inexpensive graduation gift have you either gave or received? Please add to my list by commenting below!


By , on May 7, 2008
Kyle James Kyle James owns and operate a website called Rather-Be-Shopping.com which specializes in coupon codes for over 750 stores, organized in 25 shopping categories. He also has a blog, where he writes about frugal living and personal finance tips as well as other musings about the adventures and mis-adventures of raising 3 active kids.


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  1. Marguerite:

    I recently bought my twin tweens their first cell phone!!!! They’re about to graduate from 5th grade, so I think it’s only fair I get them up to speed with the new technology. But not so fast. I’m starting them both on the NET10 prepaid phone which is actually the best way because they get to have the cell phone and I get to teach them how to manage their time and their allowance. At $15 each a month, they can contribute some of their weekly allowance to paying the bill. I think the fact that they get 150 minutes a month will really help them start to manage their monthly usage, which is a real deal (10 cents a minute and 3 cents a text). Still, they need to watch it or they’ll run out of time in a week! I got both of them the Samsung T401 phone and accessories at Walmart for $69 so it was quite a deal. They’ll be thrilled and I’m feeling pretty generous about it cause I see it as my chance to teach them a valuable lesson on budgeting while giving them something they really, really want.

  2. Ah, and…

    When I graduated high school in 2003, dad gave me two massive toothpastes, a huge roll of trash bags, and two huge things of powder laundry detergent, a laundry basket, and a hammer – all of which he bought at Costco.

    At first I thought he was being silly (he is very silly), but he was serious. Five years later, I STILL haven’t had to buy toothpaste, laundry detergent, or trash bags! Thank you, dad!! I love the laundry basket still. LOL… and I’ve hammered a whole bunch of things to the wall, and fixed some furniture that I got for free on craigslist. Way to give me useful stuff!

    My mom paid off the last debt I had on a car wreck I had my senior year, which really helped me because I didn’t have to get a job my first year in “college” (I went to a private music conservatory).

    The roll or quarters is a fantastic idea. How awesome!

  3. Oh the Places You’ll Go!!!

    When I graduated from 6th grade to go on to the jr. high my 6th grade teacher read that to our class. Usually the whole class moves up to the jr. high, but they changed the boundary lines for schools in the middle of my 6th grade year, effective next year. So only about half of my class would be going to my middle school – we were all so sad! Losing friends! Something about that year in school was really special and we all cried a lot at the end of school.

    I’ll never forget that book, and I even get misty-eyed thinking about it now! So long ago! Ohhhhh, thank you for bringing back those memories :D

  4. Cheryl:

    As an expansion to your idea about “a gift from the heart”, I did something similar for my son’s 18th birthday.

    A few weeks before his birthday, I sent out an email to family (uncles, grandparents, older cousins), older friends of his, his former scoutmasters, a few teachers, and various other people I know he looks up to (and that I know love him), asking them to give him advice on growing up/life. People wrote letters, sent copies of poems, and words of wisdom/sayings to remember. I bought an inexpensive photo holder and printed everyone’s responses on paper the size of the photo pages. I printed some in formal fonts, some in playful fonts, etc, depending on what the person had to say/their personality/etc. The cover page said, “A wise person once said, ‘listen to the words of your elders’….here are some from people who love you.”

    It was a huge hit with my son, and everyone else. Everyone at the party read everyone else’s entries, and they all had a great time talking about things that were said. (oh, and many cried. It was very touching!)

  5. Bonnie:

    If the graduate doesn’t already have this, and will be driving a car, an Auto Club membership is useful.

  6. Marci:

    Those that I still remember from high school graduation that meant a lot to me thru the years:
    1. A mid sized suitcase. Used it for over 30 years til it finally fell apart.
    2. A small bedside lamp with a cubed base that held 4 photos.
    3. A flashlight set with extra batteries.
    4. A subscription to the local paper as I was going to be far away from home for college.
    5. A case of tuna fish! And a tuna cookbook. Low budget meals were a necessity at college.
    6. A nice address book and day planner.
    7. A set of sheets and blanket for college dorm.
    8. Two beach towels with local logos on them – useful for those college showers and as emergency curtains! Or a quick table cloth, or a picnic blanket… very useful items :)

  7. Beth:

    For high school grad, I’ll usually do a laundry kit… canvas or mesh laundry bag quarters, laundry detergent, and dryer sheets. Although my most memorable high school grad gifts were a handmade quilt put together by the women at an organization I volunteered with during senior year (which still gets plenty of use and was on my bed all through school), and my grandmother’s pearls were handed down to me.

    I didn’t really get any memorable gifts aside from money in cards for college graduation. I did get a nice planner from the people I worked with while in school and I got an alumni sweatshirt from some friends.

  8. Lynn:

    One of the best gifts I received for my HS graduation was several rolls of quarters. When I got them I was confused and didn’t really appreciate it(of course I would have rather receive dollar bills!). But soon I realized I had to do my own laundry and I had to pay with quarters and there was no change machine in the dorm. I now give anyone a roll of quarters as part of their HS graduation gift.

  9. For students in dorms, I always give three or four matching sets of heavy-duty plastic bowls, plates, cups and “silver”ware. They inevitably have a small dorm fridge stocked with milk and cereal… and they have to have something to eat those Ramen noodles out of!

    These are usually easy to find at Target/Walmart this time of year in the seasonal or kitchenware department.

    I usually package it with a package of dish sponges, a small container of dish soap, and a couple of tea towels — they’ll have to hand wash everything!

  10. Kyle:

    Lynn, I like the quarters idea, incredibly useful for that stinky laundry. But yeah if I was 18 years old it would be a head scratcher. It seems a roll of quarters would be nice in addition to another small gift. Maybe a box of Tide or something. :-)

  11. Kathy:

    Great Ideas! My son will be in one of those cheap gowns that cost way to much on 5-31-08!

    I usually do two matching huge towels that are monogrammed, that way they will always be clean. And they know it is theirs. I guess I will do that for my own son too!

  12. I renewed my Dave Ramsey website membership the other day and went with a one-year membership to get a slightly cheaper monthly rate, and a fresh copy of The Total Money Makeover. It is going to my cousin who is graduating high school this month and shipping off with the Navy. I wish someone had given me something like this when I graduated.

    I enjoyed your list as well, and may use a few ideas to supplement some “care packages” we have planned for him when he’s settled.

  13. For pre-law or law school graduations, we give one of our lawyer humor CDs.

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